Monthly Archive for October, 2006

Psycho

Psycho (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (1960 ***½) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Short of suffering a brain injury, it’s impossible to watch Psycho with fresh eyes after you’ve seen it for the first time. It‘s also a bit of a challenge to write a review of one of the most significant films of all time. (Warning: spoilers follow) It has been roughly twenty years since I last watched the original Psycho. It’s probably universal that there are only a handful of scenes from the film that really permeate your psyche. Part of the magic of the film was that its story began with following a woman (Janet Leigh) who, in a moment of bad judgment, steals $40,000. The virgin audience (who has never seen the film before) has certain expectations based on the film’s investment in this character. When Marion Crane (Leigh) meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), they talk and she eats a sandwich… and the point of view shifts, becoming Norman’s movie. When the woman the audience has come to believe is the main character is brutally murdered in the shower… well, they must have experienced a tremendous jolt. The remainder of the film played out in a fairly straightforward and linear fashion. The shocking revelation in the fruit cellar of the true relationship between Norman and his mother was a classic, though it was also straight out of the E.C. comics of the late 1950‘s. In what had to be one of the strangest directorial choices in film history, after Bates was apprehended there was a scene in which Simon Oakland (as psychologist Dr. Fred Richmond) delivered a lengthy piece of exposition that went on for several minutes, explaining the mechanics of Norman Bates’ psychological behavior. He assures us that just because Norman wore a cheap wig and dressed as his mother, it didn’t make him a transvestite. At times the dialogue in this scene sounded exactly like Edward D. Wood, Jr.‘s dialogue in Glen Or Glenda.

The Break-Up

The Break-Up (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (2006 **½) Directed by Peyton Reed, screenplay by Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. For some reason I kept flashing back to The War of the Roses (1989) or the more recent Bruce Willis / Michelle Pfeiffer / Rob Reiner film The Story of Us (1999). Actually, I’m not entirely sure the married couple in that second film actually broke up, but my recollection is they should have. Quite honestly, break-ups aren’t fun to be a part of and I’ve never found them particularly fun to watch. I have no idea why Hollywood has not figured that simple fact out yet. Maybe movies about couples in conflict are aimed at a specific audience of people who are currently in or have recently ended troubled relationships. Having said all that, I thought the film captured the dynamics of this all-to-common situation fairly well. Both Vaughn and Aniston’s characters were likable but flawed in their own ways and through the process of their break-up they each learned something. Unfortunately, as often happens in real life, they learned their lessons too late. The quality of the writing wasn’t exactly consistent, but there were a couple of scenes that sparkled for me. In particular there was a scene between Vaughn and his bartender friend played in a cameo by director Jon Favreau (“No, really, I don’t want anything to happen to him, all right?”) that was delightful.

The Lake House

The Lake House (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (2006 **) Directed by Alejandro Agresti, screenplay by David Auburn, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Thanks to a magic mailbox, a woman falls in love with a man who lived two years in the past. Nominally this film was in the time travel / love story genre that included Somewhere in Time (which also featured Christopher Plummer). My biggest problem with The Lake House was the screenplay. I probably would have found the writing of this film far less infuriating/annoying/grating had I not recently read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, one of the best books I’ve read within recent memory. Reeves & Bullock were re-teamed for the first time since Speed. Though I appreciate why some might find the love story between Keanu Reeves satisfying emotionally, inconsistent story logic and huge gaps in character intelligence stretched my personal suspension of disbelief beyond the point I could bear it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife (10/22/06) Novel (2003 ****) Written by Audrey Niffenegger. This was one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it was a highly impressive first novel for Ms. Niffenegger. Its premise: Due to a chromosomal anomaly, a man finds himself slipping through time with no conscious control. In spite of this dangerous genetic birth defect, he meets and marries a woman destined to be his soul mate.

The magic of this book was that is succeeded brilliantly both as science fiction and as a love story. Thanks to time travel rules she established early on (which were never exploited in a cheap manner) Niffenegger was able to accomplish some miraculous effects in the reader: I found myself transported to familiar emotional territory (much of the novel was about longing, loss, and waiting for your lover to return) via fresh and unexpected paths. For example, the first time Henry (age 28) met Clare (age 20), she had known him most of her life, thanks to his future self‘s frequent visits to the meadow behind her parent’s Michigan estate. Likewise, the first time Clare (age 6) met Henry (age 36), Henry was already married to the adult Clare and knew all about her life and her life to come. Niffenegger told her story using random snatches and scenes offered as dated sections written from either Clare’s or Henry’s point of view. Each section was labeled in such a way that confusion (which would have distracted from the reading experience) was never an issue. Roughly half the passages were set in the present, but there were many occasions when Henry encountered older or younger versions of himself or Clare, sometimes in the past and occasionally in the future.

Sadly, time traveling is very dangerous business: When Henry slipped through time he arrived naked and in a random location, putting him in an extremely vulnerable position and subject to harsh weather and the potentially hostile reactions of those around when he appeared. As the novel progressed, a disturbing vision of the future developed as Henry and Clare pieced together information about when, where, and how Henry would die. As with the rest of the novel, the resolution of this was handled in a fashion that was both tasteful and satisfying in spite of the foreknowledge: The reader was given all the pieces of the puzzle but didn’t know how they fit until they came together.

How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense

How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense (10/19/06) Nonfiction (2003 ***½) Written by Carolyn Wheat. I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years, and this was one of the best I’ve ever come across. Carolyn Wheat did a marvelous job focusing on her subject and providing just the right amount of detail. I especially liked and appreciated her discussion of the differences and similarities between writing mysteries and suspense. She went into good (but not excessive) depth in the subgenres that make up each main category. Her examples were well-considered and very helpful. Overall I enjoyed her no-nonsense approach to the topic of writing.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (10/17/06) Novel (1962 **) Written by Madeleine L’Engle. I bought this book and its companion, A Wind in the Door, at a church sale. I was under the impression that A Wrinkle in Time was some kind of important science fiction work. I was a bit disappointed, honestly. I’d expected more from it. Maybe part of my problem was that the book got into some strange fantasy territory and that has never been my favorite genre. My other major problem was that the resolution of the main plot — which involved retrieving the main character Meg’s baby brother Charles from a soul-sucking entity known only as IT — came quite abruptly, only a few pages from the end. It was as though the book got bored with itself and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

The Birds

The Birds (10/10/06) Transatlantic flight between LAX and London Heathrow (1963 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The Birds really laid the groundwork for Jaws and all the movies of its type that came after it. I could see why it made such an impact at the time it was originally released. I remember as a very young child watching this movie on TV and being absolutely terrified by the sequence where the birds gathered outside the school and attacked the children as they ran down the street. In my opinion, Tippi Hedren’s character came across in the beginning as a total stalking nut-job and someone to be avoided, though I suppose some in the world of 1963 might have seen her more as a “free spirit.” It was fun seeing a young Suzanne Pleshette, though I thought her final fate was terribly unfair. Ultimately, The Birds was a good movie and worth watching but it’s not a “must-see” like Psycho or Rear Window.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (10/8/06) Portofino Inn, Redondo Beach (2006 **) Directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman. My wife and I watched this the day after we were married, decompressing from the excitement and stress of the wedding, while eating a delivered pizza. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t as good as the pizza. I was disappointed; the premise of My Super Ex-Girlfriend had such promise, but it didn’t fulfill its potential. Let’s hope the same will never be said for our marriage!

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Manos: The Hands of Fate

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Manos: The Hands of Fate (10/3/06) Netflix (1993/1966 ***1/4) The original film was written and directed by Hal Warren who, like Ed Wood before him, also played one of the lead roles. According to the Internet Movie Database, Warren was a fertilizer salesman in El Paso who made Manos on a bet. Manos was, hands down (pun intended), one of the worst films of all time, and watching it was an exercise in torture. As far as the MST3K dimension of the viewing experience, it was a slightly above average episode. I laughed the most not during the main feature but during the short subject, a gem from the archives at Chevrolet called Hired (Part 2).

Scoop

Scoop (10/2/06) DWA Screening (2006 **½) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen and Hugh Jackman. Ian McShane played a great investigative journalist who stumbles on the scoop of a lifetime while being ferried down the River Styx, then returns to our mortal plane to tell young college reporter (Johansson) that the son of a British lord is the “tarot card killer.” This certainly wasn’t the strongest Woody Allen film in recent years, but it was pleasant enough and I got to see it for free, so what the hell. As with many of Allen’s weaker movies, this one felt like it wasn’t altogether there, as though script could have used a few more months of work. Compounding the problem was Allen’s choice of Johansson, who he also used in Match Point. She was certainly pretty enough (last week she was voted “sexiest woman alive” by Esquire Magazine) but she lacked the acting skills necessary to pull off the part: Every single second she was on the screen I was aware she was acting.