Movie Review: Winnie the Pooh (2011)

Winnie the Pooh (2011) – directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall

I never read the Winnie the Pooh books as a kid. There’s no rhyme or reason for my neglect, I just didn’t read them. Last year, though, I finally read the first book in the series simply titled Winnie-the-Pooh and I fell in love with it. There’s something about the lightness, the emphasis on language, and the characters that makes for a truly wonderful reading experience. It is the definition of delightful. But would that translate to the modern cinema where the bombast of Transformers 3 and Harry Potter 7.2 rule the day? The answer, gladly, gloriously, is yes.
Nothing of any real consequence happens in Winnie the Pooh. We find the titular Bear of Very Little Brain waking up and listening to his grumbly tummy. This Pooh needs some Hunny. So he sets off to find some. Along the way he finds his sad friend Eeyore (voiced marvelously by Bud Luckey, recently Chuckles the clown in Toy Story 3) who has lost his tale. The rest of the film follows Pooh and his friends as they first try to replace Eeyore’s tail and then try to rescue Christopher Robin (their best friend and the boy who makes everything happen) from the great and terrible Backson. Most of the film, though, just allows us to spend some time with the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood. And what a time it is. The songs are simply charming, including the best scene of the film: Owl’s explanation of all the hideous things that Backsons do, like sneaking into your library and scribbling in your books and putting holes in your socks and steal your youth, all illustrated in the style of chalk on blackboard. Owl is played by Craig Ferguson and he’s the standout actor in the film, filling the boastful bird with such pomposity and silliness that you can’t help but love him.
Really everything about this movie works. The writing is filled with the same love of words and language that permeates the books (I will never not love the device of the characters interacting with the words that are telling the story they are taking part in) and the narrator (John Cleese, another bit of brilliant casting) lovingly pushes Pooh along his small journey. I just used the word “love” three times in one sentence. Can you tell that I enjoyed this film? There’s a part when all of our friends are trapped down a pit except for the not-so-brave Piglet who doesn’t know how to tie a knot which leads to the best rapid-fire dialogue since His Girl Friday. Yes, parts of the film live up to the great screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Winnie the Pooh doesn’t have a whole bunch to say. Pooh learns a bit of a lesson by the end, but only just. And I doubt it will spark the kinds of deep conversations that a film like The Tree of Life does. It will, however, hold the honor of being my favorite film of 2011, kicking that movie with the dinosaurs and coming of age in the 50s down a peg. There’s a lot to be said for a film that exists solely to delight us. It will instill a lasting sense of happiness in anybody that watches it. Winnie the Pooh is a force for good, spreading cheer and wonder wherever it goes.
P.S. The music in the film is also great. Zooey Deschanel provides a new version of the theme song and a couple other tracks and Henry Jackman’s score fits the world perfectly. It’s obvious that, with Deschanel’s involvement and the trailer featuring Somewhere Only We Know by Keane, Disney wants people older than 5 to watch this film. I’m a 23 year old male that loves Winnie the Pooh and I hope that everybody would be as open to such a magical film.

Book Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This latest book by the British sci-fi phenom is a special blending of his superb urban fantasy world building techniques and a didactic pondering on what it means to speak and to be heard. Most of the book exists in a kind of inbetween state, it could be told in a short story and get all the plot in there pretty easily. But doing so would limit what makes Miéville such an interesting writer. Before this book he’s created several versions of London: Bas-Lag, a world that mixes old-school magic and new-school technology, the mixed cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, the place where all of London’s disused goods go to live a second life, and a London controlled by various factions and cults and religions, each praying to a different god and working towards a different apocalypse. Embassytown is the first book where he moves beyond alterations of London and into an entirely alien world. The planet is far on the outer edges of explored space, the natives are strange to the point where they don’t even recognize humans as beings, and the little human outpost in the middle of the alien city has come under siege by aliens craving a new drug.
There’s a complex situation going on (so complex that, should I put the book down for any given amount of time, it took a bit to readjust into such an alien landscape) involving the Hosts (aliens) which speak with two mouths and can only say absolute truths. They throw lying competitions to see who can get closest to telling a not-truth. They use humans and objects as similes to talk about other things. They can only communicate with humans through Ambassadors (twins that, through some technology, are able to sync their thoughts and speak with two voices to say one thing) until a new Ambassador shows up that isn’t twins and whose speech becomes a drug to the Hosts. After all of this gets set into motion – and it takes a bit to get there, and a bit to understand what’s going on in the first place – not much happens until the last 50 or so pages of the book. There’s a term Miéville invents for people that just kind of do what they need to do to get by, no more and no less, “floaking.” Our hero, Avice, a woman born on this alien outpost who gets away and returns for love, is a master floaker and as she goes so goes the narrative. The middle 150 pages meander as one person dies but is replaced and the situation just gets a bit worse every day. Of course, all of this floaking around serves a greater purpose, developing the idea of Language and language.
The fundamental difference between the humans and the Hosts is their inability to understand each other. This can, of course, operate as a metaphor for people’s general lack of communication but there is so much more Miéville wants to say. The Hosts speak Language with their dual mouths and similes like “The Girl Who was Hurt in Darkness and Ate What was Given to Her,” (this being Avice, who, as a child, was taken and beat and then fed because the Hosts can’t say something that isn’t explicitly true) and are trapped within this shell of absolute literalness. When a flawed speaker, the new Ambassador, is introduced and seemingly speaks with not one mind but two the Hosts are literally drugged. One of the best aspects of the book is how Miéville describes the descent of the Hosts into their addiction. Because the entire city is bioengineered to be partially living even the houses fall prey to the language-drug. If the people, Host and human alike, are to be saved there must be a paradigm shift away from the exacting nature of Language and into the glorious complexity of language. 
The book really comes into its own when Avice figures out that the similes must be transformed into metaphors. Instead of the Hosts being like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her they must be the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her. It’s the difference between being “cool as ice” and “ice cold”. By drawing such attention to this seemingly insignificant idiosyncrasy of our language Miéville expounds in great detail how important it is to communicate and understand language. Everything means something and by paying attention to how we say something we can better utilize our language to mean exactly what we want to mean. Exactly because we can lie by saying we are an emotional wreck (taking the visceral reaction to a car accident and applying it to our inner self) we are able to say so much more than talking in plain truth would allow. That breakthrough is presented wonderfully in the book and works both intellectually and emotionally. The previous floaking allows for the full impact in both head and heart of the revelation and switch between simile and metaphor. 
While this book isn’t nearly as exciting as, say, Kraken nor as wild a ride as Perdido Street Station, I think that Mieville has something important to say which, for the first time, aligns perfectly with the created world and the characters and the emotions they stir within the reader. It’s the first time everything works, I’d say. I probably would, however, not go to it for a re-read any time soon. It doesn’t have the almost Indiana Jones-y nature which will propel the reader back into its world over and over again, unlike those two books I listed earlier in this paragraph. There’s just something missing which keeps this book from being his best, even though all the pieces work better than they have in his previous books. I’d probably call it “fun.”

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve cried plenty of times at movies, songs, and even TV shows. They’re able to reach that level where the emotions are high enough quickly and effectively through the combination of sound and (in the case of movies and TV) pictures. It almost seems like cheating. A book has never made me cry though a few have come close, including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World and Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But for whatever reason they never quite reached that point to turn words into tears. It’s probably not their fault, I don’t blame them any. It has as much to do with my investment as it does with the quality of the writing. There’s just something about the way books work which makes it harder for me to get attached enough to shed a tear. All of this was true until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book about a young boy dealing with his father’s death on 9/11 and looking for a lock to match a key. There was not one but two moments in the book that made me cry in addition to the countless others where I laughed and exclaimed in shock. What I’m saying is that this books is not only extremely well written and incredibly emotional but that those two combine to vault it into my short list of the best books I’ve ever read. 
Before September 11th, 2001, Oskar Schell’s life seemed to be pretty great. A loving mom and dad and grandma and an active imagination would provide him with a pretty idyllic childhood had his father not died on that horrible day. But after that day he withdraws into himself and invents gadgets like a microphone that projects everybody’s heartbeats so that they would eventually sync with each other and everybody could be together in that way. He is, understandably, devastated. Then he finds a key hidden in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. He goes on a quest through the five (or is it six?) boroughs of New York City to find the lock that the key will unlock and maybe put an end to his grief about his father’s untimely and unexpected death. Sprinkled throughout his story we get the story of his grandfather and grandmother (his dad’s parents) and why they could never quite work out how to live with each other. This part, told through their autobiographies and diaries, contains the first moment that made me cry. When the grandfather leaves his wife after she told him she was pregnant he brings her two hands closer and closer and closer to each other until there was but a “dictionary page’s width” between them. This wordless (he lost his ability – or will –  to speak after the emotional trauma of the Dresden firebombings so vividly captured here and in Slaughterhouse-5) expression of a love that almost was but could never be is so well conceived that I had to stop reading for the night and wipe away some tears. The second moment comes when Oskar reaches the end of his quest. It’s oddly anticlimactic in a plot sense but the way that scene incorporates the father-son theme that runs throughout the book is what earns the waterworks. 
There are also a few moments where Oskar believes certain happenings to be about one thing which are later revealed to be about something else entirely that are both shocking and enlightening. Much like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there’s a sense of the age-old idea that “all of this has happened before and will happen again.” There are echoes and reverberations throughout the novel, even in some of the photographic imagery that is incorporated (mostly as a part of Oskar’s book of Things That Happened To Me) the lock and key being of great importance along with the power of books, writing, and words along with the difficulty of using them to communicate. At one point the type runs together for pages because Oskar’s grandfather runs out of paper to write on but must continue to write. It’s a powerful image that is more than just gimmickry that some have called it out for. In fact, this book has received some not-insignificant amount of criticism. This piece encompasses most of the criticisms the book has endured, including the lack of originality and the precious nature of the characters/story/style. And the thing is that I can’t really argue against that article because it’s mostly right. The style is different from the normal novel. The characters are more like fairy tale characters dealing with real issues than fully real people. And it’s not really original. Nobody will deny that it is just taking things that worked from others and incorporating them into this story. What I will deny is that all of these things are bad. All too often we require our art to be developed in a void where nothing else can possibly influence the artist. Does it really matter if this story was told by somebody else about some other happening and in some other way? Not if this one works. Please do identify sources but don’t become beholden to them. Steal as long as you do something with your stolen goods. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does plenty with its pieces, whether they were stolen or sprung fully formed from Foer’s head. That’s all that matters.