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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Last Hurrah

For my final look at prominent films of 1958, as well as my last post of the year, I take a look at the appropriately titled The Last Hurrah, a John Ford film about old-style politics giving way to the new. Spencer Tracy stars as the long-tenured mayor a New England city (hmm, maybe Boston?) who is making one last run for re-election. His nephew, Jeffrey Hunter, who is a sportswriter for a paper run by Tracy's nemesis (John Carradine), agrees to chronicle the campaign. Tracy realizes that he's a dinosaur, and that TV is taking over the way candidates campaign, but he's built up so much good will over the years and his opponent is so wet behind the ears that he doesn't think he will lose.

But he does have enemies. Tracy's character is Irish, born in poverty, working his way up to power. The old-time Yankee bluebloods, especially Carradine and the heads of all the banks, have tried to get him out of office. Even the city's cardinal, Donald Crisp, is against him. But because Tracy is willing to roll up his sleeves and meet with the people, he's been returned to office every time.

Some of the time this film is interesting, particularly how it shows an old-time pol like Tracy making deals. When the bankers, led by Basil Rathbone, turn down a loan for a low-income housing project, Tracy blackmails Rathbone by offering his nincompoop son a job as fire commissioner. Realizing that his son will be made a laughing stock, Rathbone gives in. The ethical lapse, we are led to believe, is okay because Tracy is doing it for the poor.

Mostly this film is pretty toothless. A year earlier there was a much more biting look at politics with A Face in the Crowd. The Last Hurrah is pretty bland in comparison. Tracy is a joy and wears the role effortlessly, but after it was over I felt I didn't really learn anything. True enough, there are shifts in how politics are conducted and some politicians get left by the side of the road (consider how Obama used the Internet, compared to McCain, who admitted he didn't know how to use it at all). This film just didn't go the full length in examining the issue. Perhaps if Ford had been less sentimental about his lead character, and made him a bit more corrupt (as certainly all big-city mayors were, to some extent) this film would have been more compelling.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Indiscreet


In 1958 Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman teamed to make a frothy romantic comedy called Indiscreet, which is the kind of movie they really don't make anymore. It was based on a play, and has many of the elements of a sophisticated drawing room comedy that was a staple in those days, not so much anymore.

Bergman stars as a famous actress living in London. She's down on men, but is instantly smitten with Grant, who plays an economist. Turns out Bergman's brother-in-law (a delightfully droll Cecil Parker) is trying to get Grant to accept a post with NATO. Grant is equally attracted to Bergman, and tells her he is married but separated, with no option of divorcing. Bergman decides to be daring and is fine with this, and the two embark upon an idyllic affair.

But Parker finds out that Grant really isn't married. It seems that Grant uses that ploy to avoid telling girlfriends that he has no intention of ever marrying. This leads to situation comedy lines like Bergman, after learning of Grant's deception, saying "How could he have made love to me when he's not married!" The film ends with the lackadaisical farce of Bergman having her milquetoast chauffeur pretending to be a former beau to make Grant jealous.

Fifty years later my response is a kind of a shrug. I mean, Grant and Bergman are impeccably attractive movie stars. Bergman is gifted at light comedy, and Grant, well, he's Cary Grant, and here he gets to be the kind of man every other man wishes they were. Did anyone ever look so good in a tuxedo? The direction, by Stanley Donen, leaves heavily on the tasteful and refined. A person feels like they should dress up just to watch this.

Monday, December 29, 2008

What Hath God Wrought

I just finished reading a fascinating book called What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe. It is part of the Oxford History of the United States, and won a Pulitzer Prize. It is a long book--over 800 pages--but almost always interesting to read, particularly to a history buff as much as myself.

The book's greatest success is that it manages to be comprehensive. It covers all aspects of American society. Of course there's the politics, presidential and otherwise. We get the lowdown on all the presidential elections that occur in the time period. But there's so much more, particularly on the social history of the American people, from religion to literature (it was a particularly ripe time for American literature--an "American Renaissance"). There's also details about the technological breakthroughs of the period, mostly in the areas of transportation, such as the digging of the Erie Canal and the development of the railroad, and communication, which is where the title comes from (it was the first message transmitted by Samuel F.B. Morse's telegraph, which revolutionized the world).

Howe writes in a narrative style, so there are several characters, perhaps none so large as Andrew Jackson. The book starts with the Battle of New Orleans, which Jackson won as a general, the last conflict of the War of 1812 (which was fought two weeks after the war was settled by treaty, an example of how keenly something like a telegraph was necessary). Jackson would dominate the era, and many call it the Age of Jackson. He was a candidate for president in 1824, but lost even though he had the highest popular vote total, but was then elected to two consecutive terms in 1832 and 1836. He would change the role of presidents, and would make his mark in a number of areas, most particular the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, Indian removal (which led to the shameful "Trail of Tears") and heroically against nullification, which was an attempt by South Carolina to secede. I think Jackson's personality can be summed up in this passage:

"To deter the nullifiers from attacking the Unionists in their midst, Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman that 'if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.' When Robert Hayne ventured, 'I don't believe he would really hang anybody, do you?' Thomas Hart Benton replied, 'I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look for ropes!'"

In contrast with Jackson, who was lax in following the laws of the land (the Supreme Court ruled against Indian removal, but Jackson famously said, "They have made their decision, now let them enforce it"), there was John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States and a constant thorn in Jackson's side. Howe dedicates the book to him, and the fondness comes through. Adams, in the light of current opinion, comes across as a "good guy." Not only was he an effective Secretary of State, gaining the territory of Florida, but he was on the right side of many of the issues of the day, such as slavery, Indian removal, and the war/land-grab against Mexico. He collapsed and died while in the chamber of Congress, where he served after being President.

Another prominent character is Henry Clay, who was never president, but not for lack of trying. He was a candidate several times, and is best known for saying "I would rather be right than be President." All presidential elections are key moments in American history, but perhaps none so much as the one in 1844, which Clay lost to James Knox Polk, who was firmly for slavery and was an imperialist who warred against Mexico to secure California and New Mexico (and also gained the Oregon territory and Texas--the country grew more under Polk than any president). Howe notes that "some historians have carefully examined the likely consequences of a Clay victory in 1844 and concluded that it would have probably have avoided the Civil War of the 1860s. We too readily assume the inevitability of everything that has happened. The decisions that electorates and politicians make have real consequences."

There is a lot more here, some of it familiar, like the Alamo, the Mormon migration to Utah, the Amistad case, and the Transcendentalists, and people such as Eli Whitney, Nat Turner, a young Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was one of the principals of the women's rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, which Howe uses to end the book. He writes, "American history between 1815 and 1848 certainly had its dark side: poverty, demagogy, disregard for legal restraints, the perpetuation and expansion of slavery, the dispossession of the Native Americans, and the waging of aggressive war against Mexico. But among its hopeful aspects, none was more encouraging that the gathering of the women at the prosperous canal town of Seneca Falls."

This is a fascinating period of American history, and is overlooked somewhat in comparison to the Civil War years. But there have been a lot of books lately about it and about Jackson. It's hard to imagine a better book about the period that this one.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Che


Knowing that the complete, four-hour plus version of Steven Soderbergh's Che was going to have a limited engagement in New York, I was annoyed to find that I missed my chance to see it at the Ziegfeld, the largest single-screen theater in Manhattan (and where I first saw Apocalypse Now almost thirty years ago). Fortunately, it is now playing for another limited engagement at the IFC theater in Greenwich Village as a roadshow production. I took the train in and settled in for a butt-numbing afternoon with a gathering of downtown hipsters.

I would be interested in hearing from those who end up seeing this as two distinct films, because I don't think it would work nearly as well. As it is, in two parts, it doesn't present a biography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine doctor turned Marxist revolutionary, instead it is a diptych consisting of two guerrilla campaigns--one successful, one not. For someone to see and one and not the other, or even not in succession the same day, would rob one of the full effect.

Guevara, of course, is best known today as a ubiquitous image on t-shirts. Soderbergh has not made a film delving into the man's psyche--we have no idea of his life before a meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955--he has made a film about the nuts and bolts of revolution. Although the result is not strictly a hagiography, I'm a little disappointed that we don't see more of Guevara's warts, particularly the reign of terror he oversaw following the Cuban revolution. Therein lies the problem that keeps this film from being a true masterpiece--a character like Guevara, who has no self-doubt, does not make for a particularly compelling dramatic character. He has no inner turmoil, no sense of regret. That may make for interesting history, but not drama. We know practically nothing of his personal life. A wife in Mexico is mentioned, but when part two starts and we find that he's married a fellow guerrilla (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the first wife is never mentioned again. What made Guevara tick? You will not find out from this film. Benicio Del Toro, as Guevara, has a commanding presence and wears this film like an overcoat, but his motivations, beyond the basic desire to help the oppressed, remain hidden.

But Che has plenty to admire. The first half concerns the overthrow of Batista's Cuban government, led by Castro, and if it is to be believed from this film, went off with hardly a hitch. Castro's men marched across the island, taking the country town by town, recruiting as they went along, the peasants of the impoverished nation eager to help. Castro is played engagingly by Demian Bichir, and the other guerrillas are a classic collection of war movie types, only they are all Cubans. The part ends with a long battle in the town of Santa Clara--the fall of Havana, which happened on New Year's Eve (and is familiar to those who have seen The Godfather, Part II) is not seen, because Geuvara wasn't there.

The first part is structured as a flashback, with Guevara visiting New York to address the United Nations. He is being interviewed by a journalist (and attends a party, meeting Eugene McCarthy). The second part has no such structure--it is a straightforward rendition of Guevara's attempt to get lightning to strike twice and overthrow the military dictatorship in Bolivia.

This campaign is riddled with problems, although none of them are chalked up to Guevara (although some are resistant to him being a foreigner, a situation that pops up briefly in Cuba). The peasants never really catch on with the revolution, and this time the U.S. steps in and contributes men and material to smother the insurrection. In this half it's also far more difficult for the viewer to keep track of who's who (especially when the band is separated--Guevara comes and goes without warning).

The script, by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen, is based on Guevara's writings, and packs in a lot of information, but almost all of it is of a military nature (we do get some facts like Guevara's asthma, and it's interesting that as a doctor he continued to smoke cigars). The photography by Peter Andrews (which is a pseudonym of Soderbergh's) is a mix of styles, from the scratchy black and white of the New York sequences to the vivid colors of the Cuban and Bolivian jungles, and several scenes shot with hand-held cameras.

I would recommend any serious moviegoer attempt to see this film in its single form, failing that, to see the two films in sequence and close together. Though it has its dramatic failings, it remains an impressive achievement.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Some Came Running

Another prominent film from 1958 was Some Came Running, directed by Vincente Minnelli (who also directed Gigi that year) and co-starring, for the first time, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It was based on a massive novel by James Jones, his follow-up to From Here to Eternity. The book was over 1,200 pages long, and though the film trimmed a lot of that, it still feels a bit bloated and self-important. It's also a curious hybrid--a cynical, downbeat character study of small-town morals, but shot in glossy Cinemascope.

The story concerns Sinatra as a fellow who's just out of the Army. He's a lapsed writer, with two unsuccessful novels under his belt. He has returned to his hometown, a small burg in Indiana, for no particular reason. When he awakes at the bus stop, he realizes that a good-time girl, Shirley MacLaine, has come along with him from Chicago.

Sinatra has an older brother, Arthur Kennedy, who is a successful businessman and social climber, with a harpie for a wife and a daughter who is on the verge of being exploited by men. They introduce Sinatra to a local professor and his daughter, Martha Hyer, a schoolteacher, who admires his writing. Sinatra is immediately attracted to her, but she resists his overtures.

Meanwhile Sinatra keeps one foot in the town's demimonde, mostly in a friendship with Martin, a professional gambler who drinks excessively and is funny about never removing his hat. MacLaine has decided to stay in town because she is in love with Sinatra, even though she knows that she's not smart or cultured like Hyer.

A lot of this plays like Peyton Place, what with all the secrets under the rock of the superficially ideal Midwest town. But what this film really tries to address is loneliness. Sinatra, Hyer, MacLaine and even Martin deal with a certain kind of loneliness that they cover up either with alcohol or some other panacea. Sinatra bounces back between Hyer and MacLaine almost like a pinball, as each appeal to one aspect of his personality. When Sinatra decides to marry one (I won't tell which) Martin shows an inner misogyny that surprises Sinatra and reveals the previously charming and easy-going character to have much more complexity.

MacLaine, Hyer and Kennedy were all nominated for Oscars. For MacLaine, it was her breakout role, and for a few years she was the distaff member of the Rat Pack. She is wonderful, totally unafraid to embarrass herself by playing a woman without much brains but with a huge heart, a combination of traits that allow her to be used by men. Hyer would end up being considered for the role of Marian Crane in Psycho, but Janet Leigh was the one who ended up making film history.

The DVD of this film contains some critical comments by admiring academics, but ultimately I couldn't get behind it. Minnelli directed it as if were a musical, his speciality, with candy colors and overwrought melodrama, when it probably would have been much better as a shorter, gritty black and white film.



Friday, December 26, 2008

Gran Torino


Gran Torino, the latest from the amazingly prolific director Clint Eastwood, is a crowd-pleasing picture, certainly an entertaining time at the movies, but does not provide the kind of depth of his best pictures, such as Unforgiven, Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby. And though Eastwood gives a fine performance (and a very funny one, oddly enough) it is in no way a stretch for him, and very similar to characters played in Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, or even way back to Dirty Harry.

Set in a Detroit neighborhood that has lost almost all of its white inhabitants, Eastwood stars as a Ford plant retiree and recent widow. He stubbornly will not move out of his decaying and increasingly ethnic diverse neighborhood, evenly though he is casually racist in his comments and demeanor. As we meet him he is recently widowed, not close to his sons or grandchildren, and spends most of his time drinking beer on his front porch.

In the house next door live a Hmong family (an ethnic group that comes from China and Southeast Asia) and he unwillingly gets drawn into strife between the teenage children and a band of thugs. Eastwood, in a kind of pat way, comes to learn to respect these people and forges a relationship with them, and comes to terms with the violence in his past as a Korean War veteran.

Most of the pleasures of this film are in the first two-thirds, as Eastwood's character is shockingly direct. He openly insults the priest (shades of Million Dollar Baby) and openly refers to various ethnic groups by a catalogue of racial slurs. There's also a certain Neanderthal pleasure in watching the crusty old guy get tough with hooligans. For a film that is ostensibly a drama (and ends in tragedy) there are a lot of laughs in this picture. But the transformation of Eastwood's character is just a bit too easy. Are we really to believe that he had, in this day and age, never gotten to known people of another race before? There are racists around everywhere, even in cosmopolitan cities, but this character seems to be racist only because he never actually talked to other people before.

This is Eastwood's picture, but Ahney Her and particularly Bee Vang are good in supporting roles as the kids next door. Vang plays an interesting character, a socially inept momma's boy who resists being recruited into the Hmong gang (his initiation is to try to steal Eastwood's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torin0). While the scenes in which Eastwood comes to take Vang under his wing border on the excessively sentimental, Vang's performance rings true.

When the existence of this film became known a rumor floated around that it was going to be a Dirty Harry picture. The result is not that far off. It has the fun of those pictures, but doesn't have the depth that perhaps Eastwood intended in what may be his swan song (at least as an actor).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mon Oncle

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that it's taken me this long to see a Jacques Tati film. I've heard of him for years, but for some reason never had the pleasure of actually viewing one of his works. To continue my look at the films of 1958, I turn to his Mon Oncle, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Tati is certainly an heir to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton--a physical comedian who is at odds with modern society (he's also an ancestor of Rowland Atkinson's Mr. Bean). In Mon Oncle, he plays his customary character, Monsieur Hulot, who is recognizable by his trademark raincoat, pipe, umbrella, and porkpie hat.

This film is about two worlds. Hulot's world is an old one, a romantic Paris of cobblestones and gaslights. He lives in a garret in a charming building without an elevator. His sister and her businessman husband, though, live in a different world. They have a monstrous modern home, with every new-fangled gadget known to man. Hulot crosses over into this world to visit his nephew, who prefers his uncle to his garish parents.

Owing a lot to Chaplin's Modern Times, Hulot's brother-in-law gets him a job at his plastic hose company, with predictably slapstick results. But the film is less about physical comedy than a droll send-up of modernism. The Arpels are self-conscious of the impression they make on others (there's a great running gag about an ugly fountain in their garden shaped like a fish--Mme. Arpel only turns it on for important visitors). She buys her husband an automatic garage-door opener, but their dog ends up trapping them in their brave new world.

Though there is very little dialogue, Mon Oncle is not a silent film. Tati pays special attention to sound, whether it be the clicking of high heels in the antiseptic Arpel home or the monotonous hum of machinery inside the factory. Some of the appliances in the Arpel kitchen are as loud as jet engines.

The film is very leisurely paced and doesn't really have a plot, and it might be a bit long for this type of humor. I'm certainly glad I finally caught up with this man, though, and am keen to see his other films.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stardust Memories


I distinctly remember the first time I saw Stardust Memories. I was a sophomore in college, and a certified Woody Allen fanatic. (My fandom was based on Annie Hall and Manhattan, his books, and his stand-up comedy album). When the film opened in September, I took the Long Island railroad from campus (it was only $3.10 from Stony Brook to Penn Station in those days) and walked across town to an East-side theater, just in time to see the beginning. I believe I had read that the film was more experimental than his stuff before, modeled on the films of Federico Fellini (not that I had any idea at the time what a Fellini film was like). Therefore I was a little worried when the opening featured Allen on a train, surrounded by odd, depressed faces. There was no soundtrack. Across the tracks was a train full of happy, attractive people drinking champagne. A beautiful woman (played by a young Sharon Stone) blows Allen a kiss, and he frantically signals the conductor that he wants to be on that train. Then the train passengers are at a garbage dump. What was going on here?

Soon enough the scene shifted back into familiar territory. This was a film-within-a-film, the latest from Allen's alter ego, Sandy Bates, a director famous for his comedies but longing to make more serious movies. His studio thinks he has lost his mind, and urges him to reconsider. He is booked to appear at a weekend on the Jersey Shore, where a retrospective of his films are to be shown. He is beset by his fans, who are mostly grotesque and fawning.

Stardust Memories was something of a disappointment for many, and angered some. Coming off the richly romantic Manhattan, this film was far edgier and caustic, perhaps the edgiest one he's ever made. Many people felt that he was insulting his fans as sycophants and unhinged. For me, though, it's still one of my favorites of his, a daring attempt to explore the issue that has bedeviled him for his entire career--comedy is less satisfying than drama.

Allen has always thought this way. He's called those who deal with drama, like Eugene O'Neill, as eating at the adult's table, while comedy is far less important. He's also always thought that luck was the most important element of success. In Stardust Memories he tells an acquaintance from his childhood that since he told jokes, and they have importance in our culture, he's made it big. "If I had been an Apache Indian, I would have been out of a job," he says. Or, "If I had been born in Poland or Berlin, I'd be a lampshade."

But Allen parodies his own beliefs. In a fantasy sequence, he meets extraterrestrials who have all the answers. "We enjoy your films, especially the early funny ones," he is told. Bates wonders if being funny is enough--shouldn't he help the blind, or be a missionary? "Let's face it, you're not the missionary type," the aliens tell him. "You want to do mankind a service? Tell funnier jokes."

The film does owe a lot to Fellini, specifically 8 1/2, which is also about a film director, struggling to make a film, who encounters bizarre types in a resort setting. 8 1/2 also begins similarly, with Fellini's director stuck in traffic, without a soundtrack. As with 8 1/2, Stardust Memories has its protagonist frequently flashing back to childhood, and then has an extended sequence set in a meadow with UFO enthusiasts that may or may not be real (and anticipates the shooting of John Lennon by a deranged fan). The film then pulls a twist at the end, as the whole thing is revealed as just a movie, with all the actors appearing as themselves as they walk out of a screening (with actresses Marie-Christine Barrault and Jessica Harper discussing Allen's kissing technique).

As for those women, Allen repeats certain themes. As with Manhattan, he is torn between the dark, psychotic woman who is more intense (played in Stardust Memories by Charlotte Rampling) and the more nurturing, well-balanced woman (Barrault). Rampling's character is an old flame, who eventually was institutionalized, but she appears in spirit in Harper's character, who Allen meets at the film retrospective. When he overhears Harper on the telephone talking about her popping Darvon and Valium and alluding to a possible Lesbian affair, you can tell he's hooked.

I think most of the criticism of this film was unfair. Just because the character of Sandy Bates is similar to Allen doesn't mean it's autobiography. If fans saw themselves in the gawkers of Stardust Memories, that's their problem. There's plenty of laughs on hand (such as when Allen, hearing of Rampling's mother's suicide says, "There were no suicides in my family. My mother was too busy putting the boiled chicken through the deflavorizer to pick up a gun and shoot herself") and the black and white photography shimmers. Those who want to experience Allen when he was at the height of his abilities would be advised not to miss this one.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Big Country

The Big Country is a fine Western, directed by the estimable William Wyler, and featuring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, with a supporting performance by Burl Ives that won an Oscar (he was put up in the lead actor category by the studio for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but thankfully he ended up winning for this one).

The film begins majestically, with a stagecoach racing across open land, and the instantly recognizable theme by Jerome Moross, which is Aaron Copland-like in its sweep. The stagecoach is carrying Peck, an easterner and former sailor who is coming west to marry his sweetheart, played by Carroll Baker. She's the daughter of a rancher, Charles Bickford, who is engaged in a Hatfield/McCoy-like feud with Ives and his bunch, led by Chuck Connors (who would go to play TV's Rifleman).

Peck, much like James Stewart's Destry, is a peaceable man, not interested in the macho code of the West. Heston, who is the foreman of the ranch and sweet on Baker, tries to test Peck's manhood, but Peck won't bite. Eventually Peck realizes Baker is not the woman for him, and comes to admire her friend, the schoolmarm, Jean Simmons, who owns land that provides water for both Ives and Bickford.

Though a bit long, this film has all the elements of a great Western, particularly the use of the endless vistas of land. Wyler really uses the scenery to great effect, and also makes the point of how useless violence can be. There's a terrific scene in which Peck and Heston finally have fisticuffs, but Peck wants to do it in the middle of the night, with no witnesses. Wyler uses some extremely long shots, showing the two men as small figures in a vast landscape.

I was really caught up in the story, and the ending is very suspenseful. If you like Westerns, and even if you don't, this a very good film.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Want to Live!


The winner of Best Actress for 1958 was Susan Hayward, who chews the scenery as party-girl turned death-row convict Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! Hayward had been nominated four times previously without winning, so it was probably a bit of seeing her as due that got her the prize, for the film is really a glorified exploitation flick.

I enjoyed watching this film, though, because it's a real time capsule. It's very much of its time period, with a jazz score, played by a combo led by Gerry Mulligan (with plenty of bongos) and has a trashy feel to it. Throughout the fifties there were several films about juvenile delinquents, low-life criminals, and beatniks that were supposedly cautionary tales but really were outlets for vicarious living. That being said, though, I Want to Live! is much better than it has any right being, and that's because it was directed by Robert Wise.

Wise, who would go on to win Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, was a master of pacing. He was the editor of Citizen Kane, and made one of the best noir films ever, The Set-Up, which a real-time tale of a boxer who is pressured to take a dive. I Want to Live! is Wise at his most skillful, with brilliant use of editing and sound. There's also some fascinating documentary-style footage of how the gas chamber is readied for a condemned prisoner. I know, from watching this film, that it's cyanide "eggs" dunked into sulphuric acid that create the noxious fumes that snuff out the prisoner's life.

Hayward is in almost every scene, and acts as if she can smell that Oscar. She plays an amoral woman who is constantly in trouble with the law, and falls in with some rough characters. An elderly woman is murdered during the course of a robbery. We don't see that robbery, so we can't be sure whether she's guilty or not. By focusing on her rounds of appeals, and casting her supporters (a reporter played by Simon Oakland and a psychiatrist played by Theodore Bikel) in positive light, one can draw the conclusion that she was innocent. Hayward, though, admitted in an interview that she concluded Graham was guilty. Not knowing how it turns out (a rarity for a fifty-year-old movie) I found the ending quite suspenseful, and won't ruin it here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Missing

The Missing, by Sarah Langan, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel of 2007, but it didn't do much for me. If this was the best novel of the year, then the horror genre is suffering (although I did like the winner of Best First Novel, Heart-Shaped Box). The book is well-written, but I found it to be devoid of thrills, centering mostly on gross-out moments.

A sequel to a book I have not read (The Keeper), Langan takes the bold step of setting her book in Maine, which is Stephen King country. The town in question is an upscale community called Corpus Christi (not a name chosen idly). It seems that the neighboring town had an industrial fire that involved a lot of sulphur. An old virus, long buried, calls out to a young boy who unknowing unearths it. This virus turns people into feral creatures who, after killing and eating all the forest animals, turns to anthropophagy.

So what we have here is a book that delights in describing, in vivid detail, people eating people, or people ripping other people apart in various methods. That's all well and good, but the story itself is simply a downward spiral, with no reversals of fortune for any characters. I suspect that this may be a middle volume of a trilogy.

Langan also ventures into King country with her examination of bedroom communities and frequent mentions of pop culture. This may be the only novel that has made reference to the film Freddy Got Fingered.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gigi


The winner of the Best Picture Oscar of 1958 was Gigi, which is today considered the last great musical from MGM, which had specialized in that genre for generations. Based on the novel by Colette, directed by Vincente Minelli, and scored by Lerner and Loewe, Gigi was a prestige picture, playing in New York in a Broadway theater. Today, though, at least from this vantage point, it's nothing special.

To be sure, it looks damn good. The star of this production is Cecil Beaton, who designed the sets and costumes. Set in 1900 Paris, every detail looks sumptuous. The story, though, is pretty hollow. Early on, the character of Gaston, played by Louis Jourdan, sings "It's a bore," and frankly that's what I found the whole thing. It's also quite unseemly.

The film opens with Maurice Chevalier, a gentleman of some years, singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," and sadly that song just doesn't have any innocence anymore. Gigi is a spirited girl (still in school) who comes from a family of kept women. She is watched closely by her grandmother, Hermione Gingold, and a great-aunt, Isabel Jeans, who try to teach her how to be a first-class mistress. Jourdan is a friend of the family and finds, much to his astonishment, that he is attracted to Gigi, who he had only thought of as a girl. He asks her to be his mistress, which excites the old women, but she resists, knowing that she will be one day discarded like yesterday's newspaper. Jourdan then does the unthinkable and asks for her hand in marriage.

So we have here a film that radiates impropriety, whether it would be underage sexual relations or misogyny. It may be gilded, but it is still an unpleasant subject. Furthermore, it's hard to care about what happens. Jourdan is a bit of a stiff, and Chevalier, legend though he may have been, has the aura of a molester. There's really only one scene that engaged me, a droll musical number that has Chevalier and Gingold recalling their affair, singing "I Remember It Well."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Separate Tables


Separate Tables, nominated for Best Picture of 1958, was based on two one-act plays by Terrence Rattigan, which were set in the same hotel on the English sea coast. Rattigan, along with John Gay, combined the one-acts so that the main characters of each interacted with each other, and spun a fine ensemble drama that was powered by some high-wattage performances.

Though set in England, the film was shot entirely on an MGM soundstage in Hollywood. It was directed by Delbert Mann, who had won acclaim for Marty in 1955. As with that film, this was produced by the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster partnership, the Lancaster part of that being Burt Lancaster, who was one of the stars of Separate Tables. He plays an American writer fond of Irish whiskey. He is one of several guests at the hotel. Also staying there are a Major Pollit, played by David Niven, who is sort of a Colonel Blimp type prevaricator, and Deborah Kerr as the mousy spinster bossed around by her bluenose mother (Gladys Cooper). Kerr and Niven have a nice friendship going. One night a glamorous fashion model, played by Rita Hayworth, shows up. It turns out she is Lancaster's ex-wife.

Watching over all this is Wendy Hiller as the hotel manager, who also happens to be in love with Lancaster. He has asked her to marry him, but she hardly believes it, especially when Hayworth shows up. The other plot thread concerns Niven's major. He's gotten himself arrested for fondling a woman in a movie theater, and when a newspaper article reveals this, along with his actual record during the war, Cooper demands that he be thrown out of the hotel.

Separate Tables is told in a minor key. The characters in the hotel, especially when they are seated at the title tables, seem almost like ghosts, lost in their own loneliness. A young frisky couple, played by Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton, seem out of place with their vitality. Niven, a desperately sad man who has created an alternative persona, full of typical "jolly good show" vocal mannerisms, is particularly effective, and won an Oscar for his efforts. Hiller, also very good as the officious manager who masks her own heartbreak, also won an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress.

The direction and screenplay are top-notch and seem effortless, but there is at least one misstep--a title song, syrupily sung by Vic Damone. Listening to Mann's commentary, one learns that he was deadset against it, and it was put into the film without his knowing. When he saw the film in New York he immediately went to his agent's office and demanded to be let out of his contract with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, and never worked for them again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Based on the Tennessee Williams play, the 1958 film version of Cat on the Hot Tin Roof was nominated for Best Picture. It was, befitting the times, a sanitized version of the play. The implication of the main character's homosexuality is played down to near nonexistent levels, and ends with said character dimming the lights so he can knock up his wife. Despite this, it's still a strong film with some good acting.

Directed and co-written by Richard Brooks, the film had some high-powered casting. Elizabeth Taylor was Maggie, the hot-blooded woman who is married to Brick Pollit, played by Paul Newman, who at that time was on the verge of super-stardom. Taylor, of course, was already a big star, and endured a tragedy during filming when her husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash.

If you read between the lines, and know about Tennessee Williams, it's easy to understand what's going on. Brick is the alcoholic ex-football star who is limping around on a broken ankle (sustained by attempting to jump hurdles in a three A.M. visit to his old high school athletic field). Maggie wants to knock boots with him, but he will have nothing to do with her, and the sore spot between them is his old teammate Skippy, who has killed himself. The film suggests that Brick's problem is that he suspects Maggie slept with Skippy, but those who know better will see that Brick and Skippy had the special relationship.

All of this is set on the Mississippi plantation of the patriarch, known as Big Daddy (Burl Ives). Big Daddy has cancer, but the doctor has lied to him. It's Big Daddy's birthday, and his family has gathered for the occasion--Brick and Maggie, and Brick's older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his sniveling wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their five children. They are angling to inherit the plantation, and Sherwood mocks Maggie's childlessness. Over the course of the evening, a lot of conflicts arise, and secrets are revealed.

At first there is an adjustment process, as all of the Southern accents need some time to be believed, but as the drama builds some momentum there are some powerful scenes, none so much as when Brick and his father hash out their relationship. Brick is a difficult role to play, as he is largely ineffectual, almost always has a drink in his hand, and literally has a crutch, but Newman gives him some spine in the confrontation with Ives, who's blustery demeanor cracks when he recalls how he loved his father, who was a hobo. Ives, interestingly, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, but not for this film (it was for The Big Country) but could have easily won for this role.

Taylor's role was toned down, though there are a couple of scenes of her walking around in a slip. In the second half of the film she's relegated to the back of the room. Sherwood is deliciously monstrous as a parody of a good Christian Southern women.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Defiant Ones

Stanley Kramer was perhaps the most socially conscious of filmmakers. He wore his liberalism on his sleeve, in films like Judgement at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones, which was nominated for Best Picture of 1958 (it is somewhat ironic that my favorite Kramer picture, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, has no socially redeeming content whatsoever).

The Defiant Ones is one of those films that has a simple pitch: two convicts, shackled together at the wrist, escape together. One is black, one is white, and they are in the deep South. The convicts were Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, and when asked why two men of different races would be chained together, the response is that the warden has a strange sense of humor. Curtis' character is casually racist, while Poitier, though not a Stepin Fetchit by any means, knows the world in which he lives. When Curtis calls him a nigger, he reprimands him. Curtis replies, "Well, that's what you are, aren't you? I'm a honky." Poitier calmly tells him there's a big difference.

During their flight through the forests and swamps, with law enforcement and bloodhounds following them, the two men grow a certain respect for each other. They are captured by men in a work camp, and are about to be lynched (in a scene of gallows humor, Curtis protests that he can't be lynched--he's a white man. Poitier's look at him is grimly funny). But the camp foreman, in a brief but incendiary turn by Lon Chaney, Jr., manage to shame them into simply locking them up until the authorities arrive.

They escape again and are taken in by a woman and her son. The woman, Cara Williams, longs to escape also, only it's the loneliness and drudgery of her farm she wants to flee. She's attracted to Curtis, and gives Poitier information how to get through the swamp and leave Curtis to her. But she's set up Poitier, sending him to his doom, and when Curtis finds out he proves loyal to his fellow convict and goes after him.

Meanwhile the law persists in hunting them down, led by a sheriff played by Theodore Bikel. He's pointedly not the stereotype of a southern sheriff, simply doing his job and stopping the use of Dobermans to attack the convicts. Also in the posse is Carl Switzer, aka Alfalfa from Our Gang. It would be his last film role before he was murdered.

Towards the end of the film is a very iconic image, as Poitier has managed to get aboard a freight car and extends a hand to help Curtis up. In 1958, this image must have been particularly resonant--a white hand reaching for the aid of a black hand. Perhaps not surprisingly, this film did not do well in the South.

Kramer, Curtis, Poitier, Williams and Bikel all were nominated for Oscars. Sam Leavitt won for Best Cinematography (Black and White). It was the first film in which a black actor received top billing along side a white actor. Poitier, who would later go on to be the first black actor to win an Oscar, doesn't play the noble African-American he would later specialize in. His role in The Defiant Ones is an ordinary man, beaten down by years of racism. It's an excellent performance in an excellent film.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Auntie Mame


As I mentioned a few days ago in my article on Vertigo, that Hitchcock film was not nominated for the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. Over the next few days I'll take a look at the films that were nominated, and I'll start with an example of how tastes have changed over fifty years. The idea that this bloated bit of frippery was once considered by film professionals to be one of the best films of the year is a head-scratcher, right up there with pink aluminum Christmas trees.

Based on a book by Patrick Dennis, which was then adapted into a stage play, Auntie Mame was lush and gaudy, and almost without substance. It's the story of a young boy in the 1920s who is suddenly orphaned and sent to live with his larger-than-life aunt, who cavorts with the oddballs of high society, smokes cigarettes with a long holder, and speaks as if she is always on stage. Rosalind Russell played the title role, and it's the kind of performance that today only a drag queen could love. Russell was a big star at the time who is largely forgotten today. If you want to learn more about her, check out His Girl Friday, not this one.

The film was directed by Morton DaCosta (he would later direct The Music Man) in the kind of film that was prevalent in the fifties: brilliant colors and a theatricality that made people think they were seeing a Broadway show. There's no attempt at realism here--apartments on Beekman Place are as large as a mansion, and scenes set in Egypt or the Matterhorn have backgrounds that look like they are made of papier mache. The spirit of the piece is mawkish sentimentality (Auntie Mame and her nephew love each other to pieces, despite her being delightfully kooky) mixed with slapstick comedy (mostly from Peggy Cass as Mame's socially inept secretary). Almost none of it works.

So, fifty years ago this was a Best Picture contender. Today it seems like punishment.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

If TV game shows had been around in the 1840s, Charles Dickens might have come up with the story of Slumdog Millionaire. A street urchin, who harbors a long-held love for a gamine, attempts to redeem himself and win the girl--only in this instance it's on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The setting may be in a TV studio in contemporary Mumbai, but there are echoes of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield.

The film is directed expertly by Danny Boyle, and edited by, no joke, Chris Dickens, in such a fashion to make the most of the tension and excitement. However, they can't quite mask the essential problem with this film, and that is the central conceit--the question the contestant receives form a road map of his life. If this were spoken aloud in a screenwriting workshop there would be rolled eyes and groans. That the film is as gripping as it is a testament to Boyle and his crew.

Dev Patel plays Jamal, who is orphaned along with his older brother, Salim. He makes friends with a girl, Latika, and the three share a hardscrabble existence. They fall in with a Fagin-like figure who employs them as beggars, do some unofficial tour-guiding at the Taj Mahal, and eventually are separated when Salim goes to work for the local gangster. Jamal ends up working at a cell-phone call center, and then finds himself on the wildly popular game show.

Each question reveals a portion of his past, as he relates to a policeman (he is suspected of cheating on the show, and the authorities want to know just how a "slumdog" could possibly know the answers). This structure is effective, but I wonder if a suspected game show cheat would really be given electric shocks. I do know that in the U.S. a key scene in which Jamal and the host, played by Anil Kapoor, have a private conversation in a men's room could never happen (contestants are carefully secluded on U.S. game shows).

Sometimes it's better to let story problems go and just enjoy the moment, and if that is done Slumdog Millionaire is wildly entertaining. It's thrilling and touching, and the music is toe-tappingly good (in a nod to Bollywood tradition, the closing credits is a full-scale musical dance number). The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly by some juvenile performers who play the principles as small children, but I was most impressed by Kapoor, who shows that game-show hosts are as oleaginous and supercilious in India as anyplace else.

Some are proclaiming Slumdog Millionaire as the picture to beat in this year's Oscars. I'm not so sure, only because it would be a first--no film that has a non-American or English cast has ever won the top prize. Though most of this film is in English, it would be by far the most exotic Best Picture winner ever.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening


Starting Out in the Evening is a fine, small film about the inevitability of mortality and why it's usually not a good idea to get to know your idols. It is based on a literary novel and about a literary novelist, therefore it is not exactly fast-paced, and focuses on four characters, all of whom are thoughtful and introspective.

The action concerns an aged novelist, played by Frank Langella. He is largely forgotten by the academy, and his four novels are out of print. He is working on a last book, and hopes to live long enough to finish it. Enter Lauren Ambrose, as a graduate student doing her thesis on Langella and his work. She is both charming and aggressive enough to push past his initial resistance, and ends up an integral part of his life.

Meanwhile, Langella's daughter, Lili Taylor, approaches her fortieth birthday. She wants a child, but is adrift in both career and relationships. An old boyfriend, Adrian Lester, returns to her life, but he steadfastly refuses to have children.

All of this is told with exact brush strokes by co-writer and director Andrew Wagner, adapting a novel by Brian Morton. Relationships between older men of letters and vital young women are a dime a dozen in literature, particularly in the works of Philip Roth, but this story tells the familiar in a slightly different way. There is no particular sexual heat, it's more of a co-dependency.

The acting is good, especially by Langella, as a man who of routine and decorum, who wears a coat and tie while working in his home office, and never raises his voice. Ambrose has a tough role as a woman who meets her idol and then complicates both of their lives, but she pulls it off without edging into the cliche of the manic pixie dreamgirl. This is Langella's story, so we don't see Ambrose much outside of his aura. I wonder if the novel delves deeper into her motivations.

Wagner does well his design team to create a wintry New York. Langella's apartment comes across as both cozy and off-putting, a musty library but also a haven for the intellect. Movies about writers are always problematic--there's not much exciting about watching someone type--but Starting Out in the Evening is thoughtful and engrossing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Milk


There's a danger in a film like Milk that a viewer could end up judging the cause rather than the film itself. From the opening shots of documentary footage of gays being harassed by cops simply for existing and associating with one another (including the Stonewall riot of Greenwich Village) it is clear that Milk, the story of the martyred San Francisco supervisor who was the first gay man elected to major office in the U.S., is a jeremiad for gay rights. Today, thirty years later, many of these rights have been obtained (although sadly, not all), so only the most homophobic could watch this film and not feel moved by the man and the cause (I'm sure Anita Bryant, who is demonized throughout, would not be a fan). But I'm also happy to report that the film itself stands alone as a fine piece of art.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, and starring a spellbinding Sean Penn, Milk is told in flashbacks, with the title character, worried about assassination, telling his story into a tape recorder. A gray little insurance man in New York, he picks up a young man (James Franco) in the subway on the eve of his fortieth birthday. Realizing he has done nothing of substance in those forty years, the two move to San Francisco, where Milk opens a camera store and becomes a gadfly for the gay rights cause.

The film's remaining acts concern campaigns. First there are unsuccessful runs for office, and then a victory, which puts him on the board of supervisors. A fellow freshman supervisor is Dan White (Josh Brolin), a tightly wound ex-cop from a conservative neighborhood. Though White has a distaste for gays, he and Milk make overtures toward each other to make political deals.

The final campaign of the film concerns Proposition 6, which would forbid gays from teaching in California's public schools (as well as those who support gay people). Through a massive mobilization, Milk and those who agree with him are victorious. It's a bittersweet moment for today's audiences, because one can't help but think of the recent repeal of the gay marriage law and feel a twinge of regret.

All of this is told in a straightforward style, which Van Sant seemingly had abandoned in his recent more avant-garde films like Elephant and Gerry. The editing, by Elliot Graham, is top-notch, imparting a lot of information quickly and effectively, and making the two-hour-plus running time fly by. The photography, by Harris Savides, invokes a gritty seventies look that works well. The film also makes good use of music, with a touching scene of Milk attending a performance of Tosca on the last night of his life, and unlike Australia, the use of "Over the Rainbow" is appropriate and touching (the Stonewall riot happened the night of Judy Garland's death, and that date has become the de facto Gay Pride Day).

But it's the acting that lifts Milk to great heights. As his friends, lovers, and supporters, Franco, Diego Luna, Joseph Cross, and Allison Pill are all terrific. Brolin is also very effective as a deeply disturbed man that is bubbling with rage (Van Sant pointedly does not include a scene of White eating any Twinkies, thank god). And Penn is just scintillating. There was a very good documentary about Milk some years ago called The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, so for this film to even be necessary an addition that can only come from narrative film had to be there, and Penn delivers it. It's through his performance that we understand what made Harvey Milk tick. He was the kind of guy I would have like to have known, and makes his untimely loss all the more sorrowful.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Vertigo



Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo had its fiftieth anniversary this year, and perhaps is the best example of a film that has increased in estimation with age. When it was released, it was met with mostly indifference. It only received two Oscar nominations, for minor categories. But in 2002 it was rated as the second-greatest film of all time by the annual Sight and Sound poll, and in the most recent AFI survey of greatest Americans films, ranked number nine. This may be due to a phenomenon I've experienced myself: Vertigo gets better every time I've watched it.

It was Hitchcock's most personal film, concerned with a man's obsession in recreating a woman in the image of a dead woman. The image, of course, is an icy Nordic blonde, the kind of woman that would appear in numerous Hitchcock films. But what's most remarkable about it is that it delves, in 1958, in some rather kinky psychosexual behavior. As Hitchcock admitted, there was even the whiff of necrophilia outlined in the obsession.

The story concerns a San Francisco police detective, played by James Stewart, who has a fear of heights. He retires after a policeman falls to his death trying to save Stewart. An old college buddy asks for his help with his wife (Kim Novak), who is under the delusion that she is the reincarnation of a long-dead woman from the Spanish days of California. However, as we will eventually learn, the story is beside the point. In defiance of most of the rules of moviemaking, the plot plays a minor role. What Hitchcock is concerned with is mood and emotion, and creating a dream-like state where logic goes out the window.

The film has a second part. After the events of the first half are wrapped up, and Stewart thinks that the woman he was following (and fell in love with) is dead, he discovers her doppelganger. He woos her and makes her over to perfectly resemble his lost love, even to the point of dying her hair. It is at the start of the second half that Hitchcock made his most brilliant structural move, which was different from the source novel. We the audience are told right away just who the new woman, Judy Barton, is, however Stewart does not know (until he figures it out at the end). Hitchcock thus makes it so the audience knows more than the characters, which was his definition of suspense.

There are some troubling aspects of the film--even Hitchcock knew there were hiccoughs. But minor little mysteries that remain, such as how Novak manages to get in and out the hotel without the clerk seeing her, perpetuate the dream-like aspects of the film. Also, Novak was not the most gifted of actresses, and Hitchcock's fingerprints are all over her (figuratively speaking of course), which matches the attempts in the film of Stewart trying to remake her.

But these inconsistencies are overwhelmed by majesty. Robert Burks' photography is absolutely magnificent, and makes brilliant use of color (of course Hitchcock dictated this, even choosing the color of Novak's outfits). The music by Bernard Hermann, which uses Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, is one of the great scores in film history.

For a major release in the era of the studio system, Vertigo is one of the strangest and European-seeming film in Hollywood's history (it's no accident its reputation was revived by the French). Consider the trippy animated dream sequence in the center of the film, or the creepy scene when Novak awakes after being rescued from San Francisco Bay by Stewart. She's in bed, nude, and we all realize that Stewart has undressed her and put her into bed. Hitchcock was certainly a very complicated man, and Vertigo is perhaps the best window into his psyche that he ever made.

Monday, December 08, 2008

It's Awards Season!

The critics' awards and Golden Globe nominations will be revealed this week, so it's a good time to jot down my first pass at predicting the Oscar nominations for the major categories. With so many hyenas on the 'Net offering their opinions, it's hard to know what is an original idea and what is just parroting someone else predictions, but I'll contribute to the morass anyway.

BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
Revolutionary Road

Notes: No Dark Knight, just don't see it happening. The sixth movie here is The Reader. Don't have a good feel for what the eventual winner will be, although the whole Prop 8 mess, residual bad feelings about Brokeback Mountain and the ever-changing membership of the Academy (skewing younger) may give Milk a big push.

BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
David Fincher, Benjamin Button
Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Notes: As picture and director rarely match up, I'm going with Ron Howard to get screwed, as there is precedent for it.

BEST ACTOR
Benicio Del Toro, Che
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Notes: Fascinating race. If Sean Penn had not won before I think he'd be the overwhelming favorite to win, and he might just win anyway.

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road (or The Reader)

Notes: Will Winslet's two films cancel each other out for her? Hard to know at this point which one is the stronger performance. If she is nominated she may be the favorite due to her many nominations without a win.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin, Milk
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon

Notes: Ledger's win here is the easiest call at this point. Question over who will be nominated from Milk: Brolin or Franco (or both?)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, Benjamin Button
Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married

Notes: Lots of contenders here; in the sixth slot is Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler

I'll have a full slate of predictions up just before the nominations are announced on January 22nd.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An American Crime

An American Crime is a very well acted film, particularly by Catherine Keener, but while watching it I thought of larger questions, such as why is a film made? There is the entertainment value, and also, as with good literature, the experience of expanding one's consciousness and learning something about one's self through a look at other's experiences. But An American Crime doesn't really offer any of that. It certainly isn't entertaining--in fact it's one long cringe, and ultimately it says nothing about humanity in general.

Based on an actual case that took place in Indiana in 1965, Keener plays a single woman who is overburdened by six children. She takes in ironing to make extra money, and has a variety of illnesses. Ellen Page, pre-Juno, and her sister are the daughters of carnival employees. The parents want to go on a carnival circuit, but don't know what to do with the kids. After meeting Keener once, Page's father leaves his daughters with this woman. Big mistake.

At first everything seems fine. Page gets along well with Keener's girls, particularly the oldest, played by Ari Graynor. But when Page learns about Graynor's pregnancy, Graynor begins to resent her new friend, and tells her mother that the new girl is telling lies about her. Keener's punishment is medieval, to say the least.

Ultimately Page is confined to the basement and tortured. Several of the Keener children, as well as there friends, participate in the madness. The torture involves cigarette burns, branding, and shoving a coke bottle into Page's vagina. All of this is told in flashbacks at Keener's trial.

As one can imagine, this isn't easy to watch, and after a while one may wonder why they are watching. The film is directed and co-written by Tommy O'Haver, and it doesn't follow usual film structure. There isn't the usual story arc--things just spiral ever downward. The only character that shows any change is Graynor, who comes to regret her actions and attempts to help Page. Keener, though very good, plays a psychopath, and Page is a victim. This is a horror film without any thrills.

An American Crime caused something of a sensation, pro and con, at Sundance in 2007, but never had a theatrical release. It was aired on Showtime, and Keener earned an Emmy Nomination, which was well-deserved. But fair warning, this film is ninety-minutes of downer without any transformative power.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Indies in the Cold: Sleepwalking/Snow Angels


I wouldn't call it a trend, but it seems that directors of independent pictures are drawn to cold climates. Earlier this year there was Frozen River, and just in the last few days I've caught up with two other small films set in bleak Northern winters. Each of these films deal with people who live on the margins and are almost always bundling up against unrelenting cold. There don't seem to be many indies set on Florida beaches. Maybe it's because they are usually shot in Canada for monetary reasons, or maybe it's just that directors like the look of snow as it blows across a desolate highway.

Sleepwalking got made no doubt because Charlize Theron co-produced and played the role of an irresponsible mother who dumps her pre-teen daughter with her slow-witted brother (Nick Stahl). He ends up taking the child to his father's ranch, which is a mistake because the father, Dennis Hopper, is a big old meanie.

Directed by William Maher (no, not Bill Maher, but that would have been interesting), almost every frame of Sleepwalking is bleak. None of these characters seem to have any hope. The child is played by AnnaSophia Robb, a very good actress who is going to grow up to be an astonishingly beautiful woman. And is there any beautiful actress who tries to deglamorize herself more than Theron? Here she plays the candidate for worst mother of the year, who takes up with the wrong kind of men and has a chip on her shoulder. She's a good actress, but she can take a role where she gets to dress up nice every now and then.

The film suffers from pretension, such as a supposedly meaningful scene when Robb dives into a swimming pool wearing roller skates. But mostly it's a series of moods in minor key, without signifying much.

Snow Angels is a little better, in that it's more ambitious in story. In a small town (don't know where, but it was filmed in Nova Scotia) there are two parallel stories going on: a young woman (Kate Beckinsale) recently separated from her emotionally unstable husband (Sam Rockwell) is having an affair with a co-worker's husband, and a high school boy deals with his parent's separation while getting close to a new girl in school.

Directed by David Gordon Green, who specializes in small films (I liked All the Real Girls), at least until he did Pineapple Express, does a nice job balancing the plot threads and giving us a sense of place. However, some of it is a bit obvious. We begin with a scene with a marching band director telling his charges that cooperation is key, a kind of blatant metaphor. Then we hear gunshots, and the rest of the film is in flashback, so we expect some kind of tragedy (going the Chekhov rule of showing a run a tick more--we don't see a gun but we hear shots).

Whenever I see films about crazed exes, I try to imagine the couple in question during happier days, and it's tough in this film. When we first see Rockwell we know he's buggy, and it's hard to imagine how Beckinsale married him in the first place (she says at one point he made her laugh, but he's certainly lost that talent). Also, the presence of their young daughter creates a tension that you just know won't come to a happy end, so it's just a matter of waiting for something to happen.

Much better is the rather sweet romance between the high school kids, Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby. It's mercifully free of some cliches--Angarano is in band, but he's not picked on and has friends. And though Thirlby, a fetching young woman, is put in some cat-eye glasses, I don't think she's supposed to be some kind of ugly duckling, she's just a new kid in school and unusual, so the relationship makes sense.

I'll continue to wait for that indie film set in Key West.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Australia


Australia is pure schmaltz, middlebrow entertainment, and as subtle as a jackhammer. But it's also effective, and as I watched the conclusion, which is as corny as Kansas in August, I hated myself for realizing that I kind of liked it.

Baz Luhrmann has made a film that is clearly an affectionate nod to those big-budget Cinemascope extravaganzas of the fifties. Australia is full of romance and adventure and rescues, it just lacks any kind of introspection or sophistication.

As with his Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann begins the film defying you to stay. It has quick choppy edits as it deals with some exposition: Nicole Kidman is a well-bred English gentlewoman who goes to Australia to urge her husband, who is breeding cattle on a ranch, to sell. When she gets there she meets a rough and tumble fellow known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman), and then finds out that her husband has been murdered. She decides to try to make the ranch profitable, with the help of a drunken accountant and a mixed-race boy. Meanwhile, the local cattle baron and his henchman try to drive her out of business.

This is the stuff of many Hollywood Westerns, and the transplanted location, despite a few kangaroos, doesn't offer much new. The plight of aboriginal people, while certainly a sad story, is told in somewhat patronizing fashion (there have been better films about this, such as Rabbit-Proof Fence), and Luhrmann is shameless about going to the lowest common denominator to wring tears from his audience. He even stoops so low as to use The Wizard of Oz as a counterpoint, and make "Over the Rainbow" the dominant musical cue. Surely a place in director's Hell is waiting for him just for that.

But the film is lovely to look at. The cinematographer Mandy Walker has created some arresting images (in particular there is a lovely overhead shot after a tragedy), even if it at times veers into look of perfume commercials.

The acting follows Luhrmann's lead for the predictable and one-note. Kidman is pretty bad in the beginning, mostly overacting her shock at Australia's rustic conditions. Jackman pretty much sticks with the tall, dark and handsome hero with little shading. As the little boy, Brandon Walters is nicely unaffected, and his big dark eyes made me recall the old comic strip Dondi.
It seems kind of cheeky to make a film called Australia, for whatever follows can't possibly encapsulate a country of that size and diversity. What would a movie called United States of America be like?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I've Loved You So Long


I've Loved You So Long is a pretty wrenching emotional experience at the cinema, highlighted by a brilliant performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. It's only after you've wiped away the tears that a few nagging details present themselves to you, and keep the film from being one of the best of the year.

As with The Visitor, another fine film from this year, I've Loved You So Long concerns a character who is reawakening. This time it is a woman, played by Thomas, who has been in prison for fifteen years. When we first see her she is almost in a trance, waiting in an airport to be picked up by her sister, Elsa Zylberstein. We learn that Zylberstein was a teenager when her sister went away, and it isn't long before we also learn that Thomas was in prison for murdering her six-year-old son.

Over the course of the film there is something of a mystery as to why she committed this deed, as well as her becoming acclimated to life on the outside. Her sister is a college professor who is married to a researcher, who is naturally reluctant to allow his murderous sister-in-law to live in his home. They have two small children, adopted Vietnamese girls. A colleague of Zylberstein's becomes attracted to Thomas, even after he learns her secret, and Thomas becomes friendly with her parole officer, who dreams of visiting the Orinoco River.

The savvy viewer will have figured out the reasons for Thomas' infanticide long before the film reveals it, and I won't ruin it here, but some problems arise. Basically Thomas, in an attempt to be selfless, has been tremendously selfish by offering no explanation at her trial. She has made her parents disown her, and her sister has resisted becoming pregnant because she worried about some kind of mental illness in the family. When all is revealed in the film's climax, Zylberstein should have throttled Thomas, demanding to know what she was thinking.

But this nagging question doesn't affect the fine acting on display. Zylberstein is excellent as the younger sister who idolized Thomas as a child, but then was brainwashed to forget her by her parents, and then reached out to her in a last-ditch effort to make them a family again. And Thomas is a cinch to get a Best Actress nomination. At first her performance is almost silent, with her eyes and facial expressions doing all the work, wearing a mask of despair. Gradually the mask is removed, and it's a pleasure to watch this fine actress allow her character to grow.

Aside from a few plot problems (and a scene of a country weekend of friends that looks like a beer commercial) I recommend this film highly.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hellfire Canyon



Hellfire Canyon, which won an award from the Western Writers of America, is a peculiar book. It's not a bad book, by any means, but often head-scratching. The title, for one thing, isn't appropriate, because the entire book is set in Missouri and that state doesn't have canyons. According to the author Max McCoy's blog, he didn't like the title, either. So instead the title refers to a Hollywood film that is made about the main character's life story (although the film doesn't really exist). Confused yet?

Also, the copy on the back jacket doesn't accurately describe the book. It leads you to believe it's about a bushwhacking murderer being hunted down by a Union soldier, when in reality that Union soldier appears on only about two pages of the book. Apparently the author and the publisher were miles apart on how to sell this book.

Finally, the structure of the book is complex and at times exceeds the grasp of the author. Mainly, it's the recollection of an old man in the 1930's. He's being interviewed by a reporter upon the opening of said film, which is about his time in the gang of Alf Bolin, a serial murderer in Missouri during the Civil War. Though a novel, it has footnotes, which suggests it's based on a true story. I did find out that Bolin was real, but again, the movie stuff is complete fiction (Tyrone Power, who is supposed to be the star of the 1932 film, didn't make a movie before 1935). This gives the book the feel of legend, which makes it intellectually interesting but at times head-spinning.

As with many Western novels, the writing can be strained. There are some passages that could have been easily excised, such as a sequence on the reporter running out of paper and having the bartender go get some more, and another on how to make sassafras tea. But McCoy does give a good sense of what a nightmare Missouri was during the Civil War. I recently saw a lecture by Civil War historian James McPherson refer to the state as being like Zimbabwe is now. There were many factions on both sides, and most had no compunction about killing anyone.

I give credit to this book for being interesting, but inconsistent in tone and craft.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Catching Up: The Bank Job/The Ruins/10,000 B.C.

I've done some catching up with some early releases from this year via DVD. They are the kind of movies I may have had a slight interest in at the time they were in theaters, but ultimately judged as "rentals." I was correct to wait in all instances.

The best of this particular trio is The Bank Job, a competent heist picture by Roger Donaldson. It is the (somewhat) true story of a gang of thieves who tunneled into the vault of a London bank in 1971. This film supposes they were set up by British intelligence to get some photos which were embarrassing to the Crown.

I've never understood the necessity of pushing the "based on a true story" angle for films. Does anyone really care? Apparently marketing has judged that people do, because if a film is based on a true story we know it right away--it's usually in the advertising and one of the first title cards in the credits. But do people choose a film because it might be true? I have trouble believing that.

I do love heist films, and this one is okay. It's not up to the level of classics like The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi or The Hot Rock, but it has its moments. Part of the time it seems the endeavor, which involved renting a store a few doors away and tunneling underneath into the vault (which Woody Allen would spoof in Small-Time Crooks) seemed ridiculously easy. Donaldson does a nice job of keeping a lot of balls in the air, and there are many factions with different pursuits involved, but I readily knew who everyone was and what they wanted.

The Ruins is based on a successful horror novel by Scott Smith, which I reviewed on this blog previously. Frankly, for the splash the book made, I'm surprised that this production wasn't more high-profile; it was released and died a quick death, and doesn't appear to have cost much money, using unknown actors (unless you're a big Jena Malone fan).

The story concerns a group of young people on vacation in Mexico who decide to have an adventure and visit a Mayan ruin that is not in the guide book. They soon realize they're in trouble when locals won't let them leave, and the vines that cover the ruin seem a bit more sentient than they should be. The short running time is economical, perhaps too much so, as the horror has more to do with how a small group of people deal with an impossible situation more than the killer vines, which frankly are pretty silly (M. Night Shamalyan had a similar problem with menacing vegetation in The Happening). The book allows for more psychological drama, while the film just covers the bare bones.

As cheesy as The Ruins is, it's worthy of an essay in Cahier du Cinema compared to 10,000 B.C., an absolute dog from the mind of master hack Roland Emmerich. It's hard to know how to start ripping this film, so I'll start with how fantastically historically inaccurate it is. While it is an improvement from its inspiration, 1,000,000 B.C., which had Raquel Welch in a fur bikini under threat from dinosaurs (a plot that might please Mike Huckabee but not anyone with a shred of scientific knowledge), 10,000 B.C. is horribly confused in time and geography.

We start with a tribe who are remarkably diverse--they have members who are Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. They speak like Indians from old Westerns, and hunt woolly mammoths. One day an advanced group, who can ride horses, kidnap some of their numbers. A young hunter and a few associates set out to rescue them (including his love, played by Camilla Belle).

While watching you may try to figure out where they are supposed to be. As mentioned, the main tribe is a mixture of races, which of course would be unlikely given the time period. The invaders would seem to be Egyptian, considering they are building pyramids (although the pyramids of Egypt were built far later). But along the way the main tribe comes across people who are clearly African. It's enough to make you curse the filmmakers out loud.

The screenplay, by Emmerich and Harald Kloser, is howlingly funny in a bad way. Belle wears only one expression during the film, a look of incomprehension, perhaps as to why she took such a bad part. The special effects are neither special or effective. And what was with the giant killer birds? I'm not sure they can be found in the fossil record.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eden's Outcasts


The Pulitzer Prize for Biography went this year to Eden's Outcasts, John Matteson's dual biography of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and her father, Bronson, who was a teacher, philosopher, and friend to the New England literary set. I have never read Little Women (I once went to a theatrical production of one of her stories, The Night Governess, and during the post-play discussion an expert on Alcott asked who had read Little Women--the hands that were raised were almost exclusively female) but her life is interesting, particularly as it relates to the transcendentalism movement.

Bronson was, to put it kindly, eccentric. For most of his life he tried to put his views on education to work by teaching and founding various schools, but they inevitably failed. For a time he co-founded a Utopian community that had strict rules about the non-use of animal products, even to the point of not using wool (cotton was out as well, due to the slave labor involved in picking it). He and his wife and four daughters lived in poverty much of the time, as he wasn't much of a farmer and refused to work in the accepted construct of the times. He was, though, a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and well known to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who viewed him suspiciously.

Louisa grew up in a fecund literary environment. She once, as a young girl, went to Emerson and asked for reading recommendations, and he showed her his volumes of Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe. She got her start writing potboilers for the magazines of the day, but it wasn't until a publisher pestered her to write a book for young girls did she achieve literary immortality. Almost against her will, she penned the story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. At first her publisher found it dull, until he showed it to his niece, who enjoyed it thoroughly.

Little Women was a publishing phenomenon, and at the same time Bronson finally achieved national renown with publication of educational tomes he had written much earlier, as well as touring the country having public conversations on philosophy and religion. In one of those eerie twists of fate, Louisa, who never married, died a mere forty hours after her father did (she contracted typhus while working as a nurse during the Civil War, and a cure of mercury slowly poisoned her to death over the last twenty-five years of her life). She and her parents and sisters are buried in a section of Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, that I have had a chance to visit. It's quite a thing to stand in one spot and be a mere few paces from their graves, as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Matteson has written a sterling biography. Drawing on well-kept journals by the principles, he creates the family's world expertly, and pinpoints the relationship between father and daughter quite well. Louisa was always seeking her father's approval, and when she finally earned it almost meant more to her than riches and fame. Riches, not quite, because as a girl she had known poverty. Fame, on the other hand, she didn't want. Matteson tells some amusing stories about how Louisa spurned the attention of many of her fans. I liked this one the best: "At one public appearance, an energetic matron worked her arm like a pump handle and exclaimed, 'If you ever come to Oshkosh, your feet will not be allowed to touch the ground: you will be borne in the arms of the people.' Louisa vowed never to visit Oshkosh."

Matteson also does a fine job of putting things in perspective, as he does here: "Now, more than a century later, Little Women remain available everywhere; Tablets (Bronson Alcott's book), by contrast, is out of print and long forgotten. To those with access to the latter volume, however, it is a rare treat to read the two works side by side, as two complementary glimpses into the past, and into the heart of the Alcott family."

Finally, I enjoy reading a good biography because if the author is successful, especially in dealing with a deceased person, you are able to live with that person for a short time, from birth to death, and at the end there is a certain emotional response. I admit getting a little misty-eyed reading this passage: "Something deeper can be learned from looking at the children who never stop coming to Bronson's and Louisa's house. They are eager, hushed and wide-eyed. They come to see something they cannot describe but must certainly feel, something that comes neither precisely from the Marches nor the Alcotts, but is perhaps an idea of how life and families ought to be."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Christmas Tale


This film is playing in a couple of art houses near me, but now that I have plenty of time at home I was looking what was available on On Demand, and lo and behold this one is, as part of IFC. It costs about the same to watch it on TV as go to the movie theater, but I'd rather stay at home and watch it in my pajamas.
It is co-written and directed by Arnaud Desplechins, and I have seen his immediately preceding film, Kings and a Queen. As with that film, A Christmas Tale is about families, especially parents and children. There are also several holdover actors from his earlier film, most notably Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric.

What Desplechins does well, thankfully, is let us know immediately who everyone is. In a prologue, he outlines the family dynamics. Deneuve and her husband, Jean-Paul Roussilon, have four children, but the eldest died of cancer at age six. The comes a daughter, who has grown up to be a morose playwright (Ann Consigny), a ne'er-do-well son (Amalric), and a happy-go-lucky sort (Melvil Poupaud) is the youngest son. Consigny has a teenage son who is mentally troubled. Deneuve learns she has cancer, and needs a bone marrow transplant. Her grandson persuades Amalric, who has not been around in years, to return and be tested as a donor.

The theme of suitability as a donor is strong throughout the film. Amalric was conceived as a possible donor for his elder brother, but was not compatible. He then creates havoc in all of the family's lives, especially his sister, who agrees to pay debts to keep him out of prison, but on the condition that she never has to see him again. The father is a soft-touch who will not disown no matter what, so when Amalric shows up for Christmas with a new girlfriend (Emannuelle Devos, who was the Queen in Kings and a Queen) all may not be forgiven, but he is tolerated.

Desplechins can be remarkably sanguine about family relationships. Deneuve is quite frank about which children she favors (Amalric is not one of them), and when one of the kids proves to be a compatible donor, she accepts this by saying that they came from her womb, and now she wants some of them back. There are many secrets revealed and heart-to-heart conversations, but unlike cloying American films of this type (such as Home for the Holidays and The Family Stone) the lack of sentimentality is refreshing.

The star of this film is Amalric, who is becoming quite the international presence, what with his work in this film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and American films like Munich and The Quantum of Solace. He is impish and though a complete rascal, his charm is undeniable. Consigny is also very good as a woman with fragile beauty who seems to struggle to make it through each day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beaufort

I've now seen three of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language film for last year's Oscar (Katyn and 12 are not yet available on DVD). As with The Counterfeiters (the winner) and Mongol, Beaufort is a mediocre film that aspires to more than it delivers.

An Israeli film directed by Joseph Cedar, Beaufort refers to a castle in southern Lebanon that goes back to the days of the Crusades. It changed hands many times over a thousand years, and was seized by Israel in 1982. In 2000 they evacuated it for good, and this story concerns the last group of Israeli soldiers who manned it.

The early parts of the film are very evocative. The atmosphere almost suggests a horror film, as a bomb expert arrives so he can disarm a device that blocks the road (Hezbollah are in the hills, pestering the Israeli soldiers). He is almost instantly confused by the meandering tunnels (that have the look of a spaceship, which gives it that "Alien" feeling). But his confusion is also the viewers, at least this one. Throughout the film I never really got a good sense of who was who or what the military strategy was. The soldiers wanted to leave, but continued to have obstacles, but then top brass seemed to come and go without difficulty. The only character I got a good sense of was the commander, played by Oshri Cohen, a by-the-book young man who ultimately fails his men.

This film is far too moody and talky to succeed as a war film, and perhaps it's because I'm unfamiliar with the politics and culture it didn't resonate with me as a drama. There were a few things that I found interesting: it's an interesting by-product of the technology of the era that the men could watch on television what was going on around them (I remember feeling the same thing while watching Three Kings, when Mark Wahlberg was able to call home on a cell phone--certainly the Gulf War was the first conflict where that could happen). Also, an early scene showing dummies set up on the parapets to draw enemy fire reminded me of a similar situated in the similarly titled Beau Geste.