Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson

Title: Bid Time Return
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher:  Viking Press (1975)

Note: This title was also released in 1998 by Tor Books under the title Somewhere In Time
Note2: I thought the original title was far superior and can't figure why it was changed.

Michael; genius, movie reviewer extraordinaire, and all-around fantastic human; and I are sticking with sci-fi again this month but our chosen title is markedly different from the last two pairings we’ve done. I saw this movie many years ago and have read the book for the first time just this month. Click the link below for movie thoughts and read on for bookie stuff.

O Call back yesterday,
Bid time return
-Richard II, Act III, Sc.2

After this quote the book starts with a note from the brother of the protagonist. Amongst other things he says, “Yielding to the publisher, I’ve done extensive pruning in the first section of the manuscript. Again, I’m not sure I’ve done the right thing. I can’t dispute the fact that this section was lengthy and occasionally tedious.”

When I first started reading, the book reminded me of how I felt when watching the movie Buried: what a great idea, I’m glad someone thought of it and pursued it, it’s a shame it’s not the type of thing that keeps my attention. But then, as I progressed through Bid Time Return, I kept coming back to “lengthy and occasionally tedious.” It’s not only an apt description of the beginning, it pretty much describes the entire book.

In 1971 Richard Collier is 36 and receives some news that makes him re-evaluate his entire life and what he will do with the rest of it. Deciding to pursue a personal journey across the US (not even telling his brother where he is going), he flips a coin and makes San Diego his first destination. He had intended to stay only a few days but seeing the portrait of a beautiful actress who performed at his hotel in 1896 changes his plans completely. He is haunted by her face and his attraction to her. He becomes consumed with researching her life and the more he learns about her the more convinced he becomes that he was a part of that life. He expands his research to time travel (as you do) by reading, and obsessing over, a book he finds called Man and Time by J.B. Priestley (his brother kindly inserts a bit of info to let us know he edited out the detailed notes Richard took on the book).

**The rest of this review includes SPOILERS**

Richard’s style begins as one of dictatorial lists of his activities and feelings (with a bit more naval-gazing than I can tolerate in books but he did just learn that he is going to die soon so I should probably forgive him that). I actually enjoyed the point by point movement through his days. It’s easy to read over even if it’s not necessarily compelling in a narrative sense. As he moves closer, in emotion and in time, to Elise McKenna the style changes to traditional story-telling (Richard, being a writer, even comments on his own style changes). Of course, by the time that happens I’d mostly lost interest in the story and was spending my time wondering why. You see, even though I described this as sci-fi it’s pretty much straight up Romance (with one exception that I’ll go into later). This is not a problem for me as I like and read Romance. However, I like and read Romances that are much better than this one. Honestly, I wondered at one point if the entire book was a joke poking fun at Romance. It would have been such a poorly executed joke, though, that I had to assume I was meant to take the story seriously. So, why am I such a hater? It came down to the fact that the characters had no personal agency.

The book almost has only the one character because Richard dominates so much of the story (naturally, it is his story, after all) but Elise certainly ought to get a lot of attention from the reader. The thing is, neither of the characters is that interesting. Richard’s motivation: saw pic of hottie actress and immediately fell in love with her. Elise’s motivation: was given two predictions regarding a man in her future and decides Richard fits those predictions. Whenever either of them talks about why they want to be with the other it’s always described as this “need” or as being “mysterious.” How is that interesting? It doesn’t even seem to have anything to do with who these two people actually are (at one point Richard expresses fucking surprise when it turns out Elise has a bunch of really great qualities that have nothing to do with her beauty or charisma). This is not the kind of Romance that can keep my interest. Mysterious needs and unexplained attraction do not feel like the elements of a meaningful relationship. But, hey, once they met maybe they had wonderful experiences together over a period of time that would make motivations less mysterious. Oh, woops, they spend about 36 hours together and have some of the most painfully awkward conversations I’ve ever had the displeasure to read (I kept thinking, this guy is a writer and this is the best he can come up with?????). It’s not exactly the sort of thing that would make a reader believe the two of them would like to spend their lives together.

Richard is also so agitated and desperate in his need to be with Elise that he professes his love enough to make anyone wonder what his deal is (psycho being the first answer any normal person would come up with) and he’s constantly evasive about where he’s from (or should I say when). In short, he behaves in such a way that any rational woman would ask him to leave her alone. But, of course, Elise is experiencing her Mysterious Pull for Richard so she only expresses dismay at the complete reversal of her normal behavior (if only she had known about Mighty Wang and Magic Hoo Hoos she might not have been so dismayed).

The one exception to this being a true Romance is that it doesn’t have a happy ending. By the time the end came around its unhappiness had little effect on me because I didn’t care about the characters. I was tired of Richard’s Too Stupid Too Live moments and Elise’s willingness to make a life commitment to someone she doesn’t even know. A Romance that centers around two people who have no choice in the matter and then are pulled apart by circumstance is not interesting. It’s easy - and possibly able to engage your emotions (though, in this case, definitely not mine) - but it’s not compelling. There is no journey to go through with the characters, no hard choices to be made, no reason to care for anything other than that it’s too bad this had to happen because now everyone is sad.

But this does give me a chance to say that I can recommend several great Romances for anyone who has read this and thought, “There must be something better out there.” There certainly is and I’m happy to share. I can recommend Romances with well-developed characters who actively make choices, sometimes very difficult choices, for themselves and for the people in their lives, Romances with characters who converse in ways that make you believe they’d actually want to have multiple conversations, Romances that show two people growing together over time and learning that they can be as strong, or stronger, together than apart. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 15 Questions Movie Meme

Michael, of the myriad and fascinating movie posts, recently posted this and I thought it would be fun to join in. I've decided to limit my answers to the last two decades as these types of movie questions are often so paralyzing that I can't come up with any kind of answer at all. I figured using only 2 decades would help.

1. Movie you love with a passion.

You can say you don't like Galaxy Quest and I will accept that as a legitimate response. However, this little gem is perfect in every way as a movie so all other negative comments will elicit lengthy rebuttals.

2. Movie you vow to never watch.

Avatar. In fact, I won't even search it on the internet for a screen shot because I don't want the internet bots to get the idea I'm interested.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

I thought about picking any number of war-related films to put here but one over another wouldn't communicate the truth: war films leave me emotionally wrecked and I can rarely speak after one so almost all of them fit here.

4. Movie you always recommend.

If you haven't seen Stranger Than Fiction, you ought to! It's fantastic, funny, refreshing, well-acted, quirky, satisfying and watched by too few people.

5. Actor/Actress you always watch no matter how crappy the movie.

If Marky Mark hadn't just made a boxing movie he would have been the front runner but sgwordy does not do boxing films.

6. Actor/Actress you don't get the appeal for.

7. Actor, living or dead, you'd most like to meet.

8. Sexiest actor you've seen.

It's possible this was not meant to be taken literally but the statement really made it seem like I was supposed to have actually seen the actor. And, anyways, I like this story because Michelle Williams was so completely, fantastically beautiful when I saw her (she was running an errand where I worked not dolled up for some sort of event) that I was blown away. At the time, her acting gig was not a vehicle for seeing her beauty and charm, or her acting chops. I'm glad to see things have changed. What an exciting young actress!

9. Dream Cast.

Starring in a futuristic film in which the US has a royal family of which they are the head.

10. Favorite Actor pairing.

Duh! They get mail... and stuff. HA! Gotcha!

I ended up defining this as two actors who are excellent alone but end up stealing the show together. That could only mean:

11. Favorite movie setting.

12. Favorite decade for movies.

Since I only did two this almost seems like a silly question but I'm giving the honors to the 90s. Over the 90s, the field of movies served up for viewers was consistently stronger than in the aughts. Also, I can't pick any decade that saw Gladiator and Crash winning Oscars for Best Picture.

13. Chick flick or action movie.

I don't answer bullshit questions that use monikers?? adjectives??? like "chick" in completely useless ways. (Refer to bullshit "women's fiction" etc for more on this.)

14. Hero, villain, or anti-hero.

15. Black & White or Color.


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Hangover (2009) Guest Review

It’s been a couple months since my last guest review (The Social Network) on sgwordy, so I guess it’s time for another one.  I was in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago and it put me in mind to finally watch The Hangover.  Now that I’ve seen it I have a few thoughts to share, so let’s get to it!

Warning: This will be more of a deconstruction of comedies using The Hangover as the dominant example than a review, so all the typical spoiler warnings apply.  If you haven’t seen The Hangover yet and are planning to do so, give this column a miss for now and come back after you’ve watched it.  Also, it should be noted that comedy is probably the most subjective genre out there.  We all have a different sense of what is “funny” and what isn’t.  So take my thoughts simply as my own opinion…your mileage with this film will vary.

The Story in a Nutshell:
Doug is getting married in two days, which means it’s time for that most time-honored pre-marital tradition: the bachelor party.  To celebrate the impending nuptials, Doug heads to Vegas with his best friends Phil and Stu, as well as his soon to be brother-in-law Alan.  The boys are looking forward to a final night of drunken debauchery, but things go terribly wrong when they wake up the next morning to discover that Doug is missing and they have no memory of the previous night’s events.  With the wedding looming, Phil, Stu, and Alan slowly piece together what happened, as it becomes increasingly clear that they were involved in some strange activities…and now they’ll have to deal with the consequences if they ever want to see Doug again.

What Worked for Me:

* The R Rating – Not all comedies need an R rating to be funny for adults.  The Princess Bride is PG, and it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.  But a movie about four buddies going to Vegas for a bachelor party and getting into outrageous trouble has to be R rated, or it isn’t being true to the source material.  I guarantee that there was some point where an executive got his grubby paws on this picture and argued for toning it down to a PG-13 so they could score the teen audience that Hollywood so greatly covets.  Kudos to the filmmakers for refusing to give in and keeping the raunchy material in the film at the possible cost of a little box office largess.

* The Cinematography – Most movies filmed in Vegas show the city in a very similar way.  Lots of iconic casino facades, people gambling and looking happy, flashing lights, beautiful showgirls…we’ve all seen that montage before.  Now, I’ve been to Vegas many times and consider myself to be quite the aficionado.  While it’s fun to think of Sin City that way, the reality is that when you pull back the curtain a bit, it’s a blue collar city (most of the jobs are not exactly high paying) with more than a bit of a seedy underbelly.  The Hangover starts with a Vegas montage, but it’s shot in a darker way, with a lot of the iconic Vegas sights (ex. The Bellagio fountains) framed at a low, askew angle.  It’s a clever visual that parallels the events of the movie, in which the characters are seduced by the flashy exterior and find a more dangerous Las Vegas lurking behind.  Overall, I thought the movie was shot well.  It felt like the real Vegas and not the illusion that you normally get. 

* Ed Helms as Stu – Helms is probably best known for his work on The Office (American version).  He’s actually cut his teeth as a comedic actor, which gives him a leg up over his costars Bradley Cooper (better known for light action fare like Alias and the movie remake of The A-Team), Zach Galifianakis (better known for his stand up comedy), and Justin Bartha (better known for…hmm…being Nick Cage’s side-kick in the National Treasure films?).  It’s no surprise that Helms has the best comedic timing of the bunch and carries the movie for scenes at a time.  Also, of the four main characters in the film, Stu is the only one to have what could be considered an “arc.” 

Quick aside: I sort of hinted at this in my last review, but I’m old school in my movie tastes and look dimly on films without arcs.  A character arc gives the story, no matter how comedic or fantastical, a grounding with which the audience can identify.  If none of the characters experience any personal growth, if they don’t change their life situations, if no lessons are learned, the events of the film will often feel pointless and arbitrary.  To be fair, not all movies have to conform to this formula, and occasionally great movies can be made without any of the characters experiencing a significant arc (a recent example is Lost in Translation).  Still, it’s walking a wire to omit character arcs and most director/writers who try it end up falling.

Back to The Hangover…Doug, Alan, and Phil have no arc at all.  Stu, on the other hand, starts the movie as a meek coward who is terrified of Melissa, his vile harpy of a girlfriend.  He lies to her about going to Vegas (claiming that they’re actually going to wine country), he placates her on the phone every time she calls to “check in,” and he justifies her shrewish behavior to his friends.  Over the course of the movie, Stu becomes more self-confident and independent, ultimately dumping Melissa to take a shot at a more healthy (if odd) relationship with a stripper.  Okay, it isn’t MUCH of an arc, but it’s as close as we’re getting in this movie.

* Dan Finnerty! – The wedding singer at Doug’s ceremony is Dan Finnerty of the super-awesome Dan Band.  That likely means very little to anyone other than me…but I was stoked.

What Didn’t Work for Me:

* Pretty much everything else – There are so many misfires here, it’s hard to mention them all.  Just doing some freeform rapid-fire style criticisms:

- The plot is threadbare and ancillary to most of the action/humor.  The movie is just a series of comedic set pieces without a cohesive narrative.
- With regards to point #1, the “clues” that they follow to find Doug don’t make any sense and don’t lead to the final outcome in any sensible way.  Seriously, count the number of times in this movie where the plot moves forward through external coincidences rather than through actions taken by the central characters.
- The characters are flat, one-note stereotypes.  Rachel Harris should be embarrassed to play Melissa, an amalgam of every “controlling spouse/girlfriend” cliché in the book.  Every scene involving Melissa and Stu is cringe-inducing.
- Justin Bartha as Doug is one of the blandest zeroes in the history of film.  I realize that he disappears part way into the movie, but it still isn’t clear why Phil, Alan, and Stu think he’s such a great guy.  There are several points in the film where they sing (?!?) about how much they like Doug, yet there isn’t a single scene that would clarify why they’re such close friends.
- Speaking of which, Stu and Phil are supposedly very old friends, yet are polar opposites and seem to barely tolerate each other.  When people become friends, it’s usually because they have something in common, share similar values, etc.  It’s sort of implied that Doug is the keystone holding the whole thing together, but again, he’s portrayed as a total dud.  How are these people friends?

But the most damning thing of all?  It’s just not very funny.  At least, not to me.  And that’s kind of a deal breaker in a comedy.  So the question is, why did I not find it funny when so many people did?  After all, it made a lot of money.  It was popular enough to get a sequel.  I’ve thought about this, and I think I’ve hit on the answer.

Let’s take all the humor in comedic movies and split it into two broad groups: “jokes” and “gags.”  Jokes come in many forms, including brief one-liners, setups with clear punch lines, double entendres, and even referential humor tying the current situation to other material.  Gags also come in many forms, but are far more self-contained than jokes.  Most of the “shock” moments in comedies are gags, relying on people doing or saying things that are not appropriate for the situation.  How can you tell the difference between jokes and gags?  Imagine describing the humor to a person who hasn’t seen it.  If you can just straight up state the dialogue:

Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Dr. Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

…then you’re probably telling a joke.  If you have to describe the context of the scene in detail for it to make any sense:

“So then, Cameron Diaz’s character is sitting in the bar, and her hair is sticking up at a funny angle because she thought it was hair gel…”

…then it’s probably a gag.  Notice that in the first example, a person who hasn’t seen Airplane could still find the lines funny.  But a person who hasn’t seen There’s Something About Mary wouldn’t understand the context of the gag and would therefore not see the humor without a lot of explanation.

I don’t mind gags, and sometimes they can be really funny.  There’s Something About Mary had a lot of really funny gags (remember the zipper scene?), but it also had jokes to back up the gags, as well as sympathetic characters (one of whom has a fully realized arc).  That’s good comedy.

The Hangover is part of a recent trend I’ve noticed in films – comedies with no jokes.  I’m not kidding, there are almost no jokes in the whole movie.  I glanced over the IMDbsite for The Hangover before writing this piece, specifically looking through the quotes that people posted for the film (if a comedy is really quotable, that’s a sign of good jokes).  Of the entire list, there’s really only one or two that qualify as jokes.  The rest are things that people were saying during the movie’s various gags.  If you laugh at the quote, what you’re probably doing is remembering the gag that it’s matched with from the film.

Let me give some examples of the kind of humor that comprises The Hangover:
- Mike Tyson watches security footage of the guys peeing in his pool while they sit next to him looking uncomfortable.
- Alan finds a slice of pizza in the hotel room couch and eats it.
- Stu, Phil, and Alan get beat up by a naked man.
- Alan notices that there’s a tiger in the bathroom and pees all over the floor while escaping.

Or how about this comedic gem straight from the IMDb quotes page:

Alan Garner: I want you to know, Doug, I'm a steel trap. Whatever happens tonight, I will never, ever, ever speak a word of it.
Doug Billings: Ok, I got it. Thank you. I don't think that...
Alan Garner: Seriously, I don't care what happens. I don't care if we kill someone.
Doug Billings: What?
Alan Garner: You heard me. It's Sin City. I won't tell a soul.

That sort of looks like a joke, but notice that there’s no punch line, no wit, no meaning beyond the context of this scene.  Alan is a weird guy who blurts out inappropriate things.  Either you think that’s funny, or you don’t.  There’s no additional level to appreciate.  And that’s why this isn’t a joke, it’s a gag.

The Verdict:

I like comedies with jokes, and The Hangover wants you to be content with gags.  If you’re a big fan of films like Epic Movie (all gags and no jokes), then you will probably love The Hangover.  If you’re like me and prefer jokes to gags, then I’d pass on this one.  So with apologies to the many fans of this film, I can’t recommend The Hangover and I won’t be seeing the sequel.

Two movies in a row that I didn’t really like…  Maybe for my next review, I’ll make a point of choosing something that I actually enjoyed! 

Many thanks to Dr Musacha for his guest reviews. His real name might not be Musacha, but Dr is his real title. If you're interested in other ways the Doctor spends his time when not unraveling the secrets near and dear to a cardiologist's heart (ha!), check out The Doctor and the Dude Show. You can also find him here and here.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Under Pressure

(hat tip: Jed)