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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace


One of the intriguing questions presented by the early death of Kurt Cobain, and an unanswerable one, is if he had lived, would Dave Grohl ever been able to emerge as the artistic presence he now is? Would he have remained as Nirvana's drummer only, or would he have eventually found a voice as a writer and singer in the band, as a sort of McCartney to Cobain's Lennon? Cobain did die, though, and Grohl formed Foo Fighters, and we'll never know.

When I picked up this album, I realized I have all six of Foo Fighters studio albums. I like their music a great deal, but I haven't much passion for them lately. I think their second album, The Colour and the Shape, is their best effort, but all of their records are admirable, as is their latest, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, which I've listened to several times over the past two weeks.

What Grohl and Foo Fighters do so effectively is mix testosterone-laden power rock with sentimentality without sounding like Spinal Tap. The music kicks ass but has a heart, but doesn't get too mushy. They also have some catchy hooks and have pop songs, ballads and just straight ahead metal. When I can get a disc and be happy if I like three songs, I like all the songs on this one.

The Foo Fighters' sound is evident in the opening track, The Pretender, which starts off slow and then kicks in power chords. Other favorites are the extremely catchy Long Road to Ruin and Summer's End, the ballsy Erase/Replace, and a pastiche of Appalachian bluegrass, The Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners. But the best tracks are those that appeal to the sensitive teen within all of us--Let It Die, Come Alive, Statues, and the closing track, the somber ballad Home.

Foo Fighters are a good, reliable rock band that aren't flashy, play their instruments well, and write earnest if not brilliant lyrics. If someone stopped me on the street and asked me who my favorite current rock acts are, they probably wouldn't come to mind immediately, though.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Place of Hiding

After the fat and very disappointing A Traitor to Memory, I was reluctant to try another Elizabeth George mystery novel, but I've read them all up to this point so gave A Place of Hiding, which is another gargantuan book (770 plus pages) a try. I'm glad I did, because it reminded me of why I like George's books to begin with.

I've looked over the reviews on Amazon.com and many were not kind to it, mainly because it does not feature her usual sleuths, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers (Lynley makes a cameo appearance, Havers not at all). Instead the primary detectives in this work are the usually peripheral Simon Allcourt-St. James and his wife, Deborah. For those immersed in the backstory, we already know that Deborah was once involved with Lynley before marrying St. James, and that St. James is Lynley's old friend. I will admit that St. James and Deborah are not nearly as interesting as Lynley and Havers, but the key to this book's success is a pretty good mystery, as well as an interesting location.

George, an American writer, has set all her books in Britain, but this one is in a part of the United Kingdom that few people have gone--the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. Closer to France than to England, I imagine it's a fascinating place, culturally, and George does a very good job of setting the scene. Guernsey was also occupied by the Nazis during almost all of World War II, and herein hangs the mystery.

The murder victim is Guy Brouard, a rich hotelier. In true cozy-style mystery fashion, there are any number of suspects. Brouard dallied with women, including those who were underage, and had many people interested in his money. He also was behind an effort to build a museum of the occupation that may have turned up memories that some people wanted to stay buried. But the person arrested for the crime is China River, an American and old friend of Deborah's. She would appear to have no motive. Her brother, Cherokee, turns to Deborah for help, and against his better judgement Simon, a forensic scientist, helps investigate the case.

As with all of George's books, the mystery is almost secondary to the development of her characters. In this book we get a close look at the marriage of Simon and Deborah, and admittedly it's a bit tiresome. I perked up though at the actual sleuthing--lots of suspects, lots of secrets, even the old-fashioned scene of a will-reading. The ending even managed to surprise me.

I'm very glad that George is back on her game, and will be sure to read the next one (I'm a little behind, there might be two out now).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Spamalot

I haven't been to a Broadway show in years. When I lived in Jersey City I went all the time, as it was easy to get into the city, and I subscribed to several different theaters (most of them were off-Broadway). But a combination of factors has driven me away. The price, of course, I'm reticent to spend over a hundred dollars to see anything, and what Broadway offers is very safe, very bland entertainment. How could they not, given the economic risks entailed? So now almost everything on Broadway is either a revival, something based on a film, or the so-called jukebox musical, which uses music everyone already knows.

Spamalot fits into one of those categories, being based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you would have told me thirty years ago that the very British, very academic humor of Monty Python would be packing them in I would have thought you were nuts. Being a keen (but not over the moon) Monty Python fan, I finally gave in and went to see the show (I got a discount ticket, of course). I was up in the nose-bleed seats, but had a good view of the stage and with the amplification methods they use these days could hear pretty much everything.

The musical was written by Eric Idle, the Python member who has perhaps the least amount of shame in cashing in on old material. He has done a very smart thing, though. While he has kept much of the film that gives Python-maniacs pleasure, in the second act he pretty much abandons that and instead makes the evening a spoof of Broadway musicals in general. Some of the best stuff is there verbatim--the argument about swallows carrying coconuts, the Black Knight, the Knights Who Say Ni--but some great stuff was jettisoned (I particularly missed the witch trial scene and the Bridge of Death).

Replacing that is some inspired material, though. Idle has made a post-modern musical, full of self-references. Early on Galahad and the Lady of the Lake (who is not a character in the film, but in an attempt to give the musical some femininity she is added here) sing a ballad that is called "This is the Song that Goes Like This" which details what a song that goes like that would be doing in this particular spot in the show. To keep the metamusical theme going, the Lady of the Lake, after being offstage for a good while, storms back in the second act and demands, "What happened to my part?"

The show-stopper may be a rousing number in Act II. The Knights Who Say Ni, after being given a shrubbery (you have to have been there) now demand that the knights of Camelot put on a Broadway show. Sir Robin is enthused, but then realizes they have no chance, because, as he answers musically, to have a Broadway show you have to have Jews. He then leads the company in "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" that's full of Hebrew overtones, in a style that is more Mel Brooks than Cambridge.

Idle also steals from himself, inserting a song from Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" into the mix. It's a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but it just doesn't have the oomph it does when being sung by men who are being crucified.

Since I saw the show well after the original cast was gone, I saw a mixed bag of performers, some known, some not. Jonathan Hadary, a Broadway veteran, was King Arthur and very able. Quite unwittingly I ended up seeing Clay Aiken in his Broadway debut as Sir Robin. It's a curious marketing move--there are Monty Python fans, and there are American Idol fans, and I think there's very little overlap. He was okay, about on a par with a guest-host on Saturday Night Live who is not a comedian, when you think to yourself, he's not so bad. He does offer more musical range to the part than I'm sure it's had before.

Also strong in the cast are Hannah Waddingham as the Lady of the Lake, Christopher Sieber as Galahad, Rick Holmes as Lancelot and a star turn by Tom Deckman, who plays a variety of roles, including "Not Dead Fred" and Herbert, the effete young prince trapped in the tower by his father.

Perhaps the most pleasurable thing about this show, as with the other work of Python, is that they leave no stone unturned for comedy. You'll recall that the film starts with the wrong film, and then credits that are subtitled in Swedish. When you open the program for Spamalot, you get a full set of credits for a musical called Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain't What They Used to Be). When they have you laughing before the curtain even rises you know you're in for a good time.



Monday, January 28, 2008

Persepolis

Persepolis, based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, has been adapted into an animated film, directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud. Unlike most animated films, which are primarily geared at children, this one tackles the very adult subject of growing up during the Iranian revolution.

This is Marjane's autobiography, presumably. Iran prior to the Islamic revolution is a very Western place, and as a child she lives in a world where there is modern music and alcohol and western clothes. However, her parents and their social circle hate the Shah and his dictatorial ways. They boot the Shah out, but find the old adage of "be careful what you wish for" menacingly salient as the government that replaces the Shah is far worse, and soon women are forced to wear headscarves and the number of political prisoners compound exponentially.

Marjane, though, is a teen with a taste for the West, and tries to remain modern and Western. There is a very funny scene when she wanders down the street and sinister men in topcoats are selling not drugs but pop music cassettes--they mutter the names Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson.

Soon Marjane becomes too questioning of authority and her parents decide to pack her off to a boarding school in Vienna. She falls in with a punk, nihilist crowd, but their privileged boredom rankles her because she knows what the price of freedom can be. She also starts becoming interested in boys, and has a few misadventures in that department.

This is a charming film, with an animation style close to Satrapi's black and white line drawings (there is only a bit of color whenever she moves to a new place). However, I'm not sure it ever fully achieved the balance between Satrapi's teenage coming of age, kind of an Iranian Gidget, and the seriousness of the overall theme--how does one finally come to the decision that one must leave one's homeland forever? The film doesn't trivialize the politics, and I'm not really sure what I'm asking it to do, but for me it is an interesting look at a different culture more than a moving story.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Man Gone Down

Once again this year I am endeavoring to read the ten books selected by the New York Times Book Review as the best of the year, and I start with Man Gone Down, a novel by Michael Thomas, and despite it being a debut from a small offshoot of Grove/Atlantic, it's easy to see why this book made the list. Michael Thomas can write. The book makes frequent mention of music, and the prose is very similar to music, whether it be jazz or the blues are old-fashioned rock and roll.

The structure of the book is reminiscent of Richard Ford's novels about Frank Bascombe: a few days in the life of a typical American trying to deal with life's shit. But Thomas' unnamed narrator is world's apart from Ford's upper-middle class white guy. The narrator of this book is of mixed-race, though he identifies as black (he is also part Native-American and Irish, and describes what must have been an amusing trip to Dingle to try to find his roots). The man in question has a white wife and three young children, who have gone up to his native Boston to visit her family. He is left behind in Brooklyn, where he stays with an old friend, and must accomplish a series of things over four days: find a new apartment, come up with the tuition for his kids' private school, and try to keep his sanity.

Of course during these four days Thomas flashes back to the man's upbringing--his dissolute father, his mercurial mother, his friendships with schoolmates (one went insane, another perished in the World Trade Center) and just what it means to a black man in today's America. The character is a very intelligent one, who was a doctoral student in literature (his unfinished dissertation was on T.S. Eliot, who's quotations serve as chapter epigraphs) but at times he can be strangely inarticulate when it comes to speaking to people. He is also a musician (there's a great scene where he goes to an open-mike night) and a construction worker, taking day labor jobs. It is at one of these that a foreman calls him a "big nig" and Thomas' character doesn't take kindly to it.

There are many dazzlingly good passages, such as describing what it's like to drive his friend's Italian sports car down Manhattan's streets, jogging across the Brooklyn Bridge, giving his mother's ashes a viking funeral in the East River, and the penultimate scene, a golf game in a swanky country club with some white players. It is here, though, that I must mention the one thing I had trouble with the book, and that is Thomas' tendency to noodle with the language. Like a jazz musician, Thomas goes on riffs that occasionally pull away from the story and lead the reader (at least me) into confusion. During the golf game, while looking for an errant ball in the woods, Thomas' character has some sort of epiphany to an event in his past. I reread the passage three times and I still am not quite sure what's going on.

Nevertheless, even when I was a bit confused I enjoyed being in the thrall of Thomas' gift for language. This is a fine novel.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cloverfield

I've been tossing around what I think about Cloverfield for a few days now and I'm still not sure. It certainly was enjoyable while watching, kind of on a par with an amusement park ride, but about as substantial. It's also the kind of film that once you've left the theater you start to pick away at like a carrion bird, until you question whether you really had a good time watching it or not.

Cloverfield is basically a monster movie for the YouTube generation. As I'm sure everyone knows, this film is a document of some sort of creature wreaking havoc on New York City from the perspective of a citizen as he tapes everything with a cam-corder. As I walked out of the theater I mentioned to my companion that if I were in the same situation, I would have jettisoned the camera almost immediately, my main concern saving my own skin. She mentioned, quite rightly, that today's generation (the cast is all twenty-somethings) seem to videotape every moment of their lives. I don't own a video camera of any kind, so that compulsion is lost on me, but I'm sure to those who upload video onto YouTube, the occasion of an apocalyptic moment is prime opportunity to channel the inner Spielberg.

The action begins at a going away party for our protagonist, Rob. His dimwitted friend, Hud, has been entrusted to video goodbye messages. Mid-party a huge explosion rocks the city. It's interesting that this film exists outside of the world of 9/11, for the party-goers' first guess is that they've experienced an earthquake. In post-9/11 New York, I'm certain that would not be everyone's first assumption. The spectre of 9/11, which haunts this film at the beginning (and crystallizes with the image of a building collapsing, with the resulting billows of dust cascading down the street) but as the film went on the queasiness of that connection dissipated, and the film settled down as a run-of-the-mill monster film, without any political overtones.

After the monster, who is only seen partially throughout the film (until a pretty mesmerizing closeup view at the end) starts running amok (he tosses the head of the Statue of Liberty down an avenue, which I'm guessing was producer J.J. Abrams' initial image in this project) the party-goers scatter, most of them realizing Manhattan isn't the place to be, and try to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. But Rob gets a frantic call from a friend (who he hopes will be a girlfriend). She's trapped in a building way uptown. So, in true cinematic bravery/stupidity, a small band of them head toward the danger.

Most of this is dumb fun. The easiest comparison is to The Blair Witch Project, but Cloverfield doesn't stint on the scares like that film did. I also didn't have a problem with the hand-held nature of the filming, though apparently some viewers are getting nauseous. There are some nice set pieces, like a scene in a subway tunnel with some little critters (the big monster spawns rather easily). The cast is as generically good-looking as bland as that of a typical beer commercial, and just as forgettable.

Perhaps the best thing about this film is it's brevity, it's so short it doesn't let you focus on inconsistencies. It fits into its genre rather nicely (the man sitting in front of me literally jumped out of his seat at one scare) and maintains the integrity of the gimmick. The term popcorn-film is overused, but I think Cloverfield is a prime example.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No Country for Sean Penn


It was interesting to watch the entertainment news shows last night. I rarely watch them, as their inane chirping is like listening to fingernails on a blackboard for me, but I do try to tune them in the day the Oscar noms are announced to see the nominees' reactions (this year Billy Bush wore a beret and was carrying a bulldog (?) while speaking badly-accented French as he congratulated Marion Cotillard. Does it make me a bad person to want to see Billy Bush be beaten with sticks?). This year, though, the whole thing was muted by the death of Heath Ledger, so the shows had to pull out their "sad" music and dialed the Oscar coverage down, as it should have been.

Also, no one's sure what kind of ceremony will take place. I'm naturally optimistic about these sort of things, so I think a deal will be done and will get the usual bloated fanfare that we all love, but it was interesting to watch nominees say how pleased they were but that of course they won't cross a picket line. Bush (there he is again) made a bad joke and said if there is no settlement he would be glad to read off the names of the winners. Shoot me. Shoot me now.

What are we to make of the nominations? Well, it was a good day for the Coen brothers and a bad day for Sean Penn. The Coens got four nominations each, counting their pseudonymous work in the editing room as "Roderick Jaynes" (a friend writes that if "Jaynes" wins, who accepts? Will they hire an actor to play the part?). We have four weeks to go until the winners are announced, and things can change, but I think No Country for Old Men is the film to beat, and the Coens will certainly win at least three awards, for writing, directing and producing.

Sean Penn, on the other hand, is having a bad month. First he and Robin Wright break up, and then he gets skunked by the Academy. Penn could have picked up three nominations of his own (for writing, directing and producing) but Into the Wild only managed nominations for eminence grise Hal Holbrook and editing. Wild also was spurned by the Golden Globes, but I thought the love shown from the Screen Actors and Director's Guild had pushed Penn's film into near sure-fire status. No one, indeed, knows anything.

I'm amused by some of the pundits who write in a blase fashion that there were no surprises. Bullshit! I can find no one making predictions on the Web that had Tommy Lee Jones for Best Actor or Jason Reitman for Best Director, no one! I prepare lists of ten possibilities in each category and I had neither one of them in my top ten. Jones was on the short list way back in October, but since In the Valley of Elah made no impression on moviegoers and other names surfaced (and Jones was also ballyhooed for his supporting turn in No Country) I figured his hopes were in the ether. As for Reitman, I am not surprised that Juno got a Best Picture nod, but it seemed like the natural picture nomination that doesn't get a director nod, due to it being a writer-driven picture.

Instead Atonement's Joe Wright got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, which doesn't surprise me as much as Atonement getting into the final five. It got bupkus from the guilds, but apparently the Academy has enough people who are impressed by British accents and luscious period detail to get into the mix (I happened to like the film very much and think it deserves the slot).

I think there are clear-cut favorites so far, but things have a way of evolving. No Country, Day-Lewis, Christie, Bardem and Ryan would seem to be the front-runners. Over the next four weeks I'll go into further detail and bore you all with in-depth analyses of the major categories, where I will reserve the right to flip-flop like Mitt Romney on a windy day. Until then, I hope the Writers Guild strike is settled so everyone in Hollywood can get back to work and we fans can sit in the comfort of our living rooms and make fun of their horrible wardrobes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cassandra's Dream


I'm as big a fan of Woody Allen as anyone, but I admit his production over the past ten to fifteen years has been lukewarm at best. I think his last decent comedy was Deconstructing Harry, but it's been overshadowed by the very lame efforts like Scoop, Small-time Crooks, and Hollywood Ending. I did think his drama, Match Point, was a solid effort. He is back with another drama, also shot in England, that rehashes many of the same themes, which were also gone over in much better style in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Allen clearly is fascinated the emotion of guilt. In Crimes and Match Point his protagonists are men who get away with murder and feel no guilt about it. In Cassandra's Dream, he takes this protagonist and splits him in twain, giving us brothers, one of who does not feel guilt, the other who is consumed by it. It's an interesting examination of human frailty, and I enjoyed this film's first half, but by the end Allen has had his characters talk this out ad nauseum and my enjoyment in the film deflated like a punctured balloon.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are brothers. MacGregor is ambitious, he works in his father's restaurant but hopes to invest in hotels. He falls in love with a beautiful young actress and is planning on moving to California. Farrell is a garage mechanic with a sweet girlfriend and a gambling problem. He's kind of puppyish, completely incapable of controlling his temptations, and ends up losing a substantial amount of money in a poker game. However, the boys have a rich uncle Howard, well-played by Tom Wilkinson. He'd be happy to help them out, but would like a favor in return. Seems there's someone from Uncle Howard's company who could put him in jail with testimony. Howard would like the boys to "get rid" of him.

McGregor and Farrell, no criminals, then plot the assassination. Farrell is very much against it, citing that is crossing a line and breaking God's law, but McGregor has visions of success dancing in his head and urges his brother to go through with it. There are, of course, complications, and Farrell becomes consumed by guilt. An inevitable conclusion aboard their boat, called Cassandra's Dream (they should have studied Greek mythology before naming a boat that) results.

This is Allen's third picture set in London and his first using an all-Brit cast. As some critics have pointed out, I'm not sure he understands the rhythms of British speech. There's something inauthentic about the way his characters talk--London by way of the Upper West Side. The second half of the film is a lot of talk, with Farrell looking hangdog and McGregor trying to buck him up. My companion mentioned that English people aren't so self-analytical as Allen's New Yorkers, and wouldn't talk a subject to death so much.

Also, I found the relationship between McGregor and the actress, played by newcomer Hayley Atwell, kind of pointless. I suppose she represents some kind of status symbol for him, but that doesn't do Atwell much good in trying to play it. Their scenes together are very stiff and unnatural.

I suppose I'll keep going to Woody Allen films as long as he makes them, but it's clear his best work is behind him. His screenplays from the past decade have been thin and not quite completely thought out, making comparisons with a rich film like Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan ghastly.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Oscar Predictions--Final

Now that the DGA has made a deal, the scuttlebutt is that the WGA will soon follow, which means we will have a garish, bloated, three-and-a-half hour pageant of ugly dresses and inane acceptance speeches. And to that I say--yeah! Nominations are announced on Tuesday, here's one man's woeful attempts to read the crystal ball.

BEST PICTURE

Into the Wild
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

The suspense here is for the fifth spot, which will go to Juno, Atonement, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I'm betting on Juno since it would be the only light-hearted fare and has done good box office.

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Sean Penn, Into the Wild
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

These are the DGA nominees, I'm not showing much imagination. But I don't see anyone else obvious. Maybe Tim Burton, maybe Sidney Lumet, but I'm not counting on it.

BEST ACTOR

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Hirsch would be the youngest nominee in this category in 70 years, and I'm not positive about him. Ryan Gosling or Denzel Washington could get the fifth spot.

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

I have no confidence in Knightley here, since Atonement's stock has sunk and her character is not really the lead, but I don't feel confident in anyone taking her place, although I wouldn't be shocked if Jodie Foster gets in from The Brave One.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

This is the acting category I'm most confident in.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Catherine Keener, Into the Wild
Saorsie Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

I regret that I can no longer be confident in Kelly MacDonald in No Country, but I would be pleasantly surprised. The big question here is whether they go with the kid (Ronan) or the old lady (Ruby Dee)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Eastern Promises
Juno
Michael Clayton
Ratatouille

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Atonement
Charlie Wilson's War
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Persepolis
Ratatouille
The Simpsons Movie

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Austria--The Counterfeiters
Brazil--The Year My Parents Went on Vacation
Israel--Beaufort
Italy--Unknown Woman
Poland--Katyn

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Body of War
Nanking
No End in Sight
White Light/Black Rain
Taxi to the Dark Side

I'm figuring it will be all Iraq War or World War II films. Body of War was co-directed by Phil Donahue (!)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Atonement
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Zodiac

BEST EDITING
The Bourne Ultimatum
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

BEST ART DIRECTION

Atonement
The Golden Compass
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

BEST COSTUMES

Atonement
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
La Vie en Rose
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

BEST MUSIC SCORE

Atonement
The Kite Runner
Lust, Caution
Ratatouille
There Will Be Blood

BEST MAKEUP

La Vie en Rose
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Sweeney Todd

BEST SOUND MIXING

The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men
300
There Will Be Blood
Transformers

SOUND EDITING
The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men
300
There Will Be Blood
Transformers

The sound categories are almost impossible, so I just went lazy and repeated the list.

BEST SONG

"Come So Far" Hairspray
"Despirida" Love in the Time of Cholera
"Falling Slowly" Once
"Guaranteed" Into the Wild
"That's How You Know" Enchanted

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
300
Transformers

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Miles Davis

Jazz, like poetry, is something I think I should like more than I do, but I have trouble safecracking it. My tastes in the genre probably would be considered somewhat plebeian--I like the old Benny Goodman stuff, the big-band and swing music that middle-class white folks loved to listen to during World War II (what could be better than Sing Sing Sing?) but the more complicated music, the kind that the hipsters dug, eludes me.

But I keep trying. I watched much of Ken Burns' documentary and enjoyed it, learning a lot. Some of the experts he had on would discuss a Louis Armstrong record and I would get some of what they were talking about. Out of the TV program a series of CDs were released, featuring the giants of jazz, there work represented on one disc each. I have the discs by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Billy Holliday, and just picked up the one by Miles Davis.

I've been thinking about Davis recently because I'm reading a novel (which I hope to finish and review here next week) that features music prominently, in particular discussing Miles Davis. So I've been reading the book while listening to Davis' CD. Of course, a one-disc retrospective of Davis gives you everything from soup to nuts, because his style changed radically over the years. It begins with his "Birth of the Cool" days, and ends with the more experimental electronic stuff from records like "Sketches of Spain."

Davis was also quite an interesting character, having lived a turbulent life full of drug addiction and other mishaps. Although he had a comfortable economic background, he certainly suffered racial discrimination. I remember him being interviewed on TV, and reminded that he once said that he would like to spend the last hour of his life choking a white man. I remember thinking that was an entirely appropriate response.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Me, Myself & I

When the announcement was made that Edward Albee had been commissioned to write a play that would make its world premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theater, I was very excited. Albee is the preeminent living American playwright, and if I had to choose, I would select Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as my all-time favorite play (I used to check it out from the local library many times when I was a teenager). Therefore I am disappointed to report that the resulting play, Me, Myself & I, is a rather weak evening of theater.

When I went to see Albee speak about the play at the Princeton library about two weeks ago, he mentioned that the play was comical, and that ironically he had written it during one of the most difficult periods of his life--the death of his companion of thirty-five years. But after seeing the play, which is a frothy bit of nonsense, it's easy to see how a man throws himself into something silly to avoid the harsh realities of life.

Albee, a great admirer of Beckett and Pirandello, has fashioned a play somewhat like those two greats--albeit a Beckett play as translated by Dr. Seuss. It concerns identical twins, both named Otto, although one is called OTTO (loudly) the other otto (softly). Their mother, played by Tyne Daly, is both overbearing and needy, and has trouble distinguishing the two, although she knows one of them loves her and the other doesn't (this immediately struck me as a false note--my sister has identical twins, and she can tell them apart instantly, even by just their voices or the way they walk). The Ottos father ran away after their birth, and was replaced by a dapper doctor, played by Brian Murray, who looks over everything in a rather bemused fashion.

The characters of this play know they are characters in a play, and frequently make asides to the audience. The set is simply planks of bleached wood, with a couple of beds, suggesting the play is taking place inside the mind of its creator. At one point the mother and the doctor are supposed to be in the outdoors for a picnic, but the doctor comments that this place looks like any other. At another point the mother is called a cunt by otto's girlfriend, and she is horrified and says, "You can't say that on stage!"

The plot of the play is moved forward by OTTO, who declares that he not only wishes to become Chinese, but also that otto is no longer his brother, which sends the spurned twin into an identity crisis. The dialogue is full of plays on words and verbal noodling, with lots of characters repeating what is said to them, suggesting an Abbott and Costello routine. Some of this is very funny, and other times just seems smug and supercilious. At the end of the play I got the sense that Albee was trying to have a say about just what it is that makes us who we are, but because I never believed that these characters were real people that attempt at pathos fell rather flat.

The acting was generally good. I very much enjoyed Brian Murray as the doctor, who had most of the best lines. Daly seemed to go in and out of her characterization, and I had trouble hearing some of her lines. The two young men who played the Ottos (who are not brothers, but did look an awful lot a like--I would sign them up for a production of A Comedy of Errors) were fine, as was Charlotte Parry as the girlfriend of otto.

Albee will be 80 years old in March, and one can be glad that he shows no sign of slowing down, but I hope his future work is a bit more hefty that this one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The State of the Race

Just thinking about the Democratic race for president gives me agita. After the Iowa caucus, I was giddy. It seemed that Barack Obama had bucked the odds and set himself up as the victorious candidate, winning a state that is almost entirely white. Then he was up in the polls in New Hampshire, and a decisive win there would have dealt a severe blow to the campaign for Hillary Clinton. But then Hillary got a little teary-eyed in a New Hampshire diner...

I don't know if Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire because she showed emotion, but anyone who voted for her because of that needs to have their head examined, and is why Democrats so often turn up on the losing side of the ledger. If you believe that Hillary is the better candidate, that's fine, but deep down, do you want to win in November? Maybe I'm hopelessly naive, but after Obama's win in Iowa it seemed to me that had he gone on to coast to the Democratic nomination, he would have been very tough to beat in November. But a protracted, nasty election process that lasts through spring will not do the Democratic party any good.

Why do I think Obama is the preferable candidate? First of all, he does not have the baggage that Hillary does. I think she'd make a fine president, but let's face it, she is despised by half the people in this country. She will not pick up independent votes. She will not inspire people who otherwise woudln't vote (particularly young people). I think Obama could do both of those things, and would be a more likely person to unite the country and dissipate this awful red-state/blue-state stuff. I think there is also a Clinton fatigue, and would think an exciting new face would do more to generate votes in November than business as usual. I also think Obama, though he would be trashed from pillar to post by the Republicans if he were to win the nomination, doesn't inspire the kind of hatred that Hillary does. I know a few rock-solid Republicans that like him.

I think this is even more important if John McCain wins the Republican nomination, which is looking more and more likely. Republicans seem to making an examination of who is most electable, and that is clearly McCain, who I think would beat Hillary soundly. Obama, however, would be another story.

My fingers are crossed that Obama rebounds and wins the nomination (it would help if Edwards would pack up and go home--I like him, too, but if he doesn't win South Carolina he should read the handwriting on the wall). If Hillary does win it, I will pull for her with every fiber of my being, but Obama is the better way to victory (it also helps that I agree with his stance on the issues more than Clinton's anyway).

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner is a solid, earnest and not terribly dynamic film. I haven't read the Khalid Hosseini best-seller upon which it is based, but I have a feeling it is very faithful to the original, as the film unfolds in a novelistic fashion.

The story concerns two boys in Kabul, Afghanistan. Amir is a rich boy, his father thoroughly Westernized (he drives a Mustang). Hassan is the son of Amir's family servant, and he is Hazara, which is an ethnicity looked down upon by the Kabul elite, who are Pashtun. But Amir and Hassan are great friends, and Hassan protects the mild-mannered Amir as if he were a professional bodyguard. They are also skilled at a form of kite competition (when I was a kid, I was lucky to get a kite in the air, let alone have it duel with other kites). Amir is so meek, though, that he does a very cowardly thing and his friendship with Hassan is strained, and eventually the boy leaves the household with his father.

After the Soviet invasion, Amir and his father flee the country, and they end up in America. Amir becomes a novelist, and in the year 2000 he receives a call from his father's old friend, who is dying. He goes to Pakistan to visit him, and learns that Hassan has a son who needs his help, and therefore Amir must venture into the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to rescue him.
This is a pretty good story, but what I found interesting was the stuff between the lines--particularly the film's middle section, when Amir and his father live in America. Homayoun Ershadi plays the father, and I think he gives the most interesting performance in the piece. He is some kind of intellectual and big wheel in pre-Soviet Kabul, but is reduced to working in a gas station in California. Also, it was interesting to see how even today there are communities of different ethnic groups. At one point Amir's wife mentions that "Afghan community in Virginia," which I wouldn't otherwise know existed. Clearly the U.S. is still a tremendously diverse nation, which I think is perhaps our greatest strength.

But about the movie. The film is directed by Marc Forster with a kind of stolid, unfancy directness that suggests a television film. It is designed to jerk tears, and I admit there were moments that are effectively moving. There are also some moments that strain credulity, such as some soap-opera-like twists and coincidental meetings. When Amir goes into the Afghanistan there is a nice tension, but his rescue of the boy seems remarkably easy. Islamofascists (Rudy Giuliani's favorite word) seem to be the new Nazis, as they are an easy group of people to villainize, but they are also portrayed as bumbling.

Overall, I think this is a nice film, but avoids being too provocative. It would seem that Hosseini is an Afghan who strongly prefers the days when Kabul was full of men who wore Western-style clothing and could watch Hollywood films at the cinema. Is that the best thing for his country? I would imagine so, but I think the issue is more complicated, and is not really discussed in this film.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Magic

I've long been an admirer of Bruce Springsteen's, but not to the extent that some people I know, who have seen him in concert several times and have all his records. I have some of his records and saw him live once (it was The Tunnel of Love tour at Madison Square Garden) and that was enough, especially since it was a four-hour show that left my ears ringing on the train ride all the way home.

But I do admire him, for several reasons. I like his politics, and I also like that though he was for a while the biggest music star on the planet he didn't let that stop him from going his own way and following his muse. I imagine record-company executives weren't thrilled when he went into his acoustic folkie period, but the man clearly respects his roots and has a higher calling than album sales.

I received his latest record, Magic, as a Christmas present from my sister (she's going to see him in concert in July). It's a fine collection, and could easily be taken for a record from his fertile days in the seventies and eighties. He is reunited with the E Street Band, and the musical accompaniment brings back the kind of aura that Springsteen is known for--summer nights on the Jersey Shore. Radio Nowhere, The Girls in Their Summer Clothes, Livin' in the Future (which opens with a blast from Clarence Clemons' sax) all wouldn't be out of place in a Springsteen set at The Stone Pony.

This album also focuses on just how good a lyricist Springsteen is. More than one song dances around the Iraq war, particularly Last to Die, which references what John Kerry said many years ago when he testified before Congress during the last days of the Vietnam War--"Who will be last man to die for a mistake?" Gypsy Biker and the haunting closing track, Devil's Arcade, also deal with the psychological and physical damage from combat.

I thought the most interesting song is the title track, which is spookily ambiguous but nonetheless provocative: "I got a shiny saw blade. All I need's a volunteer, I'll cut you in half, While you're smilin' ear to ear, And the freedom that you sought's, Driftin' like a ghost amongst the trees."

There is a hidden track at the very end, a heartfelt song in memory of a friend who died. Springsteen, for all his macho appearance, has always found it easy to tap into his emotions, and this album does wear its heart on its sleeve, while at the same time being very muscular musically and a foot-tapping joy to listen to.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Mark Twain House



My travels following the Princeton hockey team took me to the Nutmeg State last weekend, to see a pair of games at the University of Connecticut. Since I had a hole in my schedule on Saturday afternoon, I took a short ride into Hartford to see the Mark Twain House and, since it was right next door, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.

Twain had the house built in the 1870s. It is a grand, spacious Victorian mansion, but he didn't build it with funds earned from his popular novels, as he hadn't written any of them yet. When I asked the tour guide how he could afford such a place, he bluntly told me that Twain (Sam Clemens his real name, of course) "married well." His wife Olivia was the daughter of the richest man in Elmira, New York, but the couple moved to Hartford to be near his publishing company. He was also pleased to be able to live next door to Stowe, who was one of the heroes of those sympathetic to abolitionist causes.

Twain would live in the house for 17 years and write his greatest works there, at a desk in the third-floor billiards room (the desk and table are still there--many of the furnishings had to be hunted down and reacquired, as financial disaster prompted Twain to sell off many of his furnishings). His three daughters lived there as well, but two of them, along with his wife, predeceased him, so there are melancholy aspects to the home as well. But touring through the house you do get the whimsical sense of the man.

Out back of the house is a large visitor's center built about five years ago. It is home to a pair of galleries, a theater that shows a short film by Ken Burns, and a gift shop (I bought a copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House is much smaller, and the tour took only about twenty minutes. She, of course, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was an incendiary piece of literature that served as one of the instigators for the Civil War, as it stoked abolitionist fervor. Stowe was an old woman when she lived in the house, and it is still has that aura of grandma's house. She wrote many other novels, of which I was not aware, but is known only for the one, and since I have never read it, I bought a copy of it in the gift shop.

As for the hockey games, they were two ties, 0-0 and 1-1, so there certainly wasn't much scoring. The Princeton club is playing excellent defense and controlled much of the action, but just couldn't get the puck into the net, though they were hitting posts and had many great chances. This weekend they play a home set against conference rivals Yale and Brown, which are must wins if they hope to get home ice during the playoffs.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Orphanage


Now that the horror genre has degenerated into torture porn and disposable crap that's tossed to teenagers like so much chum to sharks, it's nice to be reminded that it can still be capable of providing a good old-fashioned time at the movies. More specifically, it's a pleasure to see a well-done ghost story. I could probably count on only one hand the number of really good ghost films, and The Orphanage will now be represented by one of my digits.

It's interesting that perhaps the last good ghost film, The Others, was directed by a Spaniard, as is The Orphanage, which was helmed by Juan Antonio Bayona (but was executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who is getting all the attention in the U.S. marketing). It seems that the Spanish still have an appreciation for a film that doesn't need to bludgeon you with hacked-off limbs to supply a fright. This film will probably get an English-language remake, and it will be interesting to see how a Hollywood studio will mess up the magic.

The titular orphanage has been purchased by a young couple when the film begins. They want to bring in some foster children to care for, and have a son, Simon, who is also adopted and is HIV-positive. Simon is a lonely and imaginative kid, who has a tendency to invent imaginary friends. However, when his imaginary friends start to multiply and weird things start happening around the house (including the arrival of a strange old women lurking around the gardening shed) it's clear something supernatural may be afoot.

At the core of this film is a performance by Belén Rueda as Laura, Simon's mother. When Simon goes missing, and she has a disturbing encounter with a child wearing a sack over its head, she begins to believe that spirits of orphans are still wandering the house. There's a terrific scene involving professional ghost hunters set up shop in the house, using video and sound equipment while a medium (Geraldine Chaplin) attempts to contact the children. The climax, in which Laura uses an old children's game, is genuinely spooky, and just goes to show you can't beat the old recipe of a woman alone in a large creepy old house.

The Orphanage is Spain's entry in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. I don't think it's quite that good (although I certainly am in no position to judge what Spain's best film of the year is) but it's not quite so good that it transcends genre. It's just a fun, scary film, with the requisite melancholy that would accompany a work involving dead children.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

There Will Be Blood


When we first see Daniel Plainview, he is in a hole, digging. And though over the course of the film a few details about his early life, such as a childhood in Wisconsin are mentioned, we never lose the impression that he seems to have been born in the earth, sui generis. He is not so much a human being as an embodiment of a certain hunger. Like Shaw's Mr. Undershaft, Plainview operates on a different plain than those around him.


What exactly is he hungering for? Oil, to start, but oil gives him money and power, and with that money and power he can remove himself from society, for as he desires above all to be apart from humanity.

Plainview, as ferociously acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, is the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Adapted from a novel by Upton Sinclair which has been read by almost nobody (my English professor friend Paula understatedly told me Sinclair is "out of favor"), this is Anderson's way of staging an epic battle between the forces of commerce and capitalism on one side and religion on the other. Plainview has no use for religion, but in order to buy land that sits atop "an ocean of oil" and curry favor with locals, he has to humor a local preacher, Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano. Sunday is no fool, and seems to see right through Plainview (admittedly not very difficult), and the two engage in a conflict that lasts over several years.

The beginning of this film is brilliant. There isn't a word of dialogue spoken for perhaps ten minutes, as Plainview is shown as a solitary prospector for gold, then an oil man hitting his first gusher. It is during this gusher that the infant son of one of his workers, in symbolism that edges into the heavy-handed, has a spot of crude oil daubed on his forehead--baptized in oil, as it were. That worker ends up getting killed, and Plainview adopts the child and makes him his partner, even though, when we next see him, he is only about ten years old.

Then the film shifts to the Sunday ranch. It is Eli's twin brother, also played by Dano, who tips off Plainview about what he might find there. Eli is a Charismatic and a healer, and the juxtaposition between his world and Plainview's is sort of a fundamental schism in American society--this is a country run by business, but spiritually we're still awash in superstition.

Though the film is based on a work by Sinclair, who most famously wrote The Jungle and was a crusader for socialist causes, There Will Be Blood is not a manifesto. It seems more like something out of Flannery O'Connor, bordering on the grotesque. Plainview is something of a monster. When his adopted son loses his hearing in an industrial accident, Plainview loses interest in him and packs him off to a school for the deaf. Eli seizes on this and makes Plainview confess his sins during a church service. Many years later, though, in the film's final scene, Plainview gets his revenge.

I liked this film a great deal, but I would withhold a half a star, and it's difficult to put my finger on why. It is certainly a handsome production, with excellent photography, production design, and costumes (personal note--the costume designer for this film, as well as all of Anderson's films, is Mark Bridges, who I went to college with. We acted in several plays together, but he was also more interested in costumes). The music, by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, is a bit jarring at first, considering it is very modern, but considering the modernist movement in classical music began at roughly the time of the film, it isn't too outlandish.

I guess I just had a little trouble with the structure of the film. Aside from the center section, the rest is a series of discrete scenes that don't provide a completely satisfying journey. The film's last scene jumps several years into the future, and it just seemed a littel jarring. This is quibbling, though, and I add this only to distinguish this film from others this year, like Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, and Atonement, which I thought better created a whole.

Daniel Plainview is in every scene of the picture, and the work of Day-Lewis is extraordinary. He's just plumb scary. There is a scene where he is in the ocean, a wave crashing over him, as he comes to the conclusion that someone is trying to deceive him, and the look on his face is intensity squared. And in the final scene, well, I don't want to spoil too much, but could any other actor do so much with the word "drainage?" Day-Lewis has an incredible range as an actor--I've always thought the best way to experience this is to watch A Room With a View and Gangs of New York back to back and try to convince yourself it's the same actor, but you could cook up a second double-feature with The Age of Innocence and this film. The man is just scary good.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War


Charlie Wilson's War is a comedy for those who like to watch C-SPAN, and I mean that as a compliment. There is much arcane information about geopolitics in the near East, weapons systems, and congressional subcommittees, but there is also plenty of humor, helicopters being blown out of the sky, sexy girls, and even Julia Roberts in a bikini. In short, there is something for everyone.


This is the true story of Congressman Charlie Wilson, a good ol' boy from Texas who seems to be in Congress basically for the perks. He enjoys booze and being surrounded by babes, as his entire staff is comely women he calls his Angels. "You can teach them to type, but you can't teach them to grow tits," is his philosophy. One of his biggest contributors is Roberts, who is one of the richest women in Texas. She is a fierce anti-communist and concerned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Wilson is on the subcommittee that is responsible for covert military action, so he bumps up the budget for arming the Afghan resistance from five-million to ten. He finds out this is chicken feed, though, and quickly becomes allied with a CIA agent, Philip Seymour Hoffman. By the time they're done, the budget is up to a billion.


The film is a tightly-edited, concisely penned slice of black humor, smartly directed by Mike Nichols and well-acted by Tom Hanks, Hoffman and Roberts. The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, who was the creative mind behind The West Wing. This script, though, doesn't succumb to his worst tendencies like his TV show did. The characters here are true to themselves, and not mouthpieces for his particular brand of liberalism (I share his liberalism, but I grew weary of The West Wing, because all the characters sounded the same).


Hanks really lays on the charm in this role, and he had me sold. He makes Wilson a very endearing character, especially when called upon to be self-deprecating, such as when asked why Congressman do so much talking but do very little of substance. "Tradition, mostly," is his answer. Hoffman's CIA spook is a take-no-prisoners guy who is first seen calling his boss an asshole and breaking his office window. He is suspicious of Wilson at first but the two grow to trust each other, and it's a rewarding relationship to watch. Roberts is mostly window-dressing (the bikini shot, while appreciated, was incredibly gratuitous) but manages to give her role some sly oomph.


Also, though the film is set in the 1980s, it bears relevance today, clearly signaling that the U.S.'s failure to follow up with aid after the expulsion of the Soviets led to the Taliban revolution. Also General Zia of Pakistan is a character, and the fact that he was the one who had Bhutto hanged gave the film a very current spin, as I saw it only a few days after Bhutto's daughter Benazir was assassinated.