Wednesday, July 29, 2009

FILM: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On Thursday afternoon, I snuck out with a couple of colleagues for an "offsite" to see the latest Harry Potter episode. We all really enjoyed it. Of course any discussion of a Harry Potter movie centers around how faithful it was to the book. Personally, I hold no unrealistic expectations that they can render the book completely in the film version. There's just too much to fit, and I accept that things must be cut. I think they captured the essential elements: the Death Eaters and their reign of terror are on the rise, the kids are experiencing typical teenage romances, and Harry, along with Hermione and Ron, are left at the end with the huge task of finding the remaining horcruxes to kill you-know-who. I think they did a good job of surgically removing certain plot elements, like the parts about Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry, while keeping the overall story coherent and intact. Some choices in the end, however, were a bit puzzling. Could there not have been at least a bit of a fight? In the film, it seems a bit odd that the other teachers and students are nowhere to be seen, as the Death Eaters turn over a few chairs and then leave. And it was a bit odd for Harry to just quietly lurk and passively watch the final scene (in the book, he is petrified by Dumbledore, but the film omitted that). But even though the ending was anticlimactic, I think it was unavoidably so. That's just how this book ends. Unlike the previous books, where the kids break for summer, this time their future is filled with terror and uncertainty. Though the Death Eaters didn't seem to do much in the end, their triumph was that of the terrorist, a psychological blow, to put a Dark Mark in the sky over Hogwarts, eliminating the last "safe space" for the good guys. That's what this film is about is the onset of terror. The gist of this film was perfectly captured in a wordless moment where Mrs. Weasley watches with a mixture of grief and resolution as her house burns. The end of this film is just like the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie: it basically leaves off with things looking bleak, and the heroes contemplating the seemingly impossible task they must complete in order to save the world as we know it. The young actors continue to do a fine job in their roles, refining their chops as some roles get more complicated (especially Malfoy). And of course veteran oldsters (Rickman, Gambon, Smith, etc) are all brilliant. I think they did a fine job with this film, and I enjoyed it very much.

Just to add a couple personal idiosyncratic notes. First, a quibble. The Felix Felicis potion was supposed to be luminescent gold. Would that have been so hard to get right in the film? On the upside, I loved all the rugged Scottish Highlands scenery, which seemed more prominent in this film. That is magical countryside indeed.

BOOKS: The History of Love

What a quietly moving and thoroughly spell-binding novel Nicole Krauss has written in The History of Love. The first several chapters in, I thought the book was going to be some good character sketches, but without much of a plot. While I was enjoying the characters just being characters, I failed to notice until much later the fantastic subtle web of interconnection that had been woven around these characters, and had ensnared me to see it fully unfold. It's been said that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. The History of Love tells of a young writer who pours out his first, fleeting yet lifelong love into an unpublished manuscript, and how it touches the lives and loves of others across two translations, three continents, and seven decades. And of how choosing the wrong sentence might change the course of a lifetime. The book made me think of Love in the Time of Cholera, as both are epic paeans to a lifetime of love (mostly in the abstract), their pivotal characters carrying an enduring unrequited love for a girl who marries and spends her life with someone else. But where Florentino Ariza spends his life whoring around, Krauss' hero Leopold Gursky spends his life writing. Gursky thinks no one will read his pages, but he has no idea how far-reaching his impact will be. In the end, he touches the lives of others more profoundly and positively than Garcia-Marquez' hero. Of course one doesn't expect much of Gursky when we first meet him, as a cranky, eccentric old man. But as his story unfolds, I grew fond of him, crankiness and eccentricities and all. His story comes out interleaved with the coming of age story of a teen girl and her younger brother dealing with the loss of their father when they were very young, and the story of a Jewish refugee and writer in South America. And perhaps the story is even more about the girl than about Gursky. While the novel jumps from 1930s Poland to 1960s Chile to contemporary New York, I found the narrative flow surprisingly natural and not too hard to follow, especially as the latent threads running through the disparate stories begin to manifest. Krauss' intricate story is brought to life by her ear for voice and her vivid characters. By the end, I was rapt in its magic web.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

FILM: (500) Days of Summer

We mostly enjoyed (500) Days of Summer, a light quirky romantic comedy, or, as the narrator might insist, not a romantic comedy but a comedy about romance. The film plays with all sorts of conventions, including inverting the typical romcom formula with a hopelessly romantic boy and a free-spirited, commitment-phobic girl, and a timeline that chronicles their year-and-a-half long relationship starting at day (382) and bouncing back to day (10) and forward again to (127) and back to day (2), or something like that. The story-telling is entirely subjective from the hopelessly romantic boy's point of view, and the film plays with the subjectivity, free-flowing from straightforward life scenes to voiceovers, split-screens (expectations vs. reality), classic movie parodies and a break-out musical number (not counting the karaoke). The film is also a visual valentine to downtown Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of our hopeless romantic (who's a frustrated architect working at a greeting card company) as he shares his urban appreciation with the object of his amorous attention. The film thrives on the utterly charming performances of its stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the great visuals, and the dynamic non-linear unfolding of the relationship. I did mostly enjoy it, even though I did feel the ending felt a bit flat. Summer was such a fresh and intriguing character, and it just felt like she collapsed from 3D to 2D at the end, inexplicably becoming quite conventional. In retrospect, I appreciate that it's actually quite realistic and understandable given the strong subjectivity of the story being from his point of view. A curveball from his point of view might be a straight line from her point of view, but all we ever had was his point of view. And being a hopeless romantic myself, I left pleased that hopeless romance was ultimately vindicated, as it should be in a light summer romcom. Pleased but just a bit let down that the denouement didn't quite live up to the convention-defying creativity of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, if you love a quirky romance (or Los Angeles architecture), you'll enjoy this. Who knew Ikea could be so fun?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

FILM: Patrik 1,5

I'm glad that George has been keeping his ears open for good OutFest films, since we've never managed to be proactive about the film festival. Fortunately, we were able to get spur-of-the-moment tickets for this evening's showing of Patrik 1,5, a charming Swedish film, presented under the stars at the Ford Amphitheater. It was a lovely summer night, and we enjoyed the heartfelt film very much. The film tells the story of Göran, a handsome sensitive doctor, his husband Sven who's a bit rougher around the edges, and their goal to move into a suburban neighborhood, adopt a baby, and have a nice family. Actually, it's a bit more Göran's goal than Sven's, the latter already having a teenage daughter from a previous straight marriage. But they press on, and the story gets its title twist when through a bureaucratic error, their anticipated 1.5-year-old adoptee turns out to be a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent, with a foul mouth, a bad attitude, a dose of homophobia, and a history of violence. Göran, Sven, and Patrik all have a lot to work through, but it is great to see the relationships develop, and how each affects the others. The story of this improbable family develops against the backdrop of Swedish suburbia, and the film pokes gentle fun at neighborhood dynamics -- neighborhood associations, garage sales and parties, and the pressure to keep up one's garden. At the same time, it explores the diversity of acceptance of a gay couple in the neighborhood, with reactions ranging from open acceptance to simmering hostility, with a lot of awkward politeness in between. While it touches on heavier subjects, it is never ponderous, and the tone is lightly sentimental throughout. It's a great story about genuine family values.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

FILM: The Hangover

We laughed and laughed last night watching The Hangover. I generally don't go for sophomoric humor, but every once in a while, a low-brow film just gets so creative and so funny that it transcends the genre (think Animal House). The Hangover really hits it, and I think what makes it work is the totally outrageous story and the creative way it is unfolded. The film opens with a funny and attention-stoking scene from near the end of the story, then rewinds to the beginning with four guys going off for a bachelor party in Vegas, splurging on a suite at Caesar's Palace, and kicking off the evening with shots of Jagermeister on the roof of the hotel. A cool time-lapse sequence of darkening sky followed by dawn over the Vegas skyline tells us that the night has passed, and we flash forward to the guys waking up from an awful hangover, and none of them can remember anything of the night before to explain why the suite is trashed, a couple of wild animals are wandering loose in it, and the groom is nowhere to be found. From there ensues a totally wild, crazy, hysterical adventure around Vegas to try to piece together what the heck happened, and to find the groom so they can get him to the wedding on time. What unfolds is so zany and so unexpected that, if you tried to imagine the wildest "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" story, this film would show you the limits of your imagination. If you could stop laughing long enough to try.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

FILM: Chéri

Comparisons of Chéri to Dangerous Liaisons are inevitable, not only because both are French period pieces of romantic intrigue, but because it reunites three great talents in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents), writer Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American), and actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Though set in the turn-of-the-century twilight of French courtesans, rather than the height of Rococo excess, Chéri delivers sumptuous costumes, beautiful period sets, and displays of witty repartée. Michelle Pfeiffer is exquisite as Léa de Longval, a still-beautiful but nearing-retirement-age courtesan, who is in control of every social situation, except perhaps when she meets her match in the young playboy Chéri, played by Rupert Friend with utmost insouciant hedonism. Kathy Bates is (and has) great fun as Madame Peloux, friend and colleague of Léa and mother of Chéri. Alas, despite all it had going for it, the film never quite went anywhere. Léa and Chéri have a long listless affair, which ends when Chéri enters an arranged marriage. They're both miserably missing each other, which she attempts to shoulder with some grace while he makes no efforts to hide his feelings from his charming young wife who deserves better. Then in the end, we get a climactic scene which feels like it ought to be a denouement, except that the characters' motivations are muddled, and I'm at a loss to understand why they did what they did. The final scene, a prolonged close-up on Michelle Pfeiffer's face, is a self-conscious echo of the final scene of Dangerous Liaisons, but without the same punch, since the audience is thinking "huh?" instead of "oh!". Perhaps sensing the lack of satisfying finality, there's a voice-over post script letting us know what becomes of Chéri, but it's equally puzzling and unsatisfying. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Colette, and the voice-over tries to give us Colette's sequel, La Fin de Chéri, in a mere couple of lines, which hardly seems just. Maybe I should read the books to see if the character development makes more sense. At the end of this film, we had enjoyed the great performances and period setting, but it was no Dangerous Liaisons.