Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wedding Banquet

Directed by
Ang Lee
Written by Ang Lee, Neil Peng, James Shamus
Starring Winston Chang, May Chin, Ya-lei Kuei, Ya-lei Kuei, Sihung Lung
IMDB Entry

When one thinks of foreign language films, you don’t think of many films set in New York City where the main language is mandarin Chinese. The Wedding Banquet is an early film by director Ang Lee, in set in Manhattan and featuring a dilemma that shows how much social patterns have changed.

It’s a film about a very happy gay couple, Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chang) and Simon (Mitchel Lichtenstein).  Wai-Tung is in his late 20s, and his parents are beginning to get more and more insistent he get married.  Naturally,* he can’t tell them the truth, and concocts excuses.  But the excuses run out and Wai-Tung is forced to act:  he finds a penniless girl from Taiwan, Wei-Wei (May Chin), who needs a green card, so he asks her to marry them.  His mother and father (Ya-lei Kuei and Sihung Lung) are overjoyed and fly to New York to be there.  But they are shamed by the sparse marriage at City Hall, and, when an old friend meets them, they arrange for an expensive wedding banquet to celebrate their union.

The result is a charming combination of comedy and drama, with revelations (obviously), mistaken identity and secrets, leading to an ending that resolves things delightfully.  The characters are charming and well drawn. 

The movie put Ang Lee on the map.  It got an Oscar nomination (but didn’t win), but that didn’t matter.  His next film, Eat Drink Man Woman** was a bigger hit and, and his version of Sense and Sensibility also showed his ability,  He returned to Chinese language films with the smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  A few years later, he won a directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain.

Lee is now considered a top film director.  And while he has continued making films showing a great sensitivity to character, The Wedding Banquet shows that he was fine talent from the beginning.

*This being 1993  and not today.

*A movie you should never see on an empty stomach; you’ll leave the theater starving.  It was remade a few years later as Tortilla Soup.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A New Leaf/Elaine May

A New Leaf(1971)
Directed by
Elaine May
Written by Elaine May from a story by Jack Ritchie
Starring Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, James Coco
IMDB Entry

Elaine May was a clear comic genius before she started working in movies. With her partner, Mike Nichols, they were astoundingly good stand-up comics, where the two of them would be both hilarious and psychologically astute. Here is their “Mother and Son” skit, which is both very funny and also ultimately dark and creepy.

Mother and Son

But all great comic teams come to an end and when the two of the amicably decided to move on, both moved into directing.  Nichols made a splash first with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, earning a Oscar nomination.  May took a bit longer to get the director’s chair,* but finally got her chance with A New Leaf in 1971.

The film is about Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a spoiled rich wastrel who has run through his inheritance and is desperate for the money needed to keep up his lifestyle.  He meets up with Henrietta Lowell (May), a painfully shy botanist and, more to the interest of Henry, a rich heiress.  Henry goes all out to get the clumsy Henrietta to marry him, with the ultimate plan that he murders her and gets her fortune. But it’s not that easy, since Henrietta’s shyness and lack of class continually frustrates Henry.

And of course, no one was better at portraying frustration than Walter Matthau.  May plays Henrietta as a sweet but bewildered klutz, a perfect performance. 

The movie was beset with studio problems.  Originally, May wanted to have a subplot with Matthau murdering several other people, but the film went on too long and was cut.  The cuts seemed to have worked, since the film is ultimately a charming romantic comedy.

A New Leaf opened to good reviews, but poor box office, and I doubt May’s insistence on her own vision made many friends with movie executives, especially since the film’s cost was almost double its budget.  However, she struck gold the next time out with The Heartbreak Kid, even though she only directed.**  Still, the promotional material mentioned her name and it looked like she might make a big breakthrough in films, with two critical successes, and one commercial one.

Alas, it was not to be.  Her next film, Mikey and Nicky, was over budget and late; she shot an incredible amount of film (more than Gone With The Wind) as the two stars – Peter Falk and John Cassavetes – improvised for hours.  Her studio got angry at the delays and barely released the film.

It was 11 years until she directed another film.  That was Ishtar, which didn’t work out too well, either.***

May never directed again. Sexism certainly paid a part, but the fact that at least three of her four films came in late and over budget due to her penchant for perfectionism was probably the greater factor.  May vanished from Hollywood and rarely appeared on the stage, and only had a handful of movie credits, primarily as a writer.  Critics did love her in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, where she was terrific in every scene.

May was a can’t-miss who missed.  But A New Leaf – even cut from her own vision – is a comic delight that makes you wish she had been far more successful.

*Was there sexism here?  Probably.

**The character of Lila was probably one she could have played, but she evidently wanted a younger actress, and cast her daughter, Jeannie

***The film was unfairly maligned when it came out, since it went massively over budget – the most expensive film up to that time -- without any crowd scenes or fancy special effects to show for it.  Everyone reviewed the price tag, but those who ignored that discovered a funny comedy with a few slow and uneven patches.  Critics are beginning to rediscover the film, and Heaven’s Gate and Cutthroat Island took over at the most expensive high-profile flop.  Eventually, I think it will be found to be a decent (though flawed) little film.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Malice Aforethought (TV)

Directed by
Cyril Coke
Written by Philip Mackie, from a novel by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Starring Hywel Bennett, Judy Parfitt, Cheryl Campbell
IMDB Entry

Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote mysteries, but didn’t seem to like to admit the fact.  He wrote a series of stories and novels starring the detective Roger Sherringham, using the pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley (and the first of those originally had no author’s name at all).  He also wrote a series of books using the name “Francis Iles.”  Cox seemed to have an affinity toward poisoners, and that’s the situation in his book Malice Aforethought.  The book was first dramatized in 1979, and British miniseries that played on Mystery! on PBS in the US.

Doctor BickleighIn it, Dr. Edmund Bickleigh (Hywel Bennett) decides to murder his wife, Julia (Judy Parfitt).*  And he succeeds – only to have his plans slowly unravel.

The story is more than just its outline.  Bickleigh is a sympathetic man, shown as being badly henpecked by Julia and pathetically showing a schoolboy crush on other women.  He also has a nice sense of humor, making the viewer sympathize with him and his goal.

But there were two things that always impressed me about the miniseries.  Most importantly, the way the show made us change our opinions of the characters.  Both Bickleigh and Julia are not what the appear at first, and the change in our impressions is handled brilliantly.

Hywel Bennett makes Bickleigh come alive in a very strong performance.

The other is far more minor, if more personal.  One of the minor characters is a woman named Quarnian Torr.  I loved her first name, and used it for the protagonist of my science fiction novel.

The miniseries was rerun a couple of times, then forgotten.  And, in 2005, the BBC made a new version of the story, which means the earlier one is further obscured.

*Note to those who fear spoilers:  this fact is laid out immediately.  The book begins: “It was not until several weeks after he decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr. Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.” This narration is also used in the miniseries.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Theodore Sturgeon (author)

Theodore Sturgeon(1918-1985)
Wikipedia Entry

As I may have mentioned before, when I first started reading science fiction, the short story was king.  Authors could make a living writing them* and readers were happy with anthologies and single-author collections.

And one of the kings of the short story was Theodore Sturgeon.  While his name is well known to SF writers, and his stories remain in print in small presses, you’d be hard pressed to find him in mass market works.

Sturgeon was born as Edward Hamilton Waldo, but had his name legally changed to when his mother remarried when he was 11.  He started writing in 1938, and soon established himself as a master storyteller, writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror with equal facility.

Sturgeon is best known today for Sturgeon’s Law:  90% of everything is crap.  But very little of his output fits in that category.  He had a fantastic and free imagination and a way of creating vivid  and quirky characters.

The cliché is that he wrote about love, and that’s true in many ways, but he was not writing romance.  He was interested in it in all variations.  “The World Well Lost” from 1953 is one of the earliest stories to treat homosexuality sympathetically.  “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let Your Sister Marry One,” in the original Dangerous Visions makes a case for a form of sexuality that is still taboo today.** “When You Care, When You Love” shows to what extent someone will go to help someone they love.  “Not an Affair” is about a seduction for a purpose.  The latter two stories have ending twists that make them unforgettable.  “A Saucer of Lonliness” – made into an episode of The New Twilight Zone is a charming love story.

But Sturgeon was no softy.  His short story “It,”*** written in 1940, is one of the best horror stories ever written, because the monster in it is not evil and thus predictable, but amoral and capable of anything at all.  “Killdozer” – later made into a TV movie – is a straight adventure story.  “Mr. Costello, Hero” is a scathing denunciation of McCarthyism; the final image condemns all people who take power by playing on fear.

In a different vein, there were dramatic stories like “The Man who Lost the Sea” (again with a powerful ending) and “Slow Sculpture.”

As for humor, Sturgeon actually had a story in The National Lampoon and while “Pruzy’s Pot” may not be his best work, it’s certainly a great idea for a humor story that fit right in with the Lampoon’s sensibility.  “Two Percent Inspiration” is a fun story, with a great triple twist at the end. 

Sturgeon’s best known works were for TV.  He wrote two Star Trek episodes, both memorable.  “Shore Leave” has people enjoying themselves on what turns out to be an amusement park planet.  His other, “Amok  Time,” wrote the bible for Vulcan sexuality.

As far as novels are concerned, his More than Human is considered a classic, telling the story of the evolution of a gestalt human being, the next step in evolution.****  But his other novels were few and far between.  He ended up writing only six under his own name, plus some novelizations.  One of these is my favorite.  His book The Player on the Other Side is sometimes cited as Ellery Queen’s best novel, but Sturgeon wrote it under Queen’s direction.

Sturgeon didn’t really need to write novels, though.  His stories were sold and constantly anthologized, bringing in a regular income.  He also had dozens of collections, more than just about any other author this side of Asimov.*****

The list of memorable Sturgeon stories is long, though he won very few awards – only the International Fantasy Award, and a Hugo and Nebula for “Slow Sculpture.”  Much of this was timing; a lot of his best work was written before the awards were set up.

Sturgeon died in 1985.  His last novel, Godbody, was published the next year but because SF readers prefer novels (and long ones) to anthologies, it’s hard to stumble upon his work.  A ten-volume edition of his complete stories is available, but it’s not likely something you’ll see in your local bookstore. 

But his contribution to the genre is immense.  There’s even a Theodore Sturgeon Award for best SF short story given each year, though it’s relatively unknown.  Sturgeon’s personal motto:  “Ask the next question” (represented by a Q with an arrow through it) is also well known in SF circles.

Seek out his stories.  No one was better at firing the imagination.

*The one cent a word that you could get at a top market works out to almost 9 cents a word nowadays, more than any major science fiction market nowadays.  There were also many more decently paying magazines, and, if you wrote a series of short stories, you could repackage them into a book.  Plus there were short story reprint anthologies.

**And will probably remain so.  But Sturgeon raises questions about our assumptions.

***I’m certain that Stephen King knew of it when he reused the title.  The monster in the story was the precursor of other plant-based monsters like The Heap, Man Thing, and Swamp Thing.

****Like many SF novels of the time, it’s a fix-up of three shorter works.  This allowed him to sell the book twice – to the magazine that published the original.

*****Including one titled Caviar, probably the cleverest title for a science fiction collection ever.  Think about it.