June 25th, 2012


Movie Monday: Not as Advertised

Summer is now upon us, with our first 100-degree day yesterday. This should not be a surprise, since I have a calendar and have lived in Texas a long time. But I was still wrapping my mind around spring, so I can't believe it's summer already. I feel like marking off the days until fall like a prisoner marking off the days of his sentence. If I tell myself it's just July and August I have to get through (only one week of June left, so that hardly counts) and then things will get better, it's not quite as discouraging. Yeah, I know, we have "summer" weather through September, but it's usually not in the 100-degree range then. Because it was hot and I was tired, it was a big movie and TV weekend, so a few reviews!

First, I caught up with the first and second episodes of Bunheads, from ABC Family. A "bunhead" is a ballet dancer, because of the ubiquitous mandatory hairstyle (though I must say that when I've heard the term used by dancers, it's not in the sense of "this is what we call ourselves." It's the way they describe the subset of dancers who have nothing in their lives or in their heads but dance). This series is about a ballerina turned Broadway dancer turned Vegas showgirl who realizes she may never be able to get back to legitimate dance, and in a moment of desperation, she impulsively agrees to marry the ardent admirer who's been plying her with flowers and gifts for a year. He's kind to her in a way no one else has been lately, and the way he describes his home in a small town on the California coast makes it sound idyllic. Except he neglected to mention that he shares that home with his mother, a kooky and strong-willed former ballerina who now runs the town's dancing school and who is not at all happy about her precious boy bringing home this floozy. At first, I thought this was going to be like something out of a Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel. She writes romances that usually have the heroine being utterly down and out, so she does something impulsively out of desperation that gets her into what at first seems like a worse situation, though if she can manage it right and survive it may be the best thing that happens to her. But then there are very strong indications (that constitute a major spoiler) that the show is going to be more about the relationship between the wife and mother than about the wife and her husband coming to terms with what they've done. Meanwhile, there are the teenage aspiring ballerinas at the dancing school who have their own stories. It's by the creator of Gilmore Girls, so there's lots of snappy banter and quirky characters. The first two episodes made me bawl in a good way, so I'll probably end up watching the series, but I'll have to wait for the right mood to watch it (like I can only read a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book when I'm in a certain mood).

Then I had a couple of HBO movies that fell into the category of "should have/could have been better, and I want to see the movie that was in my head." There was The Eagle, which was about a Roman soldier whose father led the Ninth Legion that was lost in northern Britain. Now, he wants to restore his family's honor by traveling with the aid of his British slave north of Hadrian's Wall to recover the eagle standard that was lost with the legion. I think this movie thought it was a buddy road trip movie built around the growing friendship and trust between the Roman and his slave. It even had a few big turning points based on the question of whether or not they really trusted each other and ended with an eighties buddy cop show freeze-frame. And I really wanted to get that out of this movie because that was the interesting part. But it was all sadly underwritten, so when we weren't sure if the slave really was turning on the Roman when he got a chance or if that was a plan to help keep the Roman alive, I didn't feel any pangs of loss about how their friendship might not have been real. I didn't feel any sense of betrayal. I just thought the slave had made a good decision, and even if he was selling out his master, then good for him. In fact, we never really saw any reason for the slave to have any loyalty to the Roman. Yeah, the Roman had spared his life in the arena when he was forced to fight a gladiator, but in my view, that's not a life debt. That's just not being a total jerk. After all, the Romans had already killed this guy's whole family, enslaved him and threw him in an arena with a heavily armored gladiator twice his size. Saying, "Hey, let's not kill him because he shows great courage," is only just beginning to atone for what's been done to him. Not to mention, the slave saves his master's life pretty quickly on the journey. Given all that happened to him, I needed a lot more reasons why this guy didn't slit his master's throat and run for it at the first opportunity. A lot of that probably comes down to the fact that Channing Tatum played the Roman, and my, but is he a chunk of wood -- and not even all that attractive a chunk of wood, since he's so dull. His reaction to everything seemed to be "huh." His slave tells him the terrible story of what the Romans did to his family, and his response is essentially "huh." His slave seems to betray him by telling the Celtic tribes north of the wall that he's actually the slave, and instead of getting angry betrayal or even "so, this is what it's like to be a slave, it kind of sucks, so I can't blame him for screwing me over," we mostly get "huh." It also didn't help that Jamie Bell played the slave, and he had an excess of charisma and life that made his co-star look even worse. I must say, he's grown up nice since his Billy Elliot days, and I don't know if he's still dancing, but he still has the dancer's body. And there's something about his face that made me think we have the perfect casting if they ever need someone to play Arthur Darvill's (Rory on Doctor Who) younger brother, although he'd look like a midget in comparison.

However, a good script and good acting couldn't have saved this movie from one fatal flaw: it was essentially Saving Private Ryan, but over an object instead of a man. In Saving Private Ryan, the issue of whether this one man was worth the sacrifices it took to find him was a key ethical dilemma of the story, and it ended up haunting him throughout his life, as he always wondered if what he did with his life was worth the sacrifices that had been made for him. Here, they're putting everything on the line to retrieve a metal bird on a stick, and they even end up bringing in the surviving members of the lost legion who have gone on to build lives in that area, and a lot of them and a lot of Celts die in the battle, and no one ever raises even the tiniest bit of doubt as to whether it's all worth it. The hero never has any self-awareness of the futility of what he's doing, never questions it, never realizes that the way to restore honor to his family is by doing something honorable, not by getting a lot of people killed to steal back an object. He just brings back the eagle and everyone says "You win! Now take command of a legion!" and then buddy cop freeze frame and that's that. That alone put this in Saturday-night SyFy movie territory. They'd have just had to make the tribes north of the wall into zombies, vampires or warlocks. The movie is based on a novel, and now I want to read the novel to see if it handles some of these things better. As it is, I'm already mentally rewriting it to involve more of a renegotiation of the relationship between master and slave once they're in the slave's territory and the master suddenly realizes that the basis of their relationship has become meaningless. Hmm, sounds like a good core of a story idea to put in a different plot. Must add to literary bucket list.

Then on Sunday I went for something completely different. I was in a chick flick mood, so I watched One Day. The description made it sound like a kind of blend between When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral: two people meet at college graduation, and then we visit them on that date for the next twenty years and get glimpses of how their lives and relationship have developed. So, like When Harry Met Sally, they meet at graduation, but it takes years for them to get their act together and really find each other, and like in Four Weddings and a Funeral, we only see them at particular times. However, this is so very not that kind of movie. For one thing, it's not really a romance, at least not in genre fiction terms. The book it was based on might have been eligible for "novel with strong romantic elements" for the Romance Writers of America Rita award, but I suspect that most of the romance novelist judges would have hurled it across the room with great force because it's a love story written by a man, which generally means they get together for a while and then something parts them -- it was good while it lasted, but it can't be forever (exhibit A: Nicholas Sparks). That attitude in general pisses me off because romances tend to get dismissed entirely by the literary establishment and even the pseudo literary book clubs, while if someone dies or the couple is forced to part, then it's considered more real and valid. I'm not a huge fan of romance the way it's published today, but that's more to do with the fact that lust has replaced the romance part of it, not because of the happy endings. What's so wrong with a happy ending? I suppose even hinting this way might count as a spoiler, but it's more of a warning of what not to expect. I don't know if this was meant to be a comedy. There's a lot of supposedly witty banter and some quirky characters, but the only time I laughed out loud was at the most tragic thing that happened. I was doing commentary by this point, and I said to myself, "Okay, now [this thing] will happen." I meant it snarkily, like it would be the most cliched thing ever to happen. And then it did, and I couldn't help but laugh.

So, basically, this is the story of two unlikeable people who ignore the obvious and mess up their lives and a lot of other people's lives along the way, while much of the major stuff happens off-screen because of that device of only seeing them on that one day every year. We don't see them become friends, so we never know why they're friends, since all they do is criticize each other and they seem to have nothing in common. We also don't see why they decide they can't be anything but friends and why they delay so long in considering that, which is even more maddening when the end of the movie loops back around to the day after the day they met and we see the immediate aftermath of that first day. In short, a lot of stuff happens because it's in the script, not because there's any reason these characters would do these things. Plus, this movie tries to convince us that Anne Hathaway is a frumpy sad-sack by putting a pair of glasses on her and making her hair frizzy.

And now I want to see a really good chick flick -- something with witty dialogue, a love story that ends well between people I want to see get together, and with some fun supporting characters, something that makes me both laugh and cry. Definitely not a Bridesmaids-esque "women can be nasty, too" story or the common these days "uptight shrew forces overgrown manchild to grow up" story. I checked IMDB for the coming year, and there's nothing on the radar.

But in the meantime, I will get through the summer by being crazy busy with work. On to the final proofread of book 5!