Sunday, September 18, 2011

All for a Laugh

For a gray dreary day of not feeling so well, I decided to stay in bed with a purring cat and watch some lighter fare. (I also decided it was good idea to work on my Netflix queue of instant streaming while I still have it – although its initial freezing of my computer when trying to use it doesn’t endear it to me or make me regret my decision to cut back on my Netflix bill by switching to a DVD-only plan after their move to separate – and more expensive – plans for DVD and streaming video.) So I ended up watching some romantic comedies, which aren’t my usual fare for movies, and here are my thoughts on these two movies.

Happy Ever Afters

Freddie and Sophie are getting married for the second time – to each other.

Groomsman: Don't worry, Father. She was late the last time, too.

Priest: Last time?

Freddie: Yeah, this is our second. Second time getting married.

Priest: What, the same girl?

Freddie: Yeah. We had... problems the first time and got divorced, but we're sorted now.

Meanwhile, young single mother Maura has agreed to marry Wilson, who is due to be deported back to Africa otherwise, in exchange for money to keep at bay the repossession of her furniture and eviction from her house.

When the two couples have receptions at the same time in the same small hotel, a madcap comedy of errors ensues. There’s a fair amount of predictability in some of the gags and in some of the movie’s resolution, but overall it was a great dose of humor and I found myself literally laughing aloud at moments. For instance, there was the conversation between Maura and the priest who married her after he finds out that her marriage was one of convenience and the immigration officers are seeking to find out otherwise.

Maura: Go talk to them.

Priest: What? Why me?

Maura: I'm not a good liar.

Priest: And you think I am?

Did I mention this entire conversation was taken place in a janitor’s closet with an unconscious Freddie beside the priest and Maura? Picture it if you will.

As I know her best as the quiet, elegant Anne Elliot in Persuasion, it was surprising to see Sally Hawkins as a saucy klutz with an in-your-face attitude. She was a master at physical comedy as Maura and, on a more serious note, the relationship between Maura and her daughter, Molly, was priceless. In fact, there were a few moments of somberness to the movie, not only between Maura and Molly but also those revolving around Sophie’s bridesmaid Niamh who is contemplating her own choices in life and whether she is happy with her “boring husband” who doesn’t seem to pay much mind to either her or their children.

Without giving too much away, the ending of the movie is somewhat predictable (as is quite often the case in comedies, especially ones with a romantic leaning) but not nearly as cliché or tidy as the typical American romantic comedy. (Happy Ever Afters takes place in and was filmed in Ireland.) Overall, I thought this was a decent comedy and perfect for putting me in a better mood.

You Again

Marni (Kristen Bell) is returning home from her successful PR career for her brother’s wedding. While her brother is getting married in only a few days, somehow Marni has not yet found out her brother’s fiancĂ©e is. Turns out that his bride-to-be is Marni’s “arch-nemesis,” mean girl Joanna who tormented Marni all throughout high school. Marni’s mother Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells her to move on and let bygones be bygones but is thrown for a loop herself when Joanna’s beloved aunt Mona (Sigourney Weaver) turns out to be Gail’s former best friend from her high school days. Yeah, it’s a small world after all, according to this movie.

Unlike Happy Ever Afters, You Again was pretty much a miss. The funniest parts were all seen in the trailer and I didn’t really get anything extra out of the hour and forty-five minutes I spent on watching the whole movie. There were so many scenes that were over-the-top ridiculous, including the absurdly competitive dance lesson, the “cat fights” between the two sets of rivals, and the obsessive way Joanna and Gail were still stuck on re-living their high school cheerleading routines, to name a few. Joanna and Marni were both characters that were hard to decide how to feel about them. Joanna would do 180s from being a character you’d feel sympathy for because she’s trying to make right her wrongs to being a character you’d hate because she was just as cold and calculating as her high school days. It didn’t seem fitting for her to be these two completely different characters at the same time; the writers really needed to decide on one or the other and then let her be. Meanwhile Marni seems like the underdog that everyone would normally root for except that her obsessive vindictiveness in desiring to bring Joanna down at any cost was at odds with Joanna’s (albeit not consistent) attempts to move on and be a better person. This is not to say that either character actually gained depth; they were both just not fully realized. It’s been disappointing after watching her play the multi-faceted Veronica Mars to see Kristen Bell re-appear time and again in these B movie as dull, flat characters.

With a star-studded cast like this one, there was potential for so much from the actors in non-lead roles as well but unfortunately this also fell flat. I was excited to Kristin Chenoweth was in the movie, who I loved as Olive Snook in Pushing Daisies, but her character, the exclusive wedding planner Georgia King, was a bit character in only a few scenes. In the end, this was probably for the best because this character was involved in completely over-the-top absurd antics. Betty White, who seems to be showing up everywhere lately, was also relegated to a very minor role as Marni’s Grandma Bunny. Her having such a small role was a particular let-down because she had some of the funniest lines in the movie. Her “I’m also on Facebook and the Twitter.” is probably the best thing that came out of this movie (although you could hear that one on the trailer!).

Overall, the movie isn’t really funny enough (or perhaps not the right kind of funny for me) and it’s too stuck into the woes of high school to feel like a grown-up comedy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Guerrilla Warfare: Tackling Misogyny and Racism through Art

In case I’m starting to sound like a one-trick pony with my praise of Zimmerli’s programming, I’ll let it be known that the Venetian Masters wasn’t the only exhibit I took in today. (Yes, today was a rare but beautiful day where I went to work and still managed to squeeze in two art exhibits viewing.) Thanks to the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art, artwork from the Guerrilla Girls was on display at the Mason Gross gallery not terribly far from the Zimmerli Art Museum.

If you don’t know about Guerrilla Girls yet, you should definitely check them out. In 2009, I saw a (smaller) exhibit of theirs on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and their works instantly resonated with me. In a nutshell, Guerrilla Girls aim to combat misogyny and racism through witty and irreverent art. They’ll use anything to get their message across - banners, posters, stickers, erasers, etc. In fact, the original Guerrilla Girls has sprouted two offshoots – Guerrilla Girls on Tour! and Guerrilla Girls BroadBand – to expand their reach to theatrical performances and web-based and interactive multimedia productions. Like any good vigilantes, the Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous set of women who take on the names of dead female artists and wear gorilla masks in public to hide their identities. One (somewhat ominous) explanation of the rationale for this read: “They could be anywhere; they are everywhere.”

But what I like about Guerrilla Girls is that it’s not all just stunts and catchy visuals. Their work frequently gives the viewer a number of startling statistics such as this one:

And, it is not a static group or collection of artworks. Guerrilla Girls are constantly updating their works and tailoring them to the specific places where they are exhibiting. One interesting project (of which part of was displayed at the Rutgers’ exhibit) involved asking various groups of women what issues they wanted to see Guerrilla Girls address next. Sadly indicative of our culture and what kinds of uphill battles women have to face, the top responses were rape and domestic violence. As this might suggest, the Guerrilla Girls have long since moved from merely discussing misogyny in the art world to discussing all kinds of issues facing women from unequal pay to abortion rights to the negative impact of advertising on women’s body image.

Walking through the rooms of the exhibit was a rather remarkable experience as I began in a room with the oldest works and made my way up to the newest ones. It was both interesting and sad to see that over time most of the issues remained still the same and some of the statistics had improved only the slightest bit if at all. One set of posters dealt with the politics of George Bush and the Gulf War and I had to do a double-take before I realized they weren’t discussing George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. (Funny how we don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of the past…)

Unfortunately, today was the last day for the Guerrilla Girls exhibit at Rutgers, but undoubtedly you’ll be able to catch them somewhere around here soon. In the meantime you, like me, might be interested in checking out some of their books, such as The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. In addition, the Institute for Women and Art provided a handy flyer at the exhibit listing some related resources at Rutgers including the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series, the Women Artists Archives National Directory, the Feminist Art Project, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society. Happy reading!

“Peeling Off the Layers”: Venice in Art, Music, & Theater

As you could probably tell from my earlier gushing post, I really like the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. After a summer-long hiatus, their popular Art After Hours program has returned, beginning this evening. Art After Hours is a monthly event where the museum stays open late one night and offers a wide variety of additional programming, including but not limited to film viewings, curator-led tours, classical concerts, opera scenes, and author and illustrator talks. There is sometimes (and appears to be increasingly more so) a theme that envelopes all the evening’s events.

This evening that theme was Venice. Yes, the romantic Italian city with its singing gondoliers. The impetus for this theme was undoubtedly a new exhibit featuring the works of two Venetian artists. The evening featured a curator-led tour, mandolin music accompanied by masked dancers, and a short version of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.

"The surface of Venice is constantly metamorphosing. Painting Venice is almost like being a restorer, peeling off the layers to find the picture after picture underneath. Venice is inexhaustible because the shifting light and the drifting fog keep changing her face. In the winter, Venice is like an abandoned theater. The play is finished, but the echoes remain. When you walk in the winter fog, there seems to be no division between water and embankment. You feel that you can walk through walls, through sky, through time." - Arbit Blatas, artist

The first event of the evening was the tour of the new exhibit. However, while we waited in the lobby for everyone to arrive for the evening, a few of the masked dancers came out and danced interpretively to some recorded music. I’m not a huge fan of interpretive dance, but I liked that there was something going in the lobby while we waited. Otherwise, my restless nature gets fidgety waiting around for the curator to begin the tour, and I’m sorely tempted to go wander off into nearby exhibits but am too nervous that I’ll end up missing the tour then.

The curator-led tour was fairly brief, but I always love these given the opportunity. Generally, the curators say roughly the same things they have printed in the information about the exhibit (website summary, brochures, etc.) and have on display throughout the exhibit. Nevertheless, sometimes they add in fresh tidbits and they will answer questions that arise as they lead the tour.

How anyone can simply be on the tour and then leave feeling they have seen the whole exhibit is beyond me though. While the mandolin players started strumming, I went back to the beginning of the exhibit and went through it on my own at a much slower pace. It is certainly a different experience than simply walking through quickly on a tour with numerous other people. For instance, in the quick passing through of the tour, I thought I preferred the works of Tiepolo, the second artist featured, to the works of Canaletto. But on a second go-through, I found that I enjoyed Canaletto’s works far better.

As alluded to now twice, the new exhibit featured the works of two artists - Giovanni Antonio Canal (known as Canaletto, which is Italian for “little canal”) and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Besides having the same first name and being from Venice, the two shared other similarities. Both were the sons of artists and both began their own artistic careers as painters before moving onto printmaking, specifically through etching. However, the two had very different approaches when it came to their choice of subject matter.

Canaletto practiced “vedute” – he was first a painter, and then an etcher, of the landscapes of Venice and its surrounding area. I enjoyed that his series of prints included landscapes both real and imaginary. He was gifted with the ability to clearly and accurately represent what was right before him as well as the ability to create something of his own imagining. Some of his prints fell into an in-between place where he was depicting an actual place but chose to rearrange some of the placement of objects in order to create a more scenic view.

While not one of his etchings, this painting by Canaletto gives a good idea of his typical subject matter and style.

Tiepolo, on the other hand, worked in a style known as “expressive heads.” His primary subjects were people. He etched all matter of characters in various poses indicative of their emotional state. His early works were often reproductions of his famous father’s paintings, but he would choose to focus on a minor character from a painting instead of etching the entire work. It was noted that these small-scale etchings could be used as a way of whetting the appetite for his father’s works by introducing the viewer to only a small portion of a larger painting.

Again, a painting not an etching, but this gives a view of Tiepolo's typical subject matter and style. Indeed, there was an etching on display that was very similar to this painting.

As I mentioned, at first Tiepolo’s works were the ones that struck me more. I was drawn by the idea of works that featured people and their emotional state as inferred by their expression more than a landscape of a touristy spot. But on the second time around, the level of detail in Canaletto’s works was what astounded me. The curator’s explanation of the etching process left me in awe of any one who does that kind of work by reinforcing how much effort goes into each print, but Canaletto’s skill was particularly impressive for his inclusion of such tiny details as a perched bird or a skyline receding so far into the distance that you need to be standing an inch away from the print to be able to notice it. And the beauty of his scenes left me ready to book the next flight to Venice and be swept up in its wonders! (Alas, reality would not allow that…) Tiepolo’s etchings of numerous faces, however, were surprisingly very similar on closer inspection and did not show much variety in expression after all.

In addition to the exhibit featuring the prints of both Canaletto and Tiepolo, a small nook was reserved for some other prints from the Zimmerli collection. This sampling included works from the 17th to the 20th centuries and featured artists such as Rembrandt (who was an influence on Tiepolo), Picasso, and Donald Judd. It also displayed some prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi who also etched in the vedute style, but his landscapes were of Rome. The curator noted that there are some 100 prints of Piranesi’s in the Zimmerli’s collection, so my fingers are crossed for an exhibit featuring these!

Here is a sample of Piranesi's etchings of Rome.

When I was done exploring the exhibit in closer detail, I emerged to find that the mandolin players (whose music I could hear throughout the exhibit) were accompanied by the interpretative dancers (whose numbers had grown). Again, as I’m not a big fan of interpretative dance, I did not feel I had missed much.

After watching them wind down their performance, it was time for the brief version of The Merchant of Venice, which was acted by only two performers. This is one Shakespeare play that I actually have not read and have no knowledge of its basic story or characters. Because of this, the condensed version left me puzzled nearly the whole time trying to figure out what was going on, with the lack of such helpers as scenery, props, or even 100% distinguishable characters. The two actors valiantly portrayed all the characters by switching their outerwear (a vest, a jacket, etc.) but it was still a bit confusing as one character appeared to be shared between them. And, in several scenes, one actor was continually taking on and off the one jacket at such a rapid pace it was difficult to tell when was the end of one character’s lines and the beginning of the next character’s lines. But, the acting was well done, especially given the limitations, and I found it very funny (and fitting with the practice of Shakespeare’s time) that the male actor portrayed a woman in one scene by putting on a lacey top and speaking in a high falsetto voice. I’m now motivated to pull out my giant book of all of Shakespeare’s works to read through The Merchant of Venice and see what it’s all about.

Overall, an excellent evening of arts and entertainment was put on by the Zimmerli Art Museum. And while you might not be able to enjoy all the activities found there tonight, it’s still well worth checking out the new exhibit. Two Venetian Masters: Canaletto and Tiepolo Etchings from the Arthur Ross Foundation is on display until January 2012.