Talking Movies

June 20, 2016

The Saddest Writing in the World

What is the saddest writing in the world? I think there are two answers to that question. The first consists of just three words -‘in happier days’. That phrase as caption pushes the photo below towards farce in the best Marxian sense of tragedy recurrent. But in this age of constant, nay obsessive photography there are surely vast digital archives, never printed out and never properly examined, which, when the selfie-stick snappers wade thru them some rainy Sunday afternoon in the future, will cause many a wince when the omnipresent applicability of ‘in happier days’ becomes apparent.

rummy-and-sadam

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, in happier days

Few photos will rebound as viciously as Rummy and Saddam’s handshake, but ordinary life has its fair share of unexpected transformations of friends into enemies over the long run. What when perusing old photos and running into any number of problems (graduation photos uncomfortably shared with colleagues who later attempted to plagiarise your work, wedding photos uncomfortably showcasing a guest who later became a reactionary lunatic, fun holiday snaps uncomfortably co-starring someone who cut you out of their life with surgical precision and zero explanation) is one to do exactly? The wonders of digital photography makes it ever easier to take the Stalinist approach, cropping in tight to cut people out of the past without any messy cutting up of physical pictures, hiding someone in a deep shadow without having to use Stalin’s patented airbrushing. Sadder still, especially if delving into pre-digital archives, are the snapshots of people who have simply done an unbidden Stalin purge and disappeared from your life. Each of those polaroids screams out to have ‘in happier days’ scrawled on the back.

The second answer to the question what is the saddest writing in the world isn’t a maxim, but a wide category – inscriptions in books in second-hand bookshops. It is remarkably depressing to pick up a book you’d like to buy and while checking the price scratched in pencil inside notice a careful, loving inscription by one person to another, and realise that the person receiving this gift obviously didn’t feel the same way or the book wouldn’t currently be residing in the suddenly melancholy hands of a perfect stranger. Buying a book and inscribing it bespeaks a volume of thought completely absent from sending someone a Kindle read, or a voucher. A voucher declares ‘I have no idea what you like, but would like you to have something that you like’. A specific gift declares ‘I have a very good idea what you like, know what you have, and think this is right up your alley; you just haven’t reached it yet so let me bring it to you’. And an inscription further nails that certainty by making it impossible to exchange the defaced book. But it also adds a personal note for posterity. If the discovery of writing enabled people to live on and impart their wisdom beyond the end of their own lives, then an inscription allows a friend to provide a reminder of their love even after they’re no longer physically present, whether by distance or death. You can trace a friendship by comparing the inscriptions on various books, and noting changes in tone, and even the calibre of book. You can shelve together entire mini-collections provided by one person for another. And you can notice how suddenly one inscriber can disappear forever and shed a tear at a friendship sundered.

And so to throw away a book with an inscription seems an act of unconscious callousness on the part of a relative getting rid of an unwieldy estate bit by bit, or an act of deliberate rejection by the inscriptee of all the inscripter’s aims: their certainty of familiarity, of second-guessing taste, and, most importantly, of reciprocal esteem and love. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” and all that…

 

February 6, 2013

Warm Bodies

Nicholas Hoult apropos of Shaun of the Dead’s marketing shows us what a proper ‘zom-rom-com’ looks like, and it looks much like any other rom-com.

WarmBodiesScreenshot

R (Hoult) is a hoodie-wearing slacker who lives at an abandoned airport, listens to his extensive vinyl collection on a private jet, slouches at a bar with his best friend (Robb Corddry), and from time to time shuffles into the city for some fresh human brains. As zombies are wont to do… Julie (Teresa Palmer) is the jaded daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the hardliner entrusted with safeguarding the walled city. Sent into the dead zone with her boyfriend (Dave Franco) and best friend (Analeigh Tipton) to scavenge for medicine she’s ambushed by R’s pack, but he chooses not to eat her and classic rom-com structure develops. Will she love him when she finds out his secret is that he ate her previous boyfriend? And what exactly has changed in R that makes him capable of such human feelings?

So, how do you make zombies sexy? You don’t, you make them not zombies. A perfectly sound solution but you’d hope that someone of the calibre of writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) would’ve gone deeper. Hoult’s voiceover is nicely sardonic, especially in his delightful scene-setting monologue, but if you’ve seen any episode of Dexter you’re wise to some of its tricks already. Corddry is damn good in support portraying seemingly impossible emotional ‘exhumation’, and Tipton has a wonderfully comic awkward exchange with Hoult in slacker shrugging. Palmer though struggles not to come off as simply blonde Bella Swann at critical moments… Ultimately Warm Bodies just cheats too much for its own good. Levine, in his first PG-13 outing, has to neuter the zombies’ appearance and behaviour, so that they don’t alienate with Romero-style bloody dismemberments of living human victims.

This is a difficult balancing act given the film’s brilliant innovative touch; that eating brains allows zombies to experience the memories of the human they’re munching on; powers the unlikely romance. Levine thus unveils a CGI version of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army as Boneys, the bad zombies who always eat people, and in one instance attack in a sequence lifted from I, Robot. At a certain point though the featured zombies aren’t really zombies anymore; more people who are so very, very, very drunk that they can no longer remember with certainty their own names or where they live, and find it equally challenging to think of things to say and then articulate the words intelligibly. Montreal is brilliantly rendered as post-apocalyptic wasteland but this is just an amusing rom-com – the power of love is the ‘cure’ for ‘zombieism’…

It seems George Romero’s heroes instead of going in for head-shots should have just stood with a boom-box over their own heads blasting out Huey Lewis and the News.

2.5/5

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

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