Thankful Thursday XVI – Vacations

Yesterday was a busy day for me, so I took a break from Thankful Thursdays. Not quite a holiday but a wee break from one thing that’s part of my routine, even though it’s one I quite enjoy. It got me to thinking that this “thankful Thursday – redux” I’m thankful for vacations. Both little ones and grand ones, ones I’ve enjoyed, ones others have taken and just the concept itself… one that resonates, I’m sure coming onto the unofficial first long weekend of the summer.

My dad loved to travel; my mother not quite as much but she still enjoyed getting away from it all – not to mention staying in a hotel and having the cooking done for her – from time to time. My family wasn’t poor but neither were we rich, so our holidays when I was a kid were somewhat modest. When I was young, we had a camper trailer – a modest one mind you, nothing like the behemoths we see being towed along our highways today with their own satellite dish and front and back doors – so we’d often get away for a week or so and go camping. Exploring the eastern half of our Canada, and adjacent areas of the States; cooking some dinners over a camp fire, going to town for the local restaurant other days, sleeping in a trailer with screen windows, hearing the hooting owls and cacophony of bugs in the woods around us. By day we’d explore the forest trails, take some pictures, or maybe visit the nearby towns and explore the local shops and attractions.

A few years later, when I got to be of double-digit age, we found a fondness for Florida. For several years we took a summer holiday in southern Florida. That seemed crazy to some, but we liked it just fine. The prices were cheaper, the beaches less crowded and we had all the time in the world. Well, a few weeks anyway, given that it was school break and my mom was by then working as a teacher. Sometimes we’d head down there by bus and my Dad would drive down a week or two later when his holiday kicked in, all driving back home together. We made friends there, found that the 90 degree days there in July were quite tolerable with the sea breezes absent in the 90 degree days back home and enjoyed dips in the Gulf water.

They were good times, generally relaxing times. It was driving back from Florida I got to marvel at the vibrancy of American cities like Atlanta and the beauty of the Appalachians. I don’t remember a lot from when I was about four years old, but I remember standing under “The Big Nickel”, as the name suggests a statue of a very big five cent coin – in Sudbury on one of our camping trips. I recall vividly the excitement I had a few years later when I, as a young baseball fan, looked out the window and saw the magnificent home of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Ken Griffey and all those great Big Red Machine teams – Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium – go by as we crossed the Ohio River. I remember stepping into a patch of long coarse grass one time in Florida near our hotel and hearing a loud, distinctive buzzing set in right away , and quietly backing away, not in fear but rather awe knowing that I must have awoken a sleeping rattlesnake. Still wish I’d been able to see the critter, from a safe distance.

When I grew up and became an adult, budgets usually didn’t allow for a lot of exotic holidays, but I have equally fond memories of camping in some of the provincial parks along Lake Erie during the bird migration; of the sights of New York when I went for a long drive, and experiencing that vibrant Atlanta as an adult. My dad meanwhile, with his equally fond-of-travel new wife, took many trips back to his homeland in Switzerland and hers in Britain before they sadly became too old and unsure of their health to do so any more. They’d regale me with the stories of their trips, photos of the landscapes and tales of the best food they got in the foreign restaurants. That was mostly my dad’s thing.

The travel industry took a beating in the last year with Covid. There are pros and cons to that; obviously it’s bad because it effects so many people’s livelihood but the reduced air pollution from the fewer jets and cars on the road has done a wee bit of good to the environment and enabled people to find interesting things to do at home that might have eluded them previously. Still, it would seem that the more people get to travel, the more we might hope to understand each other. It’s easier to have empathy for others when we’ve actually met them and seen their lives a little rather than just the Hollywood sterotype depictions of them.

So, vacations. They can be big or small, far or near, but here’s to them. Hope you can treat yourself to one, no matter how humble, sometime soon.

Movie Extra 11 – Dead Poet’s Society

As I get to the penultimate category for this fun and informative event (Hanspostcard’s Movie Draft), I tackle a biggie – Drama. There are no shortages of great candidates for this, so I rather randomly picked 1989’s biggest drama – Dead Poet’s Society. It may not be my all-time favorite in the genre, but then again, there are so many good ones it would be difficult to really narrow it down to one. This is a film I’ve consistently liked in the 30-plus years since it came out and which holds its own still.

The irony of Dead Poet’s Society is that it took one of America’s favorite zany comics to elevate it to greatness, in a role decidedly short on over-the-top comic bits (although there are one or two points where Robin Williams adds his own brand of manic fun to an otherwise serious role.) The movie also returns Ethan Hawke to my list; he was the co-star of the “Before” trilogy I picked. In this one, his first significant film role, he has a supporting part.

The overview of the film is that its set in a private boys boarding school in Vermont during the 1950s. It’s the type of school that is designed to prepare young teenage boys and turn them into mature Ivy League business and med students, undoubtedly due to arrive in the pages of “Who’s Who” approximately a decade after their arrival there. Conformity and adherance to the rules is not only expected, it’s a given. Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) makes sure that is achieved, ruling with an iron fist and wooden paddle.

Enter John Keating, played by Williams. He’s the new English teacher, an alumni of the school, full of pep and excitement and seemingly set on alienating everyone in the school’s organization. He sets out to teach his class (including Todd, played by Ethan Hawke) poetry. Initially not the favorite subject for most of the lads. Keating however teaches it with verve and stresses the passion, the freedom of well-used words. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he tells them. He also points out that the real purpose of poetry is “Wooing women.” This catches their attention.

His enthusiasm is unusual at that institution, and his methods even more unorthodox. He has the students stand up on their desks.. to see the world differently. He coaxes the boys – terrified of breaking rules – to rip out pages from their text book that teaches a scientific formula for measuring the “greatness” of a poem. He teaches that the greatness of a poem is in how it makes you feel, how alive it makes you, not some mathematical formula. They quickly take to the teacher and start to break out of their shells; writing poetry of their own, persuing seemingly unobtainable young women of the town, and in the case of Neil, a shy boy with few friends, to take up acting. He finds not only does he love to act, he has a talent for it. This however, doesn’t please his 1950’s meatloaf-and-potato father who has him lined up for med school already. It all boils over when the lad takes on the role of Puck in a Shakespearean play, infuriating the father who pulls him out of school and enrols him in a military academy. Neil never makes it there.

In the aftermath, the school blame Keating for corrupting the kids and show him the door…but not before one of the most moving moments in contemporary film (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), with Todd, then the others in the class all jumping up on their desks to salute the departing teacher, to the utter enragement of the headmaster. One by one they offer him their allegiance and respect.

It’s a touching moment and a great movie which highlights the shortfalls of the educational system , particularly in the past, and showcases the wonders that can happen if kids’ interests and talents are nurtured. It reminds us how much difference even one fine teacher can make in so many lives. It runs over two hours, but seems to end too soon. If you’re prone to teariness, it might be the type of film you want a box of Kleenex nearby for.

I loved it, which perhaps surprised no one more than myself, as I half to admit, I’m not a big fan of the manic, out-of-control, he’s so wacky, comedian Williams. But the man had the acting chops to pull off deep and even at times dark roles, as we see in Good Will Hunting as well. That man, as well as the decent, caring family man and baseball fan – those are the Robin Williams I miss.

The movie took in over $200M at the box office, making it one of that year’s top five films, and it was accorded generally good reviews, although Siskel and Ebert notably disliked it and called it “pious platitudes” with poor acting. To each his own. Dead Poet’s Society won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for writer Tom Shulman, while Williams was nominated for the Best Actor one.

“Poetry, beauty, romance, love – those are what we stay alive for ,” in the words of John Keating. And maybe for well made movies as well. I give Dead Poet’s Society four Neruda sonnets out of five.

Thankful Thursday XV – This Community

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for you! And WordPress, creator of this terrific forum we have here to share thoughts and writings. It’s led me to a host of new wonderful people, showed me interesting columns almost daily and has let my ponderings find an audience too, with strangers and ones who’ve gone from strangers to friends.

It’s a cliche to state that the internet has changed everything in our lives, but it’s true as well. There are downsides, goodness knows – ask anyone in the brick-and-mortar retail world or the recorded music biz for starters – but it certainly has expanded our possibilities in ways we wouldn’t have dreamed possible three decades back. I would have never guessed I’d be able to find several hundred people in places as far flung as California, New Zealand, northern Ontario, England, all of whom would share my interests in pop music, or baseball, or book reviews or any number of other topics, but that’s exactly what has happened . It means a lot so many of you out there take time to read my musings and often comment as well. Likewise, I’ve not only made friends but learned a great deal about those topics from the writings of many of you readers. It’s something we take for granted now, but if we cast our memories back a bit, any of us might have been a voice in the wilderness or the annoying one at the office who won’t shut up about their current earworm or their thoughts on what their baseball team should be doing to win more; the type the others quickly duck around the corner when they see us coming. Thanks WordPress for keeping me from that!

So a simple one today, but a meaningful one. A community of like-minded people, writers and readers, brought together by this space. Speaking of which – what are you thankful for this Thursday? Comment below, or if you have a more extensive thought, let me know and I’ll get you an e-mail address if you’d care to have your thoughts shared here in the coming weeks.

The Beatles From An In-house Observer

I love music and love reading, so no surprise that I love well-written books about the music that I like. I just finished one such volume – The Beatles From A To Zed , by Peter Asher (and yes, he makes a point of it being “zed” since they’re British!). It seems it was written as a companion or erstwhile script to a satellite radio show he has, thus it reads rather conversationally but it’s fully enjoyable as a standalone book.

Asher, as many fans of the Fab Four know, was a musician that knew the Beatles when they were just starting out. His sister dated Paul McCartney for several years and in fact, Paul even boarded at Asher’s house for awhile while young. McCartney wrote “A World Without Love” which John Lennon didn’t like so he offered it to Asher, who recorded it as part of the duo Peter and Gordon. He kept in touch with Paul and the others, joined Apple Records as a talent scout and producer and eventually moved to the States to spearhead James Taylor and then Linda Ronstadt’s careers. So he has a lot of interesting stories to tell about the Beatles and the music world of the ’60s and ’70s in general, and relates some of them in the book, including quite an in-depth look at how “A World Without Love” came together and how in awe of Paul’s writing abilities he was as he seemingly came up with a bridge and fixed the chorus spontaneously when he knew his friend wanted to record it.

Anyway, the book is set out, as you might guess, in 26 chapters, one for each letter. For each he looks at songs which start with the letter in question, or other things related to the Beatles (for example, a section on “oboes” for the letter “O”); in most cases picking a Beatles one as well as one from each of the four post-Fab Four. Of course, some letters are more challenging than others… for “U” for example, he substitutes the word “You”, and for “X” he looks at “ex-Beatles” like Pete Best. Along the way he talks about everything from hearing “Hey Jude” for the first time to impressing friends by playing “Help” to them before it was officially released to watching TV evangelists on late-night stations in the U.S., and how that actually inspired a #1 hit. He points out he’s not an expert in either the Beatles nor music, so most of his choices are personal recollections or opinions – which songs he likes the best and why – although, as a musician, he does give some pretty detailed explanations on some things musicians will love. How the pairs of strings are tuned differently on a Rickenabacher 12-string guitar; the rapid-fire time signature changes in “Here Comes the Sun” for instance. But more of the content is his memories of hanging out with Paul (and the others to some extent) and his own reactions to hearing some of the great music for the first time.

It’s a light read but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It left me with an added appreciation for all four of the Liverpool lads and a yearning to go listen to some of their records all over again.

I give it 3.5 Yellow Submarines out of five.

Movie Extra 10 – The Answer Man

As this cool exercise (the movie draft run by Hanspostcard) winds down, I find I have three categories left to deal with – Westerns and War, the all-encompassing Drama and the combo of Romance and Holidays. This time around I’m going with the latter…but with a twist. Bear with me.

Last time out, I wrote about a romcom, You’ve Got Mail. I love the movie. Many of you do too, but the comments made it clear that it was a standout in that genre, since a lot of romance and romcoms are well…not great. So while there are a number of romance ones I do like still that I could pick – Sleepless in Seattle, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc – and there are many excellent holiday movies (Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas to me without seeing A Christmas Carol, and A Wonderful Life, which I think someone already covered) I’m going to risk “wasting” a slot by writing about a movie which, well, frankly wasn’t that good. I’m not especially recommending it. But it did make me stop and think, which I hope you’ll agree is worth shaking up the exercise just a little. So far cumulatively, we’ve read about 100 columns from some terrific writers and reviewers and undoubtedly found a few great gems we’d not heard of or seen before. Now let’s hear about one you might be OK missing…

The Answer Man. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Nor had I. Nor many people. People who’d read a memoir from one of its stars might not have either – she didn’t mention one word about it in her book!

It popped up on one of our streaming services here recently, and it was a rainy afternoon so my love decided to press play. Looked like it might be at least half-decent. If not precisely a cast that was star-studded with A-list superstars, at least some decent talent, like Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham (whose memoir was out in the living room… she passed right over this one without a mention of it!) Tony Hale and Nora Dunn among others. The 2009 film was billed as a romance-comedy, though as it turns out both the romance and comedy were in short supply in it.

Now I’ll get to why I chose this one, besides it being fresh in my mind right now, but first a short summary, full of spoilers for those who actually might watch it.

Daniels plays Arlen Faber, a world-renowned author of a series of spiritual guidebooks, started with one called “Me and God.” Alas, Arlen is a cranky, rude recluse, a seeming utterly irreligious sort in reality. He has a bad back, and after throwing it out, he crawls – literally – across the city to a chiropractor, Elizabeth, played by Graham. She’s an over-protective single mother with a 7 year old son who’s likable enough but not very memorable, and new to the city after some poorly outlined bad marriage. She fixes the writer/philosopher’s back and he falls instantly head-over-heels in love with her. Arlen however is not very suave. And he’s inexplicably odd. He gets furious if a piano player plays the wrong song. He has signs on the doors in his house labeling what each room is (one of the few quirks that does get explained). He collects toys but keeps them locked up. And he has a slew of books he’s curiously obsessed with getting rid of.

Why he is so anxious to rid himself of the books is a mystery, so too why in ’09 he wouldn’t turn to e-bay or Amazon to do so. But instead he fixates on having an indie book shop near him take them. Enter the bookshop’s owner, Kris, a sadsack young alcoholic who brings in an entirely different storyline. His shop is failing, so he won’t buy Arlen’s used books. This sets off some sort of weird reaction whereby the writer becomes obsessed with shedding his books at the store, even dressing up in disguise and trying to leave them on the shelves. After some equally improbable twists, Kris figures out who Arlen is and looks to him for advice on all the mysteries of life. Kris has issues with his father, and an assistant at the store who’s only role appears to be to let Kat Dennings have a role and look cute. Arlen begins dating Elizabeth but his erratic behaviour is a lot for her to take, however, he bonds well with her son. She’s conflicted.

He eventually breaks from his incognito existence by doing a book signing at Kris’ store, and then throws cold water over the crowd by telling them his books are a crock of you-know-what. A metaphoric bucket of cold water, although he throws a real one over some other fans at another point. His love is displeased, so he sets off to win her again, a new man.

Wow, right? That’s a lot to take in in less than two hours (which might seem far longer than two while watching.) It was written and directed by John Hindman, his first feature film. Surprisingly he has one more equally obscure one to his credit. If you’d never heard of The Answer Man, perhaps it’s because it seemed to last just one week at the box office and took in less than $50 000! The exact take of the money-loser is up for debate, IMDB has it at about $27K while Wikipedia quote $48k. We doubt the producers who bankrolled it care much either way! It is typical of the indifference to it though; one source says it was filmed in North Carolina while the other agrees with the movie credits and lists Philadelphia. It was just so insignificant as for the reviewers to simply not care apparently. Although review it they did. Roger Ebert for example thought the so-called funny bits looked like “outtakes from a manic Jim Carrey movie” and pondered why such a famous author with so many fans wrote a life-changing book yet “no one in the film – no one – repeats a single thing they’ve learned from it!” USA Today say The Answer Man poses questions like “why do the characters behave in ways that bear little resemblance to reality? Why is this dreary comedy so devoid of humor?”

So why I am writing about it? Well I’d actually like some answers from The Answer Man‘s creator. I truly wonder what he was thinking when he began the work. What he thought of the result. If I had a guess at it, Hindman actually was trying to do too much. He had too many ideas, too many storylines and too little time (arguably too little talent as well) to see them through to completion. That’s a bit of a shame, because if cropped, two or three themes might have been worthy and yielded an interesting or entertaining movie. What if a famous theologian is either a nasty person or perhaps a bit of an atheist? How tough is it for a free-spirited woman to become a worried single mom? What if a grumpy old man is made human by a little child’s presence? What if a celebrity has some personality traits – autism perhaps – that make it difficult for them to function in normal society? Can an “answer man” who doesn’t believe in himself actually give the needed answers to a lost young man? Any one or two of those plotlines might have been an interesting story. Put all of them and half a dozen more into one film and fail to answer most of those questions and you have a mess.

The Answer Man. I give it one and a half hardcover tomes out of five. A failure but an ambitious one. Think of it next time you’re watching a good movie you like and realize how lucky you are, and how rare it is for a writer with an interesting idea to be able to turn that into a film which truly entertains. It might give you a whole new respect for the hundred films that have come before in this event!

Thankful Thursday XIV – The Wizard Of Oz…?

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for The Wizard of Oz. Well, not exactly the movie with Judy Garland nor the Frank Baum book, although both have their merits. And they also inspired some great music that I love, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the Scissor Sisters’ “Return to Oz”. Rather I’m thankful for it, and many others like it because it’s an example of a well-told story. And where would we be without those, be they in film, in print, or handed down orally generation to generation?

What’s more, it’s a prime example of one of the Seven Basic Plots…and where would aspiring writers like myself be without those role models to guide us?

As an aside, my early memories of the Wizard of Oz weren’t all that great. I was very little – maybe three years old – and in hospital, and they somehow got the local theatre company to perform the play (likely in quite scaled down form) in some sort of auditorium at the hospital. Those who were well enough to be transported out of their room to see it were. I vaguely remember it being a bit disturbing. I clearly remember being very disturbed and frightened when they sent the actors around the hospital. The witch came to my room…not a comfort for an ill three year old!

Some years later I overcame my Witch trauma and watched the movie, and quite liked it although agreeing with my mother that Judy Garland was probably too big and old to be a believable Dorothy. Regardless of that, it was an interesting film and doubtless ahead of its time in production values.

I likely didn’t give it any more thought until I hit my twenties. I picked up the then-trendy novel Bright Lights, Big City and loved its style, I was fast in line to see the movie adapatation. I read through reviews of it and was surprised that several made reference to it being a retelling of the Wizard, give or take. Seemed a bit of a stretch, but when one boiled it down, both were stories of someone being transported from somewhere simple (in fact, Kansas in both) to somewhere shinier and glossier (Oz for Dorothy, the Big Apple and its nightclubs for Bright Lights…), looking for excitement and new meaning, only to be put in harm’s way, ultimately disappointed and going home, more appreciative and wiser. Okay…maybe they had something there.

Years later, I would come across a fiction writing principal known as The Seven Basic Plots. The appropriately-named Christopher Booker had the idea that there were really only seven plots in all of the world’s great stories. There’s Overcoming the Monster (from Dracula to Star Wars), Tragedy , where the “protagonist is a hero with a character flaw or great mistake” (MacBeth, Bonnie and Clyde) , Comedy, which he suggests also needs conflict resolved in the end (Midsummer’s Night Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Quests, something bigger than the person (think of the similarities in the wildly disparate Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) , Rags to Riches, which if successful should also include growth of the character (Cinderella, Great Expectations), Rebirths, where the flawed character grows and becomes anew (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Elizabeth & Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) and Voyages. Oz. Bright Lights, Big City. Alice In Wonderland. A fantastic journey leading the subject back home, a better person.

Now, it’s entirely possible that if you really think about it at length, you might be able to come up with a popular story, either book or film, that doesn’t fit any of those categories. Hats off to their creator if so… especially if it ended up being a story that resonated. But it’s remarkable how many great stories do fall into one of the seven categories. That’s handy for me, as a writer, to remember. And it’s handy for us all to remember by extrapolation – no matter how different our own stories seem from other people’s, chances are they’re not all that terribly different. There aren’t too many different life stories… the way that we choose to react to them, the tiny details are what make them memorable and separate the good from the bad… the Scrooges from the Darth Vaders.

The witch in the room or the likable Toto. Ultimately, we all decide how our story will be told.

Thankful Thursday XIII – Conserving Nature

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Nature Conservancy. They’ve recently been in the news for being the lead participant in saving some 230 000 acres (about 400 square miles) of tropical rain forest in Belize that is home to one of the few populations of jaguars left in the wild (the cats that is… it seems to me the cars have suddenly become very common!). In doing, it also protects any number of other animals that live in the jungle and helps keep rivers used for drinking water clean and helps the forest to keep churning out oxygen and doing its little bit to prevent climate change. Which is right “on brand” for them.

The Nature Conservancy is a non-profit that quite simply puts its money where its mouth is. Many organizations try to protect the environment, wildlife and natural habitat by educating and lobbying… admirable objectives. But the Nature Conservancy goes one better. They still educate and advocate, but their main modus operandi is to simply identify ecologically valuable lands which are threatened and buy them up to keep as parkland or preserves. Spending ten million bucks to lobby politicians to save a rainforest or the home of an endangered owl is not bad. Spending the money to simply save the land yourself is a more direct and effective route. To date, the organization has saved land in 72 countries including all 50 U.S. states – something in the range of 125 million acres and counting. Among their objectives are “protecting land and water” and “providing food and water sustainability.” At a time when governments tend to be cutting funding for parks and right-wing policies favoring corporate for-profit use of lands are gaining ground through much of the Western World, it’s an increasingly commendable and valuable function, and best of all it’s all funded through donations rather than your tax dollars.

I’ve been something of an environmentalist all my life I guess. I value nature for its own inherent beauty and, in my opinion, its right to exist alongside us. As time goes on we see more and more repercussions of not taking care of the environment – everything from landslides and out of control wildfires to increased damage to coastal areas in hurricanes, increasing numbers of endangered species at home and rising numbers of cancers and illnesses caused by poor air and water quality overseas. I’ve also worked in a limited capacity for governmental agencies formed to tackle such issues and have witnessed the difficulties they have getting through the bureaucratic red tape to get things done. So I’m always happy when concerned people take matters into their own hand and solve the problems. So on behalf of the jaguars, I thank you Nature Conservancy.

Movie Extra 9 – You’ve Got Mail

As this fun and informative event (for new readers, this year I’ve been one of ten guest columnists doing movie reviews on the Slice the Life website, with each of us covering a movie from a dozen different categories) rolls towards completion, I find I still haven’t gotten to three of the most basic, and to me, best categories yet – drama, romance/holidays (a bit of an odd pairing perhaps but what’s more romantic than some holidays?) and of course, comedy. Today I’ll check off one of those boxes with one that could easily fall into two of the three above (according to IMDB)… the 1998 Comedy You’ve Got Mail. The cyber-age online romance starred America’s sweethearts of the ’90s, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You couldn’t get much better than that then… unless you added in a golden retriever. Which they did (Brinkley).

It was the third in the triad of romcom movies produced and directed by Nora Ephron, ones which according to journalist Erin Carlson “saved” the entire genre. The two predecessors were When Harry met Sally and another Hanks/Ryan duet, Sleepless in Seattle. I often run into other guys who “hate” romcoms. I don’t; I guess I’m lucky because I’m not suffering when my sweetie wants to put one on for us to watch. But I can see where they are coming from in some cases. The entire genre is over-run with overly predictable and sappy ones where you’re not especially enthralled with either of the pair and the comedy is about as wooden as a canoe paddle. Which is something you end up feeling like you could use when you’re up a certain kind of creek without one as you watch.

The Ephron trio though are something different – witty, reasonably intelligent stories with people you can actually root for. Curiously, the bio of Ephron, I’ll Have What She’s Having, suggests these weren’t her favorite type of story to tell and fell far from her personal, turbulent relationship experiences. But few if any did this type of film better.

For this one, Nora was the primary writer, borrowing heavily from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner for the idea. In the oldie, two co-workers who don’t like each other in the store fall in love with each other through letters they are sending to a pen-pal they never suspect is the other. It starred Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullavan. Stewart was America’s favorite “Every Man” at the time, so who better to play the male lead in the new one than the country’s ’90s favorite guy, Tom Hanks? And seeing the chemistry he and Meg Ryan had in Sleepless in Seattle, was their any other choice for the leading lady? I think not, and so too did Ephron who realized Meg was the rarest of rare actresses, one that men found attractive and watchable but women didn’t find sexy or blatant enough to be threatening. Hence, relatable.

In You’ve Got Mail, there are modern twists. Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) aren’t co-workers but business rivals who despise each other. Or at least she despises him. He’s the boss of a large, big-box book store with discount prices and cappucino stands inside (think Barnes and Noble on steroids) while she is the owner of a tiny, well-established childrens book store started by her mother. She knows every kids’ book published and has parties in the shop where she reads stories to the neighborhood children. Her friend Birdie (played nicely by Jean Stapleton who’ll make you forget she’s “Edith” after a scene or two) points out that the store is already in a precarious position financially and the competition from a huge book store could pull them under. Aha! No wonder Kathleen doesn’t like the at-times slightly smug Fox.

She’s in a relationship with a self-absorbed writer while he is tied to an even more self-absorbed, whiny girlfriend. The only real solace either has is anonymous e-mails they send back and forth after meeting in a chat room. They bond over movies and the small pleasures of New York City, he gives her business advice (“Go to the mattresses!”) when she asks him non-specific questions about her struggling store. Of course, in time they decide to meet.

Well, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess where it ends up, but how they end up together, how she forgives him for running her out of business is half the fun.

The movie showcased modern techonology (the title for instance was the little audio clip one heard when checking AOL e-mail, which was de rigeur back then) and the perils of the modern world – urban and cyber anonymity, big box stores taking over neighborhoods. The themes still ring true even though the specifics might now seem laughable to young people… who writes long e-mails to each other anymore? And wouldn’t the big box store now be the one struggling to stay afloat, crushed by Amazon? But the basics are as true as ever. Sometimes we don’t know the people in front of us and are too quick to make assumptions about them. There’s a worth in the small businesses, and there’s a trade-off to be made if we simply go to the cheapest or easiest option available. But then again, the large ones aren’t really all that evil.

The movie works to me even though the plotline might have been predictable. The writing is good, the dialog witty and fast-paced without seeming forced or unrealistic, there are a number of good supporting characters to flesh out the film without weighing it down. But first and foremost, it works because there’s some irresistible charm in the pairing of Tom and Meg together. I’ve seen it many a time and I still feeling like giving a little cheer at the end when the dog runs up, Fox appears, Kathleen sees the man of her dreams and sobs “I wanted it to be you!”

You’ve Got Mail… I give it four and a half bouquets of newly sharpened pencils out of five.