Friday, February 29, 2008
The novel, perhaps more than any other, had a profound effect on history. Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, upon meeting the diminutive Stowe, "So this is the little lady who made this big war." The book was released in serial form in 1852, and the book was the second-highest selling book of the century, following only The Bible.
To read it now, over a hundred and fifty years later, evokes several thoughts and emotions, particularly when one considers that a man of African descent is close to being the President of the United States. Stowe was spurred to write the book because she was outraged by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a crime for Northern abolitionists to aid fugitive slaves once they had escaped to the north.
The story has two main strands, following two slaves from the Shelby plantation in Kentucky. The Shelby family is kind to their slaves, but a debt forces Shelby to sell off Uncle Tom, who is a virtuous, Christian man, and Harry, the son of Eliza. Eliza overhears and steals off with her boy, and escapes into Ohio across the frozen river (I was surprised that this scene happens so early in the book, as it is the one scene I knew about before reading). With the assistance of Quakers, she is reunited with her husband, who is an intelligent man who can pass for white, and they escape to Canada.
Tom's situation is different. At first he is purchased by the St. Clare family after he rescues their daughter, Eva, from drowning. The St. Clare's are largely kind--the father, Augustine, recognizes the evils of slavery but figures there's nothing he can do about him, and the wife, Marie, is a selfish whiner. Augustine's cousin Ophelia comes from Vermont to help with the child, and she finds slavery deplorable, but in one of Stowe's cagey twists, Ophelia is also repulsed by blacks, which surely was a common opinion of northerners at the time.
When St. Clare dies unexpectedly, Tom is sold to the sinister Simon Legree, who thinks of his slaves as worse than chattel. Tom, resolutely Christian, will not follow Legree's order to beat one of his fellow slaves, and suffers the consequences. He refuses to try to escape, but does aid two women to flee, covering them at the expense of his own life.
Much of this book is flowery and sentimental, and dripping with Christianity. Of course, Stowe's husband and brother were preachers. There are also some rather clunky examples of foreshadowing: a discussion between Ophelia and St. Clare about what should happen if he were to die is followed only a page or two later by his murder. And there are some passages that just defy modern sensibility, such as the death of Eva, who is a saintly child. Oscar Wilde once said that only someone with a heart of stone could read of the death of Dickens' Little Nell without laughing, the same could be said for Eva's death scene.
There is also page after page of characters debating whether slavery is proper or not. While reading this I had to remind myself that when she was writing this, that was the question of the age. Today only the most backward of thinkers could even contemplate such a monstrous institution, but at the time it was flourishing, and an entire nation was ripped apart over the debate. In retrospect, it seems horribly misguided and a colossal waste of life.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was turned into a stage production, which earned Stowe not a penny, as there were no copyright laws back then. The stage play simplified the story and led to the image of Uncle Tom as a bowing and scraping figure that would lead his name to be a term of insult to the African-American community. In the novel, he is not so much subservient as irrepressibly noble. During his death scene, when the slaves who acted as Legree's lieutenants and see the error of their ways, seek his forgiveness, and he grants it and he hopes for their redemption: "'Poor critturs!' said Tom, "I'd be willin' to bar all I have, if it'll only bring ye to Christ! O Lord! give me these two more souls, I pray.' That prayer was answered." It's hard to read that without being moved.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and based on a novel by Ron Hansen, one can see why it perhaps didn't get the kind of broad release that a film starring Brad Pitt would normally get. The film is dark and meditative, and extremely literary, with large chunks of narration that I assume come straight from the novel. This makes for a very atmospheric film, but not one slavishly holds to the conventions of the Western.
That being said, I enjoyed it a great deal. The general theme is notoriety and its perils. Jesse James, who was in reality pretty much a ne'er-do-well and vicious thief, was romanticized into a folk hero during his lifetime by a press that was sympathetic to the Confederate cause. James, as a teenager, rode with the even viler William Quantrill and his raiders, and then became a bank robber. Stories about his giving away his ill-gotten gains were embellished, to say the least. But in post-war Missouri, a hero was what seemed to be needed, and James fit the bill.
As such, he had acolytes, among them the Ford brothers, Charley and Bob. In the film, Bob is presented as a starry-eyed dreamer, who has read dime novels about Jesse since boyhood, and now wants nothing more than to join his gang and prove his courage. The James gang, especially after a disastrous bank robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota, is decimated, and James has few men he can trust, especially when his brother Frank calls it quits and moves east.
So the Ford brothers become James' confidantes, but as Bob gets to know Jesse the more disenchanted he becomes. As I watched scenes of Casey Affleck, who is outstanding as Bob, come to the realization that his hero is less than he thought he was, I thought of the Mark Chapman/John Lennon situation, where someone who worships another from afar comes to insane realization that he must destroy that which he worships. Bob starts to work with the authorities and on an April day in 1882 shoots Jesse in the back of the head while he is dusting a picture on the wall.
The film is leisurely paced. Watching it on DVD allowed to me to take a few breaks, although the sensational photography by Roger Deakins, which is seeped in sepia, surely must have looked finer on the big screen. Affleck steals the show, but Pitt is also very good as the increasingly paranoid James, as is Sam Rockwell as Charley. Of all the films that have been about Jesse James, this is probably the best and most definitive, and should be the last for quite a while.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Most of this wears very well. The dialogue, imaginatively profane, is musical, and the fish out of water scenario yields a lot of laughs. What kept me from fully enjoying the film, though, was a sense that I'd seen this before. Stories about hit men seem to be all over the place these days, and I really don't need to see any more films or read any more books featuring them. McDonagh gives these hit men some kind of moral code, and while I've never met a hit man, I'm doubtful that they are as soul-searching as the three killers on display here.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The awards were also fairly evenly distributed, with all five Best Picture nominees winning at least one award. No Country for Old Men picked up the most hardware, but it was only four awards, albeit three of the most important--picture, director, and adapted screenplay, along with supporting actor Javier Bardem. The Bourne Ultimatum actually came in second, with three awards.
As for surprises, there were a few. I was behind the curve on Marion Cotillard's win. Some of the blogosphere were on top of it, but I resisted the notion that a foreign-language would win over Julie Christie or Ellen Page. But I hadn't strongly considered a couple of things: Cotillard's transformation into Edith Piaf became more widely known as Cotillard made herself available for press, and the fact that she played a real person, which the Academy seems to go for in a big way (seven of the last nine Best Actresses have played real people). I was less suprised by Tilda Swinton's win as Best Supportin Actress. In a category that was essentially a toss-up, voters may have decided that it was the best place to honor the film Michael Clayton, and that indeed was the only win that film received.
Although it is not a major category, I was somewhat shocked that The Golden Compass won Visual Effects over the much showier Transformers. Golden Compass's special effects were hit and miss (a good polar bear fight, but some of the other animals looked very bad, and the flying witches recalled community theater productions of Peter Pan). Perhaps voters couldn't stomach voting for a movie that was based on a toy, as Transformers went 0-for-3.
As for the show, I watch in a group setting so it's difficult to gauge, as I tend to like the shows because those of us in the room are adding our own quips. I liked Jon Stewart more than I did for his first go-round, because I think he brought less of The Daily Show with him and conformed more to what an Oscar host is supposed to do. He had some good lines, a few that didn't work, and the show moved along with a nice zip. The performances of the Best Song nominees continue to be a time to go to the bathroom, but there weren't any other musical numbers, and I like the montages of past winners.
The show received it's lowest ratings ever, though, so undoubtedly there will be more tinkering for next year's show. I think they should lower their expectations and do the traditional thing, though, and not try to make it a great TV show. Even with lower ratings it's still one of the most highly-watched shows of any TV season.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Okay, here goes with my last round of picks for Oscar, which are awarded on Sunday. I'll discuss Picture and Director, then make a selection in every category, except for short subjects, because I have no idea there.
Picture and Director should go hand in hand this year, and everything points to the Coen Brothers and No Country For Old Men. It has one an unprecedented string of precursors: The DGA, SAG, Writer's Guild, and PGA. The only awards it didn't pick up are the Golden Globe and BAFTA, which both went to Atonement, but the Globes have been increasingly at odds with Oscar and BAFTA clearly is more enamored with a home-grown picture. Some seem to be reluctant to join the No Country bandwagon, perhaps because it is too violent, or perhaps because of the ambiguous ending. As for the first part--since when is violence been a problem? The Departed, Braveheart, two Godfather pictures, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, plus many more have been violence-themed pictures. As for the ending, clearly that left some viewers with a bad taste in their mouths, but I don't see it as an impediment to the film taking the top prize.
If you were able to time travel and came back from next week to tell me that No Country does not win, I suppose I'd have to assume that Juno did. It's the biggest box office earner of the quintet (the Oscar for the past generation or so has almost always gone to one of the two highest-grossing pictures of the five; No Country is second to Juno) and there's this immeasurable "buzz" people talk about (usually people who don't have any other facts). But Juno is a comedy, it was not nominated for editing (the last Best Picture that didn't have an editing nod--Ordinary People) and a backlash from those who have stepped up and said they hated it, usually because the dialogue is so precious.
I don't see the other three films having much of a shot. Until recently David Poland was touting Michael Clayton, but I think that's only because it's his favorite. Clayton has won nothing until this point, and is perceived as box office underachiever. Yes, it could be a compromise candidate, but I don't think a compromise is necessary in this category.
There Will Be Blood is a critical darling, but even in most critics' organizations it still lost to No Country. I have a very hard time believing that a film this idiosynchratic could possibly win out, and since Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for actor perhaps that will be seen as enough to honor this singularly distinctive movie. As for Atonement, which did win the Globe and BAFTA, it has been on quite a rollercoast through the Oscar season. First it was a front-runner, then it slid off the radar, only to have a resurrection to get back in the hunt. But it has not been nominated for Best Director or editing.
Usually the Best Director winner is the helmer of the Best Picture, although that trend has been spotty recently, but there's no real reason to think it won't happen this year. Joel and Ethan Coen have been the toast of the season, and they have never won this award (they did win for writing Fargo). The only question is how many Oscars they will win, as they are also nominated for producing, writing and editing No Country (the latter under the name Roderick Jaynes).
If they don't win, who would? Some people think Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this would be a monumental statistical aberration. A director of a picture that was not nominated for Best Picture hasn't won since before John McCain was born, and no one who has directed a picture not in the English language has ever won. Schnabel, who may very well attend the ceremony in his pajamas, is probably admired by directors' because of his visual style, may have a better shot than many who are in the same situation, but I don't see him winning.
As for Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood, Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton, and Jason Reitman for Juno, we have these lovely parting gifts. It will be a Coen night.
So, for the record, my predictions:
Best Picture: No Country for Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Actress: Julie Christie
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (but I'm almost persuaded it will be Tilda Swinton)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno
Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country for Old Men
Best Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Cinematography: There Will Be Blood
Best Costumes: Sweeeney Todd
Best Art Direction: Sweeney Todd
Best Song: "Falling Slowly", from Once
Best Score: Atonement
Best Sound Mixing: No Country For Old Men
Best Sound Editing: Transformers
Best Visual Effects: Transformers
Best Foreign Film: The Counterfeiters (when in doubt, go with a World War II movie)
Best Makeup: La Vie en Rose
Best Animated Film: Ratatouille
Best Documentary Feature: War/Dance (I'm subscribing to the theory that a positive film will emerge as the winner as the three films about Iraq will split the vote)
Thursday, February 21, 2008
The story is, at its most simple, about a young woman obtaining an abortion. It is 1987 in Romania, in the last years of the brutal Ceaucescu regime, and abortion is illegal. But though abortion is at its center, what the film is really about is life in a totalitarian system. The two college girls in this drama, Gabita, who needs the abortion, and Ottilia, a devoted friend, live their lives in a kind of shadow. At each turn there is something illicit going on, whether it is buying cigarettes on the black market or dealing with surly hotel clerks (clearly Romania did not have a "service" economy). The interiors are lit with the kind of ghastly flourescent illumination that makes the characters look sallow and undernourished. In its own mundane way, the film is a searing indictment of totalitarianism.
The film also works as tense psychological drama. Ottilia (brilliant played by Anamaria Marinca) is doing all the legwork in arranging the abortion, as Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seems incapable of handling the situation. They have hired a Mr. Bebe, who is played by Vlad Ivanov with the perfect menace of the banality of evil. He looks pleasant enough, but his every word and action are underscored with ugliness. He isn't interested so much in money as he is having power over two young attractive women, and when they realize they have no choice, he exercises that power. There is a heart-rending moment when Ottilia scrubs herself clean of the vile man in a bathtub.
At the same time, Ottilia is dealing with her boyfriend, who insists on her attending his mother's birthday party. This necessitates her leaving Gabita behind in a potentially dangerous situation. In a very powerful scene, shot by director Cristian Mungiu in one long take, she endures the happy chatter of a party, even quietly absorbing silent insults, while she worries about her friend. The following scene, in which Ottilia reveals the truth to her boyfriend and wonders what he would do in the same situation, is terrifically written and acted.
This is not an easy film to watch, and I suppose it could be a political football in the U.S., given the highly-charged nature of the abortion debate. I think it speaks to the fact that there are certain elements of life that can not be legislated into oblivion, and that forcing things that deal with public health into the shadows can result in needless physical harm. However, someone with a different viewpoint may see this film as a depiction of the horrors of abortion. Either way, it is a magnificent achievement.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The book traces the failure all the way back to the White House, but centers most of the story on L. Paul Bremer, who was viceroy during the occupation.
The author documents one arrogant bad decision Bremer makes after another, which only makes the Iraquis hate the Americans, whether it be a mass firing of those who were in Saddam's Baath party (many had joined so they would have safer lives during Hussein's rule) to closing a major newspaper that was critical of the U.S. While much of Baghdad had electricity only so many hours a day, the Palace was coolly air-conditioned twenty-four hours a day.
At times the book is a real-life depiction of the military bureaucracy that is on display in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
The bungling starts with the appointments of officials, who are not so much selected for their qualifications as whether they are loyal to the Bush agenda. It doesn't take a genius to see that appointing someone to head the ministry of industry and metals should have a background in that field, but yet the person appointed was chosen as much for his opinions on abortion as his job experience. This also includes the appointment of the now disgraced former New York City police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, as a police advisor, who was then making $16,000 a pop as a speaker with Rudy Giuliani's firm, and was never completely focused on the task at hand. A ridiculously qualified person who was passed over is described as having a wall of degrees, but not a picture of himself with President Bush.
The focus of the CPA, Chandrasekaran comes to the conclusion, was all wrong from the start. Instead of creating a Jeffersonian democracy, the Americans should have set about providing a safe Iraq, where the citizens wouldn't be afraid to leave their homes at night. He begins the book with an epigraph from T.E. Lawrence, which says in part: "Do not try to too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly."
Of course, the Americans did nothing perfectly, and today a civil war is partly a result. He concludes with this observation: "Iraqis needed help--good advice and ample resources--from a support of corps of well meaning foreigners, not a full scale occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the tyrant, eating bacon and drinking beer, surrounded by Ghurkas and blast walls."
I think the best part of the book may be short glimpses at life in what Chandrasekaran refers to as the "bubble" existence inside the Green Zone. Examples include sexual activity between staffers, where females are vastly outnumbered (a joke went around that when flights left Baghdad, a pilot would announce, "Ladies and gentleman, we're exiting Iraqi airspace. Ladies, you are no longer beautiful") to Halliburton, the conglomerate that won much of the rebuilding contracts, rounding up all cats to destroy for fear of disease, including those that had been adopted as pets.
For those who are already of the opinion that the misadventure in Iraq is a blunder of collosal proportions, this won't change your mind. It's a document rich with the hubris of the misguided.
Friday, February 15, 2008
After the ugliness of the Roger Clemens hearings, it becomes more and more difficult to be a fan of professional sports, where you have to have extensive knowledge of salary caps and anabolic steroids as much as you do the intricacies of the game. It is times like these that I'm glad I discovered the pure enjoyment of women's college hockey, in which athletes who are not going to become professionals but play merely for the spirit of competition are center stage.
This weekend are the last two home games for the Princeton squad, who are in a pitched battle of seeding for the ECAC playoffs. The top eight schools go to the post-season, with the top four hosting a best two-out-of-three in two weeks. Princeton is currently in fifth place, and mathematically can finish anywhere from second to eighth. However, their last four games are against the teams that are presently seeded ahead of them, so they've certainly got their hands full.
Tonight they play the top seed, Harvard, who is ranked number one in the country and has lost only one game. Princeton has a tendency to play up (or down) to the level of their competition, and has knocked off Harvard a few times over the years at Baker Rink. Tonight they will be playing in pink jerseys, as part of a tie-in with the American Cancer Society. Tomorrow is Senior Day, the last home game of the season, against Dartmouth, who are ahead of Princeton by one point in the standings.
I've been following this team for eight seasons now, so these Senior Days can get kind of emotional. Over the years I get to know some of the parents, who are familiar faces at the rink, and of course it's very special for them, considering most of these kids will never play any organized hockey again. All the years of watching them play, from pee wee to high school, comes to a rather abrupt end. From a fan's perspective it's different, realizing that four years of watching a player go by in the blink of an eye. It's easy to remember these kids as freshmen. Where did the time go?
Princeton graduates five players this year. From left to right in the picture above: Lizzie Keady, Marykate Oakley, Sonja Novak, Brittany Salmon and Micol Martinelli. Keady is one of the captains, who took a year off to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. For four years I've marveled at her blazing speed. Oakley is another captain, and a battler. I've seen her have to be helped off the ice, have a bag of ice applied to her back, and then she's back out again. She handles her stick like a Benihana chef handles a knife, and is the leading point scorer for the team and as far as I'm concerned their MVP. Novak, when she came to school, was as thin as a blade, but is now a muscular, straight-ahead forward who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Salmon is another tough cookie, who seems to be always blocking shots, whether it be with her neck, arms, legs or chest. Martinelli is a local kid, whose father teaches at Princeton. She used to come to the games in high school, sitting just a few rows away from me, and then she turned up on the team. She's been mostly a role player on the checking line, but managed to score her first ever goals just in the past few weeks. Apparently she's on her way to a big-time career in the financial industry after graduation.
This class, as with all classes, will be missed. Next year I'll be getting used to a new group of recruits, and it will go on, but there will always be a sense of loss as each group of these remarkable women move on and leave nothing but memories.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The Best Actress category is more interesting, but has a solid front-runner: Julie Christie, as the sufferer of Alzheimer's disease in Away From Her. Christie has many of the variables working for her. She's a previous winner, but few voters have a vivid memory of her first win, which was for Darling 42 years ago. She hearkens back to the glamour of 1960s Hollywood (an interesting statement, since many at the time didn't think the sixties Hollywood had any glamour, compared to the thirties and forties, but everything is relative), and she plays a character with a debilitating illness (and plays it damn well).
Page's chances may be improved if Christie loses votes to Marion Cotillard, who stars as French chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Cotillard, a stunningly beautiful woman, undergoes quite a transformation into the ugly duckling Piaf, but that kind of trick only earns plaudits if people know what Cotillard actually looks like. She has gotten some media coverage lately, so this could earn her some votes. But, in the seventy-nine-year-history of the Awards, only two performers have won for non-English language pictures (Sophia Loren and Roberto Benigni--Robert DeNiro spoke almost nothing but Italian in The Godfather, Part II, but most of that picture was in English and he is an American, of course) so that works against her.
The consolation prizes will go to Cate Blanchett and Laura Linney. Blanchett is in the hunt for a Best Supporting Actress prize, and that will no doubt lower an already minimal vote total for her return to the role as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This film got dreadful reviews and has some rather silly moments, such as her addressing the troops in full body-armor. That Blanchett got a nomination for this film suggests she is thought of very highly by the Academy actors' branch, but not so high as to give her a win. As for Linney, the nomination as the daughter dealing with an aged father in The Savages comes as something of a surprise. She was on a lot of shortlists in the fall, but seemed to go off the radar during the precursors. I would be gobsmacked if she won.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
I didn't think it was all that bad, but it certainly has its problems. I wasn't all that high on the first film, simply called Elizabeth, which was also directed by Shekhar Kapur. I don't think much of Kapur as a director (granted I have only seen these two films and the pallid remake of The Four Feathers). He is someone who seems to delight in calling attention to himself, and in his Elizabeth pictures he constantly employs devices such as circular dolly shots, or peering at characters from around pillars or through lattice-work. I'm sure the reasons for these are to suggest confusion and turmoil in the former, and the sense of eavesdropping and intrigue in the latter, but each time the camera went in circles and another pillar came into focus I inwardly rolled my eyes.
I viewed this film on two levels--as a film, and as history. I'm something of an English history buff, and when I was in high school I wrote a paper on Mary, Queen of Scots, so the teacups in my memory were rattled a bit by this film, which chronicles the portion of Elizabeth's life when she is dealing with the vexing problems of her cousin Mary and her ex-brother-in-law, Philip of Spain. Certain things they get right--such as that Elizabeth and Mary never met (some films about them have face-to-face meetings like something out of old Dynasty episodes), and somethings they get very wrong, such as the Babington plot. Babington never got so close to her that he trained a pistol on her, that plot was foiled before she was ever in bodily harm.
But what perturbed me the most was how the script became a sort of Anglo-propaganda film. This is Elizabeth hagiography, and while she was certainly a great leader I don't think it was necessary to paint her enemies as black as this film does. Mary, played by Samantha Morton, is potrayed as spoiled and childish, while Philip practically twirls his mustache as a villain. I read that Spain, and I think rightfully so, was outraged by this film, and if I were Catholic I might feel a bit uncomfortable about much of the dialogue. I don't think the Spanish invasion of England was a good thing, but this film depicts it in terms that suggest a Martian invasion of Earth (for those who despair about the creeping Spanish influence in the U.S., consider that if it weren't for a bad storm off the coast of England, we might all be speaking Spanish).
The acting is the best thing about this film. Blanchett, who is now the most bankable actress to get an Oscar nomination, elevates her material grandly. Her movements and facial expressions say volumes more than some of the silly lines that are written for her. Clive Owen makes a dashing Sir Walter Raleigh, though he too is made to say some of the most ridiculous romance-novel lines. I also admired Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth's chief counsel, Walshingham.
So, this film fails as both cinema and history, but succeeds as a showcase for good acting. One wonders whether Kapur will endeavor to make a third film about Elizabeth, perhaps interacting with William Shakespeare? No, it's already been done.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The Animals were from the working class English town of Newcastle, and their front man was the dour Eric Burdon (who would later refer to himself as "an overfed, long-haired leaping gnome.") They burst upon the scene in 1964 with a version of an old folk-blues song, The House of the Rising Sun, which is presumably about a brothel. It was unlike anything else that was coming out of England, with an eery background of funeral-like organ music, no bridge, and a desperate howl from Burdon. It was also over four-minutes long (though cut for the American release). Even today when this song comes on the radio I have to stop what I'm thinking about and focus on it, it's that compelling a listen.
I had a few Animals song scattered on some of those Best of the Sixties compilations, but hadn't any discs devoted solely to them, so I picked one up called Retrospective, which contains all of their hits plus a few by a post-Animals Burdon. When presented in a greatest hits package, it becomes more evident how many good songs they had. Most of them in the early days were covers, like Boom Boom, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, Don't Bring Me Down, and We've Got to Get Out of This Place, all of which are outstanding. Burdon then started writing (although the songs are credited to all of the band members, who changed over the years) and came up with the very evocative When I Was Young.
As with many musicians, Burdon was then touched by LSD. Apparently a lot of LSD. He delved into psychedelia with songs like San Francisco Nights, Monterey (which is a laundry list of a lot of bands who performed at that memorable 1967 concert) and A Girl Named Sandoz (Sandoz being a lab where LSD was made). I think his greatest achievement during this period is the epic and loopy Sky Pilot, an over-seven minute anti-war song, that includes audio from battle, as well as bagpipe music. I've listened to a few times since getting the record and it's easy to get lost in the delirious world of the song.
His last hit was with the band War, in 1970, Spill the Wine, which included a lot of spoken-word portions and an accompanying flute which immediately brands it as hippie-dippy. It's a fun song, though, and it seems a shame that ended Burdon's life on the charts, when he was only 29. He's still around, though, and touring, but he and The Animals are today only artifacts from a great period of music.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Fall River, once fashionable, is now a somewhat rundown mid-size city, but the home where the Bordens lived, built in 1845, is still there, and operates as a bed and breakfast. I didn't stay the night, but I did take the tour and purchase a few items from the gift shop. The tour was very thorough, lasting about forty-five minutes, with almost every detail of the murders and their aftermath fully explained.
These are the facts: on the hot morning of August 4, Mrs. Borden, who was Lizzie's stepmother (Lizzie's sister Emma was away visiting friends) was making up a bed in the guest room, where Lizzie's Uncle John was staying (John was also out visiting and had an airtight alibi). Someone clubbed Abby to death with a hatchet, striking her nineteen times and leaving her face down on the floor. The maid, Bridget Sullivan, had been washing windows and gossiping with the maid next door, and saw no one strange enter or exit the house.
Some forty-five minutes later, Andrew returned home from doing some business. He went into the first floor parlor, completely unaware that his wife lay dead upstairs. He made himself comfortable on the sofa and sometime later was also axed in the head, receiving twenty-one blows to the face and head. Lizzie discovered the body and yelled up to Bridget, who wasn't feeling well and was lying down in her room on the third floor, that someone had killed her father.
Eventually Mrs. Borden's body was discovered, and the police made a thorough search of the house. They found a few handle-less hatchets but none were ever definitely proved to be the murder weapon. A few days later, after making contradictory statements about her whereabouts, Lizzie was arrested for the crime. She had said she was in the barn out back, eating pears and looking for weights to use for fishing lines.
A trial followed, but there was little physical evidence to link her to the crime. Most importantly, there was no blood on her dress or her person (although she was spotted burning a dress a few days after the murder). At that time, it was pretty much unthinkable that a genteel woman such as Lizzie could be capable of such a vicious crime. She was freed and used her sizable inheritance to move into a mansion in the fashionable district of town (her father was a miser--the house didn't have any modern luxuries such as electricity or toilets) and lived until 1927.
There have been many sensational crimes in American history, but this one certainly is one of the better known, and it probably stems from a bit of doggerel that was written during the trial, of unknown authorship: "Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one." The number of blows is off by one-hundred percent, but the the damage was done to Lizzie's reputation. I would imagine almost all children, even today, have heard that song, and would also imagine that most people assume she had been convicted of the crime.
Most experts today conclude that she did commit the murders, out of a hatred for her stepmother, perhaps because she feared her father's inheritance would go to the stepmother, or a combination of both. There was little opportunity for a stranger to enter the house, kill Mrs. Borden, then hide in the house for ninety minutes before killing Mr. Borden. One chilling detail is that when Mr. Borden came home, Bridget had to unlock the door for him. Bridget had trouble with the lock and swore, and she heard laughter from the stairway landing above. If that was Lizzie, she would have easily seen that Mrs. Borden was dead in the guest room. But how to explain the lack of blood on Lizzie? A TV movie in the seventies postulated that she may have committed the murders in the nude and washed herself clean for the police arrived!
The macabre certainly makes for good tourism. I doubt this is an American peculiarity, given the cottage industry that exists over Jack the Ripper. I must admit I'm fascinated by this stuff (I took the Jack the Ripper tour in London), and it was a bit creepy to be standing in the rooms where axe murders took place. Supposedly the house is haunted, but I didn't see any ghostly apparations.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
If anyone is going to put up a fight in this category it would probably be Hal Holbrook as the elderly man who befriends Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. Holbrook is a well-respected actor of film, TV and stage, and has his first ever nomination at the age of 82. However, I'm not sure the meager size of the role, or that it comes so late in the film, won't handicap him against Bardem.
I liked Tom Wilkinson as the lawyer who has a breakdown in Michael Clayton very much, but this just isn't his year. The same can be said for Philip Seymour Hoffman as a CIA agent in Charlie Wilson's War. Hoffman's best performance this year, in my opinion, was in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. And, in the "thanks for playing" category, is Casey Affleck, as Robert Ford in the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unfortunately I have yet to see this film (it's listed as a long wait on my Netflix queue), but I understand he's quite good, even if it is a lead role. But given that this film came and went very quickly and the nature of the competition, Affleck will have to be happy with the nomination (interestingly enough, he and brother Ben are now one of the few pairs of brothers to both be nominated for Oscars. The Phoenix brothers, River and Joaquin, are the only that were both nominated for acting categories).
Another possibility in this category is Ruby Dee, as the mother of a Harlem gang boss in American Gangster. Certainly her win at the SAG awards strengthens her case. She is much in the same category as Holbrook, a well-respected octogenarian with a long career, primarily on stage. But the Oscar doesn't automatically go to the oldest one of the bunch (ask Gloria Stuart). Dee's role is, to put it kindly, brief, and let's face it--if the role had been played by a woman of no renown it would not have even been a blip on the Oscar radar. This nomination was an acknowledgement of the respect for Dee's career. For her to actually win would be something of a miscarriage of justice, I think.
I'm in the minority, but I think Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone will win. She swept many of the critics' awards, and the role, as the foul-mouthed and irresponsible mother of a missing child, has the kind of histrionics that is perfect Oscar-bait. That she's a virtual unknown is not a big impediment (see Mercedes Ruehl). I also think Tilda Swinton, as the corporate counsel in Michael Clayton, could be in the mix as well, if some of these aforementioned performers split the vote. It may take only a few points above twenty-percent to win this race, and Swinton, who is very good in the part, could pull off an upset.
The only person in this category who would really stun me with a win is Saorsie Ronan, as the young prevaricator in Atonement. Oscar has been kind to youngsters in this category, as the only minors to win Oscars have come from this category (there are three: Patty Duke, Tatum O'Neal, and Anna Paquin). However there are too many reasons for voters to choose someone else here.
So, Javier Bardem and Amy Ryan are my two picks here. Next week, Actor and Actress.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Mitchell was certainly going against all manner of common sense. Any film that is made in this country that has performers openly having sex with each other is immediately labeled pornography and ghettoized as such. Of course, the labels are misleading, and Mitchell, during the making of segment on the DVD, stresses that Shortbus is not pornography. He is quite correct. Pornography, or "adult films," has a long history and the styles of changed over the years, but the primary purpose of them is to tittilate. Shortbus is a film that just happens to contain explicit sex.
The title Shortbus refers to a pansexual club in New York City that is in turn a reference to the smaller schoolbuses that cart around "special" children. "A salon for the gifted and challenged" is how it's described by its androgynous host. The club would seem to exist only in Mitchell's imagination, as it is frequented equally by gay men, lesbians, and straight people, who show their performance art and have orgies.
This is the meeting place for a few people who make up the story. Sophia is a Chinese-Canadian sex therapist who can't have an orgasm. James and Jamie are a gay couple who decided to invite a third person, Ceth, into their relationship. Meanwhile, Caleb watches all of this from across the street. And Severin is a professional dominatrix who has trouble relating to anyone at all. All of this was formed by workshop, as Mitchell cast the film first (understandably it was a delicate process) and then wrote the script after improvisation.
As indie movies go, it wasn't bad, but wasn't particularly remarkable. Clearly the sex angle sets this movie apart. This film features overt hetero and homosexual acts, including ejaculation (which you usually can't even see on cable). Mitchell, who also wrote, directed and starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has clearly carved a niche for himself as the chronicler of the sexually-marginalized. The film is also pretty hot at times, though if you're interested in getting off you're better off watching something called Fuck Sluts.
I don't know if this film made any money, but I applaud the effort, despite the mixed results. Europeans have a bit more license on this kind of enterprise, but you will never a see a film like this at your local multiplex, at least not in my lifetime. This is a country that was first settled by Puritans, after all.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
She is, of course, a rarity--a farmer's wife who is also an ex-ballerina and an exquisite beauty. When the two kindle a romance, it is as if the author, Russell Hill, was attempting to fulfill the wishes of every graying lothario who thinks he can still catch the attention of a younger woman. Stone gets moon-eyed over his crush, and the book starts to curdle into hopeless sentimentality.
But then, about two-thirds of the way through, the book takes a vicious turn. Noir fiction is full of plots about cuckolded husbands being done away with, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that things won't turn out well for Robbie, the eponymous farmer of the title. But I must admit the way he's "done away with" and the depths of depravity that Stone sinks to took me by astonishment.
Hill does a very nice job depicting the dreariness of the English countryside, and in the last few pages manages to ease over any concerns I had with the unbelievability of the romance between Stone and Maggie. My advice for anyone who picks this up is to stick with it, despite the lugubrious beginning.
Monday, February 04, 2008
This is not an outlandish notion considering the director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Julian Schnabel, who for much of his professional life has been best known as a painter. This film is full of painterly images--a kind of poem of images. Although the dialogue by Ronald Harwood is quite good, this film's raison d'etre is the story told by the images, some quite brilliant and moving.
The film is adapted from a book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the director of the French Elle. He suffered a stroke and became victim to a condition known as locked-in syndrome, in which he could not move any muscles in his body except his left eyelid. In this way he was able to communicate with others, through repetition of letters of the alphabet. Remarkably, he was able to dictate an entire memoir. I haven't read this book, but I would imagine it doesn't immediately suggest a film treatment, since internal monologues are very difficult to adapt. That Schnabel was able to visualize a way to interpret this story via the image is a testament to his painter's eye.
For much of the film we see things as Bauby sees them, and we hear the thoughts in his head. When he awakes from a coma the images, as he saw them, are blurred and confused, and are more unsettling that anything in Cloverfield. There is a particularly teeth-cringing moment when his bad eye is shown shut. The entire film is not from this vantage point, however (much to my relief) but we are always hearing his thoughts, as he is telling the story. He even keeps his sense of humor, guffawing internally at a politically incorrect joke by a telephone installer.
Bauby is played by Mathieu Amalric, an impish actor last seen by me as a fixer of some sort in Munich. He has an interesting challenge, as through most of the film he is immobile except for that one eyelid. He is allowed to move about in flashbacks, though, including a memorably funny one when he accompanies a model on a romantic weekend to Lourdes, but when the girl turns out to have a Madonna-fixation the romance is quelled.
There are other excellent players surrounding Amalric. Marie-Josee Croze, also from Munich (as an assassin) plays Bauby's speech therapist, who works with on the alphabet-system. She has a great moment when she translates Bauby's first sentence, which is "I want death." She snaps at him anger, and then realizes she has no business judging him. Emmanuelle Seignier, as the mother of Bauby's children, is also quite good, especially in a scene in which she has to help translate an exchange between Bauby and his current mistress. Finally, the great Max Von Sydow has two short but riveting scenes as Bauby's father.
Schnabel avoids turning this into a Lifetime cable-TV weepie about the disease of the week. This is a good thing, artistically, but through much of the film I felt a little distance from the events. This film works well on an intellectual basis, less so on a emotional one. The film engaged my mind, but didn't particularly tug on my heartstrings. Still, it ranks as one of the best films (along with My Left Foot) about personal courage in the face of debilitating illness.
Friday, February 01, 2008
The New England Patriots are chasing history, on the verge of becoming the first team to go 19-0 and only the second to win a Super Bowl as an undefeated team. They are surely one of the best teams of all time (though their defense is old and can be scored on). The New York Giants, however, came to this party in an entirely different manner, losing their first two games of the year, getting in the playoffs as a Wild Card and then winning three road games in a row. The Patriots are, appropriately, about a dozen-point favorite.
The question for me is who to root for. As a general rule, I root against New York teams, which is an outgrowth of Yankee-hatred, a recognition that despite having lived in New Jersey for thirty-plus years I am still not reconciled to it, and taps into the schadenfreude that lives within (listening to sports radio is far more interesting when fans and hosts dissect and bemoan losses than when they crow about victories). The Mets, which is a team that a few very good friends root for, are usually an exception.
However, I found msyelf rooting for the Giants against the Packers in the championship game, and I'm not sure why. Maybe I was sick of the Brett Favre adulation, or just thought it perversely funny that the Giants were beating the home team during weather that was suited for the Pack. Will this unexplainable rooting for the Giants continue?
It might, given that I also usually always root for underdogs. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls in recent years, so there certainly is a sense of enough already. And who can root for Bill Belichick?
Still, I have a feeling I will end up rooting for the Patriots, and that's because of Tom Brady. I can't find myself hating him (I did root against him last year against the Colts, but not hating him). It would be easy to--he's almost too perfect, with his golden boy persona (slightly tarnished by impregnating a girl before breaking up with her, but we don't know the whole story there), but he's gotten to where he is by hard work. There was a good story about him on SI yesterday about how he was the backup quarterback on a freshman high school team that finished 0-8, and then how he came to Michigan as the seventh-string quarterback, almost transferred, but worked hard until he had the starting job. Then he was drafted in the sixth-round by the Patriots, long after quarterbacks who are now selling insurance or something. So what if he dates a supermodel, the man is the embodiment of the American dream, and I'm fine with him winning one more title.
But next year, all bets are off.