Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's The "Cold" War - Put On Some Underwear: A Review of The Watchmen

Last night, we had a tacos and movie night. Steve picked up The Watchmen on Blu-Ray, and we watched (I watched, he re-watched) it during and after dinner. While I'm always excited about a new Blu-Ray to test the limits of our HD television and rocking surround sound, I must admit that I was less excited about this film than I might have been about others. For one thing, Steve had warned me that it was quite long, and for some reason that will remain a mystery, this "director's cut" version was significantly longer. I tried to keep an open mind, however, and we settled in for some extended movie watching.

The Watchmen is based on a comic book/graphic novel of the same name. It follows several unorthodox and slightly unsavory superheroes as they try to maintain peace and order in an America gone wrong. The story is set in 1985 (mostly) and follows an American history slightly different from what we all read in high school. Nixon has been re-elected multiple times. We won the Vietnam War (thanks to superhero assistance.) But the Cold War still rages on, and people live in constant fear of nuclear holocaust.

As a writer, I am always intrigued by alternative structures for a story. I love it when someone finds a way to top "Once Upon A Time..." followed by a chronological telling. Perhaps, I should rephrase. I am always intrigued by effective alternative structures for a story. The Watchmen was a harrowing hash of flashbacks that kept the story from moving forward for at least an hour.

An hour of flashbacks, you ask? Wondering how there was any room left for the story? Don't worry. There was plenty of room in the 3 hour film. Of course, there are stories that can support 3 three hours of movie. This wasn't one of those. It's one thing for a film to be preachy or heavy-handed. It's quite another when it's preachy and heavy-handed for 3 hours. By the end, I was hoping that Dr. Manhattan (a glowing, blue, naked, know-it-all) would die just so he would shut up.

Then there were the characters. This can't all be blamed on the filmmakers, however. According to my source for all things comic book, Steve, the film characters stuck pretty close to their book counterparts. The problem was, most of them were boring. Dr. Manhattan was a blow-hard, know-it-all. The Night Owl served no purpose in the story whatsoever, and as for the girl, well, her purpose was mostly to run around in latex. Hardly a compelling reason to exist in a story. The only character I found remotely interesting was Rorschach, a no-compromise idealist with a penchant for violence.

I know that I am probably signing off on my own hit by nerd assassins for knocking this film, but I can't endorse such a manipulative, over-wrought piece of drivel. I quickly got tired of the hand-wringing and posturing. Nothing in this movie felt timely for me. Even though V for Vendetta shares a lot of the same warnings against heavy-handed government, this film lacked any believable link to today. The Cold War is over. Perhaps the filmmakers or the writers were hoping to draw a parallel between America's past obsession with Communism and their current focus on Islamic extremism. If that was their aim, however, they missed the mark. Instead, the story felt dated and ridiculous. Nixon as the ultimate evil, re-elected year after year, grinding our country into the ground? I was more frightened by the actor's prosthetic nose.

So if you read The Watchmen and thought it was brilliant (though I'm really having trouble with that idea), go rent/buy/see the movie. From what I've been told by my resident expert, it sticks fairly close to the original (at least for a movie adaptation.) If you're hoping for another V For Vendetta, skip it. Better yet, get out your old copy of V and have a re-watch. Neither film is particularly subtle, but at least V's clever, something that The Watchmen certainly can't claim.

Oh, well, at least the tacos were good.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pampered, Petted, and Possibly Spoiled

What a weekend! After two to three weeks of misery, I had such a lovely weekend. All this loveliness was thanks in part to not feeling like death for a change, but mostly, it was due to Steve. Apparently, this pregnancy had turned him from attentive husband to doting crazy man. I have only to think something, and my wish materializes before my eyes. I can't imagine he'll be able to keep this up until February. What a sweetheart.

Friday afternoon I was able to get most of the housework done before I gave out. Saturday morning after he mowed the grass, Steve did the vacuuming that I didn't get to the night before while I mopped the kitchen. Then we decided to take advantage of the unseasonably gorgeous weather and went shopping. After lunch and quick trips to Home Depot and Sam's, we headed to Fresh Market where Steve bought our groceries for the week. So much nicer than shopping at our usual Bloom. I got olives at the olive bar, my favorite Imperial nut mix, and a loaf of fresh-baked sourdough bread. Steve bought some gorgeous meat, including some amazing filets which he grilled for dinner, along with some peppers and zucchini. Then after dinner, we did something we haven't done in AGES...played Rock Band. I scored two 100%s on the drums in one night. Must have been all the good eats fueling my drumming fury.

Sunday was church, of course, and Steve had to work for a while in the afternoon. After work, he went to the driving range, but he made up for his absence later by making his delicious lasagna for dinner. I ate a massive slab that tasted even better than I remembered. I even got to pick the movie we watched. I must admit, I was sorry to see the weekend end.

Lest you think I'm letting all this pampering go to my head, however, I'm making Steve his favorite risotto for dinner tonight - risotto with gorgonzola, apples, and walnuts. I'm even going to watch Band of Brothers with him during dinner.

On an unrelated note, the writing is going better (finally.) I hope to have the first draft done within a day or two, and I already have a pretty good idea of what I plann to do with the next draft. I'm actually looking forward to writing again. That's a nice change.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Play It Again, Sam

Today as I was feeling yucky and procrastinating writing (I did eventually get to my writing), I watched an old favorite that my trusty DVR had recorded for me, To Have And Have Not. To those who scorn old movies as boring, over-the-top, unrealistic, irrelevant or any of those other lame excuses for not watching the silver screen classics, I challenge you to not love this movie. The dialogue is quick and clever, and the suspense is tight. And if you're looking for glamour, well, it doesn't get any more glamorous than Lauren Bacall. She is beautiful and sultry and her verbal parrying with Bogart? Smoking.

This re-watching of an old favorite got me thinking, however, about the movies that I love to watch over and over. Some movies you watch, they're okay, you forget about them. Then there are those that make you laugh/cry/think every time. So here's my list of flicks I love to watch and watch. It's far from comprehensive.

Adam’s Rib
African Queen
The Big Sleep

Bringing Up Baby

Dark Passage
The Desk Set
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Get Shorty
Little Miss Sunshine
The Mask
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Pride and Prejudice
(the mini-series)
The Princess Bride
Raising Arizona
Rear Window
The Royal Tenenbaums
Sense and Sensibility


The Thin Man
To Have and Have Not
Undercover Blues

You've probably seen most or all of these. Some are fine cinema classics, while some are just guilty pleasures. Either way, if you see a favorite get it out for a re-watch. Got one I've left off the list? Let me know. I'm always ready to add to my favorites!

Monday, July 13, 2009

High-Heat Hiatus

The past three weeks have been three of the most surreal, exciting, and miserable I've experienced in a very long time. Of course, there's been the air-conditioning saga (henceforth to be known as the A/C Debacle of 2009.) The extreme temperatures inside my house meant no writing. When your house is already hot, you avoid electronic (heat-producing) appliances like the plague. So, no laptop. My struggling story stalled under the high-heat hiatus. Then there were other distractions. Early morning queasiness, dizzy spells, and fatigue always point to one thing in the movies, and turns out real-life isn't all that different. So a doctor's visit confirmed that I will be suffering through an additional nine months of queasiness, dizziness, and fatigue accompanied by weight gain. May I take this moment to say that there is nothing like a hot, sticky, air-conditioningless house to turn queasiness to full-on nausea?

We finally have cool air circulating through our rooms again, though, and I'm hoping to soon feel like a human being (or at least something close) and get some schoolwork done. Thanks to my faithful writing buddy, I have some ideas of how I want to shave down my story and get to the meat sooner. Deadlines that seemed so far away in June now are looming hot on my neck. So tomorrow I've got to get busy regardless of how I feel.

Last night, Steve was out, and I was left to my own devices. So I headed to Ingles for some Big Red Soup (Lipton's = comfort food) and some DVD's. I ended up renting Last Chance Harvey and Changeling. Both were on my list of "Must See But Steve Won't Want To." Unfortunately, one of my other list picks Mrs. Pettigrew Lives For A Day was no longer at Ingles, so I guess that'll have to wait until sometime when Steve is out and I feel like driving to Blockbuster. Since I watched two relatively recent movies, you know I've got to give my two cents worth on my blog. Here goes...

Last Chance Harvey was charming. I mostly wanted to see this film because I loved Hoffman and Thompson together in Stranger Than Fiction, and funnily enough, that is also why this movie got made (at least according to the Bonus Featurette.) If you're looking for a touching love story without all the saccharine and sap, then this is your flick. The characters were quirky and real, and the dialogue was simple and true. If there was a weakness in the film, it was the writer/director's one concession of the romantic comedy formula - someone promises someone else that they will meet somewhere at a certain time, and you know something's going to happen to keep one of the someones from making it on time. The film does resolve this one annoying tic fairly quickly, however, and the end of the film is lovely. Of particular note in the acting department is Dustin Hoffman's father-of-the-bride speech about halfway through the film. Even I got a little choked up.

Changeling was a very dark mystery/true story directed by Clint Eastwood. I had high expectations for this film (because of Eastwood), and I was not disappointed. The acting was superb. The period set and costumes were perfect. I was immediately drawn into the suspense and tension surrounding this woman's (Angelina Jolie) injustice. At well over two hours, the film was long, but I was so wrapped up in the movie that I didn't mind. While I certainly shouldn't have been surprised based on Eastwood's other films, the movie was even a bit darker than I expected. The disturbing violence was more often implied than shown, however, which made it far more effective than some over-the-top bloodbath. Overall, Jolie's character helped the film maintain its humanity despite its inhuman circumstances. Jolie was compelling as the wronged mother of a missing boy, and even if you're usually a fan of her work, I would encourage you to give her one more chance.

On a completely unrelated note, I want to give a plug for something else that gives me viewing pleasure and a recent find. Though a friend had recommended this show to me quite a while ago, school, work, and other programs kept my viewing schedule a bit too booked to check it out. This weekend as I rested up in my cool living room, however, Sci-Fi (or SyFy as they are now known) ran a marathon of Eureka, and I checked it out. What fun! If you're a nerd (like me), then this is definitely a show for you. While it doesn't pay to ask too many questions while watching it, it is definitely pure fun. So if the summer re-runs have you craving something new, check out Eureka on Friday nights at 9 on SyFy. It's a show about a hidden town full of geniuses working on secret government projects. What's not to like?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kissing, Crying, and Other Crimes: A Review of Public Enemies

In an effort to beat the heat of our air-conditioning-free house, Steve and I headed to the movies this weekend to check out the latest Johnny Depp offering, Public Enemies. We enjoyed the abundance of cool, flowing air, and I was grateful for the two-plus hours without sticky skin or wayward, bloodthirsty mosquitoes. It seemed apt that, like the characters in the 1930's set film, we were using the movie theater as an escape from the summer heat. Steve and I were kicking it old school. The only thing we lacked were the newsreels before the movie.

Public Enemies is a Michael Mann film that follows the career of the infamous John Dillinger. The film is based on a book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. I can only guess that the film is based very loosely on the book, which is published as history/non-fiction, since the movie takes great liberties with the facts. Johnny Depp plays Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, the bank robber/folk hero who robbed, charmed, and murdered his way across the Midwest in the 1930's. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, an overzealous FBI agent hot on Dillinger's trail.

I had high hopes for this film. Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors, and I was fully prepared to enjoy his usual quirky, edgy acting and a unique interpretation of a criminal legend. Unfortunately, Public Enemies misses the mark. It's not Depp's fault, of course. His acting is always solid, and he is lovely to look at. Once again, however, Hollywood has underestimated the intelligence of the American viewer. Dillinger's folk hero status and the complications and implications of his Robin Hood persona are dumbed down to a nauseating degree. Rather than showing the poverty of the time and, therefore, the appeal of Dillinger, the film tries to make him likable by turning him into a sensitive, romantic, weepy girl. If one is to believe this film, Dillinger's actions were determined by a desire to be with the woman he loved - a woman he loved at first sight. There are way too many scenes featuring long stares and passionate embraces, at least as many as there are of gun battles and car chases. If Dillinger was really that bad of a tactician, being led solely by his overly mushy heart, then surely he would have been caught long before the famous Biograph Theater trap.

Perhaps unrelated or perhaps symptomatic of the above complaint, the movie was boring. That's it. No fancy word for it. The film was over 2 hours long, and I found myself checking my watch early on. There was no getting lost in this film, losing track of time as you live the lives of the characters. Rather, there were too many characters, too many shootouts, and lots of muddled confusion. Most of the criminals were too similar in appearance and mannerism to be differentiated one from another, with the possible exception of Baby Face Nelson who was actually the only character I found remotely interesting. Crazy is always interesting.

As for shootouts, well, there were plenty. Almost every corpse in the movie got that way from acute lead poisoning. While machine guns and car chases were certainly an important part of Dillinger's crime spree, I was able to grasp that after a couple battles. I didn't need one every five minutes to remind me of his violent lifestyle. In fact, it felt like the writer/director/whoever's making these choices overused shootouts in an attempt to build suspense and excitement in an otherwise directionless film. They seemed unaware of the adage that more is sometimes much, much less. Any power these violent scenes might have given the film were weakened by their ubiquity. As the film neared its end, I started hoping that a stray bullet would hit Dillinger so I wouldn't have to sit there and wait for the Biograph shooting.

Not everything about the film was bad. The look of the piece was right, and the acting was solid. If only the dialogue written had been worthy of the actors' skills. The music was mostly of the period so it was evocative. There was one exception of the fine acting assessment, however. Christian Bale. Though the audience was spared the gravelly voiced growl that he featured in The Dark Knight, they weren't exactly treated to an Oscar-worthy performance. Bale's portrayal of G-Man, Melvin Purvis, was one-dimensional at best as he followed the Keanu Reeves school of acting: monotone delivery sans any sort of facial expression. While the filmmakers were obviously pushing the idea of Purvis as a soulless puppet of J. Edgar Hoover, Bale failed to pursue any opportunities to give Purvis any sort of depth.

So if you're a screenwriter, director, or producer who's always dreamed of making the ultimate 1930's crime drama, the slot is still wide open. Give America a Dillinger they can sink their teeth into, not some modern, misunderstood guy who's not afraid to cry and spoon. Give me Robin Hood in a suit, tie, vest, and overcoat. I want a chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, devil-may-care, Clark Gable-meets-Errol Flynn-meets-Jack Nicholson guy. I don't go to a gangster movie to feel warm fuzzies, so please, keep the canoodling to a minimum.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

They Were Hollywood

With July 4th this Saturday, Steve and I have been getting in a patriotic mood with a weeklong marathon of Band of Brothers. It's so inspiring and humbling to see the way these men sacrificed for our country. Of course, every time I watch something like that I'm reminded of another veteran who served our country. To honor him, I thought I'd post an essay I wrote about my grandmother's late husband. Enjoy reading about Scheller Garlock, 1922-2008.

They Were Hollywood

You probably wouldn’t have guessed it if you had seen him that day, ordering his dinner at the Mountain View Diner in Frederick, Maryland. There’s usually nothing that marks our veterans of foreign wars, nothing on the outside anyway. And that day he was just Scheller Garlock, a man ordering a massive plate of French fries smothered in cheese and gravy in complete disregard of dietary concerns. If diabetes, two heart attacks, and two wars didn’t kill him, the greasy plate of fries weren’t likely to either. At the time, as I sat across from him watching him eat his unhealthy fare just to annoy his wife, my grandmother, all I knew was that he retired from the Army as a Major, loved Corvettes and golf, and that he loved to fix things. Sure, I knew that he fought in World War II and Korea. He frequently participated in events for the VFW and the Korean War Veteran’s Association. I guess I just never thought about his story.

Then Scheller was interviewed for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project, which archives documents and interviews (both recorded and written) of veterans from World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the Iraq war. A woman and a videographer sat with Scheller for over three hours and questioned him about his entire military career and his life. Though the Project archives data from multiple conflicts, recording WWII veterans’ stories seems the most urgent. According to many sources, more than 1,000 WWII veterans die every day. With each passing, another story is lost.

Scheller Garlock’s story, however, will not be lost. In addition to the copy that is archived with the Library of Congress, several family members, including myself, have a copy of his interview. In the video, which lasts over three hours, he sits in his favorite recliner, his face and shoulders the only thing in the frame, and tells the story of his service in the United States Army.

Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Great Depression, Scheller and his family learned early how to get by on very little. Raised by his mother after his father left the family, he became a breadwinner at a young age. When he left high school to join the Army, he said that his mother could hardly complain since he was the one trying to provide. This is not a story of hardship, however. Like many of his generation, Scheller focuses his story on all the things he had, the experiences, the friends, but mostly, his stories ended with girls.

“Along came the army war show,” Scheller says. “That was in 1942 after Tennessee maneuvers. A group of us were selected due to our size and height and appearance to go on a bond tour, around the country, selling war bonds and recruiting. And we started in Baltimore in the stadium on 23rd street, stadium where the Baltimore Colts used to play.” He smiles as he describes the reaction of their adoring female fans, “We were Hollywood. All the girls thought we were Hollywood, they wanted to know what movies we were in, had been in.” Then in his typical understated way he says, “It was pretty nice.”

Of course, the glamour couldn’t last forever, and he was eventually shipped off to the war that he had been promoting on his cross-country tour. Though one would hardly think of France in ’42 as somewhere you would want to go, Scheller saw it as preferable to the alternative. “I’d prefer Europe to the jungles of the Pacific,” he says. “[I] heard terrible stories about Pacific fighting.”

Sailing over in the USAT George Washington, they landed in southern France sometime after D-Day. The harbor of Marseilles was so heavily bombed that they had to enter it in landing craft. Once they were in France, the fighting started for Scheller in earnest. He tells stories in his cozy living room about German soldiers who stole the dog tags of dead Americans and faked their way across American lines. He says that if they were caught, they could be killed on the spot. He tells this fact without so much as a flinch, no coldness in his manner, just acceptance. The only time his detachment seems to falter is when he discusses fallen comrades. His promotion to officer was the result of a battlefield commission. “December 5th or 6th, Lt. Grubbs got killed in combat, bouncing betty in his face, and I took his place,” he said, his voice getting quiet. “He was a good guy, good officer, great young man from Alabama…Alan E Grubs, nice fellow, couldn’t replace him.”

Before the injury that took him out of the fighting, Scheller was injured once before. He mentions it as almost an aside to his story. “That wasn’t very serious,” he says. “I only went to the aide station, but they gave me a purple heart. It was shrapnel, mortar fire. I was in a barn. A mortar hit the door, and I had splinters in my face and in my neck. It wasn’t too bad. They picked it out. It was wood mostly.” His dismissive tone makes the lady conducting the interview laugh off camera. His second injury, which earned his second purple heart, did take him out of the fighting, however, it didn’t seem to discourage him. “I was in the hospital when the war ended,” he says, grinning. “So I celebrated with the nurses.”

After WWII, Scheller left the service, only to return a short time later. His return to the Army took him to Germany to aid in the Berlin Airlift. His view on helping the people he had just risked his life to fight was philosophical. “Every German I met had never fought the Americans,” he says. “They always fought the Russians. I never met one who fought Americans. I don’t know who was shooting at us because they were all on the Russian front.” He laughs, and you can hear the interviewer laughing along off camera.

After his return from Germany, Scheller was eventually shipped off to Hawaii. This posh assignment didn’t last long, though. In July of 1950, he was sent off to fight in Korea. His thirteen months there were cold and hard, but they also yielded the most amazing of his stories.

“We were in this village, and we just came back off the line,” he says. “An enemy patrol came into the village. They were looking for a prisoner to take back with them for interrogation, and they came in from behind us.” Though the village was in a circle, they hadn’t placed any guards in the back, and the enemy snuck in hoping to find an unwitting soldier to torture and question.

When Scheller heard noises outside, he went to investigate. “I went outside on the porch,” he says. “I don’t know why I put my cap on.” A few seconds later, he saw movement, could tell it was a North Korean, and he shot. After that, there was no sound, just a drop of blood running down his head. He reached up his hand to touch a scratch where his cap, with its now dented lieutenant’s bars, had sat. It had been knocked off by the shot. Apparently, the North Korean had fired at exactly the same time. Only the bars on his hat saved his life.

The next morning, they found the North Korean dead. Shot in the throat, he couldn’t call for reinforcements. Scheller’s life was saved by a wool cap and a lucky shot. Unfortunately, one of the other American soldiers wasn’t so lucky. The North Koreans did find a prisoner that night, just not Scheller Garlock. When he tells this part of the story, the smile again slides from his face. He doesn’t know if the man they captured was ever released.

As I watch and re-watch the video of Scheller telling the stories of his wartime service with such calm and reserve, I am always amazed that this is the same man I knew and loved. It is so hard to imagine someone whose life you treasured being able to take the life of another. In the interview, he talks about a time when his young granddaughter asked him what it was like to kill somebody. He seemed unable to give answers to a child to such a complex question. That’s understandable. Sometimes I have trouble reconciling the man in these stories with the man who told me I was pretty because I had beautiful lips. How could it be the same man falling asleep petting my cat and shrugging off a wound involving flying shards of shrapnel and wood?

Perhaps the unassuming nature of these veterans is a reason why we need things like the Veteran’s History Project. How many families are living with men, and women, like Scheller who fought so hard for our country, and then quietly stepped back into the shadows to live their lives? Without this video interview, I would never have known that Scheller was once the Cary Grant of the Army set, or that tiny lieutenant’s bars could save your life. All I would know is that once upon a time he used to be in the Army.