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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hockey Season Comes to an Abrupt End

Princeton's Women's Ice Hockey season came to an abrupt ending last Saturday at the hands of the Red Raiders of Colgate. Princeton had beaten Colgate the weekend before (see post below), and in 17 games had never lost to Colgate. I was feeling confident about the Tigers' chances in this quarterfinal playoff series, and had pretty much convinced myself to make the drive up to Dartmouth to watch them play in the semis. There is no need for that trip now.

In game 1, it was a battle of goalies. Kristen Young for Princeton, Brooke Wheeler for Colgate. For three periods they went unscored upon, although Princeton had the most chances, ending up with 42 shots on goal. Colgate had better chances though, as Princeton's D made some turnovers and Young had to come up big with the stops. The game went into overtime, and because it was a playoff they would play until someone one. After seven minutes, Young couldn't corral a loose puck toward the side of the net and Colgate knocked it in, game over.

The series was best of three, though, and Princeton was at home, so there was still hope. Especially when, on Saturday, the Tigers took the lead on Marykate Oakley's first period goal. Oakley was layed out by Colgate in the regular season, but recovered quite sufficiently from her injury. Colgate knotted the score on a 5x3, though, so the first period was equal, as was the second, when no goals were scored.

In the third period came the moment that turned everything. Young made a save and wasn't getting up. After being tended to by the trainer, she reluctantly came off the ice. Later she would reappear on the bench, in t-shirt and sweats, an ice-pack taped to her knee. I'm guessing she twisted it. Freshman Brittany Parisi, who has had some good games during the season, was given the almost impossible task of coming in a pressure-cooker situation. On Colgate's first shot against her they scored for a 2-1 lead.

Princeton fought back, though, on the shoulders of an indefigatible Oakley, who tied things up on a power-play goal. But with just under three minutes left, Colgate's Tara French ripped a tracer so hard that it glanced off Parisi's stick and ricocheted off the back of the net all the way out to the faceoff circle. Princeton tried to fight back once again, but it was not to be. They pulled the goalie for the extra skater, but a series of penalties (one to Dina McCumber, who ironically ended her college career in the box) made the going to tough. In the last face-off, Oakley pounded her stick against the ice, imploring the ref to drop the puck, but he just made her leave the face-off. She was still jawing with him as the game ended. Young, helpless with her injury, was distraught, tears streaming down her face.

The crowd filed out a little stunned, as the ending was just too abrupt. It was then I realized that the five members of the senior class had played their last. Never again will I see Kim Pearce, the Big Cat, busting it up the ice, or the sophisticated play of Laura Watt, or the feistiness of McCumber, the reliability of Kate Hession, or the hard work of Alison Ralph. Oh well, sports are made to break your heart. It's only about seven months until a new season.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another Oscar Season Over

Another Oscar show is history. I'm a certifiable Oscar geek, so it's always a big night for me. I haven't missed a show since I first started watching back in 1972, and it's one my favorite nights of the year. For the last twenty plus years I've watched the show with a small group of friends, and we have a pool that costs a buck to join, which is a great way to experience the show. There have also been years when I watched at home all by myself, and I still enjoy myself.

For me, the Oscars combines a love of film with a love of sports, because it is essentially a horse race, and can be discussed in similar terms. Instead of zone match-ups, we get guild award precursors, and a seventy-nine year track record that makes for statements like, "Little Miss Sunshine would be the first film to win Best Picture without a director or editing nomination since Grand Hotel." Many film aficionados hate the whole thing, and I can see their point, because it does reduce an art form to the gaudiest of spectacles, but I eat the whole thing up like guacamole.

This year, I got 11 of the 21 categories I predicted right, not a great average, considering others got 18 (out of 24, I don't pick the short subjects), but upsets make for a better show. Our viewing crowd cheered the Alan Arkin win, not out of animosity for Murphy but more for an affection for Arkin's performance (and I did pick him). On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Peter O'Toole, who now stands alone with the record for Oscar futility among actors (he does have an honorary award). The look on his face as Forest Whitaker accepted the prize seemed to be a combination of incredulity and heartbreak, as if he was thinking, "Why do I continue to subject myself to this?"

As for the show, I thought it was dandy. Every year the telecast gets pilloried by TV critics, and I'm not sure what they expect. The Academy Awards was not designed as a TV show, and will always resist making concessions to a network covering it. They will not delegate "lesser" awards to off-camera, and they will always do a series of baffling montages, and give honorary Oscars to people who are not well known to the public. This just has to be accepted. If you want a made-for-TV awards show, watch MTV. That being said, I think this was decent TV entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres was a good host, if not as wickedly funny as Steve Martin, and her interplay with nominees Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood were enjoyable. I could have done without the sound effects/choir thing, or maybe one less montage, but hey, that goes with the territory.

So now it's time to look ahead at this year's releases and see what's on the horizon. Incredibly, a writer for the New York Post has already declared Johnny Depp an 80% likely winner for Best Actor for Sweeney Todd. Now that's hubris.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Showdown at Baker Rink

Tonight is Game 1 of the quarterfinals of the ECAC women’s hockey playoffs. Princeton, seeded fourth, will take on Colgate, seeded fifth, in a best-of-three series that should have an extra dollop of spice, given what happened last weekend.

Last Friday the teams met at Princeton’s Baker Rink, neck-and-neck in the standings. Since the top four seeds receive home-ice in the quarters, the winner of the game would have a leg up on avoiding a long bus ride. It was a taut affair, with goalie Kristen Young stopping all shots and Princeton winning, 1-0. The celebration was short-lived, though, when it became apparent at the final buzzer that something was amiss on the ice. Marykate Oakley (right), one of Princeton’s best players, was laying face-down on the ice. She had been hit from behind and into the boards by a Colgate player, Nicole McDonald, as time expired. For close to half an hour the crowd, on their feet to cheer, was now standing and watching as Oakley was attended to by coaches and trainers. Oakley wasn’t moving, and eventually an ambulance came to take her away.

Later I learned that she was conscious and able to move her extremities, but it was a sickening feeling during that stretch of time when one can only look on, helpless, imagining the worst. McDonald received a major penalty and a disqualification, which didn’t mean much to Princeton considering it was at the end of the game. McDonald did sit out the last game of the year, at Quinnipiac, but one wonders whether she will be in uniform for this weekend’s playoff battle. If she is, one hopes that everyone keeps their tempers in check, particularly Dina McCumber (left). She is a defenseman with the face of an angel and the quick temper of Sean Penn. Last year I was standing in the hallway outside the Tigers’ locker room when McCumber emerged. To reach street level, she had to walk through a room that was connected to the visitors’ locker room, and she spotted a player she had apparently been battling on the ice during the game. She turned around and stopped, for she said that if she passed by that player they might get into it. In an interview with the student newspaper, she was asked what other sport she would like to play. She responded, I think only half-kiddingly, that she would like to play something that didn’t penalize hitting. When fans make posters with her name and number on it, they always include a drawing of boxing gloves.

On Saturday, I returned to the rink for the final home game of the season, against Cornell. I spotted the head coach, Jeff Kampersal, and asked him about Oakley. He told me she was okay. No concussion, maybe a shoulder problem, and she might play in the playoffs, but would be sitting out today’s game. She was around to watch the game, wearing a neck brace but smiling and greeting well-wishers. Princeton needed the game to clinch home-ice, and the over-matched Cornell team was vanquished, 3-0.

Before the game, as is custom, the senior class, including McCumber, was honored. After the game there was a small reception, and I had one of the more rewarding couple of moments I’ve had recently. I brought a camera and took lots of pictures, especially of the seniors. One of the girls’ mothers urged me to partake in the buffet that was laid out. When I asked if that wasn’t just for players and their families, she assured me that I was considered family, so I dug in. Then McCumber approached me. Her hair was pulled back like a ballerina’s, and she was wearing high heels. It’s hard to believe this sweet girl who looks like a Kewpie doll could be such a battler. She thanked me for all the support I had given the team over the year, but really thanks are due to them, for these kids give me a lot of pleasure. I asked about her going to law school, and she self-deprecatingly said that she got into the University of Buffalo law school. I told her that if I ever got in trouble I wanted her to represent me, because this kid does not like to lose.

Last night I took in practice and Oakley was back on the ice, looking fine except she was wearing a large red cross on her jersey to remind her teammates not to smack into her. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would work in an actual game.

I hope this weekend’s games are not marred by any untoward violence. In the more than 100 women's ice hockey games I’ve seen, I have never seen punches thrown, unlike the reputation that the NHL has (in last night's Buffalo-Ottawa game the goalies even exchanged blows). But there is plenty of pushing and shoving and bad feelings. The best way the Tigers can avenge the hit on Oakley is to score like a Chicago voter: early and often.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oscar Forecast: Director, Picture and the rest

When it comes to the Best Picture and Best Director categories at this year's Oscars, one category is settled and the other is as wide open as it has ever been.

The settled category is Best Director. Martin Scorsese, it seems, will finally get the statuette that he has deserved for thirty years (I think he should have won in 1976 for Taxi Driver, but of course he wasn't even nominated by the Academy). Counting screenplay nominations, he now has eight, and all signs point to him winning for The Departed, which some feel is one of his better efforts. But hey, Al Pacino finally won for Scent of a Woman, one of his worst performances. It's all about timing.

Scorsese had two publicized courtships with Oscar in the last few years but was left at the altar both times. This year, everyone associated with The Departed pooh-poohed Oscar talk and said it was just a good old-fashioned crime film. This strategy seems to have worked, and expect Scorsese to get a standing ovation as he accepts the trophy.

If Scorsese stumbles, it's hard to know who would take the prize. Some whisper about Paul Greengrass for United 93, but these people seem to have conveniently forgotten that no director has ever won when the picture was not nominated for Best Picture. There's also the presence of Clint Eastwood in this category (for directing Letters From Iwo Jima), who the Academy has bestowed with many hosannas over the last decade, but he won just two years ago (also over Scorsese), so maybe some will say, "Enough!"

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu could be Scorsese's strongest competition, for his film Babel. Often a picture is more obviously directed than others, and Babel is one of those, with multi-storylines and a high concept. Babel is also a front-runner for Best Picture (see below), so it only makes sense that Gonzalez Innaritu would reap the benefit. Finally, Stephen Frears is nominated for The Queen. If Babel is a film that has been directed to a fare-thee-well, The Queen is the opposite, without many gimmicks or tricks. Of course, this is not an indication of work well done, but it may seem that way.

The Best Picture category is as wide open as I can remember. A reasonable argument could be made for all five pictures, but I think three of them have a decent shot. I'm going to go with Babel as the film that takes it all, beating The Departed by a nose and Little Miss Sunshine by a head. Babel won the Golden Globe for best drama, which is not a reliable indicator, while The Departed won the Director's Guild award for Scorsese. Little Miss Sunshine won the SAG award for Best Ensemble, another precursor which is hit or miss (Gosford Park, Sideways and The Birdcage also won this award). Babel, though, has a certain gravitas that I think Academy members will want to reward. Surely it has its detractors, but a film can win this award with 21 percent of the vote.

Normally The Departed would be a mortal lock in this category, for the DGA award is the most reliable precursor. However, given Scorsese's celebrity, it is certainly possible that there are voters who will split the ticket, voting for him but not voting for The Departed for Best Picture. It used to be a rare thing for Picture and Director to go to different films, but it has happened four times in the last nine years. Spreading the wealth seems to be a trend. The Departed, while a fun flick, is not the kind of searing drama of say, The Godfather, and the body count at the end is almost comical.

Little Miss Sunshine is an interesting case. Going into the nominations, it was the little engine that could, an indie film with a small budget that snuck into the party. Now some think it will win, but I don't, and I have a wonky reason. The film did not get a Best Director nomination, nor was it nominated for Best Editing. No film has won the top prize without being nominated in these two categories since Grand Hotel in 1932, and there wasn't an editing award then. Also, it's a comedy, and there hasn't been one of those winning since Annie Hall almost thirty years ago.

Letters From Iwo Jima can't totally be counted out, given the Academy's affection for Clint Eastwood. After Flags of Our Fathers was a bust at the box office, the companion film was rushed into release. It has lots of gravitas, but it is in Japanese (no film has ever won this award with a majority of the dialogue not in English). And I think there is some Eastwood fatigue. Finally, The Queen is my choice for best picture of the year, and it has all the right nominations, but I think it will be also-ran here, perhaps for its extreme Britishness, or that it is perceived more as a "nice" little film, kind of a very good TV movie.

Here are my final picks:

Best Picture: Babel
Best Director: Martin Scorsese
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker
Best Actress: Helen Mirren
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Best Animated Film: Cars
Best Makeup: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Foreign Film: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Art Direction: Dreamgirls
Best Cinematography: Children of Men
Best Costumes: Dreamgirls
Best Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean
Best Editing: Babel
Best Score: The Queen
Best Song: Listen, from Dreamgirls
Best Sound Mixing: Dreamgirls
Best Sound Editing: Pirates of the Caribbean
Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth

As for the Short Subjects, I haven't a clue.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Factory Girl

About twenty years ago I read a fascinating book entitled Edie, by Jean Stein, about the comet-like life of Edie Sedgwick, who blazed across the avant-garde art scene of New York City in the 1960s. As I read I thought it would make a great movie. Factory Girl, which tells the same story, is not that film.

Sedgwick was a trust-fund baby and sometime model who latched onto the coterie of Andy Warhol. She was beautiful and stylish, and Warhol saw her as a muse for his films, which he made in a loft called The Factory. She was a free spirit who got crushed by the drugs and lifestyle, and died of an overdose at the age of 28.

The film, directed by George Hickenlooper, is full of 60s imagery and music, and occasionally does an effective job of suggesting how crazy the time period was. What it does not do is give insights into Sedgwick. We know what afflicts her--sexual abuse by her father, lingering resentment at her father for driving her brother to commit suicide, and quite possibly bipolar depression (the Sedgwicks seem to have this run in the family, judging by a book by a distant relative of hers named John Sedgwick). But as to what really makes her tick, well, this film doesn't offer any of that. We get the surface of her world, but not the inside.

Two characters who loomed large in her life are also larger than life in his film. First is Warhol, who could not possibly have been invented in fiction. He came from a background of coal miners in Pennsylvania, but he might as well have come from Mars. He seems devoid of the usual human emotions, and this is well-played by Guy Pearce. Warhol is the villain in this story, as he exploits Sedgwick for his own gain and then tosses her aside when he is done with her. I have no doubt that this is true, and that he wasn't a saintly figure, but I think the film is too hard on him as an artist. Several characters ridicule his work--his paintings of soup cans and Brillo box sculptures, but there is no defense of it in the film. Warhol was a controversial artist but also an important one, changing the definition of art, and instead he is portrayed in this film as something of a fool.

The other man in Sedgwick's life is not referred to by name in this film for legal reasons, but clearly it is Bob Dylan (Dylan didn't care that he is not referred to by name--he still sued to have the film kept from release). Hayden Christiansen is the unfortunate actor who has to play Bob Dylan without explicitly being Bob Dylan, and he suffers for it. He gives the character a hint of Dylan's nasal whine, but then pulls it back, as if he were toying with it. It's not a good performance, but I don't envy what he had to do.

As Edie, Sienna Miller does all she can to give this film some life. She looks a great deal like her, and has a verve that it is easy to respond to. She reminded me of Marlo Thomas in "That Girl," if Ann Marie had become a drug addict, that is. It's rewarding to see that Miller, who was more famous for being a cuckolded woman than an actress, truly has the chops to take on such a role.

Though Hickenlooper casts Warhol as a villain for his callous treatment of Sedgwick, he sort of does the same thing, distancing the viewer from her, making her life a sideshow. It's a shame that all these years later this is the film about Edie Sedgwick that got made, when it could have been so much more.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Breach

It's interesting that director Billy Ray has now made two films about a person living a lie: Shattered Glass, which was about a reporter making up stories and passing them off as factual; and Breach, about an FBI agent passing secrets to the Russians. In the grand scheme of things, the latter is the more serious offense, for lives and billions of dollars were at stake. Yet Shattered Glass is a far more engaging, suspenseful film than Breach.

Comparing the two films is probably unfair but inevitable, since they have the same director and a similar theme. In trying to understand why Breach is pallid in comparison, I think there are two reasons. One, the film begins with a news clip of John Ashcroft announcing the arrest of Robert Hanssen as a spy, so we know how this all will end. Perhaps Ray figured that enough people had heard about it when it happened (I certainly did), so there was no point in trying to hide the result. That's fair enough, because what we get is a fascinating character study of Hanssen, as essayed by Chris Cooper, who is an endlessly interesting actor. Hanssen is a pious Catholic and a rigorous taskmaster, the kind of patriot who makes it hard to understand why he did what he did. In a scene late in the film, an agent played by Dennis Haysbert just wants to know "Why?"

This has a deleterious effect on the film in that it pretty much removes all the suspense. At no time do we really sense in anyone in danger. There a few of those "will he switch the palm pilot before the guy gets back" scenes, which are kind of phony, the equivalent of the false scare in a horror picture. At the end of the film, I realized it was well crafted, but it really didn't add up to much.

Secondly, I have a serious problem with Ryan Phillipe. Frankly, I can't understand why he's as big a star as he is. He first made a splash playing a callow youth in the prep school version of Dangerous Liaisons, and I haven't shaken that impression of him. He plays an FBI employee who hopes to be an agent, and gets assigned an undercover job keeping an eye on Hanssen. He has to suck up to Hanssen while at the same time keeping everything a secret from his wife. Now, in Shattered Glass the character who figures everything out is played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard. In Breach, Phillipe is a dull tool. He doesn't really know anything, he is a pawn of the higher-ups, particularly Laura Linney as a hard-as-nails agent. She is far more interesting in her few scenes than Phillipe is in three times the screen time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Oscar Forecast: Best Actor, Actress

This week I turn to the lead performances nominated for Oscar. As with the supporting performances, the easier category to predict is Best Actress.

If Helen Mirren doesn't win for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen, the reverberations may topple the Kodak Theater. Mirren, a highly respected actress who has been nominated three times for an Academy Award, has won just about every precursor award there is (she also seems to keep winning for a TV movie about the first Queen Elizabeth, thus making her go through acceptance speeches like tissues). The remaining foursome can sit back and relax and not worry about ascending to the podium. This means that Kate Winslet, who now has five nominations and is only 31-years old, will again go home empty-handed. Her work as a frustrated housewife in Little Children was brilliant, but there will no topping Mirren. Also brilliant was Judi Dench, as a scorned teacher in Notes on a Scandal. Judi has the right idea and is staying home to have knee surgery. Meryl Streep, who gives a deliciously wicked turn as the boss from Hell in The Devil Wears Prada, now increases her record of 14 nominations as a performer. The downside? She has lost a record number of times. This time will be her 12th. Penelope Cruz, as a harried mother and daughter in Almodovar's Volver, makes the leap from glamour-puss to serious actress with this nomination, but she won't win.

As for Best Actor, a lot of predictors have this one in the bag, but I'm stubborn. Certainly Forest Whitaker, as the megalomaniacal Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is the front-runner. It's a bombastic performance, and he plays a real person, catnip to the Oscar voter. He's a well-respected, if not particularly well-known actor, and he's won most of the precursors. However, I can't dismiss the possibility that Peter O'Toole, who has now been nominated eight times but has never won in competition, will finally win. He plays an aged actor who falls into a relationship with a young woman in Venus. Should he lose, O'Toole would break the record for Oscar futility. However, he did win an honorary Oscar a few years ago. Perhaps that is so fresh in voters minds that they won't feel obligated to vote for him this time. It should be noted, though, that both Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, who also went for years without winning an Oscar, won Best Actor just a year or two after winning an honorary statuette.

Will Smith, who plays a man who is trying to raise his son alone while seeking to better his career in The Pursuit of Happyness might win in a weaker year, but he doesn't have the ammo this year. Many were surprised that Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for his role as a smuggler in Blood Diamond, rather than The Departed. Surely the ambiguity of whether he was lead or supporting in The Departed split the vote. Ryan Gosling, as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson, surprised some with a nomination, since the film was very low profile. He is an exciting young actor, but shouldn't expect to win.

So, Mirren is a lock, and I'll go with Whitaker as well, but would be pleased to see O'Toole win.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Alright, Still...

Judging by the lyrics on her album, Alright, Still..., Lily Allen is pissed off, mostly at men. The 21-year-old Brit's record, a big hit in the U.K., has now been released in the States, and it's a refreshing disc of ska-flavored bubblegum, with a bit of an acidic after-taste.

The disc begins with the engaging and toe-tapping "Smile," which is such a sunny song that only after paying attention to the words do we realize that it's about a girl who got dumped by a guy and now is amused by his pleading to have her back. That sets the tone for the rest of the album. The following track, "Knock 'Em Out," is a diatribe about guys who try to pick her up at clubs. I'm sure this refers only to a certain type of guy, i.e., losers, because surely Miss Allen is not celibate. In "Not Big," Allen slams an old boyfriend: "How would it make you feel if I said that you never ever made me cum? In the year and a half that we spent together, yeah, I never really had much fun." Well, that would probably make me feel pretty lousy.

Allen also has barbs for an ex-friend in "No Friend of Mine," and tries to set her younger brother straight in "Alfie": "I tell him he should get up cos it's nearly quarter past three, he can't be bothered cos he's high on THC." This is a curious song, because it's orchestrated as if it were meant for an oompah band, complete with an oboe introduction. Finally, Allen appears to be taking some mean-spirited shots at her grandmother in "Nan, You're a Window Shopper," going so far as to tease her because she's never learned to drive and has a hole in her colostomy bag. Clearly, Allen is not headed for a career in gerontology.

Apart from the invective lyrics, the music is bouncy and professional, and Allen has a breathy baby-doll voice that recalls early Madonna. It recalls later Madonna, too, in that the British accent is as thick as porridge but might not be authentic. In some reading I've done on her, Allen is accused by some of being a "Mockney"--that is, she fakes having a lower-class accent, even though she is the properly educated daughter of a prominent British comedian. No matter that over here in the U.S.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Venus

Venus is a perfectly charming little film that sits upon the very large shoulders of its lead actor, Peter O'Toole. Without his performance I'm sure it would have come and gone completely unnoticed. It is also a film that hits very near the bone for me.

O'Toole plays Maurice, an actor who is now deep in the declination of old age. His body is a worn-out husk, with a face full of lines and sag and an unruly mop of gray hair. Within, though, is a spark that burns, and his wit and charm can not be extinguished. He lives a shabby life in an apartment right next to a railroad track, and hangs out with his friends, most notably Ian, played by Leslie Phillips, another codger who is a hyponchondriac. Ian has hired his great-niece to be a caretaker for him, and looks forward to her doing things for him like cooking fish.

What he gets is a different story. Jessie is a sullen, loutish girl from the country who harbors an absurd dream of being a model. Ian is appalled, and thinks her vile, but Maurice is instantly smitted. Why? Because she is young. He enjoys spending time with her, doing just about anything, because it rejuvenates him. He has long been a man who appreciates women, and even though he has one foot in the grave and prostate surgery has rendered him impotent, he still loves to smell a young woman's neck.

To some this is a rather icky thing, and the filmmakers understand this. Seeing a decrepit old man moon over a pretty young girl turns many stomachs. When I had dinner after the film I sat near a couple who had evidently just seen the same show I had. The woman in the couple was very clear of her opinion: "He was just a dirty old man." Certainly she is right, but should her view be so harsh? Is it wrong for a man to still appreciate beauty? Maurice gives Jessie a nickname, Venus, after a painting. He tells her that a woman's body is the most beautiful thing most men will ever see.

I'm a little more sympathetic to this view because, if I should live so long, I would be the same guy as Maurice. No matter how old I get, if I ever stop admiring young women there will be something seriously wrong with me. Acting on these desires is more problematic, and when they are done in a position of power is wrong. But desire should have no age limit.

O'Toole is heartbreakingly brilliant in the role. Surely he does not have the verve and energy he brought to roles like Lawrence of Arabia or Henry II in Becket or Lion in Winter. But the embers are still there. There is a scene where he has drawn Jessie a bath, and as she bathes he sits on the other side of a closed door and recites Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer day?" sonnet. Now, who wouldn't be moved by that? As I watched him perform I thought of what my nonagenarian grandmother has said to me on numerous occasions, "It's hell getting old."

Jodi Whittaker plays Jessie. It is a difficult part. She is not Eliza Doolittle, and he is not Henry Higgins. This is not about an ugly duckling turning into a swan. She is a typical, unschooled young woman, attractive but not beautiful. But I liked the way Maurice wore her down. As he tells Ian, when asked what can he do for her at his age, Maurice says "I'm nice to her." Clearly Jessie is not used to this, and even though the dispenser of kindness is old enough to be her grandfather, she appreciates it just the same.

I have now seen all five of the Best Actor nominees, having seen Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson last night and, as good as Gosling was, I would vote for O'Toole, a testament to the talent that can not be diminished by the ravages of time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Absurdistan

As I work my way through the ten books chosen by The New York Times as the best of 2006, I come to the first novel on the list, Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. This is the opera buffa story of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, who is as memorable a character as you are likely to come across in a work of recent fiction.

Misha is 350-pound dilettante, the son of a man with slippery business ethics but also a dissident Jew, whom Misha refers to as "Beloved Papa." Misha was sent away to the United States for college, and he learned to love the excesses of capitalism, particularly rap music and a foul-mouthed Latina from the Bronx. Upon returning to Russia to be with his father, though, he finds himself unable to return to the U.S.A., because his father has murdered a businessman from Oklahoma.

This book then becomes a diary of Misha's quest to get back to the adopted country he loves and the woman he longs for. He learns that he can acquire a Belgian passport by traveling to the former Soviet republic of Absurdistan, which he does with alacrity. Absurdistan, of course, is fictional, occupying the same space, as near as I can tell, with the real nation of Azerbaijan (south of Russia, on the Caspian, and bordering Iran). As the name implies, Absurdistan is the kind of country that Joseph Heller would have loved (in fact, Shteyngart gives Heller a shout out during the book). It has two factions that are forever at odds: the Sevo and the Svani. They are both Christians, but disagree on the angle of tilt of Christ's footrest on the cross. This is pointless dispute reminiscent of both Swift and Dr. Seuss.

Misha, who is only interested in food and rap music, suddenly finds himself in the midst of a Civil War. He has aligned with the Sevos, for he has fallen in love with a buxom tour guide who is the daughter of the Sevo leader (his Bronx angel has thrown him over for a Russian émigré professor, who is given the tongue-in-cheek name of Jerry Shteynfarb, and is modeled after the author himself). The country, while fictional, is entwined with the very real Halliburton company and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, who hunger for the supposed oil reserves the country has. Misha manages to have himself named Commissar of Multicultural Affairs, and begins drafting documents for a Holocaust Museum when the war escalates and his life in danger.

This book, while comic in tone, is occasionally very serious, depicting how poor, small countries that are the puppets of big corporations can be devastated. Just like the characters of Heller's Catch-22, which is also a comic novel that doesn't shy away from the horrors of war, Misha can't escape the reality of his situation. But the writing is inspired, and frequently of genius level. There is a zinger on almost every page, and I can just let the book fall open and find a gem: "During the thirties and forties, Stalin had killed half my family. Arguably the wrong half." Or: "In my golden, glassed-in elevator, I fell like Icarus from my lofty penthouse to the busy hotel lobby, where the local merchants promptly sold me a Gillette Mach3 razor, a bottle of Turkish Efes beer, and a box of Korean condoms." Or: "Lefevre, upon seeing my bulk spilling over the tiny Soviet bed so that each leg and arm hung suspended like a ham at a Castilian tapas bar, started laughing with ever atom of his marinated red face. But the joke was on him several days later, when he committed suicide in our bathroom." I could go on and on.

The book also has a soft, old-fashioned sentiment of redemption and love conquering all, despite Halliburton's best efforts. Misha Vainberg is a character who ranks up Candide, Don Quixote, or Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith

The death of Anna Nicole Smith on Thursday at the age of 39 has given us all a chance to examine the morbid curiosity we have for celebrity, in particular those celebrities, like Smith, who have come to seemingly only exist for use by tabloid journalism. Smith had no discernible talent, and her life was a roller coaster of outlandish proportions, feeding the beast of the gossip subculture and the secret need for all of us to tsk-tsk the likes of her while at the same time consuming news of her trashy exploits with an unabated zeal. "Train wreck" are the words used most often to describe her life, even the title of an upcoming biography of her by a half-sister who hasn't seen her for ten years, and it is probably apt, as Smith's life and a locomotive disaster have qualities that resist turning away from, no matter how gruesome.

Of course I didn't know Smith, but I knew some like her during my tenure at Penthouse. Women who from their early years had nothing to speak of except their looks, women who were frequently teen brides and/or mothers, and were emotionally unequipped to handle any kind of success that came their way. Smith, though, reached giddy extremes that no Penthouse Pet could have imagined. A Playboy Playmate (and then Playmate of the Year), a model for Guess? clothing, and then the bride of an 89-year-old billionaire, who subsequently died, leaving her in a perpetual squabble for his fortune that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Along the way Smith, or her handlers, for it is uncertain how much control of her life she ever had, given the evidence of her near constant sedation, turned her stormy circumstances into a joke. This culminated in a two-year stint with a reality show chronicling the general insanity of her life.

The last act of Smith's life was undeniably tragic, as the son from her teenage first marriage, Daniel, whom she appeared to be exceptionally close to, died just three days after the birth of her second child, a daughter. Daniel died of a drug overdose right in her hospital room, and she was so drugged that his death didn't immediately take hold with her, so she had to be retold the news every time she awoke, giving her several opportunities to experience the grief all over again. Her daughter Dannielynn, now five months old, is without a mother, and will be the object of a predictable series of court cases, as her paternity is questioned. If this thing couldn't get any more surreal, the husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was sort of the Anna Nicole Smith of her day, has thrown his DNA in the ring and claims to be the baby's father.

I feel a great deal of pity for Anna Nicole Smith. She was clearly a woman of limited ability who by dint of a great face and physique and a cock-eyed optimism managed to obtain wealth and fame, but the cost turned out to be too much. I am not immune to wallowing in the mud of grotesque fascination, either, tuning in to Entertainment Tonight's coverage of her death, with the waxen Mary Hart putting on her serious face while clips of Smith¹s last interview, her gaze unfocused and words slurred, were broadcast. Contrasting the woman of two weeks ago, who was clearly on some sort of pain-killer, with those of her when she was first on the scene are striking, as back in 1992 and 1993 there is no sign of intoxication, just an optimism for the future, a chance to make a good life for her son and maybe be a star, which is the dream of so many in this country. An American tragedy, indeed.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Oscar Forecast: Best Supporting Actor, Actress

Over the next three weeks I'll join in the Oscar-prediction circle jerk and post my thoughts of who will win. I'll start today with Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Next week, the lead performances, and then Director and Picture (plus a one-line prediction for all awards).

I'll start with an easy category, Best Supporting Actress. It can probably be said without too much hesitation that Jennifer Hudson won this award when she was given the part of proud, big-boned Effie White in Dreamgirls. Her larger-than-life voice and presence is an easy sell to win an award, despite her merely adequate acting abilities. The backstory of being an American Idol cast-off certainly is a big part of the appeal.

If Hudson has any competition at all, it might come from Abigail Breslin as Olive, the precocious beauty pageant contestant in Little Miss Sunshine. This is the category where youngsters Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin took home trophies, but I would be dumbfounded if Hudson loses.

Also-rans in this category are Cate Blanchett, as a teacher who can't keep her hands off a teenage boy in Notes on a Scandal, (Blanchett won two years ago for The Aviator), and two actresses from Babel, Adriana Barraza, as a nanny and illegal immigrant who makes a foolish decision, and Rinko Kikuchi, who plays a deaf Japanese girl longing for connection to others. These two are both unknown performers who will likely split any of the Babel vote.

In the Supporting Actor category, there is a clear front-runner, but I smell an upset. Eddie Murphy, who plays a James Brown-like singer in Dreamgirls, has won the Golden Globe and Screen Actor's Guild award. He is a megastar that has earned billions for the studios, and is perceived to be in a "comeback" (mainly due to several flops he made in the last ten years or so). Predicting him to win the Oscar is not going out on a limb.


But I'm not sure Murphy is a beloved figure in Hollywood, and there is a clear alternative in Alan Arkin, as the crotchety Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine. Arkin has been nominated twice before, but not for 38 years. While not a major name, he is certainly a respected actor, and may have the chops to best Murphy.

In the "happy to just be nominated" category is Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie, the pedophile, in Little Children. Haley was a child star in Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, but over the years gave up acting and actually worked for a while as a pizza delivery boy. His stunning reversal of fortune is a good story, and I hope he enjoys the attention, because he's not going to win.

Mark Wahlberg, as Dignam, the acid-tongued cop in The Departed, is another interesting story. It's somewhat hard to imagine that rapper and underwear model Marky Mark is now an Oscar-nominated actor, but Wahlberg has become a bankable actor. He is the only nominee from the rich cast of the film, even over Jack Nicholson. A large part of this is due to his incredibly funny and profane dialogue.

Djimon Hounsou is the fifth nominee, as a fisherman caught up in civil war in Blood Diamond. Hounsou has a rep for playing noble Africans, and this is his second nomination. I didn't think it was anything Oscar-worthy, but he seems to be a favorite of some. Hard to imagine him winning.

So, Hudson in a walk and I'll pick Arkin in a squeaker over Murphy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Return to Cookie Mountain

TV on the Radio's 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain has received numerous accolades. In came in second in the Village Voice's annual poll of rock critics (behind Bob Dylan's Modern Times) and came in first in a similar poll for Idolator. Frankly, I had never heard of the group but took a chance. The results are mixed.

As usual with music that excites rock critics, I found it a bit dense. The style is a melange of several types--jazz, African, Caribbean, fusion, you name it. Each song lies on a bed of fuzz and orchestral samples, giving the whole thing an ambient sound that seems like Phil Spector on acid. The lyrics are obtuse.

After three listens, though, I found it growing on me. The first track sets the stage, as "I Was a Lover" starts off with what sounds like backwards music and the lyrics are full of wistful regret. "Province" contains a guest vocal by David Bowie. "Let the Devil In" has some powerful choral vocals.

The absolute gem on this record is a track called "A Method." It is the only song that has a hook of any kind. It begins with some hand claps and a solitary whistle, then builds, ticking like a clock, adding in some falsetto "woops" and a sing-song vocal that contains some catchy non-sequitors, my favorite being, "It's a rough wild world, would you please chaperone."

This is what is usually called "thinking man's rock," which is a curse and a blessing. Yes, it's worlds more sophisticated than most top-40, but sometimes you just want to listen to Herman's Hermits.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Maggiebaby

It seems that every other movie I've seen lately features Maggie Gyllenhaal, and that's alright with me, as I've learned that she is a wonderfully interesting actress. I suppose I first experienced her talent in a big way, the 2002 film Secretary, which I hold near and dear to my heart. I love this film in many ways, particularly because it treats those who like S&M not as freaks but as people capable of having loving relationships, and Gyllenhaal's performance was essential to that response. In fact, I thought hers was the best female performance of that year.

Later that year she had a small part in the brilliant Adaptation, in what would become sort of a typecasting for her: the quirkily beautiful girlfriend. She would play this part again in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Stranger Than Fiction. In the latter film, I don't think the relationship between her anarchic baker and the straitlaced IRS agent, Will Ferrell, ever completely works, but its enjoyable to watch them try. In Happy Ending she was a scheming ne'er-do-well, who seduces a clueless Tom Arnold, and again she was fascinating to watch. She also showed off a great singing voice in this film. I'd buy an album if she made one.

Just last week I saw Monster House, in which she had a voice performance as a teenage babysitter, and last night I saw her in Sherrybaby, where she is scarily good as a recoving drug addict on parole trying to reconnect with a small daughter. What makes this film interesting is that Sherry is not lovable, and continually makes wrong decisions. She uses her looks to get what she wants, and has a huge chip on her shoulder. But at the end you can't help pulling for her.

Gyllenhaal is not what is called conventionally beautiful, but she has the kind of round, welcoming facial features that I'm sure have made many male viewers' hearts go pitter-pat. She has the kind of beauty that seems accessible to nerds, geeks and spazzes everywhere. Of course, she's cemented her indie film queen status by marrying indie film prince Peter Sarsgaard, and the couple now have a child, as well as having more "A"s in their name than anyone is entitled to.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Water


Water is a Canadian film that was shot in Sri Lanka, but it is about India, specifically the treatment of widows. The Hindu culture has two traditions that, hand-in-hand, can be devastating to a young woman. They can be married off when they are very young girls, seven or eight years old, and if their husband dies, they must live a life of self-denial, never marrying again, and being shunned by the population.

The story begins in 1938 with eight-year old Chuyia being awakened by her father. "Do you remember being married?" he asks her. "No," she answers. Then she is told that the husband she had never met has died, and her head is shaved and she is packed off to an ashram, a house of widows, who wear nothing but white, do not eat fried foods or sweets, and avoid the company of men. Chuyia quickly comes to realize she will live there for the rest of her life, as some of the women there are quite elderly. One old woman is kind and dreams of eating sweets again. Another is like a prison warden, bossing the others around.

There is one widow who keeps her hair long, and lives set apart from the others. She is very beautiful, and when Chuyia sees her for the first time, she says, "Angel!" The character is played by Lisa Ray, a former model, and we come to realize that she is being pimped out by the boss lady to a procurer, a eunuch who acts as a go-between.

Into this picture comes Narayan, played by John Abraham. He is a young law student, and admires Gandhi, who is just starting to come to power. When he sees Ray (the widows are allowed out) he understandably is smitten, and scoffs at the traditions. He endeavors to rescue Ray from the ashram and marry her. Of course, things don't go precisely as planned.

This film is lovely, if not a bit slow in spots. It was directed by Deepa Mehta, and the history of the production was rocky, as it was shut down by Indian authorities, because of protests by Hindu extremists. We find out at the end that there are still 34 million widows in India who are treated this way. It's an interesting, heartbreaking topic, well shot and acted. It is worthy of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

Letters From Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood's companion piece to his earlier Flags of Our Fathers. This time the battle of Iwo Jima is told from the Japanese side. They were defending a small, inhospitable island that was part of their sovereign territory, and if lost, would provide a base for a U.S. attack on the Japanese mainland.

Unlike Flags, which I did not care for, this film is strictly about war. While Flags brought the story home and dealt with the men who were celebrated as heroes for lifting the flag in the famous photograph, the soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima are depicted as doomed from the outset. There are a few flashbacks to their lives outside of war, but most of the film consists of them preparing for attack, defending against attack, and then losing. Every one of them seems to realize they are on a suicide mission, but it is part of their culture to fight to the death.

This is really an interesting bit of cinema, for it is a conventional war movie but from the perspective of the enemy to the United States. The similarities are both subtle and basic. For example, we get the platoon with soldiers of different types. Primarily there is Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. He is a simple baker, and is like the Japanese equivalent of Sad Sack. He wants nothing to do with the fight, and isn't too caught up in the whole ritual suicide thing. Then there is Shimizu, who is a by-the-books soldier who believes that the Americans are savages, but over the course of the carnage he learns his priorities may have been misplaced.

Parallel to the story of the grunts is that of command. Ken Watanabe is magnificent as General Kuribayashi, a man who spent time in the U.S. He is pragmatic but also believes in his country. The sorrow etched in his face is truly heartbreaking. Also impressive is Tsuyoshi Ihara as Baron Nishi, the tank commander. He was an equestrain Olympian, and hobnobbed with Hollywood stars. When an American soldier is captured, he speaks to him in English and asks him if he knows who Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford are. The soldier says yes, and Nishi wistfully recalls that he was guests at their house. When Nishi translates a letter from the soldier's mother in Oklahoma, and they realize how similar they are, it's very moving.

Saigo and the General interact periodically throughout the film, and their final encounter, as the island is being overrun, is almost Shakespearean the way it unites foot-soldier and general. This is just one example of the wonderful script by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis. Another is the case of a soldier named Ito, who wants to fight to the death, and straps bombs to himself hoping a tank will run over him and he can take it out. Fate has a different outcome for Ito, though.

This film is reminiscent of other war films that are from the point of view of the vanquished, particularly Civil War films that feature the Confederacy. The futility of war is not a new concept, but it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of it, particularly in a film that is this well crafted.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Black Parade

Listening to My Chemical Romance's album The Black Parade is a little like stepping into a time machine and going back to the 70s. A "concept" album largely about death, the band (from Kearny, New Jersey, a city I once called home) lists its influences as Queen and Pink Floyd, and that can certainly be heard. The band that I thought of most, though, was Styx.

The songs frequently have multi-layered, chorale-like vocals, snarling guitars, and build to an operatic fever. The thread running through them is a patient who is dying of cancer, and I suppose he is looking back at his life (a lot of this information comes from outside sources, as specifics are not readily apparent to me upon listening, and the type on the lyrics sheet is so small only an eagle would be able to read it clearly). The target demographic must be teenagers who morbidly brood in their darkened rooms, wearing black and hating everyone.

Each time I have listened to the album I like it when it starts out, but by the end I feel bludgeoned. There's not much variation to the music, and let's face it, it's not a pleasant subject. There are two stand-out numbers, both of which hit go full tilt, "Bohemian Rhapsody"-style excess. "Welcome to the Black Parade," about a boy who is taken to watch a parade by his father, who then asks him if he will be a savior. Then there's "Mama," which sounds like an old Eastern European folk tune, and chants, "Mama, we're all going to hell," and includes a guest vocal by Liza Minelli. Now, you can't beat that.

Clearly the band had fun with the whole concept. They appear in pictures in spectral drum major outfits, and the whole packaging reeks of Halloween. Perhaps I'll give it a spin again some time when I'm feeling suicidal.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Scary Movies

In an attempt to catch up with some Oscar nominations I've missed, I've turned to my trusty Netflix queue and rented a few nominees. Two of them are quite scary, but in entirely different ways.

First was Monster House, one of three films nominated for Best Animated Feature. I'd already seen Cars, and Happy Feet is still in theaters, but I'm loathe to actually pay money for a film and be surrounded by wild toddlers. Monster House is on DVD, and I saw the first hour of it. Unfortunately, it had some scratches on it and became unwatchable, and at a critical time in the movie, too. So I have to wait for a replacement disc, one of the drawbacks of Netflix.

In any event, I enjoyed the first hour very much. This is an animated film more for tweeners than very small children, as a child under eight would probably find it too scary. It concerns three children who are out to solve the mystery of a mysterious house across the street, that was once the home of a mean old man, the type that takes your ball when it comes into his lawn. The horror becomes pretty intense in spots, particularly when the house, which becomes a large head, complete with teeth, tongue, and eyes, swallows up a couple of policeman, and when the kids stumble upon the burial mound of the old man's wife, whose remains were embedded in cement. Spooky!

A film that is far scarier because it is real is Jesus Camp, one of the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature (the only other nominee I've seen is An Inconvenient Truth, another scary movie). It features evangelical Christians, specifically a youth minister named Becky Fischer, who every year has a camp for kids in North Dakota (the name of the town is Devil's Lake, which is unintentionally hilarious). The core of this woman's belief is that children form their belief systems at a young age, so she wants to get to 'em early, molding them into warriors for Christ. I am most certainly not a Christian, though I was born into that gene pool. I have no problem with people gathering together and worshipping anyway they please, but when they start saying things like, "Taking back the country in the name of Christ," I get concerned. I'm as secular as the day as long, so I'm the type of person that finds this sort of thing hair-raising.

The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, take an objective viewpoint, and let the words and actions of the participants paint themselves as the intolerant, hate-mongering bigots that they are. Ms. Fischer, early on, talks about how Islam trains their children so they are so indoctrinated that they will become suicide bombers, and she wants to do the same thing for Christians. It makes one do a double-take: did she really say she wants Christian children to go on suicide missions? Also, in this form of Pentecostalism, there is an us versus them mentality. If you are not a rabid Christian, then you are an other, and there is something wrong with you. One little girl disparages churches other than her own as "dead churches," because people don't jump and scream hallelujah! God does not come to those churches, we are told. Ah yes, "You've got to be taught to hate," so the song goes.

It's one thing for adults to believe this, but to see children sold this malarkey is bone-chilling. It's also disheartening to see what killjoys the adults are, pointing out how Harry Potter would be put to death by Old Testament law, and told to stop telling ghost stories. Instead they are encourage to go up to strangers and proselytize, surely one way to lose friends if there ever was one.

Perhaps most insidious is the political message that is filtered into these children's minds. At camp a cardboard cut-out of President Bush is brought forward, and the kids say a prayer for him. Obviously their prayers weren't working too well during the mid-term elections. They are told that creationism is the only answer to our questions, and that global warming is a hoax, and that science doesn't prove anything. I'm surprised there wasn't a ritual burning of microscopes. Abortion, of course, is a big no-no, and the kids are propped in front of the Supreme Court building, singing hymns.

This is a fascinating film on anthropological and psychological terms. Surely what is going on here is brainwashing, and the evangelical movement is a cult not much different than what David Koresh was doing in Waco. The filmmakers use a liberal Christian broadcaster to occasionally sprinkle some sanity on the proceedings. He has Fischer on his show, and tells us there is a difference between learning, which is being presented with multiple viewpoints and allowing for a choice, and indoctrination. Fischer reveals her true colors when she says that democracy, as good a system as it is, will eventually destroy itself. Hard-core Christians don't want to live in a democracy, and are fundamentally un-American. They want to live in a theocracy, which is as far as what Jefferson and his brethren wanted as you can get.

The filmmakers also got lucky by including footage of Ted Haggard, the former president of the Evangelical Association, who resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that he had a liaison with a male prostitute. It brings to mind what Max Von Sydow's character says in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters: "If Jesus ever came back, and heard what was being said in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

I'm of the belief that behavior like speaking in tongues and visions and seeing evil in things that are fun like Harry Potter (and probably Monster House) is a psychosis. Jesus Camp does nothing to change that belief.