Sunday, August 23, 2009

FILM: My One And Only

In the title sequence of My One And Only, vintage 1950 postcards from Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles are sequenced, artfully combined with period photos and symbols of those places, set to vintage music, all foreshadowing the charming period-piece road-trip movie that is to come. A beautiful sky-blue Cadillac Eldorado convertible is the vehicle for the cross-country trip, but the route is more a journey of self-discovery than just following Highway 66. Renee Zellweger is perfect as Anne Devereaux, a middle-aged but still beautiful southern belle who walks out on her womanizing band-leader husband (Kevin Bacon), taking her two sons with her, along with a handful of cash, and the fierce determination that she will find a better husband (and father for the boys). She meets a series of former beaus and prospective second husbands in a series of cities, but she also meets setback after setback, challenging her conviction that "things will always work out in the end". Nonetheless, she keeps her head high, and things do work out, though not in the way that she had expected. (Of course, another of Anne's aphorisms is that "a lady should never do what is expected.") Kevin Bacon, whom we see in the beginning, and who pops up at various other points, is great in his part as the charming but irresponsible ex-husband, and many of Anne's subsequent suitors are a parade of nicely done small roles by Steven Weber, Chris Noth, and Eric McCormack. Nick Stahl oozes James Dean / early Brando-esque charm in a bit as her quietly smoldering neighbor in Pittsburgh. But the other real star of the show is Logan Lerman, who plays her older son George, a young would-be writer whose favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, probably because he's strongly relating to Holden Caulfield's teenage angst. Lerman, whose character also narrates the film, gives an amazing performance of George's worldly savvy (some of it modeled on his father) and teenage pretend-self-confidence with self-searching vulnerability peeking through the cracks. In the beginning, George thinks his mother is silly, and he wants to go back to New York and his father. But as they journey together, he discovers less to admire about his father and eventually more to admire about his mother. It's a touching, thoughtful, and charming film, and like the Cadillac they drive, a classic American beauty to behold.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

BOOKS: The Chosen

This past couple weeks, I've really enjoyed listening to The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. It's one of those classic books that I thought I should catch up on, especially after Potok's works kept popping up in various conversations lately. (The most surprising and random was last Sunday, when I asked at family dinner if anyone had read any Potok. Turns out my mother was also in the middle of The Chosen, having picked it up on a sale table at the bookstore, not knowing anything about it.) The story follows an unlikely friendship between two boys in 1940's Brooklyn through high school and college. Though they live just a few blocks apart, Danny, a Hasidic orthodox Jew (black caftan, beard, earlocks), and Reuven, a modern orthodox Jew, had never crossed paths until Danny nearly took out Reuven's eye in a baseball game. I enjoyed learning much about Hasidic Judaism that I didn't know, their history, their distinctive practices (like dynastic leaders), as it unfolded in the two boys getting to know each other, and their distinct experiences of their "common" faith. The backdrop of the story exposed the events of World War II and the founding of Israel, which while well known events, was made fresh in the way these people experienced it at the moment. The story also contemplated father-son relationships, contrasting the close relationship Reuven had with his father (a teacher and later a Zionist activist), versus Danny's silent relationship with his father (the tzadik of his community, a position to be inherited by Danny). The narrator, Jonathan Davis, did a great job reading this book, properly pronouncing all the Hebrew and Yiddish words, and all with a good Longg Island accent. His voicing was given wing, I think, by Potok's great ear for natural dialog with these characters. An opening epigram in the book really stayed with me: a description of how a trout fights when it is hooked, and how the other trout swimming by see its struggle but don't understand it because they can't see the hook and the line. The book is a real lesson in empathy and compassion, as well as Jewish history.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

FILM: Julie & Julia

What a delightful, utterly charming film we enjoyed in Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep delivers another amazing tour de force in portraying Julia Child, a daunting task not only because Julia is so well known, but because she is so distinctive in her voice and mannerisms that it's got to be fiendishly difficult to portray her without falling into parody. But Streep, under Nora Ephron's direction, does an amazing job. As my mother said, Streep was more Julia Child than Julia Child. (The cinematographer also gets props for making the 5'6" Streep look as grande as the 6'2" Child.) But while the film was all about Julia, it was not all about Meryl, and she was surrounded by an awesome cast. Stanley Tucci was endearing as her husband Paul Child, and Amy Adams was perfect for Julie, the main character of the other story. As the trailer tells us, Julie & Julia is based on two true stories, and it is the clever interposing of these two stories, five decades and an ocean apart, that elevates the film from just a great biography. The film moves back and forth between Julia, in 1950s Paris, discovering her love of French cooking and her aim to write a cookbook, and Julie, a sympathetic young woman feeling frustrated in her job, cramped in her Queens apartment, and left behind by her more successful friends, who undertakes a project to cook her way through the entire Julia Child cookbook in year, and to blog about it. It was a delight to see her accomplishments and her setbacks as she gained confidence through her ambitious task. There were times when her experiments got a bit out of control, and she got a bit obsessed with her blog, and she's lucky she had such a supportive husband. Hmm, that last sentence could hit a bit close to home… I could relate a bit too closely to how crushed she felt watching her husband douse with salt the boeuf bourguignon she had slaved over. But I could also relate to the joy she found in cooking, and could admire her spirit in going beyond her comfort zone (like tackling the lobster and the formidable deboning of the duck). Meanwhile, getting to know Julia was absolutely inspirational. While I naturally admired her culinary talent, what was revelatory was learning about her indomitable personality, her pluck for always moving forward cheerfully despite adversity, and her wonderful relationship with her loving husband. We've seen a number of romance flicks this summer, but I think Julia and Paul may be the best romance of the summer. I left this film uplifted on so many counts: the inspirational lives, the rapturous cuisine, the visual valentine to Paris in the 1950s. Among other things, I want to run out and buy her cookbook and try out some of those recipes. But I also plan to read Julia's autobiography. The recipe I left most inspired to try was her recipe for joie de vivre.

UPDATE 8/22/09: I've heard from a number of people who liked Julia and hated Julie, such as this review in Gourmet, by someone who knew Julia personally. It's worth reading the comments as well as the review itself. A number of folks there come to Julie Powell's defense. I don't think Julie was trying to be a new Julia. She was trying to find some meaning in a grim life by taking on an extraordinary challenge (both the cooking and the blogging). I came away from the film with a much-renewed admiration for Julia, but I laughed when she talked about making French cooking accessible for the "servantless American", and thought to myself, yeah, the servantless jobless American who has time to spend hours in the kitchen. As someone who can very keenly relate to the challenge of trying to cook good food after coming home from a full day's work, as well as the challenge of trying to write a blog every single day, I think Julie Powell is undeservedly unappreciated by this reviewer.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

FILM: The Ugly Truth

And to think that Katherine Heigl once complained that the writers on Gray's Anatomy weren't giving her good enough material. We saw The Ugly Truth this weekend, and the ugly truth about this film is, while passably pleasant enough for summer fluff, it's cheesy, predictable, and derivative. The premise promised to be a sparky battle of the sexes, set against the conflict of quality versus ratings-driven TV news programming. So I'm expecting Broadcast News crossed with Adam's Rib. Katherine Heigl's character started out strong and serious like Holly Hunter, but she turned into a cartoon with a goofy happy dance the minute Eric Winter dropped his towel. (In retrospect, the eye candy may have been the high point of the film.) The story degenerated into a soapy romance with mostly cardboard characters whose one development you could see coming like Andersen's Pea Soup on Interstate 5, with the plot, such as it was, advanced by a series of puerile gags. The remote ear-piece thing? The spill in the lap? Cheesy and done before. And vibrating panties? Really? (And the result, such a cheap imitation of Meg Ryan's unforgettable salad in When Harry Met Sally.) The film was enjoyable, mostly due to the sheer force of charm from Heigl and Gerard Butler, who just might have been Hepburn and Tracy had they been given a much better script. Alas, this script was just a big dollop of Velveeta. Not for the lactose-intolerant.