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Friday, November 30, 2007

Oscar: WIld-Ass Guesses

Before the onslaught of critics' and guild awards, here's my stab at who will get the major Oscar nominations. All the major releases seem to have been seen by at least someone by now, but I'm sure the landscape will shift over the next month. Final predictions in January. All nominees in alphabetical order.

Best Picture:

American Gangster
Atonement
The Kite Runner
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men

I wouldn't be gobsmacked if any of these don't make the cut, as there is no clear front-runner at this point. Atonement and No Country seem the safest bets, with Gangster and Clayton next. I'll stick in The Kite Runner to get the feel-good slot. There Will Be Blood may be too distasteful and idiosyncratic, and Into the Wild seems to have faded. I'm not buying (yet) the Tom O'Neill ejaculations for Sweeney Todd.

Best Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Sidney Lumet, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Ridley Scott, American Gangster
Joe Wright, Atonement

Rarely matches with Picture. I figure the directors will be kinder to PT Anderson than the general voting ranks, and will get a charge out of giving Lumet another nomination.


Best Actor:

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
James McAvoy, Atonement
Denzel Washington, American Gangster

Other possibilities: Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild, Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson's War. Philip Seymour Hoffman may be undone by his own hard work, as he really deserves a nomination for Before the Devil but could split votes with The Savages. But he will probably get a supporting nod (see below).

Best Actress:

Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Keira Knightley, Atonement
Ellen Page, Juno

Four of these women are pretty safe, and I'm sticking with Jolie in the fifth slot out of pure stubborness. If she doesn't get it it will probably be Laura Linney for The Savages. Way outside chance for Amy Adams in Enchanted.

Best Supporting Actor:

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Philip Bosco, The Savages
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Bardem and Wilkinson are locks, and Holbrook should be close to one. I've gone with a second old man, Bosco, which may be wrong-headed, but I have doubts about the others: Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood, Ethan Hawke, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Casey Affleck, Assassination of Jesse James, Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma.

Best Supporting Actress:

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Kelly MacDonald, No Country For Old Men
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Other possibilities include Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Ruby Dee, American Gangster, Jennifer Garner, Juno, Leslie Mann, Knocked Up, and Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement. Interesting thing about Ronan and Redgrave, they are two of three actresses (Romola Garai is the third) playing the same character in the film. If two are nominated it would be the first time two or more performers playing the same character in the same film would be nominated in the same category.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde

A great film transcends time, and Bonnie and Clyde is a great film, but it becomes even more fascinating when considering it in the context of the time when it was first seen. The film, directed by Arthur Penn and produced by and starring Warren Beatty, was released forty years ago, and has, over the years, been less remembered as a piece of cinema than it has as a benchmark in the history of film criticism.

In 1967, all over the U.S. and many other countries, there was an Us versus Them mentality. "Don't trust anyone over 30," so the saying went, and conservative old world values were taking a beating as almost every element of society protested. Drugs and free love were now in the mainstream. Psychedelia was now prevalent on Madison Avenue, and this can all be seen in Bonnie and Clyde, even though the film is set during the Great Depression in the dust-bowl. The trailer (one of the few extras on the DVD) is clear in this regard. "They're young, they're in love, they kill people!" is the tag-line, which is scripted in "groovy," psychedelic graphics.

The story is well-known among those who follow film criticism. The film was released in late summer and the New York Times venerable critic, Bosley Crowther, panned it, as did Time magazine. Pauline Kael, though, wrote a 9,000 word hosanna in The New Yorker, and the film went on to be nominated for ten Academy Awards. Crowther resigned and was replaced by Renata Adler, who was not yet thirty years old. The times, they were-a changin.'

What was it about Bonnie and Clyde that ignited such a firestorm? Looking at it again last night, I think it was two reasons: the violence, of course, and that it managed to maintain, simultaneously, two different tones. Films had been violent before, consider Psycho, but Bonnie and Clyde did not suggest it, it showed it. For the first half hour, the film is a somewhat lighthearted romance about two spectacularly appealing movie-star types meeting cute (Bonnie catches Clyde trying to steal her mother's car) and embarking on a rompish life of crime (that Clyde is presented as impotent is a disconcerting harbinger). Flatt and Scruggs "Foggie Mountain Breakdown" plays on the soundtrack, perhaps reminding viewers of wholesome fare like The Beverly Hillbillies, which was contemporary. They adopt the simple-minded C.W. Moss to further reinforce their family unit, and while robbing a bank C.W. comically can't pass up getting a great parking space, which dramatically slows their getaway. Then a bank employee steps on the running-board of the getaway car, and Clyde shoots him in the face. A page had been turned in the history of cinema.

The mixture of the hillbilly humor and the almost New-Wavish direction by Penn (there are subtle jump cuts, slow motion, and consider the scene where Bonnie visits her family, which is shot with some kind of amber filter) can be unsettling. What is to be made of the existence of the character of Blanche, wife of Buck Barrow, a preacher's daughter who screams in terror and runs around like a lunatic when the gang is ambushed by police? She is both comic relief and heart-wrenching pathos, the only true victim of the piece. And then there are the scenes that amplify the rebellion of the sixties: the scene in which the Texas Ranger is humiliated, and the scene where Gene Wilder and his girlfriend are kidnapped. The Ranger scene is sort of encapsulation of the anti-authority feeling that was widespread. He was "The Man," who should be helping poor folks, Clyde says. The Ranger would get his revenge, of course, in the most brutal of fashion, perhaps a reminder of the carnage not only on the streets of the urban centers of America but also Vietnam. And the Wilder scene (it is amusing to see Wilder had his familiar tics even back then) is clearly presented as the hip vs. square. The Barrow Gang are the cutting edge, "with-it," while Wilder's button-down undertaker is fuddy-duddy nowheresville.

The most famous scene of the picture is the last, the balletic orgy of bullets that end the ballad of Bonnie and Clyde. The film was released by Warner Brothers, whose stock in trade had been the gangster pictures of Robinson, Bogart and Cagney, but if there remained any doubt that this was your father's gangster picture, it ended right there. People today who are weaned on Saw and Hostel films would yawn at this scene, but I can imagine how shocking it was back then, and then how unsettled people must have been gathering their coats to leave the theater as the film ends abruptly seconds later.

Film violence would never be the same. Sam Peckinpah picked up the ball and ran with it, and now, forty years later, we are grappling with torture porn. There is no direct cause and effect, I think, because what Bonnie and Clyde was trying to say was that people didn't just grip their chests and fall over when they got shot--there was blood. Over the course of time that realization became a means for titillation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Transformers

Megan Fox, in an interview with Maxim (my go-to source for info on college-age starlets) said that Transformers was "the best film Michael Bay has ever directed." Let's pause to contemplate how fraught with ambiguity that statement is. Is it merely hype from a girl trying to put fannies in the seats, or is it a sardonic, back-handed compliment, kind of like saying someone is the world's tallest midget?

I caught up with this film over the Thanksgiving weekend, and I give thanks for Megan, who may just be the most beautiful female human being walking the planet. She is so good-looking it hurts. I think if I were ever in her presence I would just sizzle and melt like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. In Transformers she plays the hottest girl in high school, natch, who happens to know her way around a car engine and has a juvie record, which only heightens her appeal.

I am not in the demographic for this movie. I understand that the genesis of this was a Hasbro toy--vehicles that with a few twists and turns could be turned into robots. This led to a cartoon series, and eventually a summer special effects extravaganza that grossed over 200 million domestic. I have never played with the toy or saw the cartoon, being in my twenties by the time it hit, but there is evidently a large population of kids who now in their twenties and thirties who did, as well as current kids, who enjoy this sort of thing.

I have a hard time understanding how anyone over thirteen could tolerate this nonsense. We have a dumb storyline about how these sentient robots, who can manipulate themselves into common machines, do battle over the future of mankind. They find a kid, Shia LeBoeuf, whose ancestor had a key piece of information that is now in his hands. He and the hot chick end up being involved in this, best summed up by LeBoeuf's line, "I bought a car and it turned out to be an alien robot."

There are further inanities, such as John Turturro hamming it up as a secret agent, Jon Voight visually pained while playing the Secretary of Defense, and another hot chick, this time a blonde Australian, playing a computer expert while running around in fuck-me pumps. All this and the fact that the robots have given themselves names that they could have lifted off the doodles of a third-grader's notebook, like Megatron, Ironhide, and Starscream. The head good-guy robot is called Optimus Prime. Wouldn't a sentient robot from an advanced race know that his name is an oxymoron?

At least this film knows it's dumb. Several times the script winks at the camera, indicating a level of camp. But there is good cheese and bad cheese, and this is pretty bad. The only way to tolerate this sort of thing, aside from watching Megan Fox, is imagining what the robots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would do to it.

And is this the best Michael Bay film ever? Taking a look at his filmography, which I realize I've seen an alarmingly high percentage of, I would say no. He was the director of a Playboy Playmate Video back in 1990. I would say that remains his crowning achievement.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bergman: Regrets and Recriminations


This is the last of my posts on the films of Ingmar Bergman (at least until a few more become available on DVD), and will cover his films of the seventies and a few more besides.

I mentioned before the prominent use of red in The Passion of Anna. Well, in his next film, we are soaked in red. The setting for Cries and Whispers is almost entirely the inside of a turn of the century house which has red floors, red walls, red draperies. It is like being inside a womb, which is appropriate, because this is the story of four women. Three of them are sisters. One, Harriet, is dying a slow and painful death. Her two sisters, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid attend to her, but are distracted by their own painful memories, so it is the maid, Kari Sylwan, who is her closest attendant.

As Andersson dies, each woman has a flashback to a pivotal event in her life, and Bergman does not fade to black, he fades to red. The men in these women's lives make token appearances, as they are ineffectual and like dolls. Ullmann's character is a flirt who dallies with the doctor while her husband is away. Thulin is a cold woman and her flashback is the most memorable, as she takes a shard of broken glass and puts it in a place that will make anyone squirm. Cries and Whispers is a suffocating, intense film of great beauty and fragility, and amazingly was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1973 (not just Foreign Language--Best Picture!). Sven Nykvist's camera work did win an Oscar.

Bergman's next move was quite daring. Though he was internationally renowned director he was having trouble financing his pictures. He decided to do television, and the result was a six-part domestic drama, Scenes From a Marriage. It was a huge hit in Scandinavia. Policemen in Denmark noted that on the last night of the show no one was on the streets. For the U.S. market, Bergman whittled the film down to just under three hours, and it was also a huge art-house hit. The film documents the decline of the marriage between Johan and Marianne) Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann). At the beginning of the film they have been married for ten years and are quite happy, especially contrasted with their good friends, whom they share an uncomfortable dinner with. But Johan meets another woman, and breaks the news to Marianne in their summer cottage. She immediately wants a divorce, but Johan is for some reason hesitant. In a later scene, which bubbles with terrific writing and acting, they meet at her office to sign the divorce papers. They are a bit giddy, and make love on the floor, but before the scene is over Johan has assaulted her. It's as if the two are locked together in some primeval link, forever compelled to reconnect.

In the mid-seventies, Bergman was arrested for tax evasion. He was later exonerated, but the experience was so dreadful (the authorities took him away from a theater rehearsal) that he vowed never to work there again. He relocated to Munich, and made a deal with Dino DeLaurentiis (that just doesn't sound right). He now had all sorts of money to work with, and the result was one of his biggest duds, The Serpent's Egg. The film was in English, but set in Weimar Germany. It concerns an American circus performer, David Carradine, as he gets involved with sinister, proto-Nazi psychological experiments. It was Bergman's homage to the German expressionism films of the twenties and thirties, and it just doesn't work. In the supplemental materials, Ullmann thinks it's because Bergman, now flush with funds, abandoned his style of tight closeups and went whole hog with production design. An entire set replicating 1922 Berlin was built, so he showed it off. It's an interesting picture, but not a very good one.

His next film, shot in Norway, was something of a milestone in that it combined the forces of the two greatest Swedish names in cinema, both of them Bergman--Ingmar and Ingrid. Autumn Sonata concerns a famed concert pianist, reunited with her two daughters, neither of which she seen in many years. Ingrid Bergman is the mother, Ullmann is one of the daughters (the other is spastic and needs constant medical care). Over the course of the ninety minutes of this film the two women hash out all the old wounds they have been carrying for years. Bergman was an inattentive mother, and Ullmann lets her have it, especially in a scene that lasts a good twenty minutes. This is the kind of film that makes you examine your own relationships with your family members, and if you're lucky they are better than they are in Bergman films.

In the early eighties Bergman announced he was retiring, and his last film was to be Fanny and Alexander. In many ways, the resulting film was a catharsis for him, as well as being unlike anything he had ever done before. For one thing it was a spectacle, involving lavish sets and costumes and a huge cast. It is the story of two children, who first are in a large, boisterous family of theater professionals. But after their beloved father dies, their mother (played by Ewa Fröling, a lookalike of Liv Ullmann) marries a severe bishop, and the kids are plunged into a Dickensian nightmare. Their grandmother, with the assistance of a kindly Jewish antiques dealer, endeavors to rescue them.

Early on in the film, Alexander plays with a magic lantern, which is a key touchstone in Bergman's life and works. It was with this kind of toy that he first discovered a love of cinema, and he titled his autobiography Magic Lantern to boot. Fanny and Alexander is the kind of film that is for serious film lovers, a sumptuous feast of the senses. After I saw it for the first time I walked out of the theater emotionally wrung out.

Bergman did not completely retire. He continued to write scripts, and directed a few more films, some for TV. One of them as After the Rehearsal, with Josephson and Lena Olin, which I liked so much I saw it twice in a few weeks over at the Lincoln Plaza cinemas, but it is not available on DVD. His last directorial effort turned out to be Saraband, which reunited the characters of Johan and Marianne from Scenes from a Marriage, now old and long estranged. Marianne decides to visit him for reasons she's not quite sure of, and ends up in the middle of a squabble involving Johan's ineffectual son and his granddaughter, who is a talented cellist. The film is a series of dialogues, as there are never more than two characters on screen at once. It has a very theatrical tone, though the recognizable Bergman closeups are there. We also again hear some of the most shocking, scathing language between family members you are likely to hear, such as Josephson telling his son that he means nothing to him. Contempt is palpable in this film.

On the DVD extras for Saraband, there is a fascinating glimpse of Bergman in action as a director. He was in his eighties when he made the film, but is spry. He has a reputation as being such a dour man so it's nice to see him in lighthearted moments. At one point he tells Ullmann that she is not speaking loudly enough, and she teases him by saying he is old and hard of hearing, which makes him laugh. Watching him work with actors is very interesting as well.

Now that Bergman is gone it's easy and tempting to over emphasize his attitudes about death. On the Saraband extras he talks about this, and relates that he once had a great fear of death, which is what The Seventh Seal was about. And then, his last wife died, and since he did not believe in an afterlife, he was disconsolate that he would never seen her again. But his friend Josephson gave him a bit of advice. "Just hang on to that," he told his old friend.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country For Old Men

When I read Cormac McCarthy's spare and elegant novel of horrific violence, No Country For Old Men, I was aware that the Coen Brothers were adapting and directing a film version. Therefore, when I got to the end and, well, I don't want to even hint at a spoiler, I wondered how they were going to change it to satisfy filmgoers. It turns out they didn't, and the result is one of the most faithful film adaptations I've ever seen of a novel. It will certainly baffle and annoy many in the audience, but a part of me is very glad they didn't mess with it.

McCarthy wrote a book about the nature of evil by using a very familiar plot device: a character finds a suitcase full of money, decides to keep it, and there is hell to pay. In this instance it is Josh Brolin as Llewellyn Moss, who while hunting antelope in the wasteland of west Texas finds a grisly scene: some pickup trucks and several dead bodies. One of the trucks contains a huge shipment of heroin, but Brolin is more interested in a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills.

Brolin then does something pretty stupid, and even he knows it's stupid, but he won't be able to live with himself if doesn't do it. His actions end up making him the target of a variety of people wanting to get the money back, none so deadly as Anton Chigurh, a man of indeterminate ethnicity and a haircut that recalls Mike Nesmith's days as a Monkee. Chigurh, played to chilling perfection by Javier Bardem, is evil through and through, but he has a code of ethics in the way he dispatches his victims. In one early scene, he is annoyed by a salesclerk in a gas station. He flips a coin and asks the man to call it. It is clear that if the man loses the call, Chigurh will kill him, though the man doesn't realize how his entire fate rests on a fifty-fifty chance.

Chigurh is something more than human. He is referred to at one point as a ghost, though he does bleed. In one scene he calmly goes about treating himself for shotgun wounds, after first pilfering Lidocaine from a pharmacy. The film is set in 1980, and a minor character mentions that times are changing for the worst. He calls it the "dismal tide," but cites as examples kids with green hair and bones through their noses. That's kid stuff--the dismal tide is men like Chigurh, who kill without emotion and would seem to have been conjured up from Hades.

As Chigurh tracks Brolin, other characters are involved in the mix. Most prominent is Tommy Lee Jones as a local sheriff, who is a third generation of Texas lawman. His character acts as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action without being able to do anything about it. He seems to understand what the dismal tide is, and who Chigurh might really be, but is powerless to stop him.

This is the most satisfying film from the Coens since Fargo. It is certainly there most serious. There is little room for the macabre humor they usually lace through their films. A few laughs slip in, especially when Brolin awakens bloody in Mexico while being serenaded by a mariachi band, but overall the mood is excessively grim, almost apocalyptic. They also do a masterful job of creating tension. I read the book and knew what was happening, but I still sat in the theatre dry-mouthed while Brolin was being stalked. This is the first time the Coens have adapted another person's work (not counting the very freely adapted Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou) but they are able to take McCarthy's language and make it sound distinctly Coenian, particularly in the lines spoken by Jones.

Also notable in this cast is Kelly MacDonald as Brolin's wife. To start with, it's kind of amazing how a Scottish woman can get a Texas accent down so well, but aside from that she gives a small part a good deal of heft, particularly in her last scene.

I'm not sure if I consider this the best film of the year so far. Its competition would be Michael Clayton, which has a much more conventional, crowd-pleasing ending. But No Country For Old Men is far more thought-provoking and better exhibition of film craft. It is a stunning achievement.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Beautiful Cigar Girl

One summer day in 1841 a young woman named Mary Rogers told her fiance that she was going to pay a call on her aunt. She never returned. A few days later she was found floating in the Hudson River, and a coroner determined she died by strangulation. Rogers was something of a celebrity--attractive young women of that time period were employed by tobacco shops as clerks to get the male trade, sort of like the Hooters girls of their time. The many newspapers in New York had a field day speculating on who did it and calling for a reform of the judicial system.

At the same time, a young writer named Edgar Poe was struggling to make a name for himself. All through his life he had been battling some demon or another. Orphaned at a very young age, he was brought up by foster parents, and during his teen and young adult years he and his foster father became further estranged. He spent most of his life in poverty and alcoholism, and his barbed criticism had made many enemies in the literary set. He was deeply in love with his wife, a first cousin whom he married when she was thirteen, and who would die young from tuberculosis.

Poe drifted from one editorial job to another, hoping to start his own literary magazine, while working on a theory he called "ratiocination," which dealt with solving crimes through a series of deductions. He created a ficitional Parisian detective, C. Auguste Dupin, who had already appeared in one story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which had met with some acclaim. The murder of Mary Rogers inspired Poe to write a second story using Dupin, in which he would attempt to solve the crime in his fiction.

This is the subject matter of Daniel Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Girl. This book excels both as a well-researched document of history and as a page-turning mystery, especially those unfamiliar to the case. He begins with a brief biography of Mary that leads up to her death, and then alternates her story with that of Poe's. There have been longer and more thorough biographies of Poe, but I thought Stashower did a fine job of letting us know the man behind the legend in just a few chapters. Also, he brings vividly to life the New York City (as well as Hoboken, New Jersey, where Mary's body came ashore) of the time. The wars between newspapers, the almost complete lawlessness of the streets (some of this overlaps with Gangs of New York) the various levels of society, and the geography, which to those who New York today can seem preposterous (Poe for a time lived at Broadway and 84th Street, which at that time was in the middle of acres of farmland).

The story Poe wrote based on Mary's case was The Mystery of Marie Roget, which is today one of his greatest works, and with the other two Dupin stories (Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter) created almost from whole cloth the genre we know today as the detective story. Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes owed a tremendous debt to Poe's Dupin, and Doyle was not hesitant to admit it. As we read about Poe's declining years (he died in 1849, at the age of 40) one can't help feel a great sorrow. He was never appreciated in his lifetime, either in reputation or financially (The Raven was very well-known in his day, and was acclaimed as the greatest American poem upon its publication, but he earned a total of nine dollars for it). The French resurrected his reputation and led to his posthumous place in the pantheon of American writers.

As for Mary, when it is revealed how she really died (though she died over a hundred and sixty years ago I don't want to spoil it here) it has resonance in our society today. She was among many girls who died the same way, but her name has become a footnote in literary history.



Monday, November 19, 2007

Beowulf

To start off with, the animation style of Beowulf is something I can't get used to. I didn't see Polar Express, but I've read that some viewers had trouble with it because the animation just can't get human eyes right. This problem continues in Beowulf. They can get back hair down to the finest detail, but the eyes in the characters are dead, and it all looks a video game.

That being said, I still had a fairly good time seeing Beowulf. It is adapted from the medieval Old English poem about derring-do in sixth-century Scandinavia. I'm sure it tickles many an English professor, who struggled to get their charges to read this musty old poem, that the film made over twenty-five milion at the box office this weekend. That is certainly a rehabiliation of a work that occasioned this line by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer advises Annie, who is looking to take an adult education course, "just don't take anything where they make you read Beowulf."

The film captures the wonders of a fantasy adventure while retaining a literary flavor. King Hrothgar has built a large hall for merrymaking and debauchery. The singing annoys a monstrous creature called Grendel, who arrives and great carnage results (I should think of this the next time a neighbor makes too much noise). Hrothgar calls for a hero to help his people, and Beowulf, a mighty warrior of the Geats, arrives with a group of men. Dispatching the Grendel isn't the least of his worries, though, as there is his mother to deal with.

The original story, which is basically three acts, is adhered to, but the screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary adds some layers that give the main characters some secrets. I had forgotten much of the original (I read it on a plane to London, of all places) so had to reacquaint myself of the plot summary after seeing the film, and I think the additional motivations work. Basing the film solely on the poem would have resulted in something far more leaden. This additional subtext also allows the voice-actors, particularly Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar and Ray Winstone as Beowulf, a chance for shading.

It's kind of fun to guess the actors as they appear, as the animation process makes them look just like the actors giving them voice. Hopkins is instantly recognizable, as is John Malkovich as (what else?) an oily aide to the king. Of course, most memorably appearance in this film is Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, who surfaces out of her watery lair looking just like...Angelina Jolie, but hotter, if that's possible.

The film did lose me in the last third. There's a long battle with an additional foe (no spoilers here) that kind of thumped me over the head with sound and fury. All in all, this film is mostly fun, I just wish I didn't find this animation style so creepy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Crooked River Burning

If you ever have an itch to read the definitive novel about Cleveland, Ohio, I recommend Mark Winegardner's Crooked River Burning. If you want to read a very good book, then I would suggest you skip it. I read it because it was listed on Stephen King's Best 10 of 2006 list, a source that I am learning ends up disappointing me more than anything (and besides, this book is from 2001. King's list seems to stem from when he reads the book, not when it's published).

Cleveland is the main character of this book, and Winegardner chronicles the city's decline from 1948 to 1969, when the Cuyahoga River catches on fire and the once proud metropolis becomes the butt of late-night comedians for years to come. As with much narrative art, there is a love story around which the larger themes are presented. David Zielinsky is a boy from the hard-scrabble working-class side of town, while Anne O'Connor is the privileged daughter of a civic big shot. They meet as teenagers during an idyllic vacation on an island in Lake Erie, but then go back to their separate lives. David goes into the Navy, marries his high school sweetheart, and pursues his ambition of becoming mayor by first getting elected to city council. Anne aspires to become a journalist, hoping to do it without her father's help, and she ends up as anchorwoman on a local television station. Throughout the years David and Anne reconnect and drift apart again, while Cleveland changes.

What works best in this book is Winegardner's depiction of a city he clearly has affection for. The plight of Cleveland, which is similar to other rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, is that an urban area that was driven by industry and populated by rich families living in grand Victorian homes fell victim to a combination of factors (the migration of blacks from the South, which led to white flight to the suburbs, plus an increasingly service-oriented economy) and fell into shabbiness. These problems all came to a head during the sixties when riots ripped through most cities. Though this book ends in 1969, many of these cities have experienced something of a renaissance in the past ten or fifteen years, but there's a quality to life during the post-war era that can never be recaptured, except in books like this.

Winegardner also interpolates a heap of Cleveland history through the story. We hear about Alan Freed, the DJ who coined the term rock and roll, in an extremely well-written chapter about what is generally regarded as the first ever rock and roll concert. The Cleveland Indians are always in the forefront, especially when they win the World Series in 1948 (and never since then). Young David attends an exhibition game when the Dodgers come to town, and he experiences what it's like to be a minority (the crowd is largely black, come to see Jackie Robinson). The Sam Sheppard murder case, Jim Brown, and the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, Carl Stokes, are all part of the tapestry.

Unfortunately the love story wasn't very well handled. I never particularly cared whether David and Annie ended up together, and it seemed that many of the major events of their life happened off-stage. There was also a strangely handled subplot concerning the mysterious death of David's mother that was never particularly explained well. The result is kind of a shaggy dog story that meanders to a finish.

If you are from Cleveland, I would imagine this book would be great fun to read, as you will no doubt recognize many names and places, but for someone like me, who has never set foot there, it was a bit of tedious read.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

White Chalk

Regular readers of this blog know I've been watching a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies lately. Well, I've found the perfect musical comparison to his bleak, despairing films: PJ Harvey's latest album, White Chalk.

I've been a fan of Harvey's for a long time, ever since she burst on the scene with Dry, and To Bring You My Love I consider one of the best records of the nineties. I've seen her in concert twice and one of the oddest moments I've ever experienced concerned her--I was in line at Tower Records, buying one of her CDs, and realized she was in line behind me. I suppose I could have said, "Hey, I'm buying one of your records!" but I don't work that way. Instead I did my damnedest to see if I could get her to notice I was holding one of her CDs. If she did notice, she never said anything.

Her output since then has been somewhat erratic. I loved Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, while Dancehall at Louse Point and Is This Desire didn't do it for me. I realize now she put out a record called Uh-Huh Her that I totally missed.

As for White Chalk, well, I'm not sure what I think. It is spare, bleak and yet hauntingly beautiful. The cover depicts Harvey in some sort of spectral pose, and that's appropriate, as this collection of songs is about loss and death. The opening lines of the opening song, The Devil, are "As soon as I'm left alone, the devil wanders into my soul.' The second song doesn't get much cheerier, as it's called Dear Darkness: "Dear Darkness, won't you cover me again?"

The instrumentation for these songs is minimal, usually just a piano, and Harvey's voice is in a high range, almost a keening. In the title track she despairs about her home, Dorset, which is where the White Cliffs of Dover are located: "White chalk hills are all I've known, White chalk hills will rot my bones." This theme of earth as a place where we all end up is repeated in To Talk to You, in which she mourns her grandmother: "Oh, grandmother, how I miss you, Under the Earth, Wish I was with you."

This is the kind of stuff that could push an unbalanced person over the edge, but I don't want to make it seem as if it isn't brilliant stuff. It is very good, but it has a whiff of the sepulchre. I also wonder if Polly Jean needs a hug, considered this lyric from Broken Harp: "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Hot Stove League

For die-hard baseball fans, the season never ends. Now we're in the midst of the awards being given, always fodder for good arguments, as well as teams making moves to either A: get better, or B: lower their payroll. Fortunately for Detroit Tigers fans, after years of being a B team, we are now in the A position.

The Tigers, after a second-place finish, have some real holes to fill and they've been quick to plug them up. Perhaps the most pressing need was at shortstop. Carlos Guillen previously held the position, but a limited range necessitated a move to first base for him (and a release of popular but power-diminished Sean Casey). The Tigers went right out and got Edgar Renteria from the Braves for a few young players (notably Jair Jurrjens, who figured to be in the Tigers starting rotation next year, as well as leading the league in number of Js in his name). Renteria is a fine hitter, and while not the slickest fielder, he is an improvement over Guillen. Renteria (pictured here) once got a World Series-winning hit for manager Jim Leyland, back in '97 when they were both with the Marlins. Here's hoping history can repeat itself!

The Tigers also had a weak spot in left field. Craig Monroe, who played left field during the pennant-winning season two years ago, lost his mojo and was traded to the Cubs, leaving the position played by Marcus Thames, Ryan Rabun and Timo Perez. I'm sure they could have lived with that next year, but don't have to now, as they picked up Jacque Jones from the Cubs for utility infielder Omar Infante. Jones is a lifetime .280 hitter, but suffered a severe power outage last year, with only five dingers. Still, he's a steady hitter to have in the lineup.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is the bullpen. Fireballer Joel Zumaya, who missed most of last year with a finger injury, hurt his shoulder helping his parents move items out of the house during the California wildfires (a much nobler injury that the one he had a few seasons ago from playing Guitar Hero). Zumaya is expected to miss half the season, and though the doctors have given him every reason to think he will good as new when he recovers, one has to wonder about his future. This made it essential that Todd Jones, the closer, was resigned for next season, even though he is always an adventure when he comes out. He does have over seventy saves over the last two seasons, but he will be turning 40 this season.

The Tigers will also likely need to pick up another starting pitcher. The future of Kenny Rogers is in in doubt. He will be 42, and is coming off an injury-shortened season. Rogers is a free agent and is also considering retirement. If he doesn't come back, the Tigers will need to get someone else, as well as giving a spot to a young pitcher, perhaps Andrew Miller.

All this wheeling and dealing is keeping the Tigers a viable team, but there is one thing that troubles me. Of the nine players in the batting order, eight are over 30. Some of the young kids coming up, like Raburn and Cameron Maybin, will need to be integrated into the lineup. Ivan Rodriguez was signed for one more year at catcher, but his replacement will probably need to be groomed starting this season. The team as currently constituted can't be expected to win beyond this season.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Winter's Tale



I enjoy going to productions of Shakespeare's plays, but there is an element of suspense: will the play survive the well-intentioned but at times feverish creativity of the director? It seems that I rarely see a production that plays it straight, that is set in the time period in which the play takes place and has traditional casting. Instead the director puts their own stamp on the play, and the text groans under the weight of it.

Princeton University's Lewis Center of the Arts presented The Winter's Tale this past weekend and next, directed by Tracy Bersley, who is not a student, but with a cast of students. Walking into the theater it was immediately apparent I was in for something non-traditional, as a collection of chairs hung suspended from the ceiling by ropes. I was further mystified when, perusing the program, I noticed no actor was listed for the part of Autolycus, who is perhaps the most dominant character in the play.

The Winter's Tale was written very late in Shakespeare's career, and accordingly to a man of advanced age (at least for the early seventeenth century) it concerns redemption. The play has a consistent tone of melancholy, even though it is structured as a comedy (most lump it into the category known as "romances", which basically means it defies any categorization). It's as if Shakespeare didn't have the heart anymore to write the tragedies of his youth, and instead allowed his characters to go through a tragic circumstance but then find redemption. The Winter's Tale is almost a rewriting of Othello, but with a decidedly happy ending.

"A sad tale is best for winter," says young Mamillius, son of King Leontes of Sicily. Leontes is married to Hermione, who at the play's start is bursting with baby. They have been host to Polixenes, childhood friend of Leontes, and the King of Bohemia. After nine months of visiting, he is eager to return home. Leontes can not convince him to stay, but Hermione, full of charm, does. This triggers madness in Leontes (one of his attendants refer to "his lunes") which we would today call delusions of paranoia. He is like an Othello who is his own Iago. He is so determined of the betrayal that he assigns his aide, Camillo, to poison Polixenes, but Camillo is wise and instead accompanies Polixenes on a flight to Bohemia.

Hermione, unfortunately, remains behind to feel Leontes' wrath. She is tried for adultery and treason, and even when the Oracle of Delphi clears her name Leontes is unswayed. It is only when his son dies that Leontes come to his senses, but it is too late. Hermione has given birth to a daughter, but Leontes has refused to accept the child as his and has sent yet another aide, Antigonus, to take the babe to leave it somewhere to perish.

Antigonus' wife, Paulina, stays loyal to the queen, and she tells Leontes that she has died of grief. Antigonus takes the child, named Perdita, to the shoreline of Bohemia (of course, Bohemia has no shore. Inside joke or Shakespeare's bad sense of geography?) and leaves the child. He then, in one of the most famous stage directions of all time, "Exits, pursued by a bear." Perdita is found by a shepherd and his son.

This is all just the first half of the play. In the second half the tone switches almost one-hundred-eighty degrees to a pastoral comedy. Perdita is now sixteen years old and in love with Florizel, who is the son of Polixenes. This is also where Autolycus, who is a thief and jester of sorts, intersects into the plot. Eventually the two lovers, who are barred by Polixenes in marrying because of her low birth (little does he know) beat it back to Sicily. Eventually all are reconciled, and Paulina decides it's a good time to show Leontes a statue of his late wife. Leontes finds her strangely life-like, though a bit more aged than she was. When she comes to life, all are overwhelmed with emotion.

That ending is one of the most touching in all of Shakespeare, and should leave an audience dabbing at their eyes. In the Princeton production, though, it is undercut by Bersley's conceit: the play is in the memory of Leontes, and thus the ending is ambiguous. In this manner the play stops rather than ends.

The idea of The Winter's Tale being a memory is not a heinous one, especially since it set up very well. Prominent poet (and chairman of the Lewis Center) Paul Muldoon plays "Old Leontes," and he begins the play by poking around in an attic above the stage, where he will remain throughout, watching and occasionally participating. The time period of the play is mid-twentieth century, with men wearing topcoats and fedoras, and records by Edith Piaf played (the Oracle's pronouncements come via reel-to-reel tape).

All of this is well and good, and Bersley is true to her mission, but at what cost? In addition to the fizzled ending, the loss of Autolycus is huge. During a post-play Q&A with the cast and director, I asked the reasoning behind his dismissal. She answered that because they had chosen to make it Leontes' memory, and he does not ever see Autolycus, he couldn't well remember a character he has never met. This is sound logic, but saps the play of yitality and the pastoral nature that balances the second half with the bleakness of the first. Also, Autolycus plays a pivotal role in the machinations of the reconciliation of the final scene, and so that moment goes by in a blink of an eye, and could give an audience whiplash wondering what just happened.

The performances by students fall in the usual range of competent to approaching excellence. I thought the best performer on stage was Becca Foresman as Paulina, who was the only performer who really could handle the language. Adam Zivkovic, as Leontes, has matinee-idol good looks and occasionally hits on Leontes madness, particularly in his physicality. Kut Akdogan was less successful as Polixenes. Samuel Zetumer was interesting to watch as Camillo, and William Ellerbe, Sara-Ashley Bischoff, and Heather May had some nice moments (May was the shepherd, who has switched sexes in this production, probably due to a lack of males auditioning, which is a situation I'm familiar with in my days of college theater).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Fifty years ago Twelve Angry Men was released. It was directed by Sidney Lumet, and now in 2007 he is still going at 83 years old with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a crackling good entertainment. I don't want to belabor that this film was directed by an octogenarian, though, because it would be a fine achievement for a director of any age.

The story concerns one of Hollywood's great plots: the caper gone awry. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers. Hoffman's Andy Hanson is an accountant in a real estate firm and is proud that he has worked his way up to a six-figure income. Ethan Hawke's Hank is a weak-minded loser, who is behind in his child support payments. Though they would seem to be in different financial worlds, Andy has had in his hand in the till at his office, and faces an IRS audit. His solution? Rob his parents' jewelry store.

Andy convinces Hank that it is a fool-proof plan (in fact, this film reminded me somewhat of A Simple Plan, also about brothers and a series of stupid decisions). But of course in films like this nothing is fool-proof, and Hank's timidness leads him to bring in a third partner that escalates into disaster. The robbery is one of the first scenes we see, and then the film is told in a non-linear fashion. The screenplay, by Kelly Masterson, is an intricate affair, and it's not surprising that a few of the balls being juggled are dropped (there is a perplexing scene involving a CD that Hank leaves behind in a rental car, for example).

As their plan unwinds, it is great fun to watch the skills of Hoffman and Hawke, particularly Hoffman, who comes unglued and violent. He is an unctuous character, and lurches through the film like a desperate bear. He is also a man who feels disconnected from his father, played by Albert Finney. Andy describes it as being left out of the club, as his parents seem to favor the baby Hank, even though, as Andy points out, Hank is the bigger fuck-up. Andy is a classic mess, with a drug habit (he visits a high-end shooting gallery), and the role is somewhat reminiscent of his previous work in Owning Mahowny, but Andy makes Mahowny seem like a piker. Hawke is also very good as the spineless brother, though he has less layers to play--mostly he's stuck on needy and frantic.

Marisa Tomei is also in the cast, as Andy's brother, who is having an affair with Hank. Her role is kind of odd, very underwritten. Also, and I'm not complaining, she is topless in almost all of her scenes (the very first scene features her and Hoffman buck naked, a rather jarring image). Even when she is in a mourning dress she displays decolletage. In this age of actresses very reluctant to bare all, it's refreshing to see a film that deals honestly with nudity, but I wish she had more of a character.

Though this film is very entertaining, it's not quite on the top level. As stated, there are a few plot threads that are not wrapped up to my satisfaction, and I was a bit put off by the ending, an encounter between Finney and Hoffman that is supposed to be full of great drama but to me was a bit flat. So I wouldn't put this film in a top-ten list, but it is fun nonetheless.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Republican Race

My interest in who wins the nomination for the Republican Party for President is academic--it would take a head injury from a nail gun to get me to vote for someone from the G.O.P. However, it's a year to go to the election and it doesn't hurt to evaluate the opposition in preparation for the ugly mess that will be the general election.

I've been saying to anyone who will listen that I find it hard to believe that Rudy Giuliani will get the nomination. The thrice-married, gay-friendly, lisping abortion rights advocate is not exactly a dream candidate for a party that has been hijacked by religious conservatives. But I'm starting to believe it may happen, especially with the endorsement this week from Pat Robertson, one of the first to combine the pulpit with the ballot-box. Robertson, of course, is being incredibly pragmatic here. He surely sees the long view, and wants to make sure Hillary Clinton is not elected, and thinks Rudy is the man for the job. Also, though Giuliani has maintained his abortion-rights stance, he has also mentioned that he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Scalia, Roberts and Alito, which means that Roe v. Wade would become a seventies relic akin to the pet rock and mood rings. A president's attitude on abortion is most directly expressed with judicial appointments. I think Giuliani is simply trying to walk both sides of the street. His repeated statement that women have the right to control their bodies is meant for moderates, while the Supreme Court line is code for the evangelicals.

Giuliani also benefits from a weak field. There is an article today in the Times about Mike Huckabee making a move in the polls in Iowa. He would seem to be the natural favorite for Christian conservatives, but for some reason hasn't caught on. When I see him on TV he seems entirely reasonable, until someone asks him about evolution. I think he's smart enough to know that the world wasn't created 6,000 years ago, but seems afraid to say so lest he alienate his base. As for the others, well Thompson seems a non-starter, McCain is on the edge of the financial abyss, and Romney is still working on convincing the Christian right that Mormonism is not a cult. The others are on the fringe and stand a snowball's chance in Hell (even though Ron Paul supporters seem to have taken over the Internet).

If Giuliani gets the nomination, I think he can be battered by the Democrats. The name Bernard Kerik will become a household name. The Democrats will probably leave him alone on his marriages, but the die-hard on the right (the kind who talk about forming a third party) may keep it up. The real weakness for Giuliani is he is a negative force, a politican running on a fear platform. If I were Hillary or Obama or whomever, the first time Giuliani raised the specter of "Islamofascism" I'd recall a certain speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Apparently Mr. Giuliani disagrees, and think we should all be trembing in our boots. Giuliani is also something of a fascist himself, the kind of thug that Mussolini was, who could make the trains run on time. I saw a clip of Giuliani kissing a baby last night that looked incredibly awkward. Hillary Clinton isn't exactly Miss Sunshine, but I think an effective campaign can make Giuliani look like a vice-principal who everyone is afraid of.

There's also the matter of Giuliani having zero foreign policy experience, and that he has done nothing in the way of public service since he left office. He's been busy making thousands per speech.

If you're a liberal Democrat such as myself, do you want a Republican candidate who you think is so scary that he can't possibly win, with the chance of him actually getting in and doing horrible things, or do you want someone who may actually win the general election, but at least won't wreak havoc when gets there. I'm not sure. As I said, my interest in this right now is academic.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bergman: Post-Modernism


After completing the Faith Trilogy, Ingmar Bergman was hospitalized for a time. It would seem to have been some kind of nervous breakdown. It was during this time of illness that Bergman conceived Persona, which was released in 1966, and kicked off a string of four films that took yet another course in his remarkable career. It's difficult to come up with a word or phrase that blankets all four films, but I think post-modernism, or deconstructionism, works well. Or perhaps the disintegration of the personality.

Persona also was the first time Bergman used the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, who would go on to make a dozen films with him, as well as living with him for a time and bearing him a daughter. In my opinion she's one of the great film actresses of all time, and certainly one of the great screen beauties, and her work in these four films is an unparalelled streak of brilliance.

I'm not a Bergman scholar, but what I've gleaned from watching these four films, each an MGM DVD, with commentary by a Bergman scholar named Marc Gervais, I would imagine they are influenced by the work of existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and playwright Samuel Beckett. The films are quite experimental, certainly a by-product of the time period, the late sixties, when art forms of all sorts were being stood on their head.

Persona begins by announcing that it is a film. We see an arclight, celluloid threading through a projector, an old cartoon, bits of a silent film comedy. Then we are in what looks like a morgue, looking at a boy spread out on a slab under a sheet. He comes awake, puts on a pair of glasses, and looks at a screen, where a woman's face is projected. Is the film the dream of a dead child? Who knows?

Then the story itself begins: Bibi Andersson is a nurse, and she is assigned to care for an actress (Ullmann) who refuses to speak. Over the course of the film, while staying at a summer home (all four of these films were shot on the island of Fårö) Andersson talks while Ullmann listens, and eventually the two woman seem to meld identities. By the end of the film Bergman uses a split screen to combine the two woman's faces, perhaps suggesting that they are the same person.

The interpretations of this film are legion and completely open-ended. There is an element of vampirism to the story, particularly in a scene where Ullmann comes to Andersson in the night, through a veil of mist, and the two look into a mirror together. Is Ullmann siphoning Andersson's identity? And why does Ullmann refuse to speak? There is a vivid scene where she watches a television set as a Buddhist monk self-immolates in protest to the Vietnam War. Is she unable to face the horrors of modern life? She speaks only once in the film, at the very end, and the only word she utters is "nothing."

Bergman continues the theme of vampirism more overtly in his next film, The Hour of the Wolf, which uses the horror genre. An artist and his wife (Max Von Sydow and Ullmann) live on a remote island. Ullmann, talking directly into the camera (is the talking to us, or to Bergman?) tells us the story in flashback. Von Sydow is suffering from depression. He is full of self-contempt as an artist (this is also a recurring theme--the self-hatred of the artist). He refers to himself as a "five-legged calf, a monster," but there are other monsters on the island. The owner, a baron (eerily played by Erland Josephson) invites the two over to his castle for dinner. There they meet a menagerie of strange characters. Are they demons? One of them is a man who I'm sure not coincidently resembles Bela Lugosi. Eventually Von Sydow is seduced by them and disappears.

The title refers to the time of night, sometime after midnight and before dawn, where people tend to die, babies tend to be born, and people sometimes wake up from disturbing dreams. This whole film is like a bad dream. There is a very strange scene where Von Sydow is fishing and is approached by a young boy, who ends up attacking him, biting him. Von Sydow is forced to defend himself and kills the boy and throws him in the sea. The scene is filmed in jagged cuts and sped up film, giving it a surreal feel. Then there's the climax, when Von Sydow is reunited with an old lover. The ghoulish denizens of the island paint his face and then humiliate him as he makes love to her.

If The Hour of the Wolf is a horror film, Shame is a war picture. Von Sydow and Ullmann live in their little cottage on an unnamed island. Their nation has been at war for a few years, but no one seems to know what the issues are. Then the island is invaded, and the two deal with both the enemy and their own people, who seem remarkably interchangeable. Von Sydow, who at the beginning of the picture can't even kill a chicken, becomes murderous by the end. The title is quite apt, as everyone in this picture behaves shamedly at some point or another, and Ullmann says at one point that she feels as if she is participant in someone else's dream, and what will happen when that person wakes up and is ashamed to realize what they dreamed? It is one of the more effective anti-war films I've ever seen.

A sequence of Shame appears in the final film of this period, The Passion of Anna (called simply The Passion in the original Swedish title). The Passion of Anna is filmed in color (the commentator said it was the second Bergman film did in color, I'm not sure what the first one was). Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist key on the color red in this film, whether it be the blood of sheep, or sunlight coming in at dusk, making a room look like a photographer's developing room (this during a seduction scene).

The story concerns a loner, Von Sydow, who gets involved with a couple (Andersson and Josephson) who are friends with Ullmann. She is lame, crippled in a car accident that killed her husband and son. Eventually she and Von Sydow become a couple, but Von Sydow is slowly losing himself, and Ullmann, who says she believes in truth, is concealing information about herself.

Interspersed throughout the film are scenes in which the actors, as themselves, talk briefly about their characters, another instance in which Bergman highlights the artificiality of film (Bergman is also the narrator of the film). This distancing effect had a tendency to take me out of the picture, which is what he may have intended, but it was hard for me to wrap my mind around what the characters were going through.

There are some remarkable sequences, though. Bergman, well-known for using close-ups, does so exquisitely here, especially in a scene where Ullmann, in tight close-up, tells Von Sydow about the car accident. The last image is also quite a grabber, when Ullmann drives away from Von Sydow in what begins in a very long shot, and then Bergman zooms in until the image of Von Sydow literally disintegrates, leaving nothing but a screen of snowy images.

Each of these DVDs has a short featurette, which includes interviews with Ullmann, Andersson and Josephson. Ullmann is very frank about her relationship with Bergman. There is also segments from an interview Bergman did in 1970 (in English). My favorite moment comes when the interviewer asks him if art is useful, which is a good question, considering Bergman frequently has characters who are artists of self-loathing. "It has to be!" Bergman answers, "because otherwise we would all go to hell!"

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Amazing Race

The CBS show Viva, Laughlin was kind enough to suck hard enough to be cancelled after two episodes, which meant that CBS replaced it with one of my favorite shows, The Amazing Race, which is in its twelfth go-round. The premiere episode aired on Sunday night.

What I like most about the show is the premise, which is pretty simple: teams of two race around the world, the first across the finish line getting a million bucks. Along the way they are forced to complete tasks of varying degrees of difficulty, and perhaps most difficult of all, have to get along with each other. If there's any way to bring stress to the most harmonious relationship it's to be lost somewhere with a person. The other appeal is the chance to see many different places one wouldn't ordinarily see. They've been to Paris, London and Tokyo, but they've also been to remote corners of the globe like Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I always get a kick out of seeing provincial Americans forced to deal with the cultures of other lands.

The show has some problems, though. They try to be diverse in the casting, but every year it seems like there is some bland couple that ends up winning. They have curtailed the casting of two buff "alpha" males, who have an advantage with anything that requires physical strength, but they also seem to stack the deck with generically attractive young dating couples. The only entertainment value they bring is looking good in bathing suits or screaming at each other when something goes wrong, as did a couple in the first episode when they couldn't get an Irish donkey to move. That being said, the producers have given this season some color by casting a pair of married lesbian ministers, and a Goth couple (pictured above). I'm not familiar with many of the Goth customs, but I'm guessing the producers told them to be as Goth as humanly possible, so we got a couple of kids running around the Irish countryside with pink hair, and saying things like "Oh my Goth."

One of the advantages of this show over Survivor and Big Brother is that the strong, swift and smart are rewarded. The other shows dynamic encourages blocs that can vote out who might otherwise be the best player (and thus very often weak or neutral players win). The Amazing Race occasionally has brief alliances of teams helping each other out, but the cream inevitably rises to the crop. No one can coast to victory in this show.

The seed of my interest in this show stems back to one of my favorite movies, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which was about a group of people trying to out-race one another to find a treasure. Of course, in that film laws were broken with regularity and the comic mayhem landed them all in hospital beds. The impish part of me would like to see a show like that, with the host saying, "There's a million dollars buried in such and such a place. First one there gets it. There are no rules. Go!"

Monday, November 05, 2007

American Gangster


In the early seventies, a drug dealer in Harlem named Frank Lucas used a basic business principle--sell a better product at a lower price--to become a powerful force in organized crime. He may not have been as big as U.S. Steel, but he ruled the roost in New York City, occupying a spot even higher than the Mafia. American Gangster is his story, as well as his counterpart, Richie Roberts, the police detective who brought him down.

Both are fascinating figures and expertly acted by Denzel Washing and Russell Crowe, respectively. Lucas was from North Carolina, and served as a driver and bodyguard for Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson. When Johnson dies (while in a discount store bemoaning the lack of respect for the middle man) Lucas assumes control of his empire and expands, by getting the bright idea of traveling directly to Southeast Asia to buy pure heroin and have it shipped back to the U.S. in an ingenious method. He comes fabulously wealthy, and brings his entire family up from North Carolina to work for him. He believes in family, honesty and integrity, even though he has no trouble murdering his rivals.

Roberts, meanwhile, has all sorts of problems. He is a custody battle with his ex-wife over his son. He is honest to a fault--when he turns in nearly a million dollars in cash that he finds during a bust he becomes a pariah on a force that is full of guys on the take. It's only when the federal government recognizes his honesty and puts him in charge of task force to bring down the drug trade that he really get to flex his muscles. When he sees Lucas at the Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden, R0berts realizes who his true target is.

If that description reminds one of several other films, well, it did me too, and I was shifting in my seat and checking my wristwatch a lot during the first half of the film. The parallel story of cop and crook, with the cop's life a mess and the crook a kind of genius, suggests Michael Mann's Heat. American Gangster also references either directly or indirectly The French Connection, Serpico, Across 110th Street, Superfly, and of course, the be-all and end-all film about organized crime as the American dream, The Godfather. The first half of American Gangster was giving me an "I've seen this all before" feeling.

But in the second half I quit looking at my watch. When the pieces fall together for Roberts' team the film became a taut thriller. There's a terrific sequence where director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian bounce back and forth between Roberts' team searching a U.S. Army plane for contraband, while a corrupt New York cop, menacing played by Josh Brolin, trashes Lucas' opulent mansion. Lucas is off-screen, in Thailand to meet with his supplier, and his entire world is going down the drain while he's across the Pacific.

Though this film is in many ways a throwback to the glory days of the seventies in American film-making, it has the gleam of today. Cinematographer Harris Savides gives the film a glossy polish, not the gritty look of many seventies crime pictures. Even Newark, New Jersey, in all its squalor, manages to look picturesque. The lighting of the set where the heroin is cut by naked women give the place a kind of fantasy-land look, and I guess in many ways that whole world was a kind of fantasy. The costumes, sets and cars all look right, and there's some well-timed inclusion of real-life events in the form of TV news clips.

The two leads are fantastic. Washington plays Lucas as a ruthless businessman (the first time we see him he lights a man on fire and then shoots him). He's always under control, always thinking. He gives the role a necessary weight about which the rest of the film can orbit. It is to Scott and Zaillian's credit, though, that they do not glamourize him for one instant. Several times during the film, like a motif in music, are included brief scenes of the users of his drug shooting up, ruining their lives and those around them (I won't quickly forget a scene of a woman either passed out or dead, her crying baby sitting beside her). No amount of free Thanksgiving turkeys that Lucas passes out can make up for that kind of carnage.

Russell Crowe is not to be outdone, though. He nails his character, a man at loose ends but with a stubborn streak of integrity. He has a great scene where his childhood friend, now a wise guy in the mob, attempts to buy him off, and Roberts sticks to his principles. For all of Roberts' faults, he really does come out of the film a hero.

In addition to Brolin, there are fine supporting performances by Cuba Gooding Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a touching turn by Ruby Dee as Lucas' mother, who finally comes to realize just how her son earned all that money. American Gangster is a fine entertainment.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Fort Nightly

Based on some good reviews I picked up the debut album by a band called White Rabbits called Fort Nightly. I've listened to it three times and it's good stuff, with some lively beats. For some reason, though, it hasn't gotten under my skin at all, and I'm unmoved by it.

The band describes themselves as "honky-tonk calypso." The honky-tonk part is easy to identify, as the first number, Kid on My Shoulder, begins with a hard-driving piano. The band employs two drummers, so all of the songs are very percussive. I didn't detect a calypso flavor until the last song, Tourist Trap, which sounded a bit like a rumba.

The first half of the album continues that honky-tonk sound, with While We Go Dancing is my favorite track (love the mandolin). Then, in the second half, they get a little experimental and sound a bit like Radiohead, particularly on the title track and a song called March of the Camels. Nothing wrong with that, but it gives the record a schizo feel.

I can't pinpoint what it is that didn't make me love this album. Perhaps I would have gotten a better sense of it with a lyric sheet, as I didn't find the lyrics readily discernible, so I have no idea what the songs are about. Seems like a lot of groups are foregoing lyric sheets these days, and I'm kind of bummed about that.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bug


I have a friend who teaches college, and she's in the midst of an American horror film class. We were talking last night of what films she wanted to end with. She thought about the slasher genre, but all her kids have seen films like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street (although none of them had seen Bride of Frankenstein). She was wary of giving the "torture porn" genre any credence, so we were trying to think of recent horror films that were worthy of an academic examination. She thought of Frailty, which I thought was a great idea.

Following our call, I put in my Netflixed copy of Bug, and I quickly realized that this would be a great pairing with Frailty in a college horror film class. Bug is not strictly a horror film, as there is no supernatural element to it, but I think it's the next place for horror to go--within the mind.

Bug is adapted from a play by Tracy Letts and its theatrical origins show, as almost all of it is set in a dingy Oklahoma motel room. Ashley Judd is Agnes, a cocktail waitress who lives a life of quiet desperation. Her ex, a violent man, has just been sprung from prison and is elbowing his way back into her life. But then she meets a quiet, somewhat odd man named Peter, who she quickly latches on to. All seems going well, until Peter starts seeing bugs everywhere.

Peter, of course, is bonkers, and manages to infect Agnes with his paranoia, and the two take a rocket-slide into their own personal hell. At no time (except for subliminal shots apart from the action) do we see any insect life of any kind, but the actors and director William Friedkin manage to make us think they are there. In the final act, the two have transformed the motel room into a kind of sanctuary of the mind, and when Peter's doctor shows up there is an apotheosis of madness. I thought the film came a bit off the rails here and went around the bend, but Judd and Michael Shannon, as Peter, give tour de force performances.

At about the time of her role in Heat, I was sure Ashley Judd would win an Oscar some day. But then she appeared in several abysmal romantic comedies or women-in-jeopardy films, and seemed to be more visible at Kentucky basketball games or her husband's car races. I don't believe in criticizing someone for the acting choices they make, they don't owe anyone but themselves, but Judd seemed permanently lost to multiplex crap. I'm glad she did this film to remind everyone what she is capable of.

As for Shannon, I learned on the supplemental material that he has played the part on stage many times. At first I thought he was too creepy from the beginning, and anyone with any sense would steer clear of him. But of course, Agnes does not have a lot of sense, and given all that is wrong with Peter it would be dishonest to play him as completley normal from the outset.

As it turned out, Bug was a perfect film to watch on Halloween.