Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's Complicated

Last Saturday, the 23rd, I dragged J. to It’s Complicated. I didn’t force him, really; he seemed willing enough to go, although I’d venture to say that it wouldn’t have been his first choice of movies.

I didn’t want to see it because I’m a fan of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and/or Steve Martin. Aside from Out of Africa and A Prairie Home Companion, I’ve seen little of Streep and even less of Baldwin or Martin. I wanted to see It’s Complicated primarily because of the question of how often does a movie come along in which people over 40 (in this case, 50) have explicit love and/or sex lives? It also sounded light hearted and fun, both of which I need to have imposed on me more often these days. I’ve become so tetchy in the past few years that I wonder what happened to the old me, the one was sometimes sad, rarely angry, and always more patient and empathetic.

Those who were disappointed by It’s Complicated possibly expected something . . . complicated. While the situation may have been, for the most part the characters treat it as a romp. Jane (Streep) even waylays her therapist to ask his permission for her to have an affair with her ex-husband, now married to the woman for whom he had left her. Her oily ex, lawyer Jake (Baldwin) doesn’t seem to know whether love is better the second time around or the grass is always greener, but for the moment he’s sure his younger, ovulating wife Agness (Lake Bell) isn’t making him as happy as Streep did and does. Enter Adam (Martin), the shy architect who shares Jane’s vision for the expansion of her kitchen and house and who, two years after his own divorce, still listens to self-help tapes. There’s genuine chemistry between Jane and Jake, and appropriately less between Jane and the less brash, more gun-shy Adam. In this tangle of relationships and feelings, only Jake’s wife drew the audience’s disdain.

It’s Complicated is too slight and lightly amusing to be sexy, but at least the middle-aged mother of three grownup children and her friends are shown to be every bit as interested in sex as any hot 25-year-old. Of course, Jane, Jake, and company are not middle America middle aged—they live in southern California, where Jane’s house overlooks the ocean and where, in addition to running her fabulously successful and creatively named The Bakery, Jane has time and money to consult the typical adjuncts of stereotypical southern California life, including the aforementioned therapist and a plastic surgeon. In whichever direction Jane’s love life heads, there’s little sense that her life ever been all that empty, let alone sad or tragic. It looked to me like money, success, perfect children, and a dream house in a dream location can go a great way toward making up for the loss of such a fickle creature as Jake.

The performances are good, as you might expect, but the character who stood out was Harley, Jane’s future son-in-law, played by John Krasinski. Through circumstances, he knows a lot more about Jane and Jake than he’d like, and every facial expression, gesture, and action conveys his discomfiture, sometimes broadly, sometimes more subtly. I found myself looking for his reaction in all his scenes.

It’s Complicated has nothing profound or insightful to say about relationships, other than that sometimes they work and feel good and sometimes they don’t. J. found the attitudes of Jane’s children puzzling, but I suspect that when one parent betrays the other, assuming all else is equal, the children feel betrayed, too. In It’s Complicated, their feelings are more cartoonish than painful.

I liked It’s Complicated. It’s not the proverbial laugh riot (although it has its moments), and it’s not going to make you see life, love, and marriage in a bright light, either, but it’s a sweet way to pass a cold Saturday evening in the middle of what by this time can seem like the endless midwestern winter.

Dream: The cat impostor

My brother and I were flying toward and over the ocean on the open seat of a hovercraft. It was exhilarating and more than a little scary.

At a house, everyone was preparing for a game or a class, but I kept looking out a window at a street, where something about the buildings and even the weather wasn’t right. I recalled that there was supposed to be some kind of conflict—I wanted trees removed from along the shore to enhance the water views, while a large, powerful group of neighbors was lobbying to keep them. None of it, least of all my viewpoint, made sense to me.

The people of the house tried to get me to join the game or class, but I was distracted by a young ginger-and-white cat on the basement steps that I was sure was some reincarnation of my beloved tortoiseshell, Pudge. I didn’t know why I was so certain, and was confused and upset when the cat didn’t respond to me at all. Surely Pudge would have remembered me?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dream: Leonard Nimoy is ready for his close-up

At a strange mall, I was pursued by a group intent on killing me. I found a door, opened it, and entered a space just big enough to hold me. It had no lock, which I hoped my pursuers wouldn’t notice. I tried to hold it closed by the handle, although it kept changing and even disappearing. I didn’t know how long they would look for me and wondered if they were lurking, waiting for me to open the door. Something about the room made me feel safe.

At the mall (or was it a film festival?), I took a photo of Leonard Nimoy with my iPhone. Somehow I got word to him, and he searched until he found me. All he wanted was the photo. By then, I couldn’t find it on the iPhone. What should have been app icons had become the blank edges of CDs, so I had no clue as to what was on them. He had cornered me near a creepy house and frightened me without saying a word. Finally he left, with a sad yet menacing expression.

Finally I found the photo, and he reappeared instantly—perhaps I or my mind called out. As he walked off with it (somehow, as it was a file), he turned and blew me the lightest of kisses.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dream: Trains, planes, and staircase monster

Fragments from a longer dream or series—The train was chugging along normally when it decided to break apart. Cars and groups of cars spread out in different directions, forming an instant, disorganized rail yard but without the tracks. The engine—or was it the caboose?—wouldn’t or couldn’t stop and burst into steam or smoke. It was foreboding.

Again I was flying over a swimming pool that ran through a city like a river. Huge dark shadows of enormous fish appeared just below the water, and planes ducked under the water in pursuit. “What are they doing?” I asked. “Catching fish,” a voice answered. We seemed to do the same. There were more planes making more dives than there were fish, and I worried and wondered, but not about why.

I was looking for a street exit from a building, but kept getting more trapped. I would come upon stairs, but they proved to be channels into which I had to fit to slide down. There was no up. I began to think there was no out, either.

I was at the top of an ancient, crumbling stone staircase leading toward the bowels of the earth. At the bottom was a wall—a dead end. A monster I could not escape had run me to ground.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

At the movies: Bright Star, Me and Orson Welles, The Young Victoria, Sherlock Holmes

I’ve seen more first-run movies with J. in the last month than I’ve seen over the last few years. The contributing factors are: (1) I downloaded Flixter for iPhone, so it’s easier for me to pay attention to what’s coming out and when, who’s in it, and whether it’s something I’d be interested in, (2) there seem to be a few more movies than usual in this category of late, (3) J. has been in a movie-going mood; he was the one who suggested seeing Bright Star, and (4) I’m not in ongoing pain 15 minutes after my last bathroom stop; this makes a huge difference, as anyone who has had 2+ pounds of tissue squashing their bladder can tell you.

So far, this is what we’ve seen.

Bright Star is a lovely tribute to John Keats and the inspiration for some of his finer writing, Fanny Brawne. The direction, however, didn’t take advantage of the screen or the possibilities of film, so the movie, confined by the localized narrative, felt small and narrow at times, like a solid edition of Masterpiece Theatre.

Later I learned that Keats and Brawne were both about 5 feet tall, a detail that was not included in their characterizations. They appear to be similar in height to their peers, and he is appropriately taller than his love interest. They are beautiful people in the tradition of movies, which colors the viewer’s perception of the sweetness and heat of their romance. Would we be as likely to swoon over the passion of a poet-hero who is self-conscious about his stature, which is that of a half-grown boy? Would we sigh as he gazes upon his diminutive lover eye to eye? Central Casting would never consent to that kind of realism for real people. We aren’t ready for a portrayal of Keats and Brawne as they actually were.

Me and Orson Welles might have been a more robust film had Welles received top billing and the fictional “me” been relegated to obscurity with the delete key. The story of an aspiring teenage actor’s experience and rivalry with Welles is not the stuff of greatness, but Christian McKay’s portrayal of Welles is. He’s not 22 like the prodigy Welles, but in every nuance—the set of the turned back, the tilt of the head, the hooding of the eyes, the inflection of the incisive voice—McKay has mastered the master. I caught my breath a few times, so well has he evoked Welles. The supporting cast, portraying the Mercury Theatre company on stage and off, including Eddie Marsan as John Houseman, Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris, and James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, also made me a believer. It’s just too bad the story and direction fell far short of the performances.

The Young Victoria surely didn’t glow like Emily Blunt; after all, we think of her as a prudish old woman during whose long reign science, industry, and the novel flowered and characters such as Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and the evasive Jack the Ripper captured the public imagination. As in Bright Star, the representations are more attractive in a conventional sense than the originals. Beyond the human eye candy are sumptuous costumes and locales that make Victoria’s observation that “a palace can be like a prison” especially banal.

The Young Victoria is lovely and well paced—the time seems to fly. Like Bright Star, it suffers from a lack of substance. The villain, Sir John Conroy (played by Mark Strong, who appears as Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes), the man who would control the regency, isn’t especially villainous or effective, and Victoria isn’t powerless against him. Although her situation is convoluted, and she finally realizes that she is young and naive in her new context, there’s little danger and no sense of suspense or drama. We know that Victoria will become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and that Albert will die in early middle age after producing nine children with the queen. There is no hint of anything in Victoria herself that contributed to the duality of Victorian culture—the surplus of educated women and the lack of employment for them; the focus on the family accompanied by an expansion of prostitution and the market for Gothic and erotic literature; the appearance of such dark aberrations as the Ripper; the battle between conventional religion and the boom in scientific discovery and knowledge. While Albert is a bit more complex or at least duplicitous—he’s capable of discussing the strategy behind wooing the princess even while falling in love with her—in young Victoria we don’t see much of the older Victoria, or the rapidly evolving nature of the 19th century during which much of the status quo was challenged and eventually toppled. The Young Victoria is, not surprisingly, Victoria Lite.

If you’re an Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes purist, the Guy Ritchie film is not for you. If, however, you love the idea of a DC Comics-style live action hero battling a very bad baddie against a steampunk backdrop, you’ve probably seen the movie several times already.

It’s not that there’s a lack of Arthur Conan Doyle references scattered throughout, from one-liners to entire scenes. Lines, scenes, and even actions, however, don’t constitute character, and so merely saying things like, “The game is afoot!” doesn’t make the Robert Downey, Jr. character Sherlock Holmes any more than being fat makes me sing as well as Cass Elliot.

It’s easy to forget that Doyle’s Holmes was inspired in part by an Edinburgh University medical professor he admired, Dr. Joseph Bell, a father of forensic medicine renowned for his ability to draw conclusions from seemingly insignificant details. Instead of looking to Doyle or his inspiration, Ritchie and crew re-imagine Holmes as a flaky bohemian with hygiene issues, someone petty enough to argue with his roommate over an article of clothing, earthy enough to box bare fisted (illegally) for the entertainment of society’s dregs (the same type of folks who today support dog- and cock fighting), inventive enough to experiment with everything from anesthetics to silencers (unsuccessfully), and anal enough to retain scads of arcane information and to be able to retrieve it at will and factor it into the equation. While Doyle’s Holmes is the consummate actor, able to win the confidence of the royalty and nobility of Europe as well as that of housekeepers, London cabbies, and the Baker Street Irregulars, Downey’s Holmes can’t fool Watson’s fiancĂ©e, Mary. He even has to be prodded to “clean up” (with little effect that I could see) after a night in the lockup. Doyle’s Holmes could have been an example of mild Asperger’s, which would explain his phenomenal memory, his single mindedness and unerring eye for minutiae, and his ability to write an entire monograph on tobacco blends. The film Holmes is more of a flawed superhero with amazing abilities tainted by a few mundane weaknesses. Even his admiration for “the Woman,” Irene Adler, and her masculine ability to dispassionately stay one step ahead of him, is transformed into a BDSM sexual relationship—an outcome I’m certain Doyle never envisioned for his pointedly asexual detective.

Over the years, Holmes, his milieu, and the mysteries he solves have become a reflection of contemporary times. Basil Rathbone’s stellar portrayal was wasted on a series of low-budget movies in which the great detective is yanked out of time and plopped into World War II, with spying as valuable an activity as detecting. The Holmes of the 1976 film, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, is another Holmes for his times, addicted to cocaine, neurotic, and in need of Freudian therapy.

The 1980s and 90s, bland as they were, brought us the most accurate representation since Conan Doyle in the form of Jeremy Brett, who is distinctly not bohemian in appearance, tastes, or lifestyle. He’s alert, incisive, ironic, imperious, bored, and occasionally somber when he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. Brett captures a key element noticeably absent in Downey’s characterization—Holmes’s maddening yet well-deserved arrogance that is rarely humbled. David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke excel as Watson, always a step behind but quick to catch up with a little prompting. They’re surrounded by a cast and a setting Conan Doyle might have selected himself. Indeed, the Ritchie Sherlock Holmes pays homage to the Granada Television series by duplicating the beginning of its title sequence, as a cab rounds the corner onto Baker Street.

With the legacy of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett behind us, there he is, the Sherlock Holmes of our age—part comic book action hero, part substance-addled rock star, part failed inventor—traipsing about a steampunk land worthy of Howl’s Moving Castle, with special effects galore. It doesn’t matter that he little resembles the Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle’s invention, only that there’s enough action, suspense, and excitement to draw millions of moviegoers willing to spend $10 to $15 (or more) a pop. That’s the cynicism of our times. Muscle edges out mind, and nonstop action replaces contemplation; I can’t see Downey’s Holmes warning Watson that “it is quite a three-pipe problem.” The affectionate, sometimes ironic banter between Holmes and Watson has been transformed into bickering, and Holmes’s indifference toward women is now passive-aggressive childishness toward the waspish Mary. Just so we know that this isn’t your great grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes, a gratuitous fart joke is tossed in. Why? Because otherwise Sherlock Holmes isn’t blockbuster material. If Sherlock Holmes as written can’t generate millions in revenue, then he simply needs to be re-invented—keeping the name, the gloss, and the cachet.

While there is little Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (and not much more Watson), it’s still an entertaining action film, with a barrage of exaggerated sound complementing the barrage of exaggerated visuals, although the immediate flashbacks and forwards grow tiresome quickly like any overused gimmick. There are plenty of explosions and explosive moments, exposure to which could explain why Holmes can’t seem to hear or notice anyone right behind him until it’s too late. The industrial color palate should appeal to the steampunk crowd, almost making up for the plethora of sometimes laughable continuity and logic issues (one hint: It would be difficult to defend Watson’s flagrant medical incompetence).

When we returned here, I turned on BBC America, and there was Robert Downey, Jr. on The Graham Norton Show. In a sketch taped in silent movie mode, referring to Downey’s star turn as Chaplin, Norton mouths a question on the title card that appears, “Why didn’t they get a proper British actor to play Sherlock Holmes?” Downey flies into a silent rage, jumping up and knocking everything off the table, finally sitting down again in an enraged snit. His title card: “Dunno.”

But that’s not “quite a three-pipe problem,” either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dream: Along comes Mary

I was with a group of people in a science lab who were intent on making something that seemed like an arts-and-crafts project. I was more interested in flinging Mardi Gras beads around and dancing. One tall man appeared to feel the same way, but he couldn’t quite make his way to me.

A musician was half sitting, half lying on the floor, his face stretched and mask-like as though he’d been burned. The only song I could hear was “Along Comes Mary,” which never stopped playing.

The tall man, the musician, and I knew something the others didn’t and were right to focus on the dance. I could feel it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dream: Malicious fish

In this dream not much happened, but it was disturbing conceptually and visually.

My cat seemed normal, but I could tell that he was an empty shell filled with an enormous, vicious-looking fish. I would open a flap to try to remove the fish, but couldn’t bring myself to touch it. It couldn’t be left there, either, because it was evil. I wasn’t sure that anything was left of the cat. It was too late.

My mother and I were in the city, a place where I’d never seen her. I observed myself as a giant parade balloon against the night sky. I let go of my mother’s string, and she floated high into the air. Soon she crashed into the spot from which I had released her. I felt horrible as she was injured and in pain—but I must have known this would happen when I let go. She tried to tell me the complicated way in which she’d been repaired up there, but this made no sense to me as she’d been hurt on landing, not on rising. My head swam.

I felt forlorn and terrible, although I thought I should feel light and free.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Visa debit card: Signature vs. PIN

I've been curious as to why I have to sign a receipt when I use my VISA debit card to earn points in the Chase Extras program, versus keying in the PIN. This article explains it. The bank benefits.

When you sign a debit card receipt at a large retailer, the store pays your bank an average of 75 cents for every $100 spent, more than twice as much as when you punch in a four-digit code.
This also explains why many stores offer PIN only. I can't say I blame them.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

From the mountains to the river

I must be in a time warp because it cannot be two weeks ago that I was packing to go to Pennsylvania, and it cannot be tomorrow that I will return to work. These have been the shortest two weeks of my life, and I’ve no doubt that tomorrow will be among the longest days.

We spent Christmas Eve in Howard. To get there, we headed north on Rte. 220. The new highway has spoiled some of what I loved about the area in the 1960s and 70s—and now there’s talk of a Walmart in or near Pinecroft—but the drive north has granted me a greater appreciation for the lie of the little green hills that I miss so much when I leave them.

Rte. 220 is built against the base of a mountain ridge (Brush); on the other side lies Sinking Valley, which my dad called some of the richest farmland in the state. To the left is Logan Valley, with Altoona to the south and Tyrone to the north. For me as a child, Tyrone and its pungent paper mill smell was an important milestone of the journey because it meant we were almost there—Bellwood was not too far off. And when I stood at the screen door of my aunt’s house on 1st Street, especially in the morning, the air was heavy with Tyrone’s industrial scent. When that powerful odor violated my nostrils and lungs, I knew that I was “home.”

Beyond Logan Valley is another ridge of the Central Alleghenies, another ancient wrinkle in the earth’s skin. After the trip up Rte. 220, and after passing through successive tunnels on the way to Lancaster, I, the three dimensionally impaired, have finally made the mental connection between the flat lines and shaded areas on the map and the relationships of the ridges and valleys across which the shadows of the clouds pass.

I long to walk up the ridge on a rare clear summer’s day, now that I’m old enough to appreciate the effort, the accomplishment, and the vision of forested hills cradling the vulnerable valleys and their quaint frame houses.

When I returned to Chicago, I settled for a very different sort of activity—attending the premier New Year’s Eve party at Kendall College. We arrived just in time for the salad course, which, like all of them, was very good. The service wasn’t polished to perfection, but that’s what I expected under the circumstances, and everyone was in such a good mood.

The DJ played music that I recognized (vintage), although J. could not get me to dance. I suppose I didn’t feel like shaking my booty in front of 98 well-dressed strangers. I was just relieved to get a table for two.

It was a lovely evening, with the blue moon shining on the frigid, yet restless city and the north branch of the Chicago River.

We saw only one questionable driver, and that was at around 11:00 a.m. the next morning in Hyde Park. He made a left turn at full speed and immediately swerved into the next lane at full speed when he noticed the cement median in his way.

So, happy new year—and be careful out there. Day or night.