I watched three movies on DVD this week:
Extract is a 209 workplace comedy by Mike Judge. He describes it as a companion piece to his 1999 cult classic Office Space, but while it certainly bears some similarity to that movie — David Koechner's character Nathan is positively Lundbergian in his speech patterns — by the end it had begun to remind me more of Judge's animated TV series King of the Hill. There's a certain sweetness and nobility to that series and this movie that is almost entirely absent from Office Space or Idiocracy, and Jason Bateman's character Joel Reynolds is far more like Hank Hill than Peter Gibbons: hes tempted to abandon his responsibilities in favor of his own self-satisfaction, but in the end he honors and renews his commitments, as do Joel's wife Suzie and injured factory worker Step. Even the con artist Cindy ultimately does the right thing. There are other parallels to King of the Hill among the supporting characters: Nathan may talk like Lundberg, but he's not malevolent, just socially awkward like Bill Dauterive; and assembly line worker Mary is pure Dale Gribble. One quibble: Joel's extract company is called Reynold's Extract, but if his last name is Reynolds, it really should be Reynolds' or just Reynolds. I suspect they changed it to avoid problems with Reynolds Holding Group, which manufactures Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil, but it grated nonetheless.
Ninotchka is a 1939 comedy directed by Ernest Lubitsch and starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. A very funny movie! Not that I would expect anything less from Lubitsch and screenwriter Billy Wilder. I thought the way the Soviet Union was portrayed was interesting; it’s definitely an anti-Soviet film — it’s shown as gray and humorless, and fundamentally unappealing to and unliked by its own citizens — but it’s done so in a rather more lighthearted and comedic way. It certainly didn’t come across as a sinister existential threat, as it often was in films not too very much more recent than this one.
(500) Days of Summer is a 2009 romantic comedy directed by hometown boy Marc Webb and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. I can’t really talk about this without discussing the ending, so if you haven’t seen it and you think knowing how it ends would spoil your enjoyment when you do see it, now would be a good time to stop reading. Still here? OK, so, like I said, this is a romantic comedy, in that it’s comedy and it’s about a romance, but on the other hand it kind of isn’t, because the main characters don’t end up with each other. Whatever you call it, it's a tricky genre to navigate; you want the audience to be rooting for the romance to succeed, but also leave them satisfied with the situation the characters are left in when it doesn't. I’ve seen a couple of other movies lately that fall into the same category — The Last Word and Celeste and Jesse Forever — and they didn't really work for me, because in the former case I didn't particularly care if the relationship succeeded, while in the latter I wasn't satisfied with the way one of the main characters ended up. But I thought (500) Days worked. I would've been perfectly satisfied if Tom and Summer had ended up together, but I also liked where they were left at the end. Beyond that, I should also mention that the "You Make My Dreams" production number was a delightful surprise, if maybe a little derivative of the "That's How You Know" sequence from Enchanted.
In the more refined arts, I attended a concert by pianist Myung-Hee Chung and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb, part of Wisconsin Public Radio's Sunday Afternoon Live series. I was expecting this to be a performance by French horn player Bruce Atwell — that's what it said in the local alt-weekly — so that was a bit of a letdown, but the concert was pretty good regardless. Well, the half of it I attended was; I got tired, so I left at intermission. The two pieces I heard were Camille Saint-Saens's Sonata in C Minor, which I thought was a wonderful piece, especially the first and third movements (which is often how it is), and Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata, which was … less wonderful. Well performed, of course, but I didn't much care for the work.
I also went to an art exhibition at the Overture Center, Madison's main performing arts venue, featuring several photographs by a friend from church. All his photos were of moving water, taken from so close a distance so as to appear almost as pure abstraction, but still perfectly recognizable as water. He had had them printed on a metallic paper that really made the colors pop. I visited a couple of other exhibits currently on display, including a group show by members of the Madison Watercolor Society. It was interesting to see such a wide variety of styles on display; if you're anything like me, you see a gauzy landscape or a bowl of fruit when you think about watercolor paintings, but this show had a wide variety of styles on display from the archetypal gauzy landscapes to folk art-inspired portraits to bold abstracts. Naturally I like my friend's exhibit better, but I enjoyed the way the watercolor exhibit subverted my expectations.
Wordwise, I'm approaching the end of Mansfield Park. I'm up to Chapter XLI; Fanny has returned to her parents' home in Portsmouth and finds herself missing the more refined society she left behind in Northamptonshire. I should finish it up this week; I haven't decided yet whether to move on directly to Emma or to instead take a break and read the Elizabethan play Lovers' Vows, an aborted production of which is a significant plot point in Mansfield Park.
- Right Here Waiting, about Richard Marx's feud with an obscure Chicago blogger. Funny!
- Into the Unknown, an account of an Antarctic exploration expedition gone horribly wrong. This is absolutely the most horrific thing I've read in quite some time.
- Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?, about what happened when the parents of a murder victim decided to forgive the man who killed their daughter. The process described in the article is an interesting alternative to the normal criminal justice system, but I doubt it's scalable.
- Silence Like Scouring Sand, about the efforts of one man to preserve one square inch of land for all human-created sound. A noble (though almost certainly doomed) project, and the prose is quite beautiful.
- Suds for Drugs, about the thriving black market in Tide laundry detergent. Weird and hard to believe, but apparently true. A testament to the power of brand loyalty.
- America's Real Criminal Element: Lead, which makes a compelling case that widespread use of and subsequent elimination of leaded gasoline was responsible for the dramatic rise and fall of violent crime rates in the United States.