Friday, July 27, 2012

Bunheads: Swirling Toward Success?

Note: This post contains some spoilers for the first six episodes so far.

Being a huge fan of the show Gilmore Girls, I was excited when I heard Gilmore Girls writer and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino had a new show coming out. But if the name Bunheads wasn’t enough of a turn-off, the initial trailer did the show no favors. I wrote off the show before it even came out … that is, until I read some of the press about it. In particular, the Entertainment Weekly interview with Bunheads star Sutton Foster piqued my interest in what the show would have to offer, so in the end I checked out the show.

Now is a good time to give a quick summation of the first episode and, with it, the show’s premise. The pilot episode opens up with Las Vegas showgirl Michelle going to try out for a dream dance job and getting immediately rejected without even performing. Back home, her not-so-secret admirer Hubble is hanging around trying to go out with her yet again and this time she acquiesces. In her sorrow and self-pity party on not getting the part (or rather, not even getting the chance to get the part), Michelle gets drunk at dinner and agrees to marry Hubble. The next morning they come home to his quiet town of Paradise, California where Michelle finds Hubble lives with his mother Fanny, who runs the ballet studio on the property and does not take kindly to her new foisted-upon-her daughter-in-law.

To start off with, this initial premise is ridiculous. It’s quite frankly creepy. I know Las Vegas is known as the city where crazy stuff like ill-advised shotgun-type weddings occur, but if it isn’t illegal for a marriage to occur in which one party is drunk while the other is sober, it SHOULD be. That’s just not good for anyone and is to the detriment of society. I can empathizes with Michelle’s feelings of being stuck, of not ending up where you thought you would in life, in seeing dreams of getting out of a rut shot down cavalierly, but I cannot understand her reaction. When I’m feeling particularly low, I veg out and watch some TV, take short road trips out of the state to visit with family and friends, or make small changes like dying my hair for the first time. I don’t think to myself: ‘Oh, I know what will solve all my problems -- get married to some guy I hardly know and get the heck out of Dodge without even bothering to pack a suitcase or inform my job that I’m quitting.’ Absolutely not. There is no reasonable rationale here. This is not 1890 where a woman is dependent on a man to provide for her so she has to just get married already to whoever is available because she’s getting older and he’s the only viable option.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other premises that could get the show started off with Michelle being thrown in the culture shock of small town life. She could be driving home from her disastrous audition and her car breaks down in the small town and she’s stuck there for a few days while it’s being repaired and is wooed by the small town charm into staying there. OR, Michelle and Hubble could *actually* be dating and decide to get married and for whatever reason this is the first time she goes to his house, but at least he’s not a creepy semi-stalker. Or, one of Michelle’s dancer friends could wax poetically about her youth in the small town and her early days of dance at Fanny’s studio, making Michelle decide to go check out the place. Or, Michelle could apply to a job posting to teach at the dance studio. That’s just off the top of my head; there’s potentially tons of alternatives and I can’t believe that a creative genius like Amy Sherman-Palladino couldn’t come up with a premise that was less disturbing.

All that being said, the viewer can manage to somewhat get past the disturbing factor after Hubble has a few nice speeches that make him seem slightly less creepy and a little more endearing. Just as the viewer is started to acclimate to him and think it could be interesting to see the relationship between Hubble and Michelle change and grow, wham! the first episode ends with Hubble’s death. Yep, that’s right, he gets into a car accident and dies. So the whole getting married to Hubble premise is not only ridiculous, it’s also in the end completely unnecessary as the show isn’t going to explore that relationship or be about how love can grow out of a marriage of convenience. (One review I read after being shocked by the pilot episode’s ending suggested that perhaps Hubble was just in coma, which could have been a more interesting twist but alas the writers did not choose that option.)

The second episode ends with a whammy too, with Michelle and Fanny finding out that after the wedding, Hubble immediately got on the phone with his lawyer buddy and made sure to make Michelle a co-owner of everything he had. With Hubble’s death, this now means that Michelle owns Fanny’s home and business, making an already tense relationship all the more awkward and giving Michelle a reason to stay in town after the funeral. It still remains to be seen though if and how Michelle will get more involved in the ballet school besides occasionally popping by and talking to the girls in passing on her way to and from home. Episode five introduces the idea of Michelle teaching at the dance studio by having Fanny bring it up repeatedly while Michelle adamantly refuses to even consider the possibility. In this week’s episode, Fanny runs off for an impromptu vacation, forcing Michelle’s hand into teaching a weekend’s worth of classes. However, we don’t really get to see this happened; we just know that Michelle agrees to do so.

In the comments section of early reviews, some speculated that the scene in which Michelle and Hubble had sex upstairs during their wedding reception party was a set up for later announcing that Michelle is pregnant, but there’s been no evidence yet that the show is going to go in the direction; rather that fact is just something nosy neighbors throw up in Michelle’s face, particularly when people first meet her - ‘oh you’re the sex at the party girl’ is a refrain repeated throughout the early episodes.

There’s little but some inclination that the show is looking to set up a love interest for Michelle (for instance, there was the introduction of Grant, the fellow who lives in the private house on the hill), which is probably a good idea now that there’s no Hubble-Michelle relationship to explore and will probably add another level of tension to the Michelle-Fanny dynamic as I doubt Fanny would be happy to find her daughter-in-law moving on so quickly (even if intellectually acknowledging that there isn’t much for Michelle to move on from as she was only married a day or two. However, Hubble is hardly ever talked about after the second episode; even his mother and Truly, his overly devoted ex-girlfriend, seem to have forgotten about him quickly.)

Whether or not there’s a romance brewing for Michelle, the show is certainly interested in exploring her options and her relationships. There have been a few moments where Michelle contemplates what to do next and what her life is now. Besides her tense relationship with Fanny and her chatty but ultimately superficial one with the girls from the dance studio, Michelle and Truly have awkward interactions that seem to be trending toward a growing friendship between the two. With Truly being one of my favorite characters on the show, I’d love to see more of this.

Speaking of characters beyond the main ones, Paradise (like Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls) is full of quirky locals who do such odd things as refuse to put up a sign about a private road but expect everyone to know that it’s a private road. Besides Truly, however, none of these characters really stand out as of now. Most of them have only been given a short scene or two to play and even these are few and far between. I suspect that we will see more of the locals over time, but right now we have valuable talent such as Ellen Greene (Aunt Vivian in Pushing Daisies) and Rose Abdoo (Gypsy on Gilmore Girls) wasted in characters that are hardly given a handful of lines.

Back to the main characters, the four girls from the ballet school that the show is focusing on are still not entirely fleshed out as characters, but it seems like we are getting more and more of that with each episode. There’s Boo, the insecure girl who worries that she doesn’t have the ballerina “look” and secretly crushes on her friend’s brother but is also sweet and full of empathy for those around her. Then there’s Sasha, the mean girl of the group who seems to have it all on the surface, including the perfect ballerina look and technique but has a less than ideal home life with parents too angry at each other to notice anything she does. The other two girls, Melanie and Ginny, are pretty nondescript right now, although Ginny strikes me as the fulfilling vapid airhead trope (similar to Madeline on Gilmore Girls, while Melanie isn’t far off from being Louise to round out the rest of that dynamic duo). Some reviewers pointing out the similarities between Gilmore Girls and this show note that Sasha is a stand-in for the Rory character. Here I have to disagree. Yes, the actor looks somewhat like Alexis Bledel, but the character is completely different. She has a lot of meanness and spite while Rory had been all sugar and spice. Her character is more akin to Paris Geller -- she's starts off as cruel but there's hope for some redemption as the series continues. Nor do we see shades of Rory in Boo as she is too insecure and worried to be a Rory stand-in. For the most part, the girls’ characters (the little we have seen so far) don’t seem terribly different from the stock of any standard show on the host network, ABC Family. If the show were only about them, I would have cut and run already.

Although I’ve touched on it a bit already, it’s now time to address the elephant in the room: In many ways, Bunheads is like Gilmore Girls but not. The similarities between the two shows include:
- Again, we are introduced to a very small town with a host of colorful characters and quirky scenarios. However, like with Gilmore Girls, the show suffers from a lack of diversity despite this large cast of characters. In particular, the main cast is pretty homogenous, as pointed out by fellow TV show creator Shonda Rhimes.
- The same actors are called upon to play new roles: the aforementioned Rose Abdoo, a cameo from Biff Yeager (Tom the contractor), Gregg Henry (Mitchum Huntzberger) has popped up repeatedly as Rico, Chris Eigeman (Jason Stiles) and Todd Lowe (Zach) are reportedly going to guest star in the future, and most notable of all, Kelly Bishop (Emily Gilmore) as Fanny.
- In many ways, Fanny is a similar character to Emily. While she may appear slightly more carefree as a Buddhist who collects tacky oddities to clutter her home with rather than the snooty, old money DAR member, Kelly Bishop is still playing a woman who is very controlling and wants things done her way or the highway and is apt to overreact and lash out at others when things don’t go as planned as a result. The most recent episode also points out how she can be manipulative when need be to get her plans to work out.
- Sutton Foster as Michelle even looks a bit like Lauren Graham as Lorelei (pretty, tall, trim, with long dark brown hair). However, she’s not the same caliber of actor as Lauren Graham, although I feel that’s improving somewhat. The first episode in particular felt very much like she was over-acting with her big reactions instead of subtle ones. It reminded me of Maureen O’Hara’s memoir describing her move from the stage to the silver screen; O’Hara noted how you act for the back row on stage while you act for the front row on the screen.
- There’s even one scene in an early episode where Michelle walks into a small bar/restaurant and the proprietor, Rico, is wiping down the counter and sharing in her woes in a very Lorelei-Luke way, except that Rico has some years on Michelle and is already married. Also, Michelle imbibes alcohol the way Lorelei guzzled coffee.
- We are treated to what is now considered Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “trademark” style of dialogue: fast-talking quips packed full of witty pop culture references. The show even calls attention to this in the pilot when an angry Fanny lashes out at Michelle and complains, "Oh my God, the quips, the chatter. Don't you ever just shut up?" Still, there haven’t yet been any great memorable lines like in Gilmore Girls’ “To me, you are the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon” or “Oy with the poodles already!” or any other number of fun quips.
- Sam Phillips is once again on the helm for musical interludes, so we hear a very similar “la la” type score for scene transitions.
– Likewise, Helen Pai returns as producer again, although I’m not sure that we necessarily see her influence in such obvious ways.
- Even the font used for the credits is the same (or if not, virtually the same) as the one used for Gilmore Girls!

All and all, there are enough similarities between the two shows that if anyone other than Amy Sherman-Palladino had been involved in this show, there would likely be cries of foul play in the copyright arena. As one reviewer put it, it’s as though Sherman-Palladino presented this show’s concept with the comment of: "Here is this thing everybody loved once upon a time, wrapped in a slightly different package.” This same reviewer also summed up some of my feelings by writing of the two shows’ similarities that “it's close enough to be reassuring — and, on occasion, distracting.”

Of course, there are some notable differences between the two shows as well. Most obviously, dance plays a much larger part in Bunheads and we get to see at least part of a ballet or other dance routine every week, unlike in Gilmore Girls where we only occasionally caught a glimpse of classes or performances at Miss Patty's. Bunheads does not examine family relations with the same intensity as Gilmore Girls, let alone generations of familial relationships. On the other hand, body image is a recurring theme as Boo, who is by no means large but isn't the stereotypical ballerina stick figure, is constantly worried about her size and her eating habits. And while Lorelei and Rory were very driven characters who knew exactly what they wanted out of life and (merely) had to overcome obstacles to their goals, Michelle is a lost and floundering character who is still examining her life choices and wondering what to do with herself. Instead of roadblocks to try to circumnavigate, Michelle is given opportunities and possessions that she doesn't know what to do with and only add to her confusion about what to do next. In some ways, this (along with the tragedy of Hubble's untimely death) creates a show that reflects a sadder world, one in which a person with even the best of starts and educations can still end up feeling unfulfilled and confused, not to mention lonely.

It might sound like I don’t like the show, and to be honest, I’m not really sure yet how I feel about it. Yet I keep watching it each week and was disappointed the week of July 4th when it was on temporary hiatus. With each week, it seems to grow on me a little more. Like my college statistics professor repeatedly lectured, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (somehow this was math related). Without any new Gilmore Girls episodes to watch, I’ll keep settling with this show for now.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Adventure Worthy of the Apocalypse: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Usually I’m far behind the curve on watching the movies I want to see (for example, I only recently saw a movie I wanted to see back in 2004!), so surprisingly I can actually write about a somewhat recent release. This evening I got the pleasure of viewing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World while it’s still out in theaters.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is set in the real-world of today across three states (New York, New Jersey, and Delaware). There’s only one twist – in this world, an asteroid is set to hit Earth in a few weeks and the last hope for stopping it has just failed massively. With this news in mind, Linda literally walks out on her husband Dodge (Steve Carell) without another word. Not sure what to do with the rest of his days on Earth, Dodge dutifully goes to work and then aimlessly sits about his apartment. That is, until he finds his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) weeping outside his window on the shared fire escape one night. When rioters begin taking to the streets and inciting violence outside their apartment building, Dodge grabs his newly acquired dog, Sorry, and Penny to escape. Once on the road, they decide to search for Dodge’s ex-girlfriend Olivia and various adventures occur along the way.

I was intrigued by the concept of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World when I began seeing previews for it and further enticed when Keira Knightley came on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to promote the movie. I’ve generally liked Keira Knightley in the various roles she’s played in the past, and I’ve been entertained by Steve Carell in the few movies I’ve seen him in, so I thought this would be a good bet.

Setting a comedy amongst the despair and chaos that is the last few weeks of humanity is a bold move, but one that pays off in my opinion. There’s definitely a lot of humor in this movie – especially a lot of dark humor, given the nature of the situation the characters find themselves in. People’s reactions to the end of the world vary from the tragic (suicides) to the wild (parties that turn into drug-induced orgies) to the survivalist (an underground bunker outfitted with up to six months of gear). No matter what route people take though, this movie finds a way poke fun at it and still somehow get a chuckle out of the absurdity of the situation. The movie is also packed with some situational comedy, running jokes, and snappy quips, all contributing to the comedic effect. (One of my favorite quips was about how hybrid cars still need gas to run.)

Some of the comedy also comes from the very disparate character traits of Dodge and Penny. Dodge is a straight-laced insurance salesman and a very by-the-books kind of guy in every aspect of his life, who (despite his assertion otherwise) is very sympathetic and caring towards just about every living thing around him. Penny is more of a free spirit, who "dabbles" for a living and tries to sweet talk her way out of traffic violations. She is constantly moving from relationship to relationship, suffers from hypersomnia so smokes weed to supposedly combat it, and is apparently always running late for everything.  Throwing these two characters together would make any movie funny, but adding in the road trip from hell against the backdrop of the end of days is comedy gold.

While certainly amusing, these characters also felt a bit too much like typical movie tropes - the ho-hum everyman character we've seen often (i.e., Steve Carell in Dan in Real Life or Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction) and the quirky but ultimately charming woman who gives him a new perspective (i.e., Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger than Fiction or Zooey Deschanel in just about everything she's ever been in). All that needs updating is some basic facts of Everyman's background (never married, divorced, or widowed?) and swapping out one quirk for another for the vivacious lady. For Penny, her major quirks include collecting vinyl records and saving up piles of her neighbors' mail that mistakenly end up in her inbox instead of handing them over.

Despite all the comedic scenes, I was also surprised (and perhaps shouldn’t have been considering the premise) to find a lot of endearing and touching moments scattered throughout the movie, especially as the doomsday clock ticked nearer to its end. Without being too heavy-handed or preachy, the movie definitely had moments that give the viewer pause to chew some food for thought and consider what's important in their lives. For instance, at one point, Dodge and Penny discuss what they will miss and what they will not miss about life, thereby also subtly tasking the viewers to do the same and contemplate what they would prioritize if the world were to end in a few weeks' time. In addition, there's a fair amount of romantic leanings to the plot, which for the most part stayed away from becoming overly cheesy. In many ways, this movie defies easy categorization because it borrows elements from so many different genres.

Indeed, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not your garden variety movie. While there were a couple of plot points that were predictable, for the most part I found myself wondering where the movie would go next. This is usually a good thing, as predictable movies become dull fast and I prefer to be kept on my toes. Given the bind the writers/creators put themselves in by setting a mostly humorous movie at the eve of the apocalypse, I kept trying to figure out how they were going to come up with a satisfying conclusion. I’m not posting any specific spoilers here, but I will say that the entire movie theater audience appeared stunned at the ending.

Still, all in all, I found this movie very enjoyable and would recommend it if you like your humor dark and your movies anything but standard. The acting was superb, the soundtrack brilliant, and the story unique. What more could you ask for in a movie?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Laila’s Birthday: A Celebration of Absurdity?

Laila’s Birthday is a 2008 film set in Palestine that follows one day in the life of Abu Laila, a former judge who now drives a taxi cab for a living. This particular day is no ordinary day though – it is the seventh birthday of his only child, his daughter Laila. All Abu Laila wants to do is put in a day’s work, pick up a present and cake for his daughter, and arrive back home by 8 pm. But fate is not on Abu Laila’s side. After starting his day off with his usual Kafka-esque exercise in absurdity by visiting the Ministry of Justice in a feeble attempt to bring his judicial nomination up sooner, Abu Laila’s day gets worse when a customer leaves behind his cell phone in the taxi cab’s backseat. In a classic turn of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Abu Laila finds himself getting into all kinds of situations, as he puts it, in his attempt to return the cell phone to its rightful owner. Will he be able to make it back home in one piece in time for Laila’s birthday?

I’m not sure now how it is that I heard about Laila’s Birthday, but somehow its existence came into my knowledge in the past few weeks. I immediately watched the trailer for the movie and decided I had to watch the whole movie. The trailer seemed to promise a film filled with absurdly comic scenarios – just the kind of situational comedy that I find particularly funny. While this is certainly true at many points, the movie is also profoundly sad at times. Consider Abu Laila’s words when he snaps at one point and yells out in helpless frustration at the helicopters overhead: “And you…! Leave us alone!!! Leave us in peace!!! Leave us our breath!!! Leave us our rest!!! We know you have planes, tanks and very smart missiles.  You are the toughest occupiers in the world!!! But we, we want to live. We want to raise our children. We want to sleep. … We just want to live. Simply that. Just that.” But the beat marches on, and wars and occupiers continue to exist the world over, ad infinitum.

As the quote above suggests, the movie is of course laden with political overtones scattered throughout. No doubt it is difficult to write and produce a film set in present-day Palestine without doing so. As Abu Laila’s drives his taxi throughout the city, we hear political news on the radio and see protestors out in the streets. Some of these political situations are particularly poignant. For instance, one couple nearly jumps out of Abu Laila’s taxi when they see a line forming because, they reason, a line must mean someone is giving away some food or other necessary items. Later, a missile drops across the street from where Abu Laila is, and the aftermath is chaotic.

On the other hand, one moment that had me chuckle aloud was when a group of men in the café, eager to condemn what a mess the occupation is making off their country, argue over whether the military officers they are watching on a newsreel are Israeli or Palestinian before someone shouts out: “It’s Iraq. And the army is American.”

Abu Laila’s politics also shine through as the movie progresses, and he refuses to bring passengers to checkpoints or take riders who are armed. He is persnickety in other ways also and, as a former judge, is a stickler for the law. He argues with one passenger about wearing a seat belt and asks another not to smoke, citing legal foundations for both requests.

As a slice of life kind of movie, we unfortunately don’t get a lot of Abu Laila’s back story, although we get enough to understand his frustration and sense of both righteous indignation and helplessness as he tries to navigate this new life he has. Another serious pitfall, in my opinion, is that the roles of Abu Laila’s wife and daughter are sidelined. Their appearances bookend the movie, but they have few lines or compelling characterizations. Instead, they function as the Victorian model of females as “the light of the home” – a home where men go to escape the hustle and bustle of the manly world of business and instead relax in the innocence of this womanly world of domesticity. This is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic in this particular situation as we are at least informed that Laila goes to school and his wife goes to work, although no further details are given about either’s daily routines.

What we do get to see a lot of, however, are city scenes as Abu Laila is out and about driving his taxi. The various landscapes show us a beautiful country (occupied territory) that has been battered by numerous problems, including military occupation and economic hardship, and is worse for the wear.

Still, despite all the chaos, the movie manages to end on a somewhat hopeful note, although its final line can also be interpreted as defeatist. I suppose how you take it all depends on whether you are glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of person (or what kind of day you’ve had). For better or worse, the feeling you leave with is that people are people everywhere, all of us with hopes and concerns that face us each day.

Laila’s Birthday was not a big blockbuster hit like all the summer movies recently out or on the horizon, but it’s certainly not a film to be missed. It is an absorbing movie, and you will be enriched by seeing it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

One Hysterically Funny Person

After my disappointing foray in to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I decided I needed something both light and surefire to please. I decided to watch Demetri Martin. Person., forgetting that I had already seen this particular Comedy Central special before. Nevertheless, it had been several years since the first time I watched this stand-up routine so some of the jokes felt new and fresh. And, the ones I already remembered were still just at funny!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Demetri Martin, this New Jersey native is a former writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The comedian also had his own show on Comedy Central called Important Things with Demetri Martin, has had small roles in numerous films including Post Grad, and wrote a hilarious book called This Is A Book. His stand-up comedy style is a mix of deadpan humor, stream-of-consciousness one-liners, and occasional skits. Oftentimes, he props up his jokes with musical accompaniment and a large pad with sketch drawings. He also has a fondness for graphs and palindromes, and clearly displays his intelligence in his choice of jokes and style of humor.

While it's a relatively short special, Demetri Martin. Person. displays most of Martin's signature comedic styles, except the use of palindromes. For an outline of the general structure of the special, visit the Wikipedia page while the quotes page on IMDb gives a sense of the types of jokes you'll hear. If you prefer humor that isn't entirely crass and/or slapstick, there's a good chance you too will find Demetri Martin. Person. hilarious.

Sky Captain and the Soaring World of CGI

Back in 2004 a new movie was previewed that had the look of a mesh between film noir, old-time sci-fi movies, and comic books. That movie was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I was jonesing to see it as I thought that combination of elements seemed awesome. Well, as frequently happens, I don't get around to the things I want to until much later than hoped for and anticipated. It was finally last weekend (yes, in 2012!) that I got around to watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. And, sadly, it did not live up to my expectations.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow takes place in an alternate reality 1930s New York. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is following up on a story about missing scientists when a group of gigantic robots invades the city, creating havoc. Polly decides to seek help from her daredevil ex-lover Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), also known as "Sky Captain" due to his line of work as a mercenary pilot. The two go a quest to find Dr. Totenkopf, a shadowy figure they know little about but suspect is behind both mysterious events. Along the way, they meet many adventures and call upon the help (and are called upon for help) of friends both new and old, including Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) -- another ex-lover of Joe's and source of contention between Polly and Joe.

There are so many things wrong with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow that I'm not even sure where to begin. The characters lack real three-dimensionality and their back stories are weak. For instance, how and why did Joe become a pilot for hire? What kind of previous escapades had he participated in? What made him famous enough to be called upon in a pinch? How did he derive the nickname "Sky Captain"? When and how did he first meet and become involved with Polly? And so on. The movie does try somewhat in this respect, as there are numerous hints dropped about Joe and Polly's past (and Joe and Franky's past, to a lesser extent) but these are never fleshed out satisfactorily. Good characters are the most crucial part of most (if not all) movies, in my opinion, and I felt like the wonderful cast of actors assembled here was wasted by these one-dimensional characters. Polly felt like a combination of tropes - the stereotypical "girl Friday" meets Lois Lane - while Joe was any generic action film hero. Furthermore, the dialogue between these characters came across as very scripted and nothing memorable comes to mind. That is, except for the final line, which stands out because it is just plain ridiculous.

The plot is thin at best, and the ending (no spoilers) is cliched and anti-climatic. Rather than flesh out characters or plot, the nearly two-hour long movie is instead an almost non-stop action sequence. (I saw Lucasfilm scroll up during the credits, so now you are forewarned about what kind of movie this will be.) And this is not just any action -- it's almost entirely computer-generated action. Worse still, it's not even computer-generated images at its best or even mediocre as it's an absurdly unrealistic style of animation. The ridiculous robots add to the campy feel of the movie, along with the not-so-funny attempts at humor. The sepia color palette adds to the stylized look, but it is too dark a visual to sustain for nearly two hours.

Stylistic is definitely the adjective of choice for this movie. While sometimes this is novel or interesting, it does not make up for the lack of plot or interesting characters and relationships between them. As the USA Today review of the movie put it: "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is all style over substance, a clever parlor trick but a dull movie." While the retro feel and the unique look of the movie is appealing for about 15 minutes or so, this appeal quickly wears off and the viewer is left debating whether or not to even bother continuing to watch the movie through to its end. (It's worth noting that I did keep continuing in the movie's favor with this debate, all the way to the grand finale, and was then regretting that I hadn't turned it off early on.) Another reviewer puts it this way:  "Imagine you are in Starbucks and you are ordering a cappuccino, but your server puts the milk in and froths it up and serves it to you, forgetting entirely to put in any coffee. It couldn't be called a 'cappuccino', but it certainly could be called SKY CAPTAIN."

On the plus side, Paltrow and Law valiantly do their best at their roles. (Jolie's role in the movie is so brief as to render me unable to really comment on her acting.) In the hands of lesser actors, this could have been a far worse movie. As I mentioned earlier, the visual style of the movie can be appealing at times and does seem to capture a lot of the 1930s nostalgia, particularly as embodied in the look of Paltrow's character. (This still does not make up for lack of plot though!) An interesting use of technology in this movie is the cameo appearance of Laurence Olivier. Yes, THE Laurence Olivier who was already long-deceased when this movie was produced. With the use of computer programming, the movie was able to generate a brief speech from Olivier based on video and audio available from his heyday. Now that's putting CGI to a good use!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Long Day at Longwood Gardens

After having discussed this trip months in advance, a friend and I finally descended upon Longwood Gardens this weekend, in part to view the art installation “Light” currently on display there. Located in Pennsylvania’s Kennett Square, Longwood Gardens is the former estate of entrepreneur, philanthropist, and horticulture lover Pierre Samuel du Pont and his wife (and cousin) Alice Belin du Pont. Now approximately covering 1,200 acreage (with only some of that open to the public), Longwood Gardens came in to being when du Pont bought 202 acres of land from the Peirce family in order to save some centuries old trees on the property from being cut for lumber. Of interest (to me at least) is that the Peirce family had originally bought their farmland from William Penn himself. There is certainly a great deal of history behind Longwood Gardens!

After buying that initial tract of land, du Pont set about saving trees in the arboretum, participating in some “gentleman farming,” and expanding and improving the gardens, including numerous additions based on his personal interests and travels. For instance, Longwood sports a beautiful and elaborate Italian Water Garden, inspired both by du Pont’s love of water and a similar garden he saw while traveling near Florence with his wife. He also added a flowered garden walk, an enormous conservatory, and expanded the Peirce’s family home to include a library and covered courtyard, to name a few changes.

The Italian Water Garden at Longwood Gardens
After his death, Longwood Gardens were opened to the public, as stipulated and provided for by du Pont’s will. Incidentally, it is not the only du Pont estate in the Brandywine Valley open to the public; Alfred du Pont’s Nemours is in nearby Wilmington, Delaware as is Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur, which I have written about here before and would highly recommend. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a good family tree online, so if anyone knows the exact relationship amongst these various du Ponts, I would be interested to know. My surmise is that Henry Francis and Pierre Samuel were some sort of distant cousins; they appear to share the same great-grandfather, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, founder of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. (Both Henry Francis’s Winterthur and Pierre Samuel’s Longwood Gardens are listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, if you need any extra motivation to visit either one or both.)

Unlike Winterthur, there are few museum-like qualities to Longwood Gardens – that is not to say it is not a great place to visit, just an explanation of what to expect. There is some history on display in the Peirce-du Pont House as well as in the ballroom near the conservatory. The ballroom houses one of the world’s largest pipe organs to be installed in a private residence as well as an exhibit on organ history. (Interestingly, although I think many of us associate organs with churches, early Christians were opposed to their use.) In the music room at the conservatory, there was also a small exhibit on the “Light” installation currently at Longwood, but more on this later. Also, throughout the estate there is often signage explaining the historic significance of particular trees, plants, structures, or garden plans. Here, as in several of the exhibits, I really appreciated the use of photographs to illustrate how particular rooms or garden areas looked when the du Ponts lived at Longwood. Comparing these with the current landscape emphasizes how well the grounds have been maintained and conserved to look as they did back in the 1920s and 30s.

Longwood may not have an extensive amount of information for the history buff, but it more than makes up for that in its natural beauty. The grounds host plants, trees, flowers, vegetables, and herbs of all kinds, making it especially interesting for botanists (amateur or professional) to explore. However, even those without any flora knowledge can enjoy just soaking in the beauty. Those interested in fauna may also be delighted with some surprise finds – at least the bird-watchers amongst us will have plenty to see! The well-laid out paths, along with a handy map, make the large estate easy enough to navigate. Visitors can enjoy strolling through and near a topiary garden, a rose arbor, a couple of lakes, and a cultivated meadow, amongst other fabulous sites. There are also numerous tree-houses to explore along with an impressive chimes tower and accompanying waterfall. For those traveling with children, there are a few child-specific areas carved out, including an outdoor children’s corner and an indoor children’s garden.

Chimes Tower

A bird "condo" above one of the garden patches

An unexpected visitor. I suspected he was there because of all the birds, but he came to sit next to me on this bench instead.

Indoors, the conservatory hosts 20 rooms of rare, exotic, or just plain interesting plants and flowers. Here visitors can view bonsai trees that have been in training for nearly 100 years, a plethora of orchid variations, and various fruit trees, ferns, roses, and so forth. (Apparently, orchids and roses were amongst Alice Belin du Pont’s favorite types of flowers, while Pierre Samuel du Pont had a fondness for nectarines.) Some rooms are filled with flora fitting a specific theme, such as the silver garden or the Mediterranean garden.

Close-up of one particular species in the orchid room. The centers struck me as looking like fanciful little people.
One patch of the "silver garden" within the conservatory

Just outside of the conservatory is the main fountain garden. A personal project of Pierre Samuel du Pont’s, this set of fountains use his hydraulic designs to jettison spouts of water up to 130 feet high while pumping 10,000 gallons of water per minute. A brief 5-minute water show is displayed here several times a day, with a more elaborate 30-minute water-and-light show occurring every evening. This show is generally accompanied by music, but as the nearby outdoor theater on the grounds was entertaining guests with The Mikado last night, our show was sans music. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant display, and many visitors of the grounds grabbed a seat or stood outside the conservatory to watch this impressive entertainment – and made their own music with the collective “oohs” and “aahs” that sprung up with each new delight.

Traversing the main fountain garden is this bridge-like structure with additional fountains (apparently not in use now though) and sculptures. Unlike nearly everything else at Longwood, this whole structure had a dilapidated air that gave it a Great Expectations-like atmosphere. We hoped that it was slated for restoration/conservation next.

In addition to all the usual charms of Longwood Gardens, part of the reason we decided to visit this particular month was to see the art installation, “Light,” by Bruce Munro. This site-specific installation is actually comprised of several different installations throughout the estate. This varies from the amusing (large “lily pads” made up of foam and recycled CDs floating in the large lake) to the enchanting (a forest walk illuminated by 20,000 glass-blown baubles encasing LED lights that were constantly changing colors) to the profound (a section of the meadow littered with 69 towers made of recycled bottles filled with water and LED lights accompanied by music, apparently inspired by a novel the artist read in which a character had synesthesia). At the exhibit in the music room, a few details of Munro’s work were on display along with professional (and amateur via visitors’ uploads) photography of his installations at Longwood. Here the curators displayed a quote in which Munro explained his work, “Light is visceral and evocative. A certain quality of light can bring you back to a moment in the past. Every season has a light that brings back distinct memories, whether staring at a twinkling Christmas tree or lying under the window on a summer afternoon watching dust motes float in the sunshine. In my work I try to capture something of these ephemeral experiences. I want to express those moments of being lost, of discovering that feeling of merging with something greater.” What a beautiful sentiment.

In the distance is the "Water Towers" installation as seen in the daylight still

The only downside to our trip was that we came fairly early in the afternoon so that we were pretty exhausted from all our walking by the evening time, just as dusk was coming. As a consequence, we didn’t see Munro’s work in all its full glory of being lit up in contrast to a dark night. However, we did see enough to appreciate it and the stunning amount of work that much have gone into it. Like others, we marveled at the fairy tale-like ambiance of the “Forest of Light” and sat meditatively listening to music at the “Water Towers.” And, our long day at the Longwood Gardens meant that we got to traverse the public property in its entirety, even doubling back to certain areas.

While I still personally preferred Winterthur as a place I would go back to multiple times, visiting Longwood Gardens was certainly an enjoyable and informative experience and I would recommend it to others!