Review: Delivery Man

Delivery Man (2013)
Vince Vaughn, Cobie Smulders, Chris Pratt, Bobby Moynihan. Directed by Ken Scott.

deYou could tell from the trailer for Delivery Man that this was going to be a silly, sweet, sentimental, possibly manipulative movie, and it is all of those things. And I bought pretty much every machination, every plot device, every hug, every tear, and every cliche. Sometimes, in order to enjoy a movie, all you need to be is the film’s intended audience, and for some reason I had no problem being that audience.

The set-up is predictable. David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) is kind of a screw-up delivery truck driver for his family’s butchery business. His brothers and father do most of the hard work, saying David has “the easiest job in the company,” but David still manages to let everyone down despite what seem like the best of intentions. His girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) is pregant with his child, but she is reluctant to let David be more than just the birth coach, unconvinced as she is of David’s reliability as a father.

liveryIt turns out that David’s family and girlfriend don’t know the half of it: David owes $80,000 to some shady men, and he finds out that a sperm bank he made over six hundred contributions to while in college kind of screwed things up, and he is the biological father of 533 young men and women, 142 of whom have filed a class-action lawsuit against the sperm bank to learn who their father is despite a confidentiality agreement between David and the bank.

The bank’s lawyer gives David a manila envelope with individual profiles of the 142 complainants. Curious, David spies on a few of them to find out who they are, and in the process finds himself intentionally and unintentionally a part of their lives, the truth of his identity still unknown to his children. In the process, of course, he discovers some of the joys and heartbreaks of being a parent.

manVaughn is cast perfectly in this, conveying his usual fratboy mischievousness but adding a very believable fratboy enthusiasm and joy. While most of the family dynamic is something we’ve seen a hundred times, there are manipulative scenes of family love, too, and every actor plays these scenes with utmost sincerity, and that sincerity is contagious. I was moved to tears a few times, a response amplified by David’s kids’ seeming inheritance of all the good things in David’s heart. The 142 complainants are brought together by an unbelievable circumstance, but their response to it, individually and collectively, is believable as heck, and their response to David, even before they know who he is, is believable, and when the plot asked me to laugh or cry along with them in this bizarre situation, I was nothing but eager to oblige.

There are twenty-five things the writer and director could have done better with Delivery Man, but they are so outnumbered by the strength of a good cast (including Chris Pratt as David’s lawyer and Bobby Moynihan as one of his brothers) that I almost don’t remember what they are. Vaughn the actor kind of accomplishes what David the character accomplishes, and all we’re left with at the end is a good feeling. There are worse things to say about a film.


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The Sun Shall Not Smite Thee by Day

I’m behind on everything because I’ve had a cold all week. I’m almost better so more deep thoughts by me are just around the corner.

It’s time for the annual Friday 5 Scattergories-inspired questions.

What random letter was generated by the online random-letter generator (this doesn’t really count as one of your five questions)?
I rolled a V. Just great.

  1. What article of clothing, whose name begins with the letter, have you never worn?
    I can’t say for absolute certain that I have never worn a veil, but I honestly can’t think of a time when I would have. So veil.
  2. What book, whose title begins with the letter, are you looking forward to reading?
    Oh, this one is easy. I have so far read only up through T is for Trespass in Sue Grafton’s alphabet murder series featuring Kinsey Milhone. The books have been a great escape for me over the years, and I look forward, when I get there, to V is for Vengeance.
  3. What mode of transportation, whose name begins with the letter, seems like it would be fun?
    My first thought is velocipede, since there are many I have never ridden, but I have ridden bicycles, which are velocipedes, so I guess I can’t really claim that I haven’t ridden one. Oh, you know what? I have never been in a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and I really want to own one someday.
  4. What form of exercise, whose name begins with the letter, have you recently engaged in?
    How about vigorous housecleaning? Sorry, it’s the best I can offer. But you know, I’m talking about don’t-slow-down, dedicated housecleaning. It’s a workout.
  5. What fictional character, whose name begins with the letter, would be good company on a long trip?
    I’m going way, way off the board here and taking Vicky Austin, the main character of four books by my favorite writer, Madeleine L’Engle. She’s smart, she’s pretty, and she’s the sort of girl I’ve been looking for my whole life. Interestingly (or not), the plot of her second book, The Moon by Night (my favorite in the series), involves a cross-country family car trip, so I already know I’d enjoy spending the time with her because I sort of already have. About twenty times.
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Review: Elysium

Elysium (2013)
Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga. Directed by Neill Blomkamp.

elysium1On some post-apocalyptic future Earth, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) wears a locator device around his ankle as part of his probation for some unspecified crime. He has a job in some kind of robot factory, and he reports to a probation officer who is really a computer voice coming out of a plastic statue somewhat reminiscent of a Bob’s Big Boy figure. The peace, such as it exists, is kept by the robots Max helps build, who are governed from above the earth in a space station called Elysium, where all the wealthy Earthlings have fled, and where all illnesses and diseases are cured by MedBays located in every residence.

There’s an accident in the robot factory, and Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. His only hope is to get a fake ID burned into his arm and then to sneak up to Elysium and into one of the MedBays. Such a move is possible, but Spider, the guy who illegally helps people make it, isn’t just giving them away, and he has a special job that only someone of Max’s skills (and desperation) could attempt: stealing a backup of Elyisum’s operating system so it can be controlled by Spider.

Jodie Foster is Elysium’s defense secretary, and she’s got plans of her own for that system backup. She can’t afford simply to destroy Max, but she does need to stop him from accomplishing his goal. She’s got a lot of power, but who couldn’t use just a little more?

I thought this movie was going to be pretty awful, but I had a two-for-one rental code from Red Box, and I admire Damon enough to give him a shot, no matter how terrible the movie trailer looks. Through the first two thirds of the film, I felt pretty good about my Damon bias. For all his action-hero roles in recent years, his strength as an actor comes from a sincerity that allows him to connect believably with other characters. Damon is at his best when his characters interact meaningfully with other characters, and there’s just enough of that early in the picture to make this movie work. There’s some good buddy-buddy stuff, there’s some good rivals-who-need-each-other stuff, and there’s a little bit of one-who-got-away stuff, and it all pretty much works on the strength of Damon’s talents.

Where the movie stops working is where this film turns into a defeat-all-comers shoot-em-up, which is pretty much the final act of the film.

A few props for Alice Braga as the love interest who says more with her eyes than with her mouth, but she and Damon are the only ones who deserve some love. For some inexplicable reason, Foster is given this ridiculous accent that turns almost all of her scenes into some kind of clown show. It’s one of the worst performances by this good actress I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen Nell.

Elysium doesn’t show you much that other dystopian pictures haven’t already shown you, so there’s nothing groundbreaking there, and while I can’t point to a specific movie that’s given us the same heavy-handed message about the one percent vs. everyone else, all of that feels familiar too. Robots are on the humdrum side, and weapons are kind of cool but not cool enough to make anyone’s best-of lists, so the sci-fi aspect of this movie is kind of blah.

Not recommended.


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Review: Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Romeo and Juliet (2013)
Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville. Directed by Carlo Carlei.

julietIf the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Romeo and Juliet settled one thing for me, it’s that when it comes to Shakespearean films, it is the language that matters most. You can do almost anything you want with the sequence of events, the setting, the characters, and the themes, but keep the language roughly intact, and at the very worst, your production will at least carry with it the strength of the greatest writer of the western world.

romeoNow here is this 2013 adaptation, written by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for writing the script for Gosford Park and also created Downton Abbey), directed by Carlo Carlei, and seemingly informed primarily not as much by the Shakespearean drama as by the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie with Olivia Hussey. In look and feel, it seems to owe just about every concept to Zeffirelli, going so far as to include the line, “The Maresca!” in the scene where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet at the Capulets’ masquerade party, a line not written by the Bard.

laurenceIt stars a rather talented Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, Douglas Booth as Romeo, and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. As Juliets go, Steinfeld lacks the animal abandon of Olivia Hussey or the contemplative mysteriousness of Claire Danes, coming across instead as a pretty, possibly athletic, very personable girl next door. While Hussey would come over to your house after school and tear your shirt off with her teeth, and where Danes might come over to help you with your chemistry homework, Steinfeld seems the sort to come over and kick your butt in Halo. She delivers the lines well, and the way Carlei directs her is one of his better decisions. While some might call it a passionless performance, this Juliet is about as even-keeled as a Juliet can be, seeming to take things the way an infatuated teen of the 2010s might deal with the circumstances.

but soft!Booth as Romeo is flat and unmemorable, and Giamatti tries his best as Laurence, but with just about everyone around him underacting, Giamatti’s effort comes across as overacting, something that pains me to say. The actors who play Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt, the Capulets, and the Montagues are all not bad, but their scenes, even the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, feel lifeless and kind of dull. I am not saying I long for the melodrama of the Zeffirelli picture or the audacity of the Luhrmann film, but some kind of electricity in a film like this seems a necessity, and I blame its absence on the unwise decision to rewrite Shakespeare’s words.

rosaline and benvolioIf you’re familiar enough with the play to recite certain important lines along with the characters, you’ll be pleased to discover that most of those lines are preserved, even though some are moved to unexpected places (Romeo’s “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” lines, originally near the beginning of the balcony scene, are recited instead at Capulet’s party), but it’s those spaces in between those key lines, where Fellowes tries to move the story along in some Shakespearean fashion but with fewer words, that hold this film down. Much of the dialogue sounds completely out of place, linguistically speaking, noticably absent the rhythm, flow, and poetry of the source material, as if the script were based on the modern pages of those side-by-side parallel traslations of the play. You get the gist of things, but the beauty is nowhere to be seen.

capulets homeThat is, the beauty is nowhere to be seen in the newly written lines. In this Renaissance-era Verona, there’s beauty almost everywhere you look. Many of the sets look like fresher, cleaner versions of the lovely interior shots in the 1968 movie, and this has perhaps the best-looking balcony scene yet. Even Romeo’s new digs in Mantua, after his banishment, look like the kind of place one of Verona’s wealthiest families might put up their only son. Costumes, surely inspired by Zeffirelli’s film, are also great,

If I were still teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-graders, I might show this film after a thorough study of the play, as I suspect today’s teens might find it less foreign than the other adaptations I’ve mentioned; plus, it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on the script’s deviations. It’s not a very good movie, but it doesn’t totally suck. No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.


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Review: The Song of the Fishermen

The Song of the Fishermen (1934)
A silent film starring Wang Ren Mei, Han Lan Gen. Directed by Chusheng Cai.

songThe noble plight of the poor, filial piety, perseverance in the face of repeated tragedy, and the toll wealthy families take on everyone else: the familiar themes of Chinese cinema are here in The Song of the Fishermen, with a sympathetic rich man’s son and a mentally handicapped brother to make things a little different. Set first against a small fishing village and then a large city, the story of Little Cat (Wang Ren Mei) and Little Monkey (HanLan Gen) unfolds like many of the familiar stories.

of theYet there is an element here that I found engaging and new. Throughout this silent film from 1934, there is a tiny thread of hope that things are just one or two lucky turns away from getting better for everyone involved. A rich man’s son is nursed by a fisherman’s wife, who often suckles the young master rather than attending to the needs of her own infant son, so loyal is this hard-working woman to the house of her employment.

The kids grow up together, the young master chastising Little Cat and Little Monkey for repeatedly calling him “master” and often begging Little Cat to sing “The Song of the Fishermen” for him. But as years pass, the wealthy young man is educated in a distant city and the others experience the travails of life as a poor family struggling to get by.

fishermenYou know that extended section of The Good Earth where famine forces Wang Lung to pack up his family and head to the city? There a section of this movie that’s like that, and our main characters find a few different ways to scrape together some change, always a moment away from the next tragedy, yet the viewer clings to the hope that somehow, their connection to the rich family might somehow be their salvation.

The Song of the Fishermen played in Shangai theaters for eighty-four straight days, a record at the time, and is the first Chinese film to win a prize at an international film festival (Moscow Film Festival in 1935). While it suffers from a certain amount of overacting, the solid portrayal of Little Cat by Wang Ren Mei keeps it mostly believable, and if the strong, indefatigable women characters in The Good Earth and The Story of Qiu Jiu appeal to you, you may want to check this one out.


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Review: Dragnet Girl

Dragnet Girl (1933)
A silent film starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Joji Oka, Sumiko Mizukubo, and Mitsui Hideo. Written by Tadao Ikeda and Yasujiro Ozu. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

dragnet girlIn Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl, Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) works as a typist in an office full of typists, but she is favored by the boss’s son, who gives her expensive jewelry and longs to spend time with her away from the job. He seems unaware that she is the girlfriend of Jyoji (Joji Oka), a former boxer and now a small-time yakuza boss. Tokiko enjoys the benefits of being a gangster’s moll, seeming to bask in the jealous looks by other girls at the preferred dance club.

dragnet girlAgainst his better judgment, Jyoji accepts a young, directionless Hiroshi (Mitsui Hideo) into his organization, but very soon after, he is approached, bravely yet humbly, by Hiroshi’s sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), who begs Jyoji with Bambi eyes and soft curls, to release Hiroshi from his service. She is convinced that despite his slacker ways, her brother can right his life if only Jyoji will turn him away. We’ve seen enough of Hiroshi, as has Jyoji, to think Kazuko is blinded by affection for her goof-off sibling, but something about Kazuko hits a soft spot in Jyoji, something that doesn’t escape Tokiko’s notice. And Tokiko didn’t get where she is by letting things just happen around her.

Story-wise, Dragnet Girl isn’t bad, but it spends too much time on setting up the story and not enough letting it play out in front of us. We get to know the individual characters fairly well; then when Jyoji, Kazuko, and Tokiko encounter each other in varying combinations, they say and do things that we’re just supposed to accept with nothing to explain or support them. One character pulls a gun, then touches another character’s cheek softly and says, “I like you.” Why? How?

dragnet girlIt’s a pretty good-looking film. Although it predates the established early examples of film noir, it clearly is the visual relative of the noir influencers, with casted shadows and harsh, flashing lights providing moody heft. I don’t know if the vignetting (present almost throughout) is the result of the film’s aging, the limitations of the available technology, or a decision by the director, but it goes a bit too far. It somehow feels kind of oppressive.

I’m not holding this against the film, but it is worth noting that this is maybe the least Japanese-feeling Japanese film I’ve ever seen. Ozu goes out of his way to make this feel completely like a Western movie. You know those signs you see in American pool halls that say, “No smoking over the table” and “No masse shooting?” Apparently, pool halls in Japan had the same signage in the 1930s, and in English, too. There isn’t a stitch of Japanese-influenced clothing to be seen anywhere, and with the exception of a few eaves on buildings, the architecture is completely non-reminiscent of Japanese cities presented in other films of the time.

Despite these mild shortcomings, Dragnet Girl is mostly satisfying. There’s a sweetness to Tokiko’s assertiveness in the final act, and there’s a kind of tension in the final scenes that plays out nicely, propelled by Tokiko’s convictions and gumption. Definitely worth checking out for fans of early gangster pictures and for enthusiasts of Japanese cinema.


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讨厌的 — kahalay-halay — khả ố

For the past year and a half, I’ve been the student publications advisor at a local community college.  I promise a thorough telling of the saga later, but I can’t do it now because while things have pretty much finally become clear, there are still a few loose threads I’d like to tie up before I jeopardize favorable outcomes by accidentally publishing something I shouldn’t.

I’m doing that job until the end of July, but I have also added a new, part-time gig, which I have mentioned here recently.  I’m teaching two MS Office classes to a bunch of hotel workers.  Their union is paying for the classes, offering it as professional development, so that gardners and housekeepers and anyone else not currently in a job requiring computer knowledge might someday move into another position with these new skills.

The classes are three hours per session, and we meet three days per week.  I have a morning class and an evening class, and it’s been pretty fun so far, if also completely exhausting.

My students are middle-aged men and women, almost all of whom speak English as a second language, most of whom have never touched a computer.  I am not exaggerating when I say I have had to pause mid-lesson so I could teach my students how to right-click, double-click, and just CLICK something on the screens in front of them.  Moving and resizing windows is still a challenge for many of them, despite a lot of individual attention specifically on these skills.

And don’t even get me started on file-directory navigation.  Boy, you think you know how to teach and then you’re confronted with the reality that files and directories are a complete abstraction and not everyone is equipped right away to make sense of them.  Try explaining the concept to someone who has never thought about it before and you’ll see what I mean.

I am a very, very, very patient teacher, so I am up to the challenge, and I’m mostly enjoying my interactions with these people who remind me so much of my own mother, an elderly woman who now has her own computer and emails friends in Japan all the time.  These men and women work hard, doing the jobs that often go unheralded, and then after working all day they come to this little college campus and struggle for three hours with a teacher who doesn’t speak their language and who has very little in common with them. I find them all inspiring.

Last week, I taught my students how to use the underline, bold, and italic buttons on selected text (strangely, while many have huge problems with clicking and dragging the edge of a window, they all seem to have become pros at highlighting text), and had them apply all three styles at one point. Then I said, “Who knows what the word obnoxious means?” Nobody did.

I said, “Obnoxious means behavior that one person does that everyone else doesn’t like.” It was the best I could do. “Don’t underline, bold, and italic everything, because it’s obnoxious,” I added.

My T.A. (I was allowed to hire one a young college student I know to help me out) was sitting at the instructor’s computer, the one that was being projected on the screen, and he opened up Google Translate and typed “obnoxious” into it, translating it first into Filipino, then Chinese, then Vietnamese, and each time the speakers of those languages said, “Oh!” I asked them to teach me the words in their languages and explain the concept in their culture to me.

It was one of those rare moments of spontaneous connection, the kind you can’t plan no matter how experienced you are at this job, and that connection is something I, as their teacher, will reap the benefits of for some time to come. So far it is my favorite moment this summer.

A lot of the specifics of my near future are unclear. One thing I’m going to have to make a serious effort on, no matter how those specifics solidify, is keeping classroom teaching part of the mix. I will never find anything more rewarding than helping people have the lightbulb moments.

I wonder if anyone does.

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