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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Miley Cyrus Photo Flap


This week, in an era in which the 24-hours-news culture hangs on to any controversy like a dog with a bone, no matter how trivial, a photo shoot by teen singer and actress Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair has taken center stage. Miley is 15, and the photos, by Annie Liebovitz, are considered, by some, to be highly sexual and inappropriate. Cyrus, certainly cognizant that her main employer, Disney, wouldn't be happy about alienating the parents of her fans, has expressed regret about the photos.

In the grand scheme of things, the photos are not very racy. She appears to be wearing nothing but a blanket from above the waist, but in this day and age that's not a lot of bare skin, even for a fifteen-year-old. The way she has been styled, though, does give her that "rode hard and put up wet" look. If I were her father I probably wouldn't have approved it.

But this tempest in a teapot brings up a larger issue, which I think is not trivial: the increasing sexual objectification of young girls. To start with, it should be noted that this is nothing new. Coincidentally I am currently reading a new book about teen model Evelyn Nesbit, who was wooed by captains of industry at the ripe age of sixteen back at the turn of the twentieth century, and it wasn't new then. It wasn't until maybe fifty or sixty years ago that girls of Miley's age could be wives in rural areas of this nation without too much controversy, and that is still the case in many cultures around the world. Nature makes the female of the species sexually mature far earlier than it makes them emotionally mature, and this has created tension since the beginning. When, during the Victorian era, children began to be seen as something other than just small adults, attitudes changed. Child labor laws were enacted and over time it has been accepted that just because a girl menstruates doesn't mean she is ready to be sexually active.

But even though there is nothing new under the sun in this area, I think girls are pressured these days to grow up too fast. I have no idea what it's like to be a teenager today--I was a teen in the 1970s, when there was no Internet and no cable TV. Sexual adventurism for me was sneaking looks at my dad's Playboys and coming across smutty passages in novels. Everything I learned about sex came from letters in Penthouse magazine (which is why it's so ironic I ended up writing them for a living). I didn't see an R-rated film until we got HBO when I was sixteen (ah, Going Places, a film I will always have a soft spot for).

Today it's a different world. When some bluenoses claim that the Internet is just a pipe that allows sewage into their homes, well, they're kind of right. It's not hard for a kid to find porn or, for that matter, racist, violent or otherwise disturbing material. Advertising has lowered its standards considerably. When I was a little kid, bra commercials had to use mannequins. Compare that to the Victoria's Secret commercials of today. I shake my head in wonderment when seeing girls no more than thirteen at the mall, wearing sweatpants that have the word "Juicy" written across the ass. There's a line of t-shirts that says "Porn Star" across the chest. Would any parent really allow a young girl to wear that?

Meanwhile, girls don't exactly have great role models. High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens has had naked pictures leaked to the world, Jamie Lynn Spears gets knocked up at 16. News reports say that sexual activity is common among girls as young as twelve and thirteen. And fifteen-year-old pop stars are displayed as if they were sex hungry minxes in national magazines.

If you've read this blog regularly you know that I am no prude--I'm for complete sexual freedom, let it all hang out, as long as it doesn't hurt it anybody. But when it comes to kids I think lines need to be drawn. Children should be allowed to be children, and not encouraged to become sexual beings before they are ready. How can this be stopped? Short of turning this country over to the Christian taliban, it can't, at least not by legislation. It's up to wise and vigilant parenting. I hope, for these girls sake, there's that plenty of that to go around.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Belladonna

Words don't seem useful when attempting to describe Belladonna. I'm tempted to say a number of different things, to use a number of different metaphors, but it seems futile. She is, without much doubt, the most explosive, intense performer in the history of adult films. Jenna Jameson may have her millions and flirt with crossover appeal, but she never fucked like Belladonna does.

Born Michelle Sinclair in Utah, daughter of a Mormon bishop, Belladonna was a troubled adolescent that fit the profile of girls who enter sex work. She is tattooed like a Maori princess (she has a large sacred heart inked over across her chest) and in interviews throughout her eight-year career has indicated that this is not just a job for her, it's a way of life. She is such a sexual being that it is almost scary.

She's now almost twenty-seven and has made about 250 films. Several years ago she was featured on ABC's Primetime Live as an example of the degrading business of porn. They followed her around and caught her on air crying and regretting her career path. Of course this was completely out of context, and she has renounced that profile. ABC has an onerous history of running stories on porn and prostitution that on the one hand titillates for ratings while on the other tut-tuts from a ridiculous moral stance.

Okay, so what makes her so great? She is not a conventional beauty, with a gap in her teeth. She does, though, have a fantastic all-natural body, which is toned without being over muscular. But looks are not her selling point. This woman was born to have sex. Some people are born to play the piano, hit a golf ball, or design video games, Belladonna was born to fuck on camera. I haven't seen all of her films (it's hard to imagine anyone has, maybe not even her) but I've never seen her not give 100 percent. She explains it in a scene from a film called Two in the Seat 3, that when she has sex she looks in the eyes of her partner (a lot don't) and her gaze is like a piercing of the soul. She has sex in both an animalistic and mystical sense.

If that weren't enough, when watching her scenes you can expect almost anything. Much of her work involves anal sex. In a scene from Weapons of Ass Destruction, Jules Jordan, much like a magician, introduces larger and larger objects past her sphincter. At a certain point this becomes less erotic than just fascinating/disgusting, depending on your point of view. She also doesn't shy away from rough sex, particularly choking. There's a scene in Cumback Pussy 45 in which she participates in a threesome with Mark Davis and Monica Mayhem. Davis wraps his hand around her throat and her already olive complexion starts to resemble a beefsteak tomato, but her eyes are alive with ecstasy.

Of all the films I've seen her in, perhaps the most disquieting scene occurs in Easy Cheeks. This film is a throwback to the pre-video days of Boogie Nights, and Belladonna plays a cop. She is attacked by a bad guy, who slugs her and then anally rapes her. Now, there's a lot in porn that is degrading, disturbing and decadent, but depicting non-consensual sex is a rarity. One can only imagine that Belladonna is one of the few big-name adult performers who would be willing to perform this scene. I wouldn't call it sexy but it is compelling.

Belladonna recently retired from performing (though she does have a production company and directs). She has contracted STDs, which is a risk in the business (much in the same way that brain damage is a risk in boxing). Just after she announced her retirement, though, she was back on her web site writing that she was reconsidering. She seems to be a woman who has sacrificed a great deal for her "art," as well as gaining a lot. What ever her decision, she leaves a large legacy of outstanding work.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Two Family House

I just saw a charming little film, Two Family House, that for some reason I added to my Netflix queue years ago. It patiently moved up to the top and I'm glad I didn't remove it, because I enjoyed it very much. It's not particularly realistic or profound, just a little slice of life that was very touching.

The cast is full of actors who were in The Sopranos, most notably Michael Respoli as Buddy Vasalo, a lovable loser in 1950's Staten Island. Somewhat like his contemporary fictional character Ralph Kramden, Buddy has many get-rich-quick schemes, but none of them pan out, and he's constantly being brought down by his harridan wife, played by another Sopranos vet, Kathrine Narducci. He will never forget how she made him decline to audition for the Arthur Godfrey Show, thus depriving him his chance to be Julius LaRosa.

As the story begins Buddy has bought a ramshackle two-family house. He intends to live upstairs and turn the ground floor into a bar. Problem--he has to evict the current upstairs tenants, a loutish Irishman and his very pregnant wife. When the wife has the baby and it has distinctly African features, well, the talk is all over the neighborhood. Buddy, following his wife's wishes, forces her to leave (the husband, stunned at the complexion of his child, leaves on his own), but he is soft-hearted, and helps her out on the sly. This being a movie, of course a romance develops.

The film was written and directed by Raymond de Fillita, and is apparently based on his uncle. The Italian community certainly rings true, with the quirks and traditions of both men and women written and performed with a particularly Roman zest. I'm not sure what to make of the characterization of Mary, the Irish girl, who is luminously played by Kelly MacDonald. She is a complex character--supposedly a "bad" girl (a white woman who has slept with a black man in 1956 wouldn't be termed any other way, at least not in the working class) but she is also painted as some sort of idealized fantasy girl. Buddy takes a liking to her because she is most decidedly not like his wife, and he can talk to her. The romance between them doesn't seem authentic--it happens because it has to, for the sake of the script--but the actors were so good I didn't mind and even rooted them on. Watching a character follow his own heart over the objections of an entire community can be thrilling stuff.

I've also learned that any film with Kelly MacDonald is worth watching. She is a Scottish actress who made her debut in Trainspotting and has had some interesting turns along the way--as Peter Pan in Finding Neverland, and Steve Coogan's wife in Tristram Shandy, and most notably as a Texas housewife in No Country For Old Men. She is always interesting (and easy on the eyes as well).



Sunday, April 27, 2008

The New Gettysburg Visitor Center

I am a frequent visitor to Gettsyburg, PA, since I have family that lives there. I've seen almost every site and gone on almost every tour, so it was with a fairly high level of anticipation that I checked out the new visitor center and museum that recently opened. I give it a big thumbs up.

The previous visitor center had a couple of problems--it was small and was sitting on an important spot in the battle. It was convenient--you could walk from there to the National Cemetery, where Lincoln made the Gettsyburg Address, or to the "High Water Mark," the angle in the stone wall where what was left of Pickett's Charge met the Union line. But in the interest of making the battlefield look exactly as it did for those three days in July in 1863, and to expand the size of the facility for more displays and amenities, it had to be moved.

The site is a bit further down the Baltimore Pike, on a spot of ground that saw no action during the battle. It is built with the kind of stone that fits in with many houses in the area, while the building that will house the Cyclorama painting, which is being restored (and is not yet open to the public) has the look of a large barn. What is most striking upon entering, in addition to the expanded size, is that the museum portion has something of a theme. It is a museum dedicated to the entire war, with of course a more than generous portion devoted to Gettysburg. When you enter you learn about the causes of the war (I'm glad to see that the focus here is on slavery--none of this revisionist nonsense from Southern sympathizers) and as you make your way through the narrative of the war unfolds. There are displays on almost everything--from weapons to surgery to camp life (soldiers routinely threw away dice and cards before a battle, lest they be found on them if they were to die, giving them a bad name) to slavery to what the battle did to the town. Every section has a short film, with each day of the Gettsyburg battle getting its own. This replaces the "electric map" of the old center, which was an interesting way to imagine the battle but profoundly from a distant technology.

The bookstore is now about three times the size of the old one, with more t-shirts and caps than you can shake a stick at, but also a comprehensive selection of books about the battle, the personalities, and the war in general. There are a lot of interactive displays scattered throughout the museum, which are also available in a resource center. You can look up any brigade that fought in the war and learn where they were and what the casualties were, as well as finding any of the thousands of monuments. There's also a cafeteria, with selections from the era, such as peanut soup and hardtack, or a leg of lamb.

If you've been thinking about going to Gettysburg it's a great time to go. The Cyclorama will open in the fall. The museum, if given careful consideration, can easily take two hours, and of course that doesn't include a tour of the actual battlefield itself, which can take another two-to-three hours (or more).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Shine a Light


Shine a Light is a perfectly acceptable concert film. It doesn’t add to the body of notable concert films in cinema history, like The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, but it’s a good time, especially if you like The Rolling Stones. I saw it in IMAX, which helps. I would imagine seeing it on a smaller screen would be a profoundly lesser buzz.

Martin Scorsese is the director, and the Rolling Stones are the band, performing a benefit concert at New York’s Beacon Theater. The beginning of the film is some backstage stuff that reminded me of Spinal Tap, such as Mick Jagger disapproving of the stage design (maybe because it didn’t have Stonehenge?) and Scorsese agreeing that burning Jagger alive would be a bad idea. When Keith Richards shows someone a portion of Charlie Watts’ drum kit I half expected him to say “it goes up to 11.” There’s a bit of comedy involving Scorsese desperately needing to know the set-list (Jagger has a list of songs in categories like “Medium known.”

Then Bill and Hillary Clinton make a cameo as they greet the Stones like old pals. Hillary’s mother is attending, and I’m sure she wondered what she got dragged into. Bill introduces the band, and says they are committed to climate change. I’m guessing that to the Stones climate change is clearing the smoke out of their dressing rooms.

Then the music starts. The cameras are fluid, the cutting is frantic–at times epileptically so, but mostly just right. I’ve read a lot of reviews that use all sorts of similes for how old the Stones look, so I won’t pile on here. Really, is it new to suggest that the Stones are a bunch of old men who are still at the top of a young man’s game (at least as a touring band–they haven’t had a significant album in over twenty-five years). Jagger’s face is lined, sure, but his body is trim, and he still commands the stage with his trademark strut like no other. Richards, death warmed over, can still play the guitar while listing, his head slightly cocked, the notes feeding from brain to fingers as if accessing a higher power, at times a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s all magic.

The Stones have so many songs that it’s impossible that you will hear everything you want but equally impossible that you won’t hear at least half-dozen of your favorites. They open with Jumping Jack Flash, and then mix in newer stuff that no one cares about with the golden oldies. I especially liked As Tears Go By and the tongue-in-cheek country song Faraway Eyes. Richards does a nice job with You’ve Got the Silver, and Sympathy For the Devil raises the roof. They close, of course, with Satisfaction. There are three guests: Jack White of The White Stripes, Christina Aguilera, and bluesman Buddy Guy, who joins them for a Muddy Waters song, Champagne and Reefer. I’m sure Bill Clinton liked that one.

Interspersed throughout the songs are a retrospective of clips from interviews they’ve done throughout the years, from the early days when Mick says he wonders whether they will be doing this for another year, to a 1972 interview with Dick Cavett. When Cavett wonders whether Mick can see himself doing this at sixty (he was then not yet thirty) Jaggers says absolutely, and he was right–he’s now almost sixty-five, and still shaking it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Monica Bellucci


Declaring who the most beautiful woman is in films today seems like just the pointless exercise this blog was made for. I have lots of favorites in this regard, and I could change my mind every five minutes, but putting the name Monica Bellucci out there is a pretty safe bet. Would anyone mount a vigorous opposition?
Over the past few days I've caught up on some of her films that I haven't seen: Like a Fish Out of Water, Under Suspicion, Tears of the Sun, Shoot 'Em Up, How Much Do You Love Me? and The Brothers Grimm. Of course I'd earlier seen her work in Dracula, Malena, Irreversible and two Matrix pictures.

Bellucci was a model who has made a fairly seamless transition to actress. A woman of such beauty is going to be typecast, though, and she almost always plays variations on the madonna/whore character, often displaying both in the same role at the same time. This is certainly true in Shoot 'Em Up, where she plays a prostitute who is lactating, and thus is enlisted by a mysterious hero to care for an orphaned baby. She also plays a prostitute in Bertrand Blier's How Much Do You Love Me?, a strange and surreal comedy about a meek man who wins the lottery and pays Bellucci to be his girlfriend. What works for her in this film is that it seems entirely reasonable for a man to pay her 100,000 Euros (a month!) to do this, because she is so ethereally beautiful.

Bellucci is beautiful, yes, in a classic way. She seems to have stepped down from a renaissance painting. She has a regal quality that demands she play parts that are costumed in finery, whether it is an evening gown or a hooker's fur coat and leather boots. One cannot picture her wearing a t-shirt and sweats, and thus far I haven't seen her in a role that would require that. In Under Suspicion she plays the much younger wife of powerful attorney Gene Hackman, and in her first appearance in that film she is seen from behind, her cello-shaped form squeezing into a gown. In Like a Fish Out of Water, a quirky yet ultimately reductive French crime thriller about thieves trying to steal an exotic tropical fish, she is a hotel manager on the French Riviera who stalks across the screen like a panther, imperious and predatory, with men willing to do anything just to be breathe the same air as she does. It's easy to empathize.

Bellucci, perhaps because she was a model and wants to be taken seriously, has done some rather brave things on screen. Irreversible is a film I saw once and need never seen again. It is remarkable in a few respects: it is told in reverse, and contains two of the most brutal scenes you are likely to see in a film. In one, a man is savagely beaten, his face caved in by a fire extinguisher. In another, Bellucci is savagely raped in a single, ten-minute or so take that leaves little to the imagination. Another brave role, and perhaps her best performance that I've seen, is in Malena. She plays a widowed Italian woman who is misjudged by her fellow townspeople as a woman of low morals and is beaten and humiliated.

Bellucci's face can also be used for evil, and it's not surprising that she's played Dracula's bride or an evil queen, as she did in The Brothers Grimm for Terry Gilliam. But then again she is right at home playing a doctor in the African jungle in Tears of the Sun. So often we see gorgeous women playing scientists of one sort or another (perhaps the height of this inanity is Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in a James Bond picture) but Bellucci completely sells the idea that she can be a surgeon tending to the poor in Tears. Again, it's the madonna factor.

Tears of the Sun is probably her largest role in an English-language film, and this is the one aspect of her that is most lacking--she speaks English as if she were speaking it phonetically. I've heard her speak English naturally, particularly on DVD extras, and it sounds much smoother, but in her performances it has a more stylized hollowness to it. But with a woman who looks like that, who cares how thick her accent is?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union


Michael Chabon is a literary writer who likes to experiment with genre fiction. His last book was a Sherlock pastiche, and he's edited a book of short stories that are heavy on plot. His magnum opus (so far) is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, an big epic about superhero comic books. I've read four of his books, including that one, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and now The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The book is a noir mystery set in, of all places, Alaska, but it's not the Alaska we know today. Chabon's ingeniously clever device is to create an alternate history, placing the Jewish diaspora in Sitka. It seems that in the early days of World War II it was suggested that Jewish refugees would be repatriated to Alaska. This was opposed by the Alaskan congressman. Chabon exacts literary revenge by having the congressman run over by a cab in Washington. In Chabon's Alaska Sitka is a two-million strong community of Yiddish speakers. But in this alternate history Israel doesn't exist, and some radical Jews want to reclaim Jerusalem.

The result is something like Raymond Chandler filtered through Jackie Mason. The classic noir hero is a police detective, Meyer Landsman, who is down and out, a drunk living in a fleabag hotel. He is awakened one morning by the clerk, who has discovered a dead body in one of the rooms, checked in under the name of a long-dead chess grandmaster. Landsman and his partner, a half-Jew half-Tlingit Indian, follow clues that lead them to a sect of Hasidim who run the syndicate. By the time it's all over, there is a conspiracy that involves the coming of the messiah and the Dome of the Rock.

Chabon is a gifted wordsmith, capable of creating similes that take the breath away. Consider this description of the Rebbe, who is both a spiritual leader and a capo de tutti capo: "Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man." Or this description a woman snoring: "It has a double-reeded hum, the bumblee continuo of Mongolian throat-singing. It has the slow grandeur of a whale's respiration."

The text has the delightful rhythms and syntax of Yiddish. It is understood that the characters are speaking to each other in that language (English is referred to as "American") and though Chabon is writing in English, he has sprinkled in some venerable Yiddish words like "ganef," "shammes," and "noz."

As much fun as this book is, the plot does run off the rails at the end. I think the ambition exceeds the grasp, as the solution goes way beyond Landsman's world into secret government cover-ups. I'm still not quite sure what happened. I've read that Joel and Ethan Coen will be making this into a film--I hope they keep what is good and jettison that which is not so hot.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Speaking In Tongues


There is a party scene in Lars and the Real Girl in which someone puts on a song for dancing. It is This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) by the Talking Heads. I don't think people in the upper midwest in this day and age would play that song at a party, but it did make me think of the album on which it appears, Speaking in Tongues, which is one of my favorite albums of all time.

Talking Heads are kind of a touchstone for me. They are the first band I got into that was beyond the classic rock hold-overs of the sixties. They are the first band I ever saw in concert, my freshman year of college, 1979. I have all eight of their studio albums, and they've recorded some of the enduring songs of my memory.

For their first three albums, Talking Heads were something of a new wave band, somewhat experimental but still in the CBGBs/art-rock world. For their fourth album, Remain in Light, they showed a heavy influence from Afro-Caribbean music, and broke through to the mainstream through the new MTV with a video for Once in a Lifetime. They sort of synthesized everything on their next album, released in 1983, which was Speaking in Tongues. I think it is their greatest achievement, in which they peaked before a gentle slide into pop-heavy music and eventual irrelevance.

The first track, Burning Down the House, was their first top-ten hit and is marvelously catchy while also being sinister. Most of the tracks on this album have a somewhat sinister overtone, or at least cynicism. Consider Girlfriend is Better (which contains the refrain "Stop making sense" which was used as a title for their terrific concert film, directed by Jonathan Demme), which has the snarky line: "I got a girlfriend with bows in her hair, and nothing is better than that."

Just looking down the song list makes me happy. I usually think a record is worthwhile if it has two or three good songs on it, but this one is nine for nine. Slippery People, Making Flippy Floppy, I Get Wild/Wild Gravity, and the vaguely exotic Swamp, which can make you feel cool just by listening to it.

But for all the good songs that come before it, the closing number, which the Lutherans of Lars and the Real Girl grooved to, is by far the best. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) is a song for all-time, a paean to that which makes a person feel loved. It seems to be ostensibly about home, or a loved one that represents home (David Byrne's lyrics have never been transparent), and it creates such a wistful state of mind that listening to it can chase almost any blues. These may be Byrne's most sentimental lyrics: "Home is where I want to be/but I guess I'm already there/I come home, she lifted up her wings/I guess this must be the place." And then there's a bit that I always like to think of when my bank account is low: "Never for money, always for love/cover up and say goodnight."

The album that followed, Little Creatures, was also terrific and won some polls as best album of 1985, but is a little more self-conscious. To me, the essential Talking Heads album is Speaking in Tongues.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

NHL Playoffs, Round 1


It's NHL playoffs time, and I've watched more professional hockey this weekend than I have all season. I watch a lot of college hockey, but when you root for an out-of-market NHL team (in my case the Detroit Red Wings) it can be almost impossible to follow them on basic cable, but now that it's playoff time I can start focusing on the sport.

Of course, the first thing I have to do is get reacquainted with the players and storylines. The Red Wings' opponent in the first round were the Nashville Predators (an NHL team in Nashville just doesn't sound right). The Red Wings are the number one seed, the Predators the eighth seed, but the NHL is pretty close from top to bottom, and upsets happen with regularity. Sixteen teams make the post-season, which makes the regular season fairly irrelevant, but it does make it difficult for teams to build dynasties, as winning four straight series is pretty tough.

The Red Wings won the first two games at home, then lost the next two in Nashville. Goalie Dominic Hasek, who is sure-fire Hall of Famer, seemed to have lost his edge (he is in his forties) and was replaced in game five by backup (and former starter, years ago) Chris Osgood. I started watching game five in the third period on Friday night, with the Wings up 1-0. Nashville pulled the goalie and managed to tie the score with less than a minute left, but in overtime Johan Franzen grabbed a turnover and netted the game-winner.

Franzen is a player I'm not terribly familiar with. The good thing about the Red Wings is that they've kept quite a few players for a long time. Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov are gone, but they still have Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom from the glory days of the mid-90's, and also have familiar names like Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk and Heinrik Zetterberg. But they have a lot of players who I need to get used to. They have re-added Darren McCarty, who was on all three of their recent Stanley Cup winners. He was out of hockey and destitute but got himself back into shape and worked his way back to the team, which is a nice story.

On Saturday night I watched the wildly entertaining last half of a Montreal-Boston game. Usually I don't watch pro hockey unless Detroit is playing, but this game was a lot of fun, with leads being traded several times in the third period. Hockey is my favorite sport to watch in person, due to the speed, and the fact that the clock rarely stops, so there aren't interminable timeouts. However, it doesn't translate as well to television. The puck can be hard to see, and it's not easy to know who's on the ice at any given time. When I watch the Princeton team, I know all the players immediately, and can get a sense of the line pairings, but on TV you're at the mercy of the announcer, who usually only has time to identify who has the puck.

I watched every minute of today's game six. For a moment I thought it wasn't to be, because the Pope's mass at Yankee Stadium was being broadcast on all channels, inspiring some ugly anti-Catholicism on my part. But I found the game on an upper level cable station, and all was well. Things got even better in the second period when, short-handed, Lidstrom fired a shot in from center ice that skipped past Nashville goalie Dan Ellis, who had been inpenetrable. I should stop here to give kudos to announcer Mike Emrick, who in my book is the best play-by-play man in all of sports. He immediately remembered Lidstrom scoring a similar goal against Vancouver the last time Detroit won the Stanley Cup.

Detroit scored again in the third, this time Jiri Hudler, and added an empty net goal to seal the deal. They win the series, 4-2, and I think will play Colorado next, a nasty rival of theirs. I have to give credit to Nashville, who gave the Red Wings a tough time. They seem to have some spirited fans, and they also have two of the best names in hockey, Radek Bonk and Jordin Tootoo.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall


April seems to be the month for romantic comedies, as this is the fourth one I’ve seen in a row. Admittedly I’ve been seeking them out as, I recently read an article in Creative Screenwriting interviewing the perpetrators, er, writers of the following films: Leatherheads, Run, Fat Boy, Run, Smart People, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and The Accidental Husband. The last one doesn’t open until August, maybe I’ll have learned the lesson by then that if I want to watch a good romantic comedy I should rent Bringing Up Baby.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall comes from the assembly line of Judd Apatow, who seems to have reached the rare air and become an adjective (Apatovian?). I liked The 40-Year-Old Virgin, was meh on Knocked Up, and lurved Superbad, but this last one, which has his stamp on it as an executive producer, shows signs the machine is getting rusty. It is written by and stars Jason Segel, who apparently was in one of Apatow’s TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, I think) and is another of those male-oriented raunchy comedies that have a gooey caramel center. It’s getting some pretty solid reviews, too, but I thought it fell flat.

Where to start? Well, let’s get the plot out of the way. Segel is Peter, a doofus composer for a TV show who is dating the sex symbol star and the title character of our film. She dumps him in the first scene, while he is buck fucking naked. I hope this was done for laughs because no one wants to see unathletic men sans clothing in films, especially their dicks. He is heartbroken, and takes his brother’s advice to go on a vacation. He ends up at a resort in Hawaii where, surprise! Sarah is spending time canoodling with her new beau, a preening peacock of a musician, played by Russell Brand.

Okay, that’s a pretty spectacular coincidence, even by brain-dead Hollywood movie standards. But it occurs about twenty minutes in, so you can either stew about the mathematical improbability of it or you can let it go and get on with the movie.

Peter decides to stick it out at the resort, which seems to be staffed exclusively by colorful movie types who only occasionally work. One of them is a comely customer service agent, winningly played by Mila Kunis. Peter finds himself attracted to her, but of course there are complications.

The first problem with this film, even before the coincidence, is Segel. He is no leading man. I’m thinking of all the other actors who have been in these types of films in the last few years: Steve Carell, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, even Seth Rogen (but not Ben Stiller, please!) and they would have all been far better and more realistic. In fact, perhaps the ideal actor is actually in this film, wasted in a small part as a perpetually stoned surf instructor–Paul Rudd. Segel is more cut out for the hero’s best friend, or the guy who is wrong for the heroine. And I’m not talking about looks. I’m not the type, like Jeffrey Wells, who gets obsessed with less than Adonis-like men playing guys who date beautiful women. But I just couldn’t buy for a second that Kristen Bell’s Sarah Marshall would be with this guy for five years. Do TV stars even associate with the composers of their shows? How did they meet?

Secondly, this film is only intermittently funny. Superbad was hysterically funny, and though Knocked Up had its problems it was at least good for some yuks, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall did not tickle my funny bone. The trailer for Pineapple Express, which played before the feature, was funnier. Segel’s whining after the breakup is not funny. The spoofing of Bell’s TV show is not funny. The Dracula puppet musical Segel is writing is not funny. Even Jonah Hill (looking more and more like Larry Fine) is not funny as a ubiquitous waiter.

About the only thing that is funny is Brand as the rock star Aldous Snow, lead singer of Infant Sorrow. He’s an inspired creation, and though he has a lot of funny lines, a lot of the credit goes to the actor. I would have loved to see a film about him.

The film is also about fifteen minutes too long, and the direction, by Nicholas Stoller, doesn’t help. There are some awkward moments and some lines completely thrown away. This is Stoller's directorial debut, after his last credit was writing the remake of Fun With Dick and Jane. Hmmm.

As for the two actresses, well they are both fetching. At one point a character suggests Segel should have a threesome with them, and I’ll bet onanists all over the world are filing that one away in their fantasy drawers. Kunis, in particular, is quite radiant and leaves no traces of the unpleasant character she played on That Seventies Show. However, both are not particularly real people, and this may be the heart of what’s wrong with this picture. It’s essentially a fantasy, no more real that Lord of the Rings. At the end of this picture these two gorgeous fillies are in competition over this lumpen sack of meat. It’s a pleasant daydream, but no–not going to happen.

Apatow’s other pictures also contain this whiff of science-fiction, but when they are funny they are easier to take. This film is just too often depressing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

War Dance


I must admit I wasn't in the mood to see an earnest, well-meaning PBS-style documentary when I put War Dance into the DVD player. But over the course of the film I was gradually won over, and only a person with a completely dessicated heart could not help but be moved by the climax.

The film details a small community in the north of Uganda, which has been ravaged by war between the government and rebels. Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine focus on three children, member of the Acholi tribe and students at Patongo Primary. They live in a refugee camp, and all have experienced the kind of horrors that are too terrible to contemplate. Nancy has watched her father be hacked to death; Dominic and his brother were abducted by rebels, he was compelled to be a child soldier; and both of Rose's parents were killed. How she discovered this is unspeakably horrific. We are told that 200,000 children have been orphaned in the conflict.

The children tell these stories matter-of-factly, straight to the camera, and the only emotion they show is an occasional tear rolling down the cheek. There is a remarkable scene in which Dominic visits the local military base to get a chance to talk to a captured rebel leader who might have seen his brother. They have a conversation that, if it weren't subtitled, you might mistake for a dispassionate discussion about the weather, but the rebel is telling Dominic that his brother is likely dead. He then explains to the curious Dominic why children are abducted and turned into soldiers.

The children of the school have won the regional competition for a national music festival. They are assisted by professional musicians, and travel to the capital, Kampala, which to their eyes might as well be the moon. They are distinct underdogs, but they have a lot of pride and spirit, and Dominic is a whiz on the xylophone. I could watch this kid play for an hour.

It's at the competition that a certain sports-film motif sets in, but the directors keep the mawkishness to a minimum. The DVD has no interviews with the directors, which is too bad because I've wondered about films like this (such as Spellbound) that follow individuals or teams in competitions. Would there be a story if they lay an egg?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl


Watching this film I felt an internal struggle between two aspects of me: the rational and the emotional, and at various times one was defeating the other. Rationally, this film just doesn't add up, but emotionally it is very satisfying. Whether you will like it or not depends on what side you come down on. I can't argue with either one.

Lars is a pathologically shy young man who lives with his brother and sister-in-law. Well, he lives at the same address, but holes up in a room off the garage. I'm guessing it takes place in Minnesota, given his Swedish name and the Lake Wobegon-like sense of community that exists in the small town he lives in. Lars doesn't have a girlfriend--he can barely talk to people, and his sister-in-law has to beg him to join them for breakfast. He does have an office job, though, and is functional. One day a co-worker shows him a web site detailing the "Real Doll," a highly sophisticated love doll that is anatomically correct. Six weeks later a crate arrives at Lars' domicile, and he is introducing the contents as his new girlfriend, Bianca.

Needless to say, his brother is horrified and craftily gets him to see a very compassionate psychologist, played by Patricia Clarkson. She urges the brother and sister-in-law to humor him, and soon the whole town is, as well, going so far as to give Bianca a make-over, hire her at a clothing boutique (as a mannequin, of course) and elect her to the school board. Eventually Lars becomes so enmeshed in the delusion that he comes out the other side, and begins to pick up on the feelers he's been getting from a co-worker. Happy ending.

If you think of this film as a fairy-tale, it's very winning. That a whole town would not only tolerate a man wheeling around a synthetic women and treat her as if she were real is kind of heart-warming; it is also ludicrously unrealistic. And what was gnawing at me the whole film was whether this made sense psychologically. We don't see why Lars goes from a fully functional shut-in to a man who has completely lost his marbles and talks to a doll (and apparently hears responses). Would a psychologist really suggest this sort of treatment? The script (by an Oscar-nominated Nancy Oliver) walks a high-wire, answering some of our doubts. When Lars' brother point-blank tells him that Bianca is made of plastic, Lars ignores the comment. Also, because of religious issues, Lars and Bianca don't, ahem, sleep together, I'm sure to reduce the ickiness factor. But it's all a little too pat. Aside from an old codger who protests to begin with, there is no conflict from the townspeople.

Ryan Gosling is Lars, and it's a shrewd performance. He basically plays Lars like a whipped puppy dog. There are some seeds planted that suggest the origins of his dysfunction, and at one point he is reading Don Quixote, one of the great delusional figures from literature. Gosling doesn't play him as a Quixote, though. He plays him as if he can barely stand being on camera.

The film that this most recalls is Harvey, in which James Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd, a gentle souse who happened to believe he had a friend who was a six-foot tall rabbit. In that film, his family is scandalized by it, only coming around at the very end. In fifty-something years our society has become much more tolerant of aberrant behavior, I guess.

As a codicil to this review, I should mention that I was aware of the Real Doll years ago. Being in the porn industry, its existence didn't phase me much, other than the price tag--they run about five grand apiece. Over the years I've seen articles about them that are either giggling in tone or are humorlessly feminist reactions, chalking them up to the depths of depravity that men are prone to. But the fact is there are men who because of either debilitating illness, disfigurement, or the kind of antisocial behavior Lars exhibits, have no other recourse (if they don't want to go to prostitutes). I've led a fairly sexually adventurous life, but the urge to copulate with a mannequin, no matter how life like, is not something I'm interested in. No matter how realistic the skin is, they can't make the eyes look completely life like, and throw in the fact that they are at room temperature makes this perilously close to necrophilia. (The Real Doll web site does recommend heating up your doll with a warm bath to alleviate this condition, FYI).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cults, Big and Small


Two items on the news tonight--the Papal visit and the polygamous sect that has been raided by Texas authorities--have a certain link, I think. But I'm a person who believes that religious institutions do the human race far more harm than they do good. You can call me a dreamer, but I subscribe to the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine."

I'm sure an overwhelming majority of Americans view the FLDS, a splinter group of the Church of Latter Day Saints, as kooks. What they are really, is a well-orchestrated front for men who like to fuck young girls. There's a certain evil genius to Warren Jeffs and his henchmen, who have brainwashed so many women into believing that offering their under-age flesh to middle-aged men is somehow spiritually correct that they pass this belief on to their own daughters, pimping them out. The state of Texas has rightly taken away their children, and they are in despair, wearing their Little House on the Prairie dresses and staring vacantly into the camera, clearly without a shred of their individuality left. They are pod people.

But what is any religion but a cult that has bamboozled the worshippers? The Catholic church is a prime example, a cult that managed to catch on in a huge way. Here we have millions of people following the will of a group of elderly celibate (supposedly) men who wear medieval costumes and have traditions that are as hopelessly arcane as alchemy. Their main language is Latin, a dead language, for goodness' sake, and it took an eon for them to even ease up on the insistence that mass be done in this language that few could understand.

The Pope, as with all of the college of cardinals, is a politician, with an agenda and a facility for achieving power. He is the head of a church that has a long history of divisiveness (ironic, considering the dictionary definition of the word catholic) and inhumanity. They may not put people to the rack anymore, but at least in the U.S. they have done their best to cover-up systematic abuse of children. The Pope made news this week by acknowledging this. Excuse me, but that's years too late.

I think the greatest misery the Catholic church has perpetrated on mankind is the ban on birth control, which has led to overpopulation, which if unchecked will lead to a rapid depletion of the Earth's resources. I heard a writer once suggest that to arrest this depletion, couples everywhere should have only one child, so world populations will return to a sane level. The Catholic church, I imagine would frown upon this, all because somebody once took quill to parchment to write down "Be fruitful and multiply."

Though I'm baffled by the idolatry that this reactionary octogenarian receives when he lands on our shores, I certainly can't speak against Catholics as individuals. Two of my very best friends are Catholics, and like many American Catholics, they pick and choose the dogma that they want to follow. Therefore, the Pope isn't quite the superstar here that he is in countries that are institutionally Catholic. But he still draws a far bigger crowd than I think he deserves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ol' Man River


I was listening to A Prairie Home Companion over the weekend, which was broadcast from Town Hall, just a few blocks from Broadway. Coming back from intermission Garrison Keillor led the audience in a sing-along of some popular Broadway standards: There's No Business Like Show Business, Oh What a Beautiful Morning, and...Ol' Man River? Talk about the Sesame Street ditty "One of these things just doesn't belong." The first two are peppy feel-good numbers, but Ol' Man River, if you listen to the lyrics, is the kind of song you sing when you gave a gun in one hand and a bottle of rotgut in the other. Yet the Town Hall audience was yukking it up as the men in the audience tried to hit those low notes.

Ol' Man River is, of course, a great song, one that endures and has outlived its surroundings. It was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat, which is now a curio of the early days of the history of the Broadway musical, full of political incorrectness. The first to sing it was Jules Bledsoe, but it is forever associated with Paul Robeson, who sang it in the first film version. The lyrics are written in a phonetic vernacular that can make one think of Amos and Andy and wince, and the original version contains that poisonous "N" word (that was later changed to "darkies," and is now "colored folks."

The song is sung by a dock worker bemoaning the state of himself and his people. He envies the Mississippi River, where he works, that continues to flow despite everything. Here are the original lyrics:

Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi,
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be,
What does he care if de world's got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain't free?
Ol' Man River,
Dat Ol' Man River,
He mus' know sumpin',
But don' say nothin';
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.
He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' dem dat plants 'em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along.
You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' and racked with pain.
"Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale!"
Git a little drunk,
An' you lands in jail!
Ah gits weary,
An' sick o' tryin',
Ah'm tired o' livin',
And skeered o' dyin',
But Ol' Man River,
He jes' keeps rollin' along!
I can't hear the couplet: "Ah'm tired o' livin, and skeered o' dyin'" without thinking that it basically sums up human existence, and prefigures existentialism in a light-hearted musical comedy. It's incredibly powerful and moving.

Robeson performed the song in concert, and changed the lyrics slightly. Instead of "git a little drunk an' you lands in jail," he sang, "Show a little grit and you land in jail," and then alters the world-weariness of those last few lines to something far more uplifting: "But I keeps laffin'/ Instead of cryin' / I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!"

Ol' Man River has been sung by many over the years, from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland, but I think it is irrevocably linked to the African-American experience in the U.S., and is right up there with Strange Fruit, Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. I find it a strange choice for an amiable sing-along among National Public Radio listeners.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Masters


I don't watch much golf on television. This is perhaps because I don't play golf. I tried once, and it was predictably slapstick. My father and both grandfathers played golf, but they never took me out, so now I'm limited to playing LinksPro on the computer.

For some reason I ended up watching almost the entire final day of The Masters on Sunday. It was a lazy day, and golf on television is almost like white noise--you can do all sorts of things while it's on, whether it's paying bills, cleaning up around the house, or doing a crossword puzzle. The hushed announcers' voices are like lullabies, and if you stare at the set and imagine yourself in the lush sylvan surroundings, you find yourself in a nap in no time.

I watched, though, and stayed awake, despite the fact that it was some god-awful golf going on. The winner was Trevor Immelman, a boyish-looking South African who'd I'd never heard of before. This was huge news because it was not Tiger Woods, who is now expected to win every tournament he is in, and because every sportswriter in the world, along with CBS, the network that covers the Masters as if it were a mass by the Pope, was waiting with breathless anticipation that this was the year Woods would win the Grand Slam, which no one has ever done.

Woods is manna for golf, because he is such a huge personality. I root against him, though. I have nothing against him personally, he seems like he'd be okay to live next door to, but rooting for him is like rooting for Exxon. He's got the money, the girl and the fame, so I'd rather root for the underdog. So I yipped with joy on Immelman's good shots and on Woods embarrassingly short putt misses.

The coverage of golf on television is like a relic, and the Masters is the quaintest. They have a tight hold on who covers them--CBS's Jack Whitaker once made a slightly irreverant comment and was banished, and ESPN's bumptious Chris Berman didn't show up this year, and he sniffs out big sports events like a pig after a truffle. Instead we get Jim Nantz, who is certainly the right guy for the job because to listen to him the result of this match is the most important thing in human history, and Woods is some sort of demi-god. And I'll take golfers seriously as athletes when they don't grouse at cameras clicking during their back-swing. Can you imagine David Ortiz shushing a Yankee Stadium crowd when he's up to bat?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Gashouse Gang

This time of year I like to read a baseball book, so when I saw the History Book Club offered a book called The Gashouse Gang by John Heidenry, I jumped at the chance. Years and years ago I read excerpts of Leo Durocher's biography, Nice Guys Finish Last, in Sports Illustrated and I was fascinated by the Gashouse Gang, the St. Louis Cardinals of 1934, who were a motley combination of hillbillies and city kids who won the World Series. Secondly, I once knew John Heidenry (Jack to most) when he was the editor of Penthouse Forum.

Sorry to say that though the subject matter is engaging the writing is not. This is really just a regurgitation of the events of that year. Many baseball books about the old days use the syntax and grandiloquence of the sportswriting of that particular era, sometimes to an excess that borders on the inane. Heidenry does not do that, but he goes too far in the other direction. He doesn't really have a style, instead it's just a pedestrian recounting, as if he had been assigned a school report on the subject. The prose does not sing, it is a monotonous hum.

What makes the Gashouse Gang memorable are the colorful characters associated with. The first chapter is a biography of Branch Rickey, the architect of the club and the creator of what is today known as a farm system. The Cardinals weren't historically doormats, not in 1934--they had won two world titles in the previous eight years, so this isn't a David vs. Goliath story, but Rickey did bring them out of the second division in the mid-twenties.

The second chapter is a bio of Dizzy Dean, who was the heart and soul of the team and one of the most larger-than-life figures in baseball history. He was a country boy with an uncertain command of grammar, and a braggart of the highest order, but he was so charming that even opposing players liked him. He was a pitcher with a blazing fastball, and won 30 games in '34 while his brother Paul won 19. Other players on that team were Pepper Martin, Joe "Ducky Wucky" Medwick, Leo Durocher, and player-manager Frankie Frisch.

While filling us in on some of the other players it sometimes becomes confusing what year we're in, as Heidenry doesn't get down to the week by week progress of the '34 season until about half-way through the book. There are some sloppy copy editing mistakes along the way: he has the Cardinals beating the Phillies in the '31 season (it was the A's), misspells Braves' star Wally Berger, and places 1925 during the Great Depression. He also makes some arguable points, such as stating that during the twenties and thirties there was a larger pool of players than there are today. That may have been true of white Americans, but today the Majors draws from players from Latin America, Japan, Korea, even Australia, and of course men of African descent, who were barred from the Majors. He does teach me a few things I didn't know, such as that the National League considered the designated hitter back in 1933.

Heidenry's description, almost inning by inning, of the '34 World Series between the Cards and the Detroit Tigers is factually plump but again, a bit bloodless. He then has a very short epilogue that left me scratching my head. He mentions an injury to Dean in one sentence, when most baseball fans know that he was injured by a line-drive to the toe in an All Star game, came back too soon, and threw off his delivery, thus hurting his arm. After all the ink spent on Dean in the book, why dismiss all that? He also says that Frisch became an "inept manager." How does a manager become inept? He was good enough to win a world title, but then got worse? Further explanation is necessary.

It's a shame that this book didn't do justice to such an interesting team.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

August: Osage County

If Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams collaborated on a play, it might turn out something like August: Osage County, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as funny. Instead the play, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Tracy Letts, incorporates a distinctly modern spin on the kind of Gothic melodramas that constitute the classics of American drama. It is, quite simply, one of the best plays I've seen or read in years. It's a long play, three hours and twenty minutes, but I wouldn't mind seeing it again tomorrow (if only so I can catch some of the lines I might have missed due to my diminished hearing).

The play is a kind of Oklahoma gothic, and covers well-worn territory--a family that is permanently at each's others throats. This family is the Westons. The father is Beverly, a poet and teacher who drinks to excess. His wife is Violet, who pops pills. Beverly says that he drinks and she takes pills, because that is the bargain they have struck (and their marriage contract is a "cruel covenant.") They have three daughters: the eldest is Barbara, who moved away to Colorado with her husband, also a professor, and a teen-aged daughter; Ivy, the middle girl, an unmarried woman who still lives in town and is badgered by her mother for her lack of style; and Karen, who lives in Florida. They all reunite for a funeral, and over the course of the play there are many recriminations and secrets revealed, as these characters are like scorpions trapped together in a bottle.

Violet Weston is a larger-than-life creation, who will rank right up there among female characters of a certain age of American drama like Mary Tyrone and Amanda Wingfield. She is played by Deanna Dunagan, and I don't follow this too closely but I would think she's a shoo-in for a Tony for Best Actress. Resembling Nancy Reagan, she's like Mammy Yokum on meth, a monster of a sort, dispensing the truth, no matter how vicious, with a certain glee. She tells her sister, whom she loves, that she's "as sexy as a wet cardboard box" (Violet believes that women get ugly when they get older, and tells one of her daughters that she's proving her point). Violet takes all sorts of pills, and calls them the best friends she's got.

Barbara is her most frequent foil. As played by Amy Morton (who should win Best Supporting Actress) she's trying to keep a separation from her husband secret (he is played by Jeff Perry in another fine performance). He's sleeping with a student (a trite misstep of plot--if professors slept with students as often as they do in film and literature I would think parents would be reluctant to send their daughters to college) and the teen-aged daughter, Jean, is a dope-smoking nymphette. My favorite moment in this production was at the close of Act II, when Barbara proclaims, "I am running things now!" I realized at that moment that I was an undergoing some kind of catharsis, the kind usually reserved for hearing great music or seeing a great film, something I can't ever recall experiencing while watching a straight play.

To be honest, the plot is not very original. A character is revealed as a pervert, and there is a revelation about falsely assumed parentage that you might expect on General Hospital, but Letts' dialogue is so musically profane and full of brio that it's easy to forgive whatever creaks about the story. Also, if you have a family that gets along in any way, shape or form you will appreciate them even more after watching the horrors of this type of family. "This madhouse is my home!" Barbara screams. They are selling t-shirts in the lobby with that quote on them.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Smart People


I'm not sure it was the wisest decision to call this film Smart People. It doesn't give smart people a very good name, will repel those who don't like people who think they're smart, and may make actual smart people self-conscious about going to a film called Smart People, like going to a Mensa meeting. The film isn't all that smart--it uses a lot of big words (I can't recall another film that uses the word "rubric" without stopping to define it) and includes snippets of poetry by Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, but isn't particularly eggheadish about relationships, which is the heart of the story. In fact, it seems to say that people can be too smart for their own good, by having the least-educated character the most well-adjusted and common sensical person in the film.

The film, written by Mark Poirier and directed by Noam Murro, concerns a college professor played by Dennis Quaid. Long mourning a dead wife, he's basically an asshole, in fact the writer seems to have used a thesaurus to come up with terms to describe him: pompous windbag, miserable asshole, douchebag. The character is something of a chimera, stitched together from other difficult intellectuals like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys. In fact, the film is set in Pittsburgh, just like Wonder Boys, with the same bleak and gray weather.

Quaid has a son in college who barely tolerates him, and a teenage daughter who takes care of him. She is played by Juno's Ellen Page, in another brainy teen role, though this time Page is a witty conservative in the manner of Michael J. Fox's Alex P. Keaton, even to the point of favoring sweater vests. Her character, Vanessa, brings to mind the expression that she could swallow a piece of coal and shit a diamond. This dysfunctional household is then joined by Quaid's adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, who is a slacker and free spirit. The "adopted" part is stressed, because otherwise a quasi-incestuous attraction between him and Page would lose the quasi and increase its creepiness factor a thousand-fold.

After a head injury Quaid meets a doctor, Sarah Jessica Parker, who is a former student, though he doesn't remember her (it's repeatedly mentioned that Quaid is so self-absorbed he doesn't recognize any of his students). They have a halting romance that unfolds in somewhat predictable romantic-comedy fashion, but manages to be a bit more interesting because of the college-level dialogue and the polish the perfomers give it. Quaid, though he is as unkempt as a hobo, uses an odd manner of speech that I fear is what some English professors do actually sound like, and Parker, though the role is largely thankless, invests more than just the "long-suffering girlfriend" to her role.

It's Church who steals the show, though. If I can use a sports metaphor (and who will stop me?) he's like a super-sub who is sent off the bench by the coach with a smack on the behind and a "go get 'em" when the chips are down and the film needs a boost. Of course his character is a cliche, the uneducated but wise person who knows his heart more than the eggheads he's surrounded by. But the decision to have Page's character attracted to him is wrong, wrong, wrong, not only because it's creepy but it just doesn't ring true that an overachieving girl who has her heart set on a perfect SAT score would fall for a middle-aged freeloader who happens to be her uncle, even if he is adopted.

Mostly I liked his movie for its shambling style and winning dialogue, but at times I wondered if the director was actually paying attention, because the pacing is off and a lot of scenes last a beat too long. It relies a little too much on the conventions of the genre (I'm dubious that a man of Quaid's age can change like he does here) and as with As Good As It Gets, the attraction the female lead has for her difficult leading man is hard to understand, but I left the theater satisfied, if not any smarter.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cavalcade


The winner of the 1932-33 Best Picture Oscar went to Cavalcade, the first indication that the Motion Picture Academy has a fetish for all things British. Based on a play by Noel Coward, the film follows two British families from New Year's Eve, 1900, to the same date in 1933.

The Boer War, the death of Victoria, the Titanic, World War I and the onset of the jazz age are all experienced by an upper-class married couple and their two sons. The father, played by Clive Brook, goes off to fight against the Boers, as does his butler. His wife, Diana Wynyard, deplores the idea of war, and throughout the picture she longs for peace but war is constantly interfering.

Though this is Noel Coward, there is little to laugh at. It's an unapologetic bit of nostalgia about the glory of the British Empire. Coward seems to long for the days of Victoria, and sees her death as the end of a way of life. The horrors of the Great War and the decadence of the flapper era seem to curdle his blood. At the end of the picture an entertainer sings a song called "Twentieth Century Blues," which would make a fine alternate title to this picture.

If Coward's characters are appalled at what goes on around them, they soldier on with characteristic British resolve. After thirty-three years go by they are toasting yet another new year. Both of their sons are dead (sorry if I'm spoiling, but this film is over seventy-five years old) but they still have each other, and it is a little touching.

The director, who also won an Oscar, is Frank Lloyd, and compared to today's cinema his work is stodgy and static. Almost all of the events of consequence take place off-stage, betraying the stage origins of the piece. There is a war montage that may have been cutting edge for its day, but I was impressed by only one scene, when a young girl dances at a street fair, not knowing that her father has been killed in a carriage accident just a few feet away.

Cavalcade is perhaps the most obscure Best Picture winner, it's only one of two (Wings is the other) that is not available on Region I DVD. I have a friend who has a VHS copy of a rather distressed print. The only reason to really seek out this movie is precisely the same reason I did--to say that you've seen all the Oscar-winning Best Pictures.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Grand Hotel


"Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come and go. Nothing ever happens." This is the statement that bookends the winner of the 1931-32 Best Picture Oscar, spoken by Lewis Stone as a phlegmatic doctor who bears a large scar on his face, a reminder of the Great War. The hotel in question is in Berlin, the time is the present (the early thirties) when Berlin was decadent. Of course the good doctor is dead wrong, as many things big and small happen over the course of a few days.

Grand Hotel was the first of a kind of film that is common these days: the all-star ensemble. MGM wonderboy Irving Thalberg took a play, which in turn came from a novel by Vicki Baum, and signed up a host of stars: Greta Garbo, Lionel and John Barrymore, Wallace Beery and a young Joan Crawford. They all play characters who initially are unknown to each other, but eventually their stories intersect and both comedy and tragedy ensue. This style of story-telling would reach its nadir in the form of TV's Love Boat.

Garbo was a huge star, and this became one of her signature performances. She plays a temperamental ballerina who can barely bring herself to get out of bed let alone go to the theater. It was in this film that she spoke the now immortal line, "I want to be alone." But when she meets John Barrymore, who was the preeminent stage actor of the previous thirty years, but relatively new to film, she falls in love and finds life has a purpose. Barrymore is a penniless nobleman who owes a great deal of money--he was going to rob Garbo, but is too softhearted to go through with it, and he too falls in love. Watching these two together is pure cinema magic, especially when they are both in profile.

John's brother Lionel is Kringelein, a meek accountant who has only weeks to live. He decides to go out with a bang and uses all his savings to live it up. He also takes the opportunity to tell off the owner of his company, a blustering Wallace Beery, who is at the hotel hoping to merge with another company. He has hired Crawford as his stenographer, and she plays a role she would specialize in: the career girl who can see the writing on the wall. The film discreetly suggests that Beery has purchased more than Crawford's dictating skills. She, on the other hand, has fallen for John Barrymore's charm.

This is all great fun, and though there is a murder at the end the mood remains fizzy, especially buoyed by Lionel Barrymore's effervescence as a little guy living large. Crawford is also very impressive, giving a much more modern style of performance. And it's wonderful that John Barrymore did make a few good film roles before his death.

The film is the only Best Picture winner which did not get nominations in any other category. The director was Edmund Goulding, and there are some clumsy transitions (perhaps this is due to an aged print) and some left-over silent film acting styles, particularly from Garbo. It's a very entertaining picture, though.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Films of Richard Kelly


Donnie Darko, the debut film of Richard Kelly, had been working its way up my Netflix queue, and arrived at the top coincidentally when his second feature, Southland Tales, was released on DVD. I recently took a look at them both. My reaction: he has a great visual style, and has some mind-bending plots, but he's far too undisciplined to be taken seriously.

Donnie Darko, which I gather has some sort of cult status, is a mostly entertaining picture about a troubled teen who, with the aid of a large, sinister rabbit, discovers a wrinkle in time. It's one of a long line of films about the slow torture of being a different sort of child in suburban America, and scores some nice points (the send-up of self-help programs, with Patrick Swazye at his smarmy best, is well-done if not obvious). I saw the director's cut, which includes pages from a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel, which for those who have lots of spare time, can provide clues to just what is going on. I think I understood what was going on--Jake Gyllenhaal's Darko is communicating with a guy in a rabbit suit from the future, and then goes back in time and makes a self-sacrifice--but I can't be entirely sure.

Donnie Darko is clear as glass compared to Southland Tales, which on the surface is a screed against the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. Set during the 2008 election, the film concerns an action star who is the son-in-law of a Vice Presidential candidate (shades of Schwarzenegger, I suppose) and twin brothers, one who is a cop and the other is, well I'm not sure. Then there's a porn star who has gone into the mainstream, and is somehow involved with a group of neo-Marxists who are protesting the crackdown on civil rights. Time travel is also involved in this film.

At the beginning of the film, I was engaged in the vision, if not the convoluted plot, but about halfway through I found the whole thing tedious. Kelly's dystopian vision is nothing particularly new under the sun, and he ladles on the quirkiness until it becomes self-parody (he has a Pynchonesque tendency to name characters in whimsical fashion). He makes some interesting commentary on how celebrity and politics are intertwined (I watched this the same day that Dateline on NBC devoted a whole show to Britney Spears), and the encroachment of the porn culture into mainstream entertainment. But can we really take a film seriously that has Jon Lovitz as a bad-ass cop? By the way, by my count there are four current or former Saturday Night Live cast members in this picture, and three of them taste hot lead. If you've ever had to endure Cheri Oteri and her annoying cheerleader character, you'll enjoy watching her get blown away.

Kelly needs a good story editor, or a producer who calls his bluff, and says, "What the fuck is this supposed to mean?" Even his actors didn't get it--Curtis Armstrong, in the supplemental materials, describes the script as "impenetrable." He sure said a mouthful.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Charlton Heston

When a star of the magnitude of Charlton Heston passes away, it provides a touchstone to moments in our own lives. Heston was a star for over fifty years, and so depending on one's age, there are different memories. He was the lead in two of the most enduring epics from the Cinemascope days of the 1950s, was the star of a series of paranoid sci-fi films of the Age of Aquarius, and ended up as the mouthpiece for a very loud lobbying organization.

Through most accounts, Heston seems to have been a very decent man who had a good sense of humor about himself. But for the masses who didn't know him, we can only reflect on what we do know, from his roles and his public persona. His acting style was well-suited for what he's known for. He was the opposite of the Stanislavski influenced actors of the post-war era. His style was a clench-jawed indignation, and I liked the phrase used by Gary Susman on EW.com, who affectionately referred to his acting as "hammy and quaint." But can you imagine if Moses had been played by Marlon Brando, who had been considered for the role?

I've never seen The Ten Commandments, by the way. I watched the first ten minutes and found it so over the top I couldn't take it anymore. Ben-Hur, though, takes me back to the days of the 4:30 movie, which used to play it regularly (it took five days to show it). But I will remember Heston the most for his roles in those films Manohla Dargis rightly calls a "dystopian trilogy:" Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Heston was a man at odds with the civilization around him, whether they were "damn dirty apes," marauding zombies, or a cannibalistic government. To top this period off, Heston was the star of Earthquake, one of the cheesiest of the seventies disaster films, and was paired with Ava Gardner, who sadly didn't have any roles of substance after that one.

Heston went on, though, and appeared in some oddball cameo roles, whether it was in simian makeup for the remake of Planet of the Apes, or Wayne's World 2, or as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Much earlier, he was also in Touch of Evil, perhaps the best movie he was ever in, and helped get it made when Orson Welles couldn't get arrested (that he cast Heston as a Mexican, though, was probably not his best decision).

For the past ten years or so, Heston was most known for his role as one-time president of the National Rifle Association. He also marched with Martin Luther King and was president of the Screen Actor's Guild, but waving a gun aloft while sinisterly intoning "From my cold, dead hands" is not something people will forget. His last notable appearance on film was when he was interviewed by Michael Moore for Bowling for Columbine. I agree with Moore's politics, but even I cringed at this scene, which came across as an ambush of a feeble old man under the cloud of Alzheimer's. Guns are an issue, much like race, that Americans are in an eternal struggle over. Heston was passionate about the issue, and made some dubious decisions (such as appearing at a gun rally in Colorado eleven days after the shootings at Columbine High School), and since he put himself out there it has to be part of his legacy.

Heston is the last of a certain kind of film star, the kind that would eventually give way to the Brandos, Newmans and McQueens. He made some very good pictures and was a presence to be reckoned with in all of them. No, he wasn't a brilliant thespian, but he knew how to command attention.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Run, Fat Boy, Run


My second sports-themed romantic comedy of the weekend, Run, Fat Boy, Run, is better than Leatherheads, but not by much. It appears to have been assembled from a kit, and has some thoroughly unbelievable moments, but it also has a warmer heart than the George Clooney film.

The “Fat Boy” of the title is Dennis, a slacker and man-child, played by Simon Pegg (he says he’s not fat, just unfit). As the film opens, he is about to be married to Libby, played by Thandie Newton, who is also pregnant. Dennis, though, isn’t quite ready for marriage, and responds by going out the window and running away. Five years later he’s still in an arrested state of development, working as a security guard in a lingerie shop and doting on his son, Jake. Then he learns that Libby is dating an overachiever, Witt (Hank Azaria), and though he had his chance at marrying Libby but gave it up, he’s suddenly jealous. Witt runs marathons, and will be running in one soon, so Dennis impulsively decides he will, too.

Just by reading this summary bells of warning may go off. First, it’s a challenge to the imagination to believe that Dennis and Libby would have ever been together. Pegg plays Dennis as having few obvious redeeming qualities, and Libby seems far too sensible to have wasted her time with him. Then we are asked to believe that someone who looks like Thandie Newton wouldn’t have had a serious boyfriend in the five years since she was left at the altar. Can’t buy that one.

Will Dennis finish the marathon? Will he win the affection of Libby from Witt? Do we even need to ask these questions? The screenplay, by Pegg and Michael Ian Black (Black is the original author of the script, and it somehow got its location changed from the U.S. to England) has a lot of seams showing. We have several obvious components of the generic romantic comedy: Dennis has a quirky best friend, played by Dylan Moran, who seems to have wandered in from a more interesting movie (he has the film’s best line when he says, “The only relationship I ever had ended with a broken collarbone and a dead meerkat.”) We have the character who imparts sage advice, and as usual, it comes from someone of a non-Caucasian ethnicity (this time Indian). Then there’s the character of Witt, who is the latest in a long-line of characters who are the “wrong guy,” in that though they are far more responsible than the hero, also are, at heart, an asshole.

But Run, Fat Boy, Run has a certain charm that may hook you, especially during the climactic race. The direction, by David Schwimmer, who is the latest sit-com actor to turn director, is about as visually interesting as an episode of Friends, and has some bad clunks along the way, including a montage at the ten-minute mark of what we’ve already seen before (Schwimmer must have expected viewers with short memories). But I will admit that the climax, as sappy as it is, did tug at the heartstrings. Maybe I’ll hate myself in the morning for it.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Leatherheads


As charming and affable as George Clooney is, that alone can not save Leatherheads. My trouble with this film starts wondering about the wisdom of a studio that releases a football film during a week that baseball opens and college basketball ends, and it doesn’t alleviate much from there. This is Clooney’s third directorial effort, following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, and it is a distinct step backward. It’s like watching someone with a tin ear conducting an orchestra. Clooney may be a talk-show wit, but he doesn’t have a grasp of screwball comedy.

The year is 1925. Pro football, in its infancy, is played on an ad hoc basis by a motley group in cow pastures in small industrial cities. College football, though, is very popular, and one of the biggest stars is Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford, a Princeton student and war hero. Clooney is Dodge Connelly, the aging star of the Duluth Bulldogs. When his team has to fold, he gets the bright idea of signing Rutherford to play for his team and attracting huge crowds. Why none of the other teams had this rather simple idea is not discussed.

Rutherford has an oily agent who demands a large piece of the pie, and also keeps a tight lid on the embarrassing truth that Rutherford’s war record has been vastly embellished. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune, played by Renee Zellweger, is assigned to dig up the true story, and of course romantic entanglements ensue.

At the heart of it all, this isn’t a bad idea for a film. Pro football in the twenties was probably a very colorful subject, but nothing about Leatherheads rings true. The production values are all fine, and the actors are game (although John Krasinski, as Rutherford, isn’t given much to do and comes across very bland), but it plays like it’s been translated from another language. The script, by two sportswriters, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, was supposedly rewritten to a great extent by Clooney, and there’s some unpleasantness in the entertainment news about Clooney and the WGA over credit. If I were Clooney I wouldn’t want to take any credit, because the script tells us that the writers have seen a lot of screwball comedies, like The Front Page and The Philadelphia Story and several other classics, and read a lot by and about the members of the Algonquin Round Table, but I could listen to Beethoven all day long and never be able to write a symphony.

I think the film is trying to create the tension of a romantic triangle between the three principles, but there’s really no suspense over who Zellweger will end up with. It makes the final “big game” scene thoroughly anticlimactic, and also puts forth the dubious suggestion that blatant cheating is somehow honorable.

I was also annoyed by a historical problem with the script. The film is set in 1925, and we are told that Rutherford postponed his schooling to go to war. We are also told that Rutherford is a junior in college. Since World War I ended in 1918, that means Rutherford has been going to college for seven years and still is only a junior. Sometimes having a head stuffed full of facts can prevent me from enjoying simple-minded entertainment.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Top of the Heap


Top of the Heap, which was written by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1952 under the name A.A. Fair, is the first of the five Hard Case Crime books I've read that I haven't cared for. It reminds me of Sam Spade's line in The Maltese Falcon--"The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter." There's just too much pulp thriller dialogue that seems to have been written by a teenager who aspires to the genre, not an old pro like Gardner, who created Perry Mason.

In addition to the Mason books, Gardner wrote several novels, long out of print, about a private detective agency called Cool and Lam. Donald Lam is the shrewd, wiry sleuth, and Bertha Cool is the sharp-tongued, overweight widow who owns the business. In this book at least she's not a character as much as a device, a foil for Lam who does nothing but lust for money and say cornball things like, "Fry me for an oyster!"

The plot concerns Lam being hired by a rich young man who wants to find two girls he was out on the town with so he can verify his whereabouts. Lam finds the girls easily, too easily, and he can't leave well enough alone and pokes his nose further into the affair, and finds a mining scam, an illegal casino, and two murders. Some of this is fun, some if it is hopelessly complicated, unless you're an expert on stock swindles. Lam is a taciturn guy who sometimes is a bit too smart--he makes some deductions that I couldn't follow. In the time-honored tradition of noir era detectives, he also gets the crap beaten out of him.

There's also a lack of sex in this book. I don't mean explicit sex, of course, not in 1952. But aside from a few flirtations there isn't a really good femme fatale. I felt cheated.

I'm going to keep up with the Hard Case series, though. I have to expect a few clunkers along the way.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

City Lights

Last night I was all set to watch Grand Hotel, the next Best Picture Oscar-winner in my ongoing survey, but my copy, sent from Netflix, had a nice crack in it from center to rim. Now I love having Netflix, but every once in a while their quality control is wanting.

I then realized I had just received, as an extremely early birthday present, a copy of a two-disc DVD of City Lights, which is one of my favorite films, and was also released in 1931. The Oscars are not particularly known for precognition, and while City Lights has gone on to be a beloved film, Cimarron, which won the award, is largely forgotten. City Lights wasn't even nominated, which is also an indication of the profound lack of respect that comedies have received from the Academy over the years.

City Lights was Charles Chaplin's first in the talkie era. He didn't know whether to make a sound film or stick to silents, since for one thing no one had heard his character, The Tramp, speak on film before, and also by speaking dialogue he would lose some of his international popularity. Since he had complete control over his work, he decided to make a "Comedy Romance in Pantomime," which did have synchronous sound, just no dialogue. The music, composed by Chaplin, was on the soundtrack, as well as some sound effects (most notably when the Tramp swallows a whistle and gets the hiccups). He even plays a somewhat cruel joke in the beginning of the film, when dignitaries dedicating a statue step to a microphone and what comes out of their mouths is a buzzing distortion. How many theatergoers complained to the management that there was something wrong with the sound?

The story of this film is deceptively simple, even though Chaplin took two years to film it. The Tramp takes notice of a beautiful blind flower girl, who mistakes him for a millionaire. Chaplin doesn't correct her, especially when he gains the friendship of an actual millionaire, who Chaplin saves from committing suicide. The problem is the millionaire only recognizes Chaplin when he's drunk--when he's sober he throws him out of the house.

Chaplin wants to help the girl and tries to make money, most notably as a boxer, in an exquisitely comedic ballet. The millionaire gives him some money, but Chaplin is mistaken as a thief. He is able to give the cash to the girl, but realizes he will have to go to jail. He comes out months later, completely destitute. He finds the girl, who can now see and owns a flower shop. At first she finds the tramp amusing, "I've made a conquest!" she says, seeing him light up upon seeing her. But then, in perhaps the most moving ending of any film made anywhere, she touches his hand and recognizes who he is. The smile on his face, full of equal parts hope and shame, is one of the most indelible images on celluloid.

The mixture of slapstick comedy and pathos has been tried by many, but few have succeeded as well as Chaplin. I think the film doesn't slide into hopeless sentimentality because Chaplin acts with restraint, and so does Virginia Cherrill as the girl. Chaplin at one point fired her, and did a screen test with Gloria Hale, who was his co-star in The Gold Rush, but the production was too far along. But Cherrill is a key to the film's success. She does not overact, as was the style of the time. There's a scene in which a neighbor goes off with a boyfriend and Cherrill sits in her window, a wistful look of sadness on her face that is heartbreaking.

And the film is uproariously funny. The scenes with the millionaire, Harry Myers, are great, particularly one in a restaurant. The boxing match is just brilliant, and accentuated by Chaplin's music. Another very funny scene, in which Chaplin is frustrated by a piece of wood stuck in a sewer grate, was cut from the film but is part of the DVD extras. I think he should have kept that in instead of one that had him almost falling into an elevator shaft in the sidewalk, which is good but more casually funny.

Overlooking City Lights was perhaps the first major boo-boo by the Academy (the first of many). It took them another forty years before they gave Chaplin his just due, an honorary Oscar in 1972. At least he lived long enough to receive it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Rolling Stones

With the upcoming release of the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film, Shine a Light, the Rolling Stones are back on centerstage again, as they have been for almost forty-five years. Certainly they have been the longest active rock band in history, with the largest catalogue of songs that are implanted in my memory.

But I came to the Stones late. When I was a kid wrapped up in the Beatles and the Monkees, I had no idea who the Rolling Stones were. The radio stations I listened to didn't play them. I have dim memories of them being a shadowy group that were the anti-Beatles, and I suppose in a way they were, for as sophisticated as the Beatles were musically, they also had a much more friendly, pop sound. The Stones were edgier and darker, with a sound that was driven by the snarl of an electric guitar, which a pre-pubescent boy wouldn't respond to.

I think the first time I realized who they were and what they sounded like was in the mid-seventies, when Fool to Cry was on the charts. It was about that time that I switched from AM top 40 radio to the album-track oriented FM radio, where the entire world of the Stones opened up to me. When I was in high school the album Some Girls was released, with Miss You and Shattered getting constant airplay. Now I consider them on the Mount Rushmore of the classic rock-era, along with the Beatles, the Who and the Doors (I realize many people hate the Doors and would replace them with Led Zeppelin, but this is my Mount Rushmore).

The Stones were British boys who loved black American blues, and fused that sound with rock to create the quintessential sound of the generation. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction is certainly one of the great singles of all time, and the next two decades are full of great songs that are too numerous to mention, but I'll just name a few of my favorites: Paint It Black, Get Off of My Cloud, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Gimme Shelter, Mother's Little Helper, Sympathy for the Devil, Street Fightin' Man, Bitch, Can't You Hear Me Knockin, It's Only Rock and Roll, She's So Cold. And they also had several great, heart-breaking ballads: As Tears Go By, Ruby Tuesday, Wild Horses, Angie, Memory Motel, Love In Vain.

I saw the Stones during their Steel Wheels tour (that album had a great song--Rock and Hard Place) at Shea Stadium back in 1989, and they were dinosaurs then. It's now almost twenty years later and they're still going! Granted, they are banking on the old stuff, as they haven't had a real big hit since Start Me Up, which came out when I was in college (I think I reviewed Tattoo You for the school paper) and that was over twenty-five years ago.

Amazingly, I don't have many Stones records. I only have on CD--Sticky Fingers (I had Steel Wheels and another one from the eighties that were burgled). I have a few of their albums on obsolete vinyl (Let It Bleed, Goat's Head Soup, and Emotional Rescue), but I don't have aside from Let it Bleed I don't have the great sixties stuff. It's almost unnecessary, because tuning in to a typical classic rock station only requires a wait of about twenty minutes before a Stones song comes on.

I'm kind of looking forward to Shine a Light, and may schlep into New York to see it on IMAX. They are the greatest rock and roll band of all time, after all.