Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Last Holiday DVD

Queen Latifah, Timothy Hutton and Gerard Depardieu

The mistaken diagnosis of imminent death is a rich field for comedy writers, giving them a chance to explore the honest life values of the protagonist, without actually requiring the character to die. What will the character choose to do with the supposed remaining days of life? In Send Me No Flowers, Rock Hudson's hypochondriac George tries to set up his wife (Doris Day) with a safe mate in a future without him. George's shallow self-focus turns one-eighty with the expected onset of death.

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) has the opposite of Hudson's neurosis; she is shy and self-effacing. She cooks Cordon Bleu-level meals, but only for others — she herself eats only Lean Cuisine. She sings in a choir, but has to be told by the director to sing out. "I thought I was," is her puzzled response. And her love for fellow Kragen department store employee Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) is unrequited only because she doesn't dare say anything to him.

A bump on the head changes her life. A faulty CAT scan shows blank areas in her brain that lead her doctor to give her the death sentence: she has three, perhaps four, weeks to live. Suddenly, her "Book of Possibilities", in which she has recorded all the things she wants to do someday, is a list of things she will never accomplish.

Like George, Georgia makes a one-eighty. She cashes in her savings, splurges on a first-class trip to Prague and books into the ritzy Grandhotel Pupp, in the Presidential Suite, and makes up for lost future-time by ordering seven meals at dinner.

Coincidentally staying at the resort are Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), owner of the department store chain where Georgia was mis-diagnosed, and her Congressman and a Senator with whom Kragen is trying to work some kind of back-room deal. Georgia's straight talk and lust for life puts her into an unexpected competition with Kragen for the respect of these men, the star chef of the Pupp, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu), and even Kragen's mistress (played by Alicia Witt).

Done wrong, this story would be schmaltzy or trite. But Queen Latifah has the presence to pull off both the shy, withdrawn Georgia and her fully-blossomed Madame Byrd character. Brilliant writing (including credit for the 1950 Alec Guiness version of the film, written by JB Priestly) and a perfect casting of Hutton as the unlikeable mega-mart mogul and Depardieu as the goofy-but-wise chef let Latifah shine.

This one goes on my "watch often" shelf.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Blaze by "Richard Bachman" (Stephen King)


Before the story of Blaze begins, author Stephen King explains why a new novel under his pseudonym "Richard Bachman" is now being released: it is a trunk novel from his Bachman days, rejected by the author as "...great when I was writing it, and crap when I finished." Other Bachman novels were written before, but published after King's Carrie, which fixed the name Stephen King firmly in the horror-genre frame.

Thirty years later, King returned to the draft of Blaze to begin a re-write, ruthlessly stripping sentiment and purple prose to leave a strong noir-objective narrative, influenced strongly by the crime stories of James M. Cain, and the character-rich style of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. (More than character-development comes from the latter novel — King says the novel is " homage to Of Mice and Men — kinda hard to miss that."

Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., or "Blaze" as his associates call him, has always been bigger than the others around him, but he wasn't always dumber. A series of misfortunes, including a deceased mother, an abusive father who threw him downstairs repeatedly (leaving a cup-sized dent in his forehead and a larger gap in his mental faculties), a tyrannical headmaster at the orphanage, and a series of unfortumate foster-home experiences, have shaped him strangely.

Blaze has survived through having a series of partners who help him cope with life despite his feeble mind, from his buddy Johnny's signals in Arithmetic to his partner George's planning in their career as petty con artists on the streets of Boston. Now, though, George is dead. Blaze is having trouble remembering that, though — he hears George clearly, urging him to do that one last big crime they had been planning before his death.

So Blaze sets out to kidnap the six-month-old son of a wealthy family. This mentally-numb, socially-frozen giant connects with his own childhood of deprivation, the kidnap victim, and the still-functioning depths of his own mind in a story as compelling as any of King's later fiction. I was reminded of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, calling on her inner resources to survive in the wilderness — Blaze's wilderness is in his own mind, and his rescue is also driven by what he finds within himself.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Young Love vs. Old Money

Every adolescent boy in the throes of first love believes his lover implicitly. Even further, he believes in his lover. So when Joel Johnston is hesitant to propose to his sweetheart Jinny Hamilton, it is because he doesn't care for the thought of raising children on credit. Since he's a poor student-slash-musician, and she's no wealthier, he is baffled by her casual approach to their lack of money.

Soon enough, though, he finds out why she isn't bothered by the thought of debt. His poor lover Jinny is really hyper-rich Jinnia Anne Conrad, masquerading a la Haroun Al-Rashid, to find a love who isn't after her money. Unfortunately, Joel isn't interested in marrying the Conrad fortune, and by chapter 5 he's headed for the colonies.

This journey is the rest of the story, barring the twist at the end in classic Heinlein — and Robinson — fashion.

We aren't told how much of this novel began as a outline written circa 1955 by Robert A. Heinlein and discovered after his death, and how much was written by Spider Robinson. What is clear, though, is that Variable Star is a pastiche of Robinson's wit and knowledge of Heinlein's authorial voice, and RAH's grasp of the interesting story line. It may be uneven; it may ring false a time or two, but it is still a Heinlein story.

What isn't there: Spider Robinson's love of puns and his ardent counter-culture stance, Heinlein's customary view of discipline and hard work (often in the military) as a source of success in life. What is there: the capable and self-determined young hero who characterizes all Heinlein's stories, the odd-ball associates that populate Robinson's novels, and the 50's-conservative philosophy that informed most of Heinlein's tales.

The novel has been criticized as being all journey and no arrival. I don't agree. In a sense, every life is all journey, and to arrive is a conclusion we dread.

You don't have to be a Heinlein or a Robinson fan to enjoy this novel. It's a great story. (No surprise there; Heinlein was the champion of the great story.) If you read it as a posthumous RAH novel, though, you will be disappointed. As capable as his production of Heinlein voice is, Robinson is unable to recreate it entire. A little of Spider slips through — and that's fine, because the collaboration of the two, however posthumous, provides us with something quite unique.