I watched four movies on DVD this week:
The Hangover is a 2009 comedy of sorts. Let me not mince words: I thought this was a terrible movie. I was a little apprehensive going into it, because as I mentioned last week, I'm kind of priggish and self-righteous when it comes to drinking and drunkenness, and I wondered whether that would affect my enjoyment of the movie. I don't think it did, because in fact the film showed very little drinking or drunkenness; all we saw was the consequences of the previous night's drunk-fest, which was a clever and interesting way to structure the movie. Unfortunately, it was not by and large a funny way to structure it; I laughed a couple of the reveals — the tiger, the cop car — but for the most part I was unimpressed. Another problem: I didn't like the main characters. As Ed Helms pointed out, the characters aren't clever or funny; the humor is meant to come from watching them react to the funny circumstances they're in. But I think that only works when you have likeable characters (and also when you have funny circumstances). So it's not really a surprise that the moments I laughed at came from minor characters who were likeable and/or funny or clever — the cops played by Rob Riggle and Cleo King, for example, or "Black Doug" — or on the rare occasions when the main characters said or did something funny or clever instead of just reacting to the supposedly funny circumstances, such as the little moment of physical comedy when Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Zach Galifianakis were handcuffed together, or when Galifianakis said "I didn't know they gave out rings at the Holocaust." Oh, and I liked Heather Graham's character, but mostly because she was played by Heather Graham.
The Americanization of Emily is a 1964 comedy-drama starring James Garner as a cynical and cowardly assistant to a rear admiral station in London during World War II and Julie Andrews as the British motor pool driver whom he falls for. I picked this up in part because I have vague memories of frequently seeing commercials for it on WGN-TV when I was younger, though it's possible I may be confusing it with another Julie Andrews movie, Thoroughly Modern Millie. I liked this, especially Garner's performance as Charlie Madison (not that it could've been much of a stretch for him; Madison is very much in the Brett Maverick/Jim Rockford mold) and the satirical elements, which apparently were not present in the novel — at least not overtly — and I think might have been played up by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky due to the popularity of another World War II-era satire, Catch-22, which was released just a few years before this movie. Speaking of Chayefsky, his proclivity for ostentatiously verbose and showy monologues — nowadays, we call it Sorkinesque — grated from time to time, and the whole thing felt a little overlong. But neither particularly detracted from my enjoyment.
Brave is a 2012 animated fantasy adventure made by Pixar Animation Studios starring Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connoly, Emma Thompson, and Julie Walters. I had always sort of intended to see this in the theaters, but it didn't work out. Its Oscar nomination compelled me to seek it out instead of waiting for it to show up on the shelf at my local library, which is how I usually pick films. And you know what, I should have waited. I found it rather boring, and while I can't believe I'm saying this about a Pixar film, I didn't much care for the animation. There was always a sense in the back my head that the animators were using more to show off their technical virtuosity than to tell a story. (And the commentary track did not disabuse me of that feeling, I might add.) I didn't hate it or anything, and I'm not saying I think it was a waste of the dollar and change I paid to get it out of the DVD kiosk, but … meh. The animated short La Luna, also included on the DVD, was more entertaining.
(Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that Brave and It's a Wonderful Life are pretty much the same story? [Merida/George] is upset because [she's being forced to marry by her overbearing mother/he's facing financial ruin], leading [her/him] to rashly wish that [her mother would change/he'd never been born]. But the wish goes wrong when [her mom turns into a bear and the kingdom stands on the brink of war/Bedford Falls turns out to be a much more grim place without his influence]. Once things are back to normal, the problem that originally led to the rash wish has vanished thanks to [her mom changing her mind about Merida having to get married/his friends bailing him out], and they all live happily ever after. The end.)
Gentleman's Agreement is a 1947 drama starring Gregory Peck as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish so he can experience anti-Semitism first-hand. It won Best Picture at the 20th Academy Awards, and over the years it's become somewhat emblematic of the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture: a well-made and serious-minded take on a serious subject. And well, that reputation is deserved. Don't get me wrong, it's a fine movie, and its message is a good one, but it's about as subtle as a gold brick, thanks in no small part to the stentorian tones in which Peck delivers his denunciations against anti-Semitism. But it strains credulity that his character, Phil Green; would be so shocked by the extent of anti-Semitism; the film mentions by name three nationally known anti-Semites — Theodore G. Bilbo, John E. Rankin, and Gerald L. K. Smith — so it should hardly be shocking to him that a society in which men like that could rise to positions of prominence and power might would include a great many other people who shared those views. On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine that a white, Protestant, upper-middle class male like Green had never personally experienced any sort of discrimination whatsoever, so maybe that's influencing his reaction.
Off screen this week, I attended a piano recital given by Anna Reiser, a UW-Madison doctoral student in which my friend Jennifer Sams, a talented classical soprano, also performed. Why would a piano recital include songs to be sung, rather than just played? I suppose it's important for someone pursuing an advanced degree in piano performance to demonstrate that he or she is both an accomplished accompanist and soloist. Having a vocalist adds variety to the program, too, and if one is trying to program on a particular theme, choosing music with words helps communicate that theme. Anyway, Jen sang Modest Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, a song-cycle written to four poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. The Death personified in these poems is rather thoughtful, choosing to appear in the way that would be most comforting to the particular decedent: the dying infant is sung a lullaby; the young lover, a serenade; the drunken peasant; a lively dance; the soldier, a martial anthem. Also on the program was a song-cycle by Gustav Mahler, the Rückert Lieder, sung by another soprano, Chelsie Propst, whom I know slightly. I was particularly taken with the second, "Liebst du um Schönheit," the English text of which follows:
If you love for beauty, Oh, do not love me!
Love the sun, she has golden hair.
If you love for youth, Oh, do not love me!
Love the spring, it is young every year.
If you love for riches, Oh, do not love me!
Love the mermaid, she has many shining pearls.
If you love for love, oh yes, do love me!
Love me always, I shall love you evermore.
(The text of the other four lieder can be found here.) The lieder were interspersed with three Bach Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: No. 21 in B-Flat major, No. 22 in B-flat minor, and No. 23 in B major.
Possibly the most interesting piece on the program was a solo piano work called Chaconne by the contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. On most recital programs, you'll have one work that's there not so much because it's particularly worth listening to but because it demonstrates the technical proficiency and virtuosity of the performer, and as often as not it will be a 20th-century work. But this piece was really quite nice; much more tonal and melodic than you usually find occupying the "hey ma watch this" portion of the program. All in all, it was a wonderful performance by all three women.
Wordwise, I'm still working on Mansfield Park; I'm up to Chapter 18, and Fanny is ever so distressed by the home theatrical her relatives and intimate friends are rehearsing.
I also read some longform articles online that are worth checking out:
- The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist, which is about, well, a Canadian maple syrup heist, but also about attempts by Quebec's maple syrup cartel to raise prices by limiting supply and the efforts by rogue syrup producers to undermine their authority.
- A Pickpocket's Tale, a profile of the theatrical pickpocket Apollo Robbins. If you like the TNT show Leverage, you should read this; Robbins is a consultant and guest-starred in one episode as Parker's opposite on a rival gang.
- The Vanishing Groves, which is about the science of dendrochronology and how climate change is threatening the bristlecone pine, which have incredible lifespans and thus are particularly useful to dendrochronologists.