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Monday, September 25, 2006

The Black Dahlia

I'm a fan of James Ellroy's books, but haven't read The Black Dahlia, which was a novel based on a real murder case. A young woman was found murdered in Los Angeles, her body cut in half, her face mutilated. The case, to this day, remains unsolved.

The film based on this book, directed by Brian DePalma, is saturated with post-war L.A., which is to its benefit and detriment. The clothes, furnishings and cars are neat to look at, but the script plays like a Mad Magazine version of Raymond Chandler. Instead of being about the murder, the film is really about the relationship between two cops, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart. They are both boxers, and given the nicknames Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice. Of course there is a woman between them, played by Scarlett Johansson. The murder doesn't take place until about half an hour into the film.

DePalma still has his touch with the camera. The discovery of the body is rendered quite well, with a pan over the top of a building, where two crows are sitting. As the camera rises, it reveals a field behind, where a woman runs away from something, screaming. Meanwhile, the two cops are on a totally unrelated stakeout, so the murder of this poor woman remains secondary, as it will throughout the film, as it exists only to explore the relationship of these two men and the women in their lives.

The actors seize their parts by the throat and don't let go, and this makes them look like they are playing dress-up and doing a community theater. Hillary Swank at least gets to spread her wings this time, playing a society dame instead of a hillbilly. Scarlett Johansson, who was so good in her breakout film, Ghost World, has increasingly disappointed me, as she certainly looks the part but is completely lost in this role.

The only performer faring well is Mia Kirshner, as the doomed Elizabeth Short. She is seen only in a screen test, where she is mocked and baited by an imperious, off-screen voice, and in a stag film. She ably captures what must have the pain and sorrow of a woman who has tried to make it in Hollywood, but ends up as fodder in the mill.

During the last fifteen minutes of the film, you may get whiplash as a series of twists are revealed. That is, if you're not guffawing at how ridiculous it is. Fiona Shaw, as Swank's mother, is called on for some particularly lurid line-readings. I guess all are to be commended for getting through it with straight faces.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Void Moon

I'm quickly becoming a big fan of Michael Connelly. A few months ago I read The Lincoln Lawyer, and this one is just as good. In addition, I've read The Poet and a couple of his Harry Bosch mysteries.

Void Moon concerns an ex-con named Cassie Black. She's out on parole after being busted after a heist gone wrong at a Las Vegas casino. She wants to make one more big score and disappear, and her go-between presents her with an opportunity for just what she's looking for. Only it will be in same casino where she was captured, and her lover killed.

The title refers to an astrological condition in which the moon is passing between two different houses. Apparently for a few minutes it is in no particular house, and this is called a void moon. Nothing difficult should be undertaken during this period.

The first part of the book is about the set-up for the robbery, and then midway through we meet Jack Karch, the psychopathic investigator brought in to catch her. The result is a crackling, page-turning read, with lots of brutal murders and derring-do. It's a first-rate thriller.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pretty as a Moonbeam, and Warm As Sunshine

Continuing my look back at the films of 1991...

I saw Rambling Rose on a fall day on one of those double-feature days I used to do. Earlier in the day I saw Sean Penn's bleak The Indian Runner at the Loews in the East Village, and I then saw Rambling Rose in the very same theater (but I paid for admission both times). Perhaps because The Indian Runner was such a downer, the light-hearted Rambling Rose left a warm memory. Watching it again I wasn't as fond of it, but it still goes down easy. It's the story of a Georgia family who has their world rocked when a young woman comes to work for them as a domestic, and her promiscuity and gentle nature have a strong effect on all of them.

Laura Dern is in the title role, and her real-life mother, Diane Ladd, plays the mother of the house. Both were Oscar-nominated, and deservedly so. But it is Robert Duvall as the father who really steals the show. He plays a man who is clearly smitten with Rose (you can almost see in his eyes whenever he's aroused by her) but determined not to let her wanton behavior disrupt his household. These folks are still of the "moonlight and magnolia" south, and Duvall's character says such eloquent things as, "you're as graceful as the capital letter S."

The story is told from the point of view of Buddy, the eldest son, played by Lukas Haas. He is attracted to Rose as well, and there's a wonderful scene where he gets his first sexual experience by pawing her in his bed.

This is the kind of film for people who don't like too much stress in their lives. The conflicts are easily resolved, and nobody is ever in too much danger. The slice of life from the depression-era South is nicely rendered. This film is as refreshing as a tall glass of iced tea on a summer day, and about as substantial.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Heartache of a Pennant Race

Following a sports team is a lot like being in love. It has the same ups--exhilaration, excitement, occasional euphoria, but it also has the downs--heartbreak, frustration, and misery. It makes one wonder whether it is all worth it.

Just over a month ago the Tigers were ten games up in the division. This morning, they are a half-game ahead of their closest rival, the Minnesota Twins, with eleven games to play. After having the best record in baseball for most of the season, the Tigers are in real danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

It's been a while since I've been through this with this team. The last time was 1987, when they staged a miraculous comeback by sweeping the Blue Jays the last weekend of the season to win the division. The clinching, winner-take-all game was a 1-0 victory by Frank Tanana. I have never been so tense watching a game in my life. Well, here we go again. The only solace is that the White Sox have dug a bit of a whole, so the Tigers could still win the wild card. But that would mean a first-round match-up with the Yankees (shudder).

I just have to keep reminding myself that it's only a game, and the fortunes of this team don't effect my life in the slightest. But if they do lose, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Fisher King

Continuing my look at the films of 1991...

The Fisher King was made in a time when homelessness was still a major news story. Of course it is still a problem, but in the Reagan era it mushroomed to ridiculous heights, especially in New York City, where panhandling and aggressive behavior by some homeless made the division between haves and have nots even stronger. It was also the time when the word yuppie was tossed about, usually with a sneer, even by people who were themselves yuppies.

The Fisher King is a film that reminds us that every homeless person has a story. The story told here is a doozy. Jeff Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio personality very much in the mold of Howard Stern. He makes a remark to a caller suggesting yuppies need to be wiped out. The caller takes him up on it, and walks into an upscale watering hole with a shotgun, killing seven people. One of them is the wife of a English professor, Robin Williams. This incident has a dual effect on our protagonists--Bridges is so overwhelmed by guilt that he ends his radio career and works at a video store, where he is a sort of kept man by the owner, Mercedes Ruehl. The death of Williams' wife drives him into catatonia, and then into the streets, where he thinks he is a knight of medieval lore.

The two men meet and help each other heal their wounds. It's interesting to see that director Terry Gilliam, who was one of the directors of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, returns to the subject of medieval knights, but in an entirely different perspective. Williams, who was Oscar-nominated, brings his usual unbundled mania to the role, when it is Bridges who really should have been nominated, as his performance is much more layered and subtle. Ruehl won the supporting actress Oscar as a woman who is in love with a man despite all his faults.

Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese are to be commended for not taking this story into the mawkish and sentimental. The film occasionally borders on the sticky, but doesn't go too far. There's a scene in Grand Central Station, when Williams is watching the woman he fancies, in which everyone around her begins waltzing. This sounds bad, but actually is quite magical to watch. There's also a terrific moment when Michael Jeter, who plays a homeless drag queen, serenades someone with selections from Gypsy while wearing a red dress and wig. Another moment that works, even though it has no right to.

Friday, September 15, 2006

I Crap Bigger Than You

Continuing my look back at the films of 1991....
City Slickers is the cinematic equivalent of going to the dentist. It offers few surprises, and while you watch it you feel kind of a pleasant numbness, and it's over before you know it. This is also the kind of movie that you can see the development history: "Billy Crystal is an urban guy who goes on a cattle drive and learns the lessons of life." All they needed was a few supporting characters and some Borscht Belt jokes, and voila! A movie!

What lifts this film above the dreadful are in those supporting characters. Daniel Stern and the recently departed Bruno Kirby provide satisfying counterparts to Crystal, who is one of the more annoying actors in films. Crystal's character, our hero, is a schlump who feels sorry for himself and mopes through the first two-thirds of picture, at least when he's not flinging zingers that would make Henny Youngman retch. The overall feeling with him is a hope that he will somehow die in a stampede. Stern and Kirby, though, create more interesting characters. The big surprise in this film, though, is Jack Palance as Curly, the leathery trail boss. Palance won an Oscar for this performance, which certainly no one would have predicted before the film was released. What surprised me on the second viewing was actually how little he is in the film (and he dies about half way through) but his presence is still what is remembered as the closing credits roll.

The writing is all formulaic, but there are a few nice touches. Stern's speech about how baseball is important to him is nice (in contrast to Crystal's about going to Yankee Stadium for the first time, which is awful) and Palance's tale about the only woman he ever loved was quite poignant.

One interesting note--the boy who plays Crystal's son, about ten years old, looked very familiar. Sure enough, it was Jake Gyllenhaal, who fifteen years later would quite a different movie about cowboys.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Irish Drama

This fall, Princeton University will be holding special events celebrating Irish drama. In addition to an exhibition of manuscripts and other documents at Princeton's Firestone Library, there will be symposiums hosting Irish actors such as Stephen Rea and Fiona Shaw, a student performance of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and a performance at the McCarter Theater of Brian Friel's Translations.

This is the kind of thing that makes me wish I were still a student, or that I had had the gumption and discipline to become an academic. Instead of sitting in a cubicle, performing work that ultimately means nothing to me other than a paycheck, I like to imagine that I could be some kind of scholar, sitting around discussing Yeats.

I already have my ticket to Translations, and I will certainly try to see Playboy of the Western World, which I first read as an undergraduate. The "Western World" does not mean Western civilization, but rather the West of Ireland, which is a fertile ground for literature. A contemporary playwright, Martin McDonagh (pictured) has also used the Connemara and Aran Islands as settings for his plays. I have a collection of three of his plays, and read the first one last night, and was blown away. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which ran on Broadway a few years ago, is the deceptively simple story of a 40 year old daughter who slaves to take care of her dotty and manipulative mother. Their relationship is based on pure hatred, and it's somewhat startling in this day and age of Dr. Phil to read a woman saying she would be glad to see her mother murdered with an ax. When the daughter, who is a spinster, gets a chance at romance and the mother interferes, it has the kind of crushing dramatic effect that makes play-reading (and going) worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lost Girls

As a fancier of all things erotic, comic books, or graphic novels, are on the list. There was a time I bought quite a few of them, and they ran the gamut from the silly (Cherry Pop-Tart) to the more classy and intricately drawn. When I heard that Alan Moore, who is arguably the premier comic book writer of all time (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman) was writing a book concerning the erotic adventures of three of children's literature most famous heroines, I had to get a copy.

Lost Girls is a three-volume graphic novel, handsomely slip-cased and retailing for $75 (Amazon offers it as a discount). The story is set at a hotel in Vienna in 1914. Among the guests are Lady Alice Fairchild, a woman of a certain age who has a fixation on her mirror; Dorothy Gale, a woman in her twenties, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, and Wendy Potter, nee Durling, a conservative Englishwoman of about 30. Needless to say, these are the grown-up versions of Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy from Peter Pan.

Alice is a lesbian who seduces the other two women, and they come to realize that they all share a past that involves a certain kind of dream world. As they engage in sexual delights, they recall their stories: Alice grew up in opium-hazed debauchery, engaging in wild tea parties and sucking on hookahs; Dorothy experimented with the farm workers--a sweet but dumb guy, a cold, heartless man, and a big lumbering coward. Wendy meets a boy named Peter who introduces her to orgies in the forest, where she mothers other boys (mothering here involves bringing them to climax).

Of course what Moore has done has found the sexual undercurrents of all three stories (not very difficult to do) and skillfully retold them as more realistic, pornographic tales. And boy are they pornographic. The pages are brimming with explicit sex. There's heterosexual sex, male and female homosexuality, lots of incest, buggering, pedophilia, and even a dash of bestiality, when Dorothy touches the member of a horse. Anyone who holds these characters as sacrosanct may well faint.

However, if you have an open mind, and a taste for the explicit, this is fantastic stuff, and ties in to period pornography of the time. The art work, by Melissa Gebbie, recalls illustrations of fairy tale collections. Often she draws in the style of other artists of the period, such as Schiele, Beardsley and Tenniel. The drawings are not uniformly detailed, but there is enough detail to understand what is going on at all times.

The books are also an incredible turn-on for someone as perverted as I am. Reading this book was reading Penthouse letters.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lowenstein, Lowenstein

Continuing my look back at the films of 1991, today I consider The Prince of Tides. When the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, The Prince of Tides had a passel of them, including Best Picture, but director Barbra Streisand was not nominated for Best Diretor. Cries of sexism abounded, or perhaps, some said, it was professional jealousy. I like to think that the director's branch showed good sense, recognizing this film as a gold-plated turd. Oh, it looks good. The photography makes it look like a Hallmark Card commercial, but for its two-hour plus running time it strikes one false note after another.

Adapted from the novel by Pat Conroy, it tells the story of a family from South Carolina. One of the children grows up to be Nick Nolte. When his twin sister, who lives in New York City, attempts suicide, he goes up there to consult with her psychiatrist, played by Streisand. Eventually, and ludicrously, they fall in love, and Nolte reveals the deep dark secret from his family's past and this sets him free.

Nolte is a good actor, take a look at The Good Thief. But he's completely lost in this film, hitting only two notes--gregarious good ol' boy, or quick-boiling anger. He seems to have no sense of a character. As for Streisand, she must have instructed her DP to light her as if she were ten years younger, but she's completely unbelievable as well (only once do I get we get a genuine moment--when Nolte tosses her a football and she cries out, "Oh, my nails!") In a nice bit of nepotism, she casts her real-life son as her movie son.

The only effective part of the film is when Nolte is allowed to tap into his talent during the scene in which he recalls the secret. He shows restraint and genuine emotion. Too bad that couldn't be maintained through the film. The last scene is unintentionally funny. Nolte, his life healed, drives across a bridge, and he narrates how much he owes Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand's character). He says something to the effect that he is compelled to utter, "Lowenstein, Lowenstein." Well, it's not like calling the wind Mariah, but it's close.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Birthday Party

The plays of Harold Pinter are challenging. I have a dim recollection of studying him back in college, but I haven't made a habit of reading his work, and my attendance at yesterday's performance of The Birthday Party at the McCarter theater was only my second time seeing a Pinter play (the McCarter did a lackluster performance of Betrayal a few years ago). I found a yellowed copy of the text of The Birthday Party on my bookshelf, so I may have read it years ago.

I had no memory of it as I watched the production, though. First performed in 1958, The Birthday Party begins as if it were a comedy, with two older people sitting having breakfast. The wife, Meg, runs a boarding house with only one tenant, a failed piano player named Stanley. When Stanley makes his appearance there is something shifty and nasty about him. Later, when two strangers make an appearance, Stanley is quite agitated. One of the men, Goldberg, is a smooth-talker, like a salesman, while the other, McCann, is more of a thug. When Goldberg learns from Meg that it is Stanley's birthday, he insists on having a party. The party, however, turns into something of a nightmare.

This play is challenging because there are several questions asked but no answers. Who are the two men? They seem to have come for Stanley, but why? They make vague references to him betraying an organization, but it seems to me that they represent any sort of mysterious authority. There are also confused identities. Goldberg says his name is Nat, but when talking about his past he mentions that he was called Simey or Benny. When Goldberg speaks it is often in a kind of stream-of-consciousness that recalls the work of Samuel Beckett.

The production, directed by McCarter's Artistic Director, Emily Mann, plays up the comedy in the production. Ms. Mann sat behind me during the performance, and I could hear her laughing along with the audience. At a subscription-based theater, I suppose it's important to play up the farce elements, because the play is so difficult to grasp. It's been a day since I saw it and I'm still trying to come to grips with it.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Hollywoodland is most successful at setting moods. While watching it I was easily transported back to Los Angeles of the 1950s. The photography, settings and costumes seemed spot-on to me. It also was successful in establishing a mood around the character of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on television, and whose life ended mysteriously with a bullet to the head in 1959. Reeves was a blandly good-looking man, a decent actor who had a bit part in Gone With the Wind, and found huge success with Superman, but the role held him back from more serious pursuits.

What the film does not do is tell a compelling story. Well, it tells half a good story. The film begins with Reeves' death, and we then have a parallel track: the investigation of the case by a down-on-his-luck private eye (Adrien Brody), and flashbacks that tell Reeves' story from when he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of an MGM studio boss who treats him like her boy-toy. Ben Affleck, ingeniously cast as Reeves, has never been better as the actor, and his story is interesting. But director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum do not manage to make the Brody section interesting. It's like a hundred private-eye novels you've read--gumshoe who is scraping by trailing suspected cheating wives gets a hot case. He meets resistance at every turn, but he doggedly pursues it, even after he's beaten up. Yawn.

In addition, since this is a real case that has no solution, there is no emotional pay-off. The script offers a few suppositions, but nothing with any evidence. To borrow a phrase, there is no smoking gun here. Instead we get a meditation on a time period when children weren't so jaded that they could enjoy watching a somewhat flabby man pretend he could fly, only to have their fantasies disrupted when their idol died with a bullet in his brain.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Twenty Dwarves Took Turns Doing Handstands on the Carpet

Continuing the look at the films of 1991, I turn to Bugsy.

Films about organized crime have served as a dark metaphor for the American rags to riches story almost since the beginning, from the Warner Brothers gangster films to the The Godfather. During the 19th and early 20th century, ethnic groups such as the Irish, Jews and Italians, who were denied access to legitimate corridors of power, used other means to achieve success, by skirting the law and giving the people what they wanted. While many of them were nothing but vicious killers, they have certainly captured the imagination of movie-goers, and continue to popular subject matters for film. This is certainly true of Bugsy, directed by Barry Levinson. In addition, Bugsy also uses another American motif, the reinvention of a person. Several times during the film Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel uses the phrase, “Everybody needs a fresh start.” No one wants more of a fresh start than Siegel.

As the film begins, Siegel is headed to Los Angeles as a representative of Meyer Lansky to muscle on in on the local syndicate. Siegel takes this opportunity to try and reinvent himself, from the street thug he was as a youth, to someone more debonair and sophisticated. When we first see him he is practicing his elocution, trying to get rid of his accent. But Siegel can not escape his past, which eventually brings him down.

I saw this film at the Loews 84th Street one December night, and watching it again I was reminded of how underwhelmed by it I was. Part of the problem is Warren Beatty’s performance as Siegel. While Bugsy was a guy who wanted to be a movie star but couldn’t hide his past as a hoodlum, Beatty is trying to play a hoodlum but can’t hide that he’s a movie star. He just infuses this role with too much glamour. I’ve never been a big fan of Beatty as an actor (I think he’s a better director). Also, and this isn’t fair, once you’ve seen The Godfather, any serious gangster picture is likely to come up short. The script is a little too glib, the direction a little too obvious (such as the scene between Siegel and Virginia Hall shot through a movie screen). I was also bothered by the usually great Harvey Keitel, who gives a cartoonish performance as Mickey Cohen.

I think the best performance in the film is by Annette Bening as Hill. Her characterization has some depth that the others lack. She’s a film extra and good-time gal who has the brains for something better, and Siegel gives her the chance, but she’s ruined by the association.

The film also has some glaring historical inaccuracies, but that’s too be expected in any film about real people. Most notably, Siegel was not killed immediately after the Flamingo opened, he got it about six months later. And whether the idea of Las Vegas as an entertainment Mecca was Siegel’s brainchild, well, that’s also debatable.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Money and the Power

Reading The Money and the Power is a little like that scene in The Matrix when Neo is given a choice of taking a pill that will reveal the truth of his universe to him, or one that will keep in blissful ignorance. Ostensibly a history of Las Vegas, from its founding until the year 2000, this book, by Sally Denton and Roger Morris, is a trip through the sleaze and corruption of America.

Las Vegas, of course, was a sleepy backwater when mobsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, among others, had the bright idea to turn it into a showplace. Gambling had been legal there since 1931, but it wasn't until after the war that flashy palaces replaced the Western-themed hotels with sawdust on the floor. Siegel didn't live long enough to see his dream explode, but in just a few years Vegas became one of the most popular attractions in the world, and those getting rich were the criminal element. The authors describe the city as the company town for the underworld. Mobsters owned parts of almost all the action, and those who wanted to be powerful had to cater to them. Almost every president that has been elected has received generous donations from Vegas powerbrokers (notably, Jimmy Carter went unmentioned).

This is a very cynical book, and you'll feel like taking a shower after reading some of the chapters. If you believe it all, almost no decision is made in American politics that doesn't involve money changing hands, and that no true idealist can get power in this country. I suppose deep down that's the truth we all know, but sometimes its nice to live in ignorance.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Basket Case

Carl Hiassen's novels, which are always funny, usually stem from some kind of anger. He's a long-time resident of South Florida, and there is enough venality and corruption for Hiassen to have written about ten very funny but very pissed off thrillers. I've read most of his books, and the latest for me is Basket Case.

The book differs from his recent works in that this time his wrath is not pointed at developers who are encroaching on Florida's wildlife. A long-time newspaperman, Hiassen instead vents on large corporations that buy up local papers and suck the soul out of them. His hero is Jack Tagger, a journalist who has been busted to the obituary page because he voiced his displeasure at the corporate henchman who has purchase the paper. Tagger comes across news that a rock star who has slipped into obscurity has died in a diving accident in the Bahamas. Tagger, who was a fan, persuades his editor to let him do a story. He interviews the musician's widow, who is a fame-hungry singer, and Tagger gets suspicious.

As with all of Hiassen's books, there are numerous oddball characters, including dumb villains. A romance develops between Tagger and his editor, who was formally his adversary. While this is a very sweet development, it doesn't entirely ring true. Still, this book is a very breezy, enjoyable read.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Back, and to the Left

Continuing my look at the major films of 1991, I now turn to JFK, directed by Oliver Stone. I saw it on its opening day, a few days before Christmas, at the Paramount Theater in Columbus Circle. I remember the marketing people handing out pieces of paper and little pencils to ask us what we thought of the film. Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure.

The assassination of John Kennedy is the great American mystery. A forest has been sacrificed to make all the paper for all the books and articles that have been written about it (26 volumes of the Warren Report alone). And still we are no closer to a definitive answer than we were 43 years ago. It certainly is a great subject for a film, but I think Stone makes a few key errors.

One is to make Kennedy too saintly. As years have gone by, the more we learn about him the more his legacy was tarnished. He and his father certainly cozied up to the mob, and there is good evidence that the election of 1960 was crooked (to be fair, there were phony votes for Nixon as well). His sexual proclivities make Bill Clinton look like a Boy Scout, and while that is a failure of character that doesn’t necessarily translate into an ineffective leader, it does when you share a mistress with a major Mafia figure. Secondly, Stone’s entire premise for the motive in killing JFK is his belief that Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, had he lived. This is disputable. Kennedy was a hard-line cold warrior when elected. And, given all the philandering he did, wouldn’t have been easier to blackmail him, rather than kill him in a conspiracy that must have been known by hundreds of people? Finally, that Stone made Jim Garrison the hero of his film makes it a little shaky. Garrison, many believed, was a zealot and not playing with a full deck. Stone works around this by having Garrison’s character tell us that people are making him look crazy.

I vacillate on what I believe. There are a couple of problems with the lone gunman theory—namely the magic bullet, and that Oswald couldn’t have possibly fired off that many shots with a crummy rifle in such a short period of time. Also, it is well established that Jack Ruby, who offed Oswald, was mobbed up. I did read a book about ten years ago called Case Closed, by Gerald Posner, who answers all these questions and maintains Oswald acted alone. I don’t remember the particulars, but the book was very convincing.

But what of the film? On the extras disc, New York Times report Tom Wicker sums it up best, I think, when he says it is certainly well put together, but he doesn’t consider it art, it is propaganda. Stone has fish to fry and the film is constructed toward that end. It is frequently very stirring, at times irritating. The domestic scenes between Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek are especially clumsy, and recall the funny scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen gets dumped by Carol Kane because of his obsession with the assassination. But I will admit that the twenty or so minute scene toward the end, when Costner makes his speech to the jury and lays out the entire theory, is quite breathtaking.

One amusing footnote: the TV show Seinfeld did a great parody of the film when Kramer and Newman tell their story of being spit on by baseball player Keith Hernandez, and Jerry presents his theory of the “second spitter.” What I hadn’t realized was that Wayne Knight, who plays Newman, was in JFK as one of Costner’s assistants, and is one of the dummy figures in the “magic bullet” demonstration, just as he is on Seinfeld (except in this instance it is the “magic loogie”).

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Illusionist

Stories about the history of magic, particularly in the pre-television era of entertainment, are like catnip to me. I've read several books about Houdini, and enjoy watching and reading Ricky Jay's work about magic history. I've also read several novels like Carter Beats the Devil, which is about a stage magician getting involved in political skullduggery. So I enjoyed very much The Illusionist, a tale of a magician and his lost love and an evil prince.

I have no interest in what passes for magic today, the spectacles that are on the Vegas strip or the attention-seeking David Blaine. Although Blaine is certainly an heir to Houdini, his stunts seem to be far more craven (maybe it's because he bangs a lot of models). But I'm a sucker for the old hocus pocus of yesteryear.

The appeal of magic, I think, is that those who like it want to believe it's real, and the best stories about it leave that up in the air. So this is with The Illusionist. Edward Norton is Eisenheim, the title character, who has a somewhat fairy-tale past. As a youth he was in love with a girl far above his station, and was forceably separated from her. Later, as a famous performer, he meets her again by chance, and she is a duchess engaged to the villainous prince. The prince, clearly a rationalist, watches Eisenheim's show and wants to know how he does it. After a command performance at the palace, Eisenheim shows up the prince, and he earns an enemy. Through all this the police inspector (Paul Giamatti), who is a toady to the prince, keeps an eye on the magician's comings and goings.

The film is directed lushly by Neil Burger, who is unknown to me. Set in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the cinematography is reminiscent of old photographs, slightly diffuse, and rich in earth tones. The music is by Philip Glass, and while it is certainly recognizable as his work, it is not overtly contemporary.

Edward Norton is excellent as the illusionist, but it is Giamatti who steals the show. He expresses the many layers of a man who knows he is the puppet of power but is inherently decent. Rufus Sewell does well with a part that is essentially a cliche, how he resists twirling his mustache I don't know. Only poor Jessica Biel sticks out. Certainly lovely to look at, her performance is flat and doesn't create much chemistry with Norton.

This film requires some effort from the audience, it is not for the passive movie-goer. It starts slowly, but slowly absorbs you if you are willing to take the ride. It even has an ending that suprised me.

Interestingly, before this film there was a trailer for another film about the magicians, The Prestige, which is directed by Christopher Nolan. It looks good as well, so for those interested in magic the season is ripe.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The End of Summer

Summer here in these United States is conveniently segmented by holidays. It begins with Memorial Day, which is always the last Monday in May, reaches an apex with Independence Day, and then closes with Labor Day, the first Monday in September. It all has a nice symmetry. Even though summer doesn’t technically end until September 21st, for all intents and purposes it’s done after Labor Day, when most kids are back in school, the summer clothes are put away (at least in Northern climates) and you might put a thin blanket on the bed.

Although summer certainly has its selling points (use of the outdoor pool being the chief one for me), autumn is my favorite season, and I look forward to the next couple of months. These are the things I like about fall: baseball playoffs, college football games, start of hockey season, Halloween, cool, crisp air, the changing of the leaves, flannel, the smell of woodsmoke, the release of serious movies, and perhaps most of all, is there anything more spectacular than an Indian Summer day?

So it’s three days off. I’ll be a friend’s barbecue, and if what’s left of Ernesto doesn’t ruin everything, also a college soccer game, and maybe seeing if I can get some clothes at a Labor Day sale. Long pants, of course, as I’ll have to put my shorts away.