Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Mondays - Up

Confession time: I am not a big fan of Pixar films. I'm probably one of the very few who doesn't like Finding Nemo. I only really start to enjoy The Incredibles once they're all on the island and the action picks up (plus I just hate the boy child Speed or Fleet of Foot, or whatever he's called). And I have never seen Cars and just don't really feel its lack in my life. None of the other Pixar triumphs, not even Toy Story, have made any real sort of pleasurable impact on me. I've lived The Velveteen Rabbit, my friends. Imitations need not apply.

What I do like about Pixar is its commitment to telling complex stories within the fish and car and superhero motifs and the flat out refusal to dumb down the material simply because it's in an animated film. This meshes nicely with their frequent use of pop culture references and their vast appreciation for some of the classics (more on this later) as I love a good tongue-in-cheek jibe. But this is the source of my dissatisfaction at the same time. I cringe when Mr. Incredible is abused by his Napoleon-esque boss. The nebbishness of Papa Fish annoys me, and the whining, good Lord, the whining, really aggravates me. I do admit that his fear for his child does somewhat reflect mine for that which lurks beneath the surface of the deep, deep ocean. An odd sensibility particularly in light of the fact that I could swim almost before (or at least as soon as) I could walk and grew up spending summers body surfing down the Jersey Shore (grammatically, that phrase doesn't make sense, but if you're from Jersey, it does). But the weirdo creatures of the deep, while fascinating and often extremely beautiful even in their creepiness, freak me out. I figure this has more to do with "fear of things unseen" and therefore uncontrollable (have you met me? Control. Freak.) then it does with the actual creatures, but I'm not signing up to scuba dive any time soon just the same.

Aannnddd that concludes today's tangent.

Pixar's use of its medium to explore aspects of the real world is both a mark for and against it in my mind. I'm all for using new avenues to dramatize the issues of our lives, but when it comes with talking fish, cars, or portly, retired superheroes, it depresses me, happy ending or no. If the cute, fictionalized cartoon creatures of celluloid are having identity crises, the rest of us are seriously screwed.

UP is the latest offering from Pixar. I caught (unintentionally) the 3-D version of the film to kick off my Fourth of July holiday weekend, doing my solo act in a late afternoon viewing so as not to be bothered by having to be polite and nice to a companion, however welcome he/she may have been. I like going to movies with people because I like having someone to talk with about the film afterward (and, yes, during) but I'm also just as happy on my own. Sometimes more so.

UP tells the story of balloon salesman Carl Fredrickson. A shy, young boy who won't step on a sidewalk crack, Carl secretly wishes he was brave enough to be a swashbuckling adventurer. Then one day, Carl meets Ellie, herself a fearless dreamer determined to set off for the wilds of South America. Carl, she quickly decides, can come along for the ride. It's not long before these childhood best friends grow up to become man and wife. Over the years, Ellie's fierce exuberance balances Carl's practicality and they share the many happy adventures of everyday life together. But when their dream to have children is squashed, Carl decides now is the time to stop talking about going to South America and just do it. They set aside a fund jar to save their loose change for the journey. But, as so often happens, life frequently invades and the jar is smashed time and again to pay for things like a new roof, a mortgage, an illness. Now in the twilight of their lives, South America is as far away as its ever been. And when Ellie succumbs to illness and old age, Carl is left alone in the house they built together as condos and high-rises increasingly encroach around him.

And this is only the first 10 minutes or so of the movie.

Carl has vehemently resisted the developers vying for his property, but when he inadvertently assaults a construction worker, Carl is forced to relocated to a retirement community. On his last night at home, Carl remembers the promise he once made to Ellie.
When the men in the white coats can pick him up the next day, it's to watch the house float away, anchored to thousands of balloons as Carl finally begins the journey to fulfill Ellie's lifelong dream and plant their home at the top of a waterfall in South America.

Immediately after lifting off, though, Carl discovers that he has a stowaway: 8-year-old Russell, a dedicated member of a Boy Scout-like wilderness explorer club who has been trying to complete his badge requirements by fulfilling his "assisting the elderly" responsibilities. Stuck with the nonstop chatterbox that is Russell, Carl is forced to take him along to South America.

From start to finish, UP is a total delight. The opening montage featuring Carl and Ellie's life together lasts merely the (OK, considerable) length of the opening credits and is heart-warming, tender, and lovely. My heart winced over and over for Carl as first his Ellie and then his treasured home and, more importantly, his independence is taken from him. I couldn't help but superimpose my own beloved grandfather over Carl's likeness as he, like Carl, struggles to find purpose for his every day life in the two years since my grandmother's death with no yard or house to maintain, no wife or children to care and provide for, just a lonely retirement apartment and a failing physical frame. Watching the early scenes of Carl's life and the desperate crisis that finally causes him to lose control (scaring himself to death in the process) and leads to him being forced to vacate his home, well, it quite simply broke my heart.

We are not doing anywhere near our part for our seniors, my friends. We simply aren't. They are our past. They have given us our future. They should be feted and pampered, they should be honored and revered. We cannot ever, not ever, do enough for them.

But I digress.

The humor runs nonstop through this film, effortlessly partnering the pathos without it all ever becoming schmaltzy. Ed Asner gives voice and life to Carl with his trademark lovable gruffness and newcomer Jordan Nagai makes Russell frustratingly endearing, playing up to the edge of supremely annoying (see Fleet of Foot above), but never trundling past it.

I was surprised and pleased that the actual balloon flight didn't take up the majority of the movie. It's not long before Russell and Carl land in South America - just not exactly at the spot where Carl was aiming. Thus the land journey commences and soon, Carl and Russell meet the rare bird Russell dubs Kevin, and the dogs chasing him.

This is where I must make my second confession.

The dogs just kill me. Observe:

They crack me up. From the moment Dug comes on the screen, it all just slays me. No description I could come up with can do it justice. You'll just have to trust me on this. And watch the clip. The dogs rock.

I felt real peril in this film, not just for Carl and Russell and eventually Kevin and Dug. There was definitely a lot of that - how could there not be when the only thing holding them all up was a bunch of balloons? But mainly, I was worried about the house. I found myself gasping out loud at certain points, whispering (to myself of course) the house! WHERE'S THE HOUSE? I was so invested in getting Carl his happy ending, of him somehow finding ease for some of his grief at losing Ellie that I was wound up tight each time it was in jeopardy. I was well and truly along for the ride.

Ellie would be so proud.

UP heralds the notion that that it is never too late and you are never too old to fulfill your dreams. There should be no point at which any of us says, "I'm too old for that". UP also reminds us that we can never know exactly how our lives will change or who or what will do the changing. It takes courage to recognize those moments and to make the best of them. Often it needs a helping hand; sometimes it even requires a talking dog.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the exciting, thrilling, wonderfully impossible climax of the film, where the slightly twisted homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars (and one to the infamous Dogs Playing Poker velvet painting) had me cackling with delight. As soon as I saw the bi-plane hanging from the dirigible, I knew what had to come next and those Pixar boys did not disappoint. It just never gets old, man.

Go see UP. It'll remind you to hope. It'll encourage you to dream. It'll help you appreciate all the people in your life that make you happy. And it might make you want to buy a balloon or two.

Just in case.

UP is rated PG: Parental Guidance suggested for some peril and action

Monday, July 20, 2009

Movie Mondays - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I confess, I never read the HP books until after I'd seen the movie for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I dislike being part of a fad, as if I haven't enough oomph to like something on its own merits or my own desires rather than because the rest of the world is keen for it. I did see each of the films as they released, however, and when Ralph Fiennes' incarnation of the terrifying personage of Voldemort in GOF set all my epic story nerves atingle, I just had to find out what happened next. Commence the reading.

I consumed the books madly, plunging through one after the other while on vacation in Phoenix that same summer, plumbing my sister's personal library and local library for each text. I devoured all the intricate details jettisoned by the films and adored especially the tale of HBP, all that lovely back story unveiling itself, fleshing out the rotting frame that made up Voldemort. This
, of course, became my great mistake as ever since then, the cinematic doppelgangers of these novels have failed to live up to hype.

Now of course, I've read the story to its end and know the stunning denouement that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (SPOILER ALERT: I've maintained from the start that Snape wasn't a full on big bad and crowed mightily to be proved right.) HBP is very much a placeholder in many ways, a bridge between the painful ending of Order of the Phoenix and the final chapter of DH. The recently released movie version of HBP follows this plan tonally even if the point-by-point doesn't line up exact.

The beginning of HBP echoes with the tragic pangs of OOP as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) numbly stands for rabid photographers in the combat ruins of the Ministry of Magic. Voldemort's return has been broadcast to the world and where once he was mocked and reviled, now Harry has returned to the relative good graces of the populace. And he could care less. Of greater importance to Harry are the tasks that Dumbledore has set for him, even taking Harry along as his companion on a pre-term recruitment of potions master Horace Slughorn, deliciously enriched by the brilliant Jim Broadbent.

Let me say here that I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Already, plans are in the work for a second viewing. (Yes, I plan these things. Have you met me?) The show is steady and solid for the most part and a fitting bridge between what's past and what's to come. Its overhanging themes of doom and depression seep through the entire 2+ hours and it's never for a moment staid, dull, or boring.
I will admit that the cinematography across the board is riveting, a work of genius, the special effects and technique, the fascinating play of light and shadow belying the disappointments of plot and structure. The terrifying, fascinating cave of zombies even offered a quick hearken back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, an image of Harry being pulled under by the zombie forming a nightmare echo to his descent into the Black Lake for the second Triwizard task. It's brilliant work.

That said, I'm picky and a little pretentious and my expectations - well, to say they're high would be limiting them. Ergo, I do have quite a few - hmm - vexing points to raise.

For book and film, there's no overreaching Big Bad in this installment; of greatest threat is the increasing menace of Harry's nemesis, Draco Malfoy, as he sets about some as yet unknown task ordered (so Harry rightly believes) by Voldemort himself. Tom Felton plays Draco with great promise and skill, finally moving Malfoy beyond the cardboard shape of his bully role to showcase a fully-rounded character, unable to be easily pinned as good or bad, much like Alan Rickman's staggering portrayal of Snape. But what fills most of the minutes of the HBP movie are hormones. Raging teenage hormones.

As if making up for the lack in OOP, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is featured more prominently here as his rising success on the Quidditch field gains him the clinging and public attentions of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), much to Hermione Granger's (Emma Watson) chagrin. And slowly, ever so slowly, Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) are taking those first romantic steps towards each other that we readers of the source material already know will climax with their marriage.

At the core of the HBP plot is a potions textbook previously owned by the unknown Half-Blood Prince that has now randomly come into Harry's possession. Within the margins and lines of this book are hand-written notes from this mysterious prince that alter and improve the book's spells. With the help of the prince's notes, Harry becomes a star in potions class, a skill that leads Professor Slughorn, self-confessed collector of students bound for glory, to allow Harry into his inner circle. This position is key for Harry as it's only through this increased intimacy with Slughorn that Harry has any chance of recovering a key memory from the potions master, a memory Dumbledore is convinced holds the key to defeating Voldemort once and for all.

The bones of all this are included in the movie, but what's lacking is a sense of Harry's increasing obsession with the Half-Blood Prince - who he is, where he went, who he may have become - and the sometimes cruel and cheating spells carefully encoded in the textbook. Hermione (in the novel) repeatedly expresses concern regarding the book, a concern rooted as much in the irritation that Harry is beating her in class for the first time as it is in a genuine care for Harry's well being. In the movie, only her irritation at being surpassed is given voice (and only once as I recall). When Harry uses a mysterious and dangerous spell from the book in a duel with Malfoy and is convicted by its disastrous results, only then is he ready to admit to the book's inherent dangers and the probable dark intentions of its true owner. But as the movie does not give the book and this conflict its proper weight, its revelation more as a "oh yeah, that" moment then the "finally he sees reason" moment it's meant to be.

And where is Snape? This, more than any of the prior installments, is where Snape begins to comes into play, foreshadowing his crucial role in the final chapter. Yet Snape merely flits in and out at key moments and when every moment with Rickman is a treat (see Matt Zoller Seitz's review here where he states the lack of Rickman thusly: "
I would have liked to have seen more from Alan Rickman's Snape, who's as cranky and droll as he is malignant and tortured. (Savor how this great actor delivers the simple line, "You just....know." You could bake a pie in that ellipsis!)") his absence is a particular loss.

Despite its name, HBP pays the least amount of attention to the Half-Blood Prince, shirking this plot point to focus on 1. Slughorn's recalcitrant memory, 2. Draco Malfoy's spiraling and conflicted descent into murder, 3. Harry and Dumbledore's trips down memory lane and other dangerous ports of call, and 4. the teenage antics of romance and Quiddich. It's fun and delightful and entertaining to be sure and the cave of zombies is a wonder to behold, a fierce and faithful imagining of the source material that will scare the beejezus out of you. But - eh.

All of this leaves out key minor roles that don't get enough of a moment to shine. Tonks and Lupin barely make an appearance, merely shoehorned into the pointless attack on the Weasley homefront simply because they're necessary to the next two films. McGonagle is hardly featured, likewise Neville and Luna Lovegood (Neville doesn't even get lines!) their presence only a sop to those who know how crucial they are to the final installments. Even the evil Fenrir Greyback, the werewolf that deliberately converted Lupin to were status, is a mere enforcer, the Weasley attack no doubt drummed up simply to put a evil cookie-cutter impression to this heretofore unnamed component. Please. Do it right the first time why don't you? (I will say that the one good thing about the Weasley homefront feature was seeing Mr. Weasley in his shed, surrounded by the deritus of Muggle junk - old vacuums, bicycles and such - that he no doubt treasures.)

I've never like David Yates' direction of these movies overall. I've said from the beginning that he wasn't the right director for the movies, and I've yet to see anything brilliant enough to change my mind. I didn't like the abbreviated version of OOP and felt that there was a huge missed opportunity there where brevity cancelled out depth. That said, I was blown away by the end battle to that film (brief though it was; Sirius arrived and moments later was dead - poof. Jeez, give the man a proper death scene already) and thought the clash between Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Harry was an excellent piece of work on every level.

If only the whole movie had carried that zest.

I wasn't happy to learn that Yates' had been signed to direct all the Harry Potter movies through to the finale. I had been holding out hope for the return of Alfonso Cuaron, the genius behind Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, still the best movie of them all. Cuaron upped the stakes for the entire series, taking it from Chris Columbus' limited hands and bringing it into the fullness of its adult themes, morals, and conflicts. He added an art-house patina to its summer/holiday movie structure and it still tops the list as my favorite.

Still, I was encouraged by the lengthier time frame for HBP and allowed myself to hope. Nevertheless, I again felt an empty hole at its conclusion where usually anticipation and wonder reside. It was just...nice.

Daniel Radcliffe has become a remarkable actor and the years stretching before him promise to show that developing skill and talent bursting forth into brilliance. Harry's seething anger in OOP has evolved into a reckless disinvolvement and precious little gets under his skin. Even his surveillance of Malfoy is low key and while culminating in a great confrontation between the two of them, the passion he displayed in OOP (when trying to convince people of Voldemort's return or even when he believed Sirius was in danger) is long gone. Which is why the obsession with the Half-Blood Prince's textbook is so important and why its lack was so noticeable.

And then there's the end battle. Here too, though, Yates stumbles. While the climatic confrontation in the observation tower fulfills most of its promise, Harry is a sidelined observer to these final moments as he was in the novel, if not in the same way. Cursed into immobility by Dumbledore and hidden beneath the invisibility cloak, he could not interfere with the terrible tableau unfolding before him. In the film, however, he is not so encumbered or protected, and his lack of action is thus harder to justify. The futile battle that follows (SPOILER ALERT) Dumbledore's death (surely the worst kept secret by now) never fully manifests. Sure Harry pursues the culprits to the castle's borders, but there is none of the intricacies of the battle detailed in the novel, the plunge down the observatory's staircase, the fierce, rabid pursuit across the grounds. Rather a simple chase sequence with a limp conclusion. What should have rivaled the foundation rattling confrontation of OOP instead simply, merely, ends with a brief coda between the three leads to add the final set up moment for the next film.

Overall, I give Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince a solid B on the scale, a B+ when held up against the other films in this series with Azkaban an A+, Goblet of Fire a strong A, Order of the Phoenix a B+, Sorcerer's Stone a solid B for simple whimsey and the joy of the Potter world unfolding before us, and Chamber of Secrets a sorry D. New York magazine featured a fairly accurate ranking of the Potter movies so far (though I hold GOF over OOP simply because there's just more meat to it - and that dragon! - plus, most importantly, Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort is a master class unfolding on the screen before you.)

If you haven't read the novels, stick to your guns and don't start now. You'll be much more fulfilled by it all in the end. I for one, despite my critics, am eager for the conclusion to this riveting saga. I may already know the conclusion, but I still can't wait to see how it ends.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG for
scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reality Bravo Style

Last month I made a hard push through a very late night to complete my first contest entry. This involved cutting 5 pages from a chapter and 3 from the (newly written) synopsis to fit everything into the contest's requirements. I'm a night owl so when I say it was a late night, you can believe it was a doozy. I knew I was in trouble when the birds started to wake up and I was still at my laptop working. That weekend, I attended an all-day writing seminar that left me with a fantastic tool for editing and forming structure and a horrible sense that every word I've written so far is total crap. Ever since then, I've been struggling to generate word count on the WIP. It'll happen eventually (probably) mostly because it pokes and prods at me incessantly and I have to let these people out of my head or else surrender to the insanity once and for all, but for right now: blah.

The contest entry experience did help to hammer out broad plot strokes and some smaller character moments and in the ensuing two weeks, other excellent ideas on both have furrowed through my cloudy brain. But even trying to push through to complete the rough draft by opening new Word files for a "fresh" page has left me frustrated and pissy.
My roadblocks appear firmly entrenched for the moment.

In the meantime, I've been fixated on the adverts for Miami Social, Bravo's newest exploitation of the rich and shameless. Amidst early morning reruns of my beloved West Wing,
I'm inundated with previews for every bleeping Bravo reality show under the sun from NY Prep and The Fashion Show (really? another fashion show? sigh) to the endless incarnations of the Jersey housewives reunion show. And now the social elite of Miami joins the fold.

Talk about market saturation.

I don't do reality shows. I've never seen The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, The Bachelor, or his rejects on The Bachelorette. I watched a Survivor episode once - Come on! It was Australia! - and have seen, I think, an hour of American Idol, one I greatly wish returned. I've got enough reality in my life; I don't need to watch television for some bastardized idea of it.

So a show like Miami Social would usually barely blip on my radar except for one eensy weensy thing:
The Voice.

One of the men on this show has this incredible voice, deep and plummy, nearly tactile in its seductive qualities. Sure he seems to always be in a suit, in Miami (poor dear), and while Michael Westen can pull this off in Burn Notice, I have my doubts about anyone else evincing such effortless aplomb. Thus I'm left with a Thurston Howell-on-the-lido-deck vibe that could be eminently snarkable but is completely canceled out by The Voice. Whenever I hear that voice, this frisson of pleasure literally streaks up my spine. I'm watching the commercials on my DVRd shows just to hear it; it's almost enough for me to break my reality-show- boycotting streak. Almost.

The guy's voice is potent is all I'm saying. He could likely wear a bag over his attractive head and still talk me into just about anything as long as he just kept talking. It's akin to my visceral response to Captain Jack Sparrow's wicked reply
when accused of threatening Miss Swan:

Only a little.

Oh yes, please.

And if that can't stimulate my muse (the fickle wench), I'm in serious trouble.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Doing My Part

I'm trying to renew fealty to writing regular posts again now that my day job workload is beginning to ease up on using me (and my team members) as a daily whipping post (today notwithstanding). In the meantime, let me do my part for the sisterhood here by sharing this awesome article.

This USAToday article is making the rounds through the romance world, online or otherwise, and I wanted to add my support by posting a link here.

I was starting out as an assistant at Avon Books in the mid '90s when Julia Quinn's The Viscount Who Loved Me launched - I still have the ARC. Those early entries in the Bridgerton series - bookended by Viscount and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton - are still among my all-time favorite novels. The Mallet of Death kills me every dang time.

I then worked on Eloisa James/Mary Bly's first few books while in the advertising/promotions department at Bantam Dell in the late '90s/early '00s. I had the privilege of meeting/hearing her in person this May at the LSFW group meeting where she was the speaker of the day (holy crap, was she good.)

Eloisa/Mary is a smart, savvy, clever woman who writes marvelous, funny, poignant books and is at the vanguard of the ever-advancing, respect-the-romance-novel-(dammit!) crusade. Her impressive academic pedigree combined with the great success of her novels gives her a unique platform with which to educate the general public about our complex and empowering industry (or as the Smart Bitches put it: "not chick-porn!")

There's been a lot of press about romance novels in recent months as the genre has seen ever increasing sales in spite of (because of?) this recession. This USAToday Article is one of the best/fairest/least patronizing/most supportive yet.