Originally posted 24 April 2000
Movies: East is East, High Fidelity, a few other movies and assorted plays
O.K. It must be admitted: I have slacked on the SMO front. There are excuses (baseball season started, I have been working a lot, I had to spend a full evening last week at my neighbors' watching "Sex and the City" to see what all the fuss is about (impossible to say), there have been seders, and did I mention baseball season kicked in?). But the truth of the matter is that these Opinions have gone neglected and so too have you, my readers.
Many of you have been kind enough to send me notes about how much you miss my missives. I appreciate the gentle reminders. Thank you. Please know that although my film-going schedule has been light this spring, I am warming up for a summer of full-on movie viewing and reviewing.
Last weekend, my friend Matthew and I went to see "East is East," a British import about the conflict between a traditional Pakistani Muslim father and a strong-willed Anglo mother who bring up their seven kids in a working-class English town. It was a rainy night, and Matthew and I met at the Angelika, the lobby of which is operated like a less efficient outpost of the DMV (only with better-looking patrons). A nice movie could be made about the ebbing and tiding tension in that lobby, as ticket-holders jockey for position in the theater-entrance line; a compelling subplot would focus on the queues for the bathrooms.
Anyway, "East is East" is billed as a comedy, and it contains some deeply funny sequences. Small moments make up this movie, and the interactions between the siblings are particularly well observed, as are the scenes with the mother's best friend. The movie, however, deals with the painful subject matter of generation and culture gaps within a family. This is not especially fresh filmic fodder, and "East is East" fails to expand the genre by painting the father as a one-dimensional bad guy. Also, the film is inexplicably set in the 1970's, an era that is staler than the rice cakes I found in my kitchen yesterday.
Here's how "East is East" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 6. Questions about gender roles undergird the entire story, but never surface for full exploration. OTOH, the mother is a terrific character.
*Race: 6. Racial identity and "passing" are themes of this movie and are examined slightly more than the issues of gender. But the characters are pretty familiar and stereotypical within this.
*Shoes: 2. You'd think that with a '70's setting, you'd get some good shoes in the bargain. You'd be wrong.
*Dogs: 4. A Great Dane (or maybe it was a Dalmation?) has a couple of funny, ha-ha scenes, and I seem to recall another canine moment when a few of the siblings go to visit their older brother in the big city.
*Do things blow up? 0. A disappointment in this category.
Although "East is East" can't seem to decide if it wants to be a comedy or a comment, it's well acted and enjoyable enough to merit a couple of hours of your time. After the movie, Matthew and I had dinner at a Tibetan restaurant on Houston Street near Thompson. The service was iffy and the momos were lousy, but the rest of the food was pretty decent. If you're in that neighborhood and you cannot bear to eat at Aggies, try this place (it's about a block east of Aggies).
A couple of weeks back I went to see "High Fidelity" with Marci, a fellow student in my writing class, on a whim after class one night. The 19th Street Sony theater was pretty full when we got there, and as we were walking down the aisle, I started to slow down. We were in the middle of a conversation, and we hadn't talked beforehand about seating. I suddenly got a little panicky that Marci would want to sit in the back, on the side, and I wouldn't be able to break the stream of our conversation to explain my fifth-row-center seat needs. Here's what I like about Marci: as soon as I slowed down and said, "Uh...," she said, "What? You have issues? We can sit anywhere." Then she resumed the discussion about New York Times editors.
Marci and I settled down front for "High Fidelity," which is based on Nick Hornby's book of the same name. The novel is set in London, and I read it while there with my great aunt two years ago. Notably, our vacation coincided with the 1998 World Series, which was broadcast live on Brit t.v., and although we could watch from the comfort of our hotel room, the games didn't begin until 1am Greenwich Mean Time. I stayed awake for the games reading "High Fidelity." The Yankees swept the series, we had a great time in London, and I very much liked Hornby's book--the story of a regular guy in his 30's who owns an unsuccessful record shop and has girlfriend problems--with its Britishisms and city backdrop.
The movie re-sets "High Fidelity" in Chicago, and I was apprehensive about this change. Despite Hornby's avowed approval of the movie, the setting seemed fundamental to me, and I took the shift as a bad sign. As it turns out, I needn't have worried: the move to Chicago isn't a problem at all. Instead, the movie gets hung up having John Cusack, who plays Rob Gordon, the main character, narrate the story directly to the camera. I'm not sure how else the film could have worked out the first-person narration of the book, but there must have been a better, less self-conscious way.
"High Fidelity," directed by Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters," "The Snapper"), is charming and funny enough to overcome its narration. The ensemble cast turns in very good performances. Jack Black, who has appeared in such films as "Bongwater," "Johnny Skidmarks," and, incredibly, "Waterworld," is a particularly delightful scene-stealer. He and Todd Louiso--also outstanding--play Gordon's music-geek record-store employees. A lot of their dialog is lifted directly from the book, and it works beautifully on screen. Joan Cusack, John's sister, plays a friend in this movie; although her part is small, she is delicious.
Here's how "High Fidelity" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
*Gender: 5. The book was a serious Guy Story, but the movie has, uh, more broad appeal.
*Race: 3. There are a couple of black characters, including a minor love interest played by Lisa Bonet (infrequently seen since "The Cosby Show" ended in 1992). Bonet's character is more complex and central in the book. To its discredit, the movie dishes out and wraps up her subplot too neatly.
*Shoes: 4. In one scene, Iben Hjejle wears a pair of stack-heeled Mary Janes that I liked, and Bonet gets away with cowboy boots. Other than that, the movie is dull in the shoe department.
*Dogs: 0. None that I remember.
*Do things blow up? 0. Nyet.
Marci and I both enjoyed the movie while we were watching it, but I found myself liking it less in the following few days. The narration really got on my nerves, and I became irked that the movie didn't reinterpret the book in any way--it just displayed it in another medium. Not that this is easy to do. But having read the book, I found the movie ultimately unsatisfying and a little gimmicky. Nonetheless, it's better than the average Hollywood rubbish, and I did have fun watching it. Plus it's got top-notch closing credits. So go see it for the music-geek scenes, and wait patiently for the film version of "About a Boy," Hornby's next novel, which has a much movie-friendlier plot.
Earlier this month, I joined my parents at BAM to see some Godfrey Reggio ("Koyaanisqatsi") films with live accompaniment by Philip Glass and assembled musicians. Over the course of two nights, we saw "Evidence" (a short), "Anima Mundi" and "Powaqqatsi." I have seen "Koyaanisqatsi" a number of times--including once with live Glass accompaniment in Philadelphia, with my father and my friend Frank--and it's Reggio's best film, by far. "Anima Mundi" (which included pretty much every species other than the canine) and "Powaqqatsi" (the opening scenes of which were filmed in the Serra Pelada mines in Brazil and are stunning) follow the same stream-of-images format, and while they both have beautiful moments, neither is very strong. Nonetheless, it's exciting to see movies set to live music, and if you have the chance to check out any of these films with Glass and players, do so.
Here are quickie reviews of three plays I've seen in the past month:
Earlier this week, I joined my friends Jonathan and Dick at Circle in the Square to see "True West," a 1980 Sam Shepard play revived with Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Happiness") and John Reilly ("Magnolia," "The Thin Red Line") playing (adult) brothers who hash out their relationship. The current production has gotten incredibly positive reviews from New York critics, especially the Times's Ben Brantley, and it seemed worth spending Broadway money to see it. For this production, the two lead actors alternate roles for each performance. We saw Hoffman as the destructive brother and Reilly as the responsible brother, but I spent the entire play obsessed with what it would be like to see them in the opposing roles. The set is positively wrecked during the course of the show, and I also spent a lot of the play wondering who cleans up after each performance; I was similarly interested to know whether audience members in the first few rows ever get clonked with a flying plate, and how, exactly, the burning wastebasket works. I was not that intrigued by the play--it is dated--nor by central the performances--they're very good, but I never forgot I was watching actors. Jonathan and Dick and I all agreed that we'd enjoyed the play enough while watching it, and we all liked Celia Weston in her very small role as the mother. But none of us thought the play was magnificent or life-changing or anything. Save $62 and go see something off-Broadway, plus eat a nice dinner, for the same money.
About a month ago, I went to see "Pilgrims," a way-off-Broadway play with an ensemble cast that included M, a guy in my group-therapy group. I went with K and L from group, and L's fiancé, J. For $12, "Pilgrims" was good entertainment, plus I enjoyed hanging out with my fellow groupies. "Pilgrims" was a series of three vignettes, all based on short stories written by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shira Priven adapted the stories for the stage and directed the production. I often find it distracting to know somebody in a play or movie--it prevents me from going with the fantasy--and I found myself watching M a little too much. Also, his brother was in the cast (in one story playing M's son), and since M has talked about his brother in group, I kept thinking about their relationship. Still, M was good (as was his brother), and I liked the production enough to think about seeking out Gilbert's stories. They didn't adapt seamlessly to the stage, so I'd be curious to see another theater production by this group. (On a side note, I saw M's brother at a bar recently. I introduced myself to him as a friend of M's and told him I'd seen "Pilgrims." He was hanging out with a bunch of the cast and crew, and he introduced me to a few of them. Since I wasn't sure if M's brother knew that M goes to group, I had to glide over my connection to M. It was kind of nerve-wracking, so I retreated quickly. New York is such a small town.)
The weekend before baseball season opened, I spent a few days in Boston, home of the perennially losing Red Sox and of my brother, Dan, a very smart guy with a great personality--Bosox fandom notwithstanding. While up there, I saw "The After-Rhyme," written by Sean Graney and directed by my brother. Dan runs the Rough & Tumble theater company when he is not programming cool Web sites, and the R&T motto--"theater that doesn't suck"--was fulfilled with the absurd yet accessible and funny "After-Rhyme." Dan tends to get very good actors for his plays, and this production was no exception; without such strong acting, this play might have been Tough & Rumble. I'm pre-disposed to liking Dan's stuff, but I thought "The After-Rhyme" represented a new level of professionalism for R&T events. If you find yourself in Boston when a Rough & Tumble play is up, go see it.
As a sort of balance to giving the Boston-based R&T team such a good review, I'm going to share with you a little something that a friend faxed to me recently: 20 Major Events Since the Boston Red Sox's Last World Championship. (A special shout-out here to my brother's friend Scott, who grew up in New Jersey, lives in New York....and is a Red Sox fan. Scott is otherwise intelligent and fun to hang out with, so I can overlook this flaw.) Enjoy.
1. Radio was invented. As a result, Red Sox fans got to hear their team lose.
2. TV was invented. As a result, Red Sox fans got to see their team lose.
3. Baseball added 14 teams. As a result, Red Sox fans got to see and hear their team lose to more clubs.
4. George Burns celebrated his 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th and 100th birthdays.
5. Halley's comet passed Earth...twice.
6. Babe Ruth was sold. He went on to win four World Series titles with the Yankees.
7. The NBA and NHL were formed, and Boston teams won championships in both leagues.
8. Men landed on the moon (as have several home runs given up by Red Sox pitchers).
9. Fifteen U.S. presidents were elected.
10. There were eleven amendments added to the Constitution.
11. Prohibition was created and repealed.
12. The Titanic was built, sailed, sank and was discovered. It ultimately became the subject of a major motion picture, giving hope to Red Sox fans that something that finishes on the bottom can come out on top.
13. Fenway Park was built and became the oldest park in the American League.
14. Flagpoles were erected on the Fenway Park roof to hold all of the team's future World Series pennants. Those flagpoles rusted and were taken down. [Ed note: I actually find this one a little sad.]
15. A combination of forty Summer and Winter Olympics were held.
16. Thirteen baseball players won the Triple Crown; several thanked Red Sox pitchers.
17. Bell-bottoms came in style, went out of style and came back in style. Disco did the same.
18. The Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins won the World Series.
19. Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Oklahoma and New Mexico were added to the Union.
20. Two words.......Bill Buckner.
Phew, that was fun!
I'll try not to let my time following the Yankees this year prevent me from catching movies and writing up more SMOs. Stay tuned for what promises to be a great season.