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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Omega Man

In 1971 Charlton Heston starred in an adaptation of Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend, titled The Omega Man. As with Matheson's book, it dealt with the last man on Earth, but unlike his book it didn't deal with vampires, instead the human population was wiped out by germ warfare.

Heston is Robert Neville, a military scientist who is working on a vaccine for the plague that has been spread from a border war between China and the Soviet Union. It's experimental, but when he starts feeling the effects of the disease he has no choice but to vaccinate himself. Turns out it works, which means Neville is alone in Los Angeles--during the day.

His days are spent driving around town, helping himself to wares from customer-less stores, or watching for the umpteenth time the film Woodstock (the image of Heston watching Woodstock was so bizarre that it has stuck with me ever since the first time I saw this film). At night, though, Heston has to return to his heavily fortified townhouse, because he is not truly alone--there are a band of mutated humans, suffering light-blindness and albinism, who are trying to kill him.

The film is very much from its time period. Though it is a Warner Brothers release, it has an American International vibe, especially with the casting of Rosalind Cash as a woman Heston discovers one day. She is a full-froed black power chick in the Cleopatra Jones model. The relationship that forms between the two of them is another notably wacky element of this story.

Heston, god love him, was certainly game for almost anything. His scenes when he is alone, talking to himself, dressing up in bizarre outfits and playing chess with himself, are worth the price of admission. Also a lot of fun is the "family," the brotherhood of albinos that are after him. They are led by Anthony Zerbe, who before the plague was a news anchormen, but is now a grandiloquent Luddite who looks to destroy anything that represents the world as it was before (in this way the Family is something like the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia). Zerbe, in white-face and with special contacts in his eyes, chews the scenery.

I haven't yet caught up with the Will Smith version of I Am Legend--I imagine that it's much more massive in scope than The Omega Man, which was really a glossy B-picture. It still has it's campy charms and Heston was never more of a hoot.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Nine

Book eight in my quest to read the top ten books of 2007 chosen by the New York Times is The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. I would have read this book whether it was on any best list or not, as I have long been fascinated (and alarmed) by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This goes back to the early eighties, when I read the first book that really took a peek behind the curtain of the cloistered lives of Supreme Court justices, The Brethren, by Bob Woodward. That book dealt with the acrimony among the justices during the days of the Burger Court. Every few years we get another book that chronicles what goes on behind the scenes, and they vary in their readability and inside info. Toobin has hit one out of the park here.

Woodward revealed that Justice Potter Stewart was his primary source for The Brethren (he did this after Stewart died). Toobin also has unattributed sources on the bench, but it is clear that he received a lot of help from Sandra Day O'Connor, who is the main character of this book and, as Toobin rightly points out, the most influential woman in American history.

The Nine basically covers the Rehnquist court, with his ascension to Chief Justice, and covers in broad strokes the nominations of David Souter and Clarence Thomas (his nomination hearings have inspired many entire books). Then comes a fascinating chapter on how Bill Clinton came to choose Ruth Bader Ginsburg (it was Mario Cuomo's nomination had he accepted it--he ended up in a long, Hamlet-like period of waffling). Clinton also appointed Stephen Breyer, and after that nomination, in 1994, the court remained the same line-up for eleven years, the longest status quo in the Court's history.

Toobin's greatest strength, among many, is depicting the justices as characters in an almost novelistic fashion. Thomas is the most jovial, yet also the angriest, and has an almost antediluvian judicial philosophy. Scalia delights in baiting his opponents, frequently throwing verbal lightning bolts from the bench, yet is collegial and close to his philosophical opposite, Ginsburg (they share a love of wine and classical music). Souter is almost a monk, a bachelor who writes with a fountain pen, and eats the same thing for lunch every day (an apple, core and all). Breyer is a technocrat and problem-solver, and along with Kennedy is an evolving mind, influenced more and more by international law. Rehnquist is a man who is surrendering to age, interested more in keeping the business of the court operating, in contrast to the firebrand conservative he once was. By the end of his life he seemed to have given up on any revolutions, and even came around to accept Miranda, the case that established the arrested being read their rights. He hated that decision, but in the end wrote an opinion to uphold it. Only Stevens, the senior justice (now 88) isn't vividly etched.

It is O'Connor, though, that we learn the most about. During most of the years of the Rehnquist court, she was the deciding vote. She almost singlehandedly decided how cases were decided, in areas of affirmative action, abortion, and many other areas. In the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, she repudiated a lower court ruling that it was reasonable for a state to pass a law requiring a woman to inform her husband she was getting an abortion. She thought that was a terrible decision. Who wrote that lower court opinion? Samuel Alito, who ended up replacing her.

O'Connor, appointed by Ronald Reagan and a loyal Republican, came to view the Bush 43 presidency with consternation. Toobin devotes a gripping section to the Bush v. Gore decision, which closed off recounts in Florida and put the current occupant in power. It so divided the court that David Souter almost resigned in protest. O'Connor voted with the majority, but looked on in horror as Bush's policies undermined the constitution. She resigned in 2005 to care for her husband, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, after Rehnquist assured her he would serve another year. Rehnquist would die a few months later, though (during the Katrina hurricane) and Bush had two nominations.

Toobin goes over that period expertly, especially the Harriet Miers fiasco. Unlike other Republican presidents, though, Bush is not going to be surprised by his nominees, who have thus far proved to be as conservative as he hoped. John Roberts and Alito will be reliable conservative votes for years to come.

The next president may have three nominations to make in his first term, as Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg may leave (especially if Obama wins). Right now the ideological center of the court is Kennedy, who in 2007 voted with the majority in all 27 of the 5-4 decisions. He is an interesting, developing character, even at the age of 72. He wrote the decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which basically ended anti-sodomy laws for all time (and was the occasion for tears of joys from the gay community as he read the decision) but he can also fall in line for the Republican view just as frequently.

Toobin's book is a must for any follower of the court, a humane and not overly technical study of an interesting period of U.S. history. Very few voters consider judicial appointments when voting for president, but it is one of the arenas where a president can do the most good, or damage.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

WALL-E


Well, Pixar has done it again. The animation studio has, in this person's view, had an amazing streak of quality films that appeal to both children and adults. I thought only one was a clunker, and that was Cars, and it hindsight it probably suffers in comparison to classics like The Incredibles and Toy Story 2 and is still better than most animated films. Now Pixar and director Andrew Stanton have given us a science-fiction love story that is also a cautionary tale about the environment and corporations run amok.

It is the year 2775. Earth is so choked with garbage that the human race has abandoned the planet. All that's left are robots who compact the refuse into cubes and stack it. These are labeled WALL-E, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class. We only meet one of them, so I'm not sure if he is the only one, but he's a lonely little mechanical fellow. His only friend is a cockroach (if you thought if was tough to make rats cuddly in Ratatouille, be amazed as you warm to this six-legged vermin). WALL-E has a personality, though, and likes to collect things that he finds among the junk. He has a de facto museum of humanity in his domicile, where he likes to watch a video of Hello, Dolly. In a way he's the cinematic heir to the silent slapstick kings like Chaplin and Keaton, as he frequently is at physical odds with his surroundings.

Then one day he gets a visitor. Or rather, Earth does. It's a sleek, ovoid-shaped robot with a feminine voice. After determining WALL-E is harmless, she doesn't blast him to bits and eventually they communicate. She's called Eve, and her directive is classified. WALL-E shows her his place and the lovestruck roboto woos her, but once she finds he has a scraggly plant growing in a boot full of dirt, she zooms back to her point of origin.

Turns out she's a probe from the "cruise liner" where mankind has been living for seven-hundred years. The suspiciously Wal-Mart like corporation that has taken over the world have taken on people in what was supposed to a five-year trip until the Earth was cleaned up, but things got a little behind schedule. Humans are now coddled so much they are grossly obese and don't even walk, instead gliding around in hoverchairs and looking only at computer screens in front of their face. How procreation and elimination are handled are left to the imagination.

So it turns out that the plant is a very important thing, and the rest of the movie is spent with WALL-E and Eve trying to keep it safe. This is all suspenseful, funny and touching. Though the two robots have a very limited vocabulary (mostly they just say each other's names) the relationship feels real. Legendary sound man Ben Burtt supplies the voice of WALL-E.

Of course there are all sorts of subtexts here. One is the environmental message, and it's a bit daring for a Walt Disney picture to start off a kid's animated film with a bleak vision of the future. Then there's the slap at Wal-Mart, which is clearly the model for Buy 'n' Large, the superstore that has taken over the world (Fred Willard plays their CEO, and he's not animated). Finally, there is the depiction of the overfed and infantilized humans. Some have seen this as an insult of middle-America of some sort, but this is op-ed bloviating. It only stands to reason that a civilization waited on hand and foot and discouraged from exercising would become this way, and it would be an all-around bad thing. Is that a shocking point of view?

It's a given that the animation is brilliant. I was especially captivated by the details in WALL-E's lair of the trinkets and gewgaws he's collected, from a plastic spork to a Rubik's Cube. As those of us who appreciate good cinema sit around and gross about how movies are going to shit, driven by studios who just want to cater to the tastes of teenage boys, we can take comfort that in the arena of animation, Pixar has been churning out one classic after another, rivaling (and dare I say surpassing) the golden age of Disney.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Planet of the Apes


When Charlton Heston died in April it spurred an interest to see just a few of his films. One of them was Touch of Evil, which I'd seen before and is discussed two entries below. The others are what has been termed the "Charlton Heston Dystopia Trio," three films set in a particularly bleak future. They were certainly interesting choices for Heston, who had been up to then a square-jawed hero in historical epics, who was now called upon to play antiheroes representing the last gasp of mankind.

The first of these is Planet of the Apes, the wildly successful sci-fi film released in 1968. Netflix describes it as a "camp classic," but I think that's a disservice, and certainly Heston wouldn't have considered it camp (I don't think that word was in his vocabulary--I have the feeling he acted every part with grave sincerity). It is really a political satire and allegory, and was quite groundbreaking for its time.

I saw the film in its initial release, and may have been the first film I'd seen that wasn't a children's film. Who knows how long it's been since I've seen it--when I watched it last night there were whole chunks I had forgotten (mostly from the film's first half-hour). I did not know, for example, that is was co-written by Rod Serling (surely the film's ironic ending must have been his, it has Twilight Zone written all over it) and then revised by Michael Wilson, who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

For the two or three of you who don't know, the story concerns a team of American astronauts traveling through space at light speed, thus they age significantly slower than the Earth they left behind. They spend 18 months in hibernation (beards grow, but interestingly the hair on their head does not) and crash land in a desert on an unknown planet. Heston surmises they are several hundred light years from Earth, and two-thousand Earth years have gone by, meaning everyone and everything they knew back home is dead and gone. This seems to delight him, as he something of a misanthrope.

When they make contact with humans they are mute and primitive, and then we get the big reveal (of course the title gives it away)--the ruling class on this planet are apes, and humans are considered beasts. Heston is captured, his throat injured so he can't speak, but soon enough shows his handlers (some sympathetic chimps) that he is intelligent.

Much of this film delights in satirical views of religion and law. In a scene where Heston is put on trial, the elder orangutans view him as some sort of freak of nature, and state that their sacred scrolls warn apes to be wary of man. In a parallel to the U.S. during the civil rights era, it is rather pointed that the apes, who give lip-service to universal equality, have a distinct class structure, with orangutans on top and gorillas on the bottom (the trivia track points out that in an earlier draft there was a fourth class, the baboons, who were treated even worse, and contained scenes in which they carried signs advocating their rights).

There are also moments when the minister of science, the memorable Dr. Zaius, dismisses Cornelius, the chimp archaeologist, and his beliefs in evolution. The scene is a take-off on the Scopes Monkey Trial, but has relevance in the age of so-called intelligent design.

The film spawned four sequels, Heston appearing in none of them. His character is last seen realizing where he is, in front of a damaged Statue of Liberty, one of the most resonating final scenes in film history. The author of the source novel, Pierre Boule, hated it (his ending was more like the ending in Tim Burton's misbegotten remake of 2001). But of course the clues are there for anyone with a brain. First of all, that the apes speak English would have been a pretty good signal to Heston's character that he might be on Earth (the screenwriters knew this was a problem but couldn't come up with a workable solution).

The film holds up pretty well today. The makeup, which earned its creator, John Chambers, a special Oscar, even looks pretty good after forty years of innovations. Planet of the Apes continues to be one of the better and more iconic science-fiction films ever made.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Heart-Shaped Box

A few months ago I proclaimed that I was swearing off horror, but I was intrigued by the premise of Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill. First of all, the title is a grabber if you're a Nirvana fan, for that is one of their better songs. Secondly, Hill is the son of Stephen King, and though he has studiously avoided cashing in on the connection (dropping the King part of his name, for example) he shows that the apple doesn't drop far from the tree. This is right up there with his father's best work.

The premise is simple and is told economically in the first few chapters. A death-metal rock star, Judas Coyne, collects morbid curios, such as human skulls and paintings by John Wayne Gacy. When he sees that someone is selling a ghost on an Internet auction site, he can't help but buy it. The ghost inhabits an old suit, like the kind Johnny Cash used to wear. It arrives in the titular box, and bad things start to happen almost immediately. Turns out it wasn't just by coincidence that he bought that suit.

What sets this book above other horror novels are primarily the characters of Coyne and his girlfriend, a Goth chick and former stripper. He calls her Georgia, because that's what state she comes from (a habit he has with his girlfriends). Coyne is fifty-four and his band has broken up after two members died, and he wiles away his time on his country estate fixing up an old Mustang and raising two German Shepherds. Every detail about him seems right, from Coyne's attitudes about life in general to his trip to the Howard Stern Show. Georgia is also a vivid creation, a girl who stripped under the name Morphine, but pines for her old grandma back home.

The ghost in the story is also quite a character, a hypnotist. Hill renders him quite eerily, and he has a habit of popping up in some unusual places (especially over the airwaves, or sending an email from the domain name of box.closet.net). When Judas and Georgia flee their home the ghost follows them in a pickup truck, which I'm guessing doesn't need gas.

A lot of novels about ghosts and spirit worlds are ruined by the endings, which have some sort of cataclysmic event with rules that the author seems to make up on the spot. Hill veers close to that, but I found I was following along and understanding what was happening, and it was a very satisfying conclusion.

Stephen King must be very proud.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Touch of Evil


The story goes that it was Charlton Heston that pulled the strings to enable Orson Welles to direct Touch of Evil, his last Hollywood film. If that were the only good thing about Heston's legacy, that might be enough, as Touch of Evil, one of the last films that can be labeled "film noir," is a strange and wonderful film. Apparently Heston was pursued to play the lead, and Welles had been cast as an actor. Heston suggested that Welles also direct (no doubt so he would have the chance to work with a legend) and Universal, eager to have Heston, agreed.

If you can get past that Heston plays a Mexican, one of the least likely actors to assume such a role, Touch of Evil offers many rewards. Heston's skin is darkened and he wears a big black mustache, but he doesn't even try a Spanish accent.

The story is a seamy one, told on border town on both the U.S. and Mexican side. "A border town brings out the worst in a country," Heston says. The film begins with a famous three-minute long single take tracking shot, which commences with a shadowy figure planting a bomb underneath a car. We then follow the car as it passes Heston walking down the street with his new wife, Janet Leigh. They catch up with the car at the border crossing, and then moments later the car explodes. Heston plays a Mexican legal official, who offers his assistance to the U.S. officials, foremost among them Hank Quinlan, a hulking sheriff embodied by Welles as a corpulent, unshaven behemoth who oozes corruption out of every pore.

Welles is seen as a great cop by his associates, as he always gets his man. Heston discovers, though, that this is usually through planted evidence. As he tries to get the goods on Welles, the sheriff enlists Heston's nemesis, played by Akim Tamiroff, to snatch Leigh from a woebegone motel and frame her on drug charges.

This film was meant to be a B-picture, and that's what it was released as, a second-feature on a double-bill. Universal recut the picture, much to Welles consternation, and he sent a long memo instructing what he thought should be done. In 1998 the film was restored to Welles' specifications, most notably moving the credits away from the opening tracking shot.

Touch of Evil has a hallucinatory quality. There are some scenes that seem to come from nightmares, especially the scenes in which Leigh is trapped in the motel. Dennis Weaver has a surreal role as a night clerk. Much of the film, especially the scenes with Welles in them, are shot from a low angle, to make him appear even larger than he is. This is used to brilliant effect in a scene in which Welles strangles a man to death.

Also appearing in the film is Marlene Dietrich, as a madame who Welles loves. She has a couple of the most famous lines from the film, such as "Your future is all used up," and the closing line, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin

It's a major bummer that George Carlin died this past Sunday at the age of 71, way too soon. It also calls into question just how he should be honored--none of this "heaven must be a funnier place" nonsense, because Carlin didn't believe in heaven. He jokingly said he was a member of the Frisbeetarianism religion, which meant that after you die your soul is like a Frisbee that lands on the roof, never to be retrieved.

I've been a fan of his close to forty years. I suppose my first memory of him was when he used to guest on the Flip Wilson Show. I must have shown a liking for him, because I got one of his albums as a gift when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was a clean album (one of his few) called Take-Offs and Put-Ons, that mostly consisted of his spoofs of top-40 radio, newscasts, and TV game shows and commercials (as well as his classic routine on the Indian Sargent).

It was a few years later, about 1977 or so, when I became fully aware of how brilliant a satirist he was in one of his HBO shows. He did a long show--it must have been two hours, which is a long time for one man to stand in front of an audience and make them laugh. I thought it was one of the funniest things I've ever heard. The heart of the routine was his adding three words to the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television--fart, turd and twat. Fart occupied most of his time ("Kids love 'em. They're shit without the mess"). He also did a hysterical bit about cats and dogs, especially memorable business about a dog licking his own balls ("If I could do that, I'd never leave the house").

He was my choice for greatest stand-up comic of all time. There are some who will argue Richard Pryor, and I can't disagree strenuously. Carlin didn't have Pryor's ability to elevate the performance to something other-wordly. Instead, Carlin was a more analytical comedian, a man who loved language and hated many, many things. He was best known for the Seven Words, which even became a Supreme Court case, but at the heart of that routine was his eloquent statement that there is no such thing as "bad words." He thought that was lunacy. (Also, he was mystified why cocksucker became an epithet for a bad man, when really it described a good woman).

His roots were in conventional comedy, with his newscast spoofs, most notably Al Sleet, the hippie-dippy weatherman, and I was even shocked to see an old clip of him doing a JFK impression during the early sixties. But he cast that aside and did observational humor, albeit with an edge that comedians like Jerry Seinfeld wouldn't touch. As the years went on, his worldview grew darker and darker, railing against the stupidity of mankind, whether it was religion, politics, or men wearing baseball caps backwards. Towards the end, he seemed to be in some kind of despair, believing that life wasn't precious at all and that the sooner man destroyed himself the better. This might have stemmed from his wife's death from cancer about ten years ago, but as he put it, scratch a cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist.

There's so much to remember, though. His routine on the differences between baseball and football. His remembrances of growing up Catholic in New York, or a line I find myself quoting often about pets: "Unless you're an octogenarian buying a turtle, when you buy a pet you're bringing home a tragedy in a box."

Farewell, George, you will be missed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mongol


This is certainly the first Kazakh film I've ever seen, but it's parentage is pretty complicated, as it a German-Kazakh-Mongolian-Russian film, filmed largely in Mongolia and China and directed and co-written by a Russian, Sergei Bodrov. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, and while I liked it a tick better than the winner, The Counterfeiters, it is vastly inferior to the snubbed Four Months, Three Weeks, and 2 Days.

Simply put, it is the story of the young Genghis Khan. For Westerners like me, who knew nothing about him, you'll learn a lot, such as that Genghis Khan is not a name but a title (something like supreme ruler). As a boy he was called Temudgin, and was the son of a Khan of a small clan. When he was nine his father took him out to find a bride, and after picking out his favorite, who would be the love of his life, his father gets poisoned by enemies, leaving the young fellow at the mercy of his father's rivals.

Over the next several years, he endures lots of tough times, being enslaved and imprisoned and falling in and out contact with Borte, his beautiful wife. Eventually he perserveres and defeats his enemies, and is poised to rule an empire that would encompass almost all of Asia. This is the first film in a projected trilogy, so I guess we'll see that in the sequels.

The film is a somewhat quaint biographical epic that reminds one of Cecil B. DeMille (not David Lean--his stuff was far better). It has the sweep of DeMille, with hundreds of extras, but also the ham-fisted dialogue (early on we get the old chestnut, "I didn't know that this day would change my life.") We also get lots of battle scenes, with more blood than DeMille, in glorious arterial sprays, but also lots of shots of warriors falling off horses in slow motion.

There are also a lot of gaps in the story. I appreciate that Bodrov didn't make this movie longer than it is, but there are some jumps that hurt the film. At one point Khan is at his lowest, in a jail cell. He escapes, and the next thing you know he has a huge army that is explained in one line of voiceover. Also, in the climactic battle he is outnumbered by his opponent, but says he will win through strategy. Unless he has contact with an early form of The Weather Channel, we never find out what that strategy is.

The heart of what is wrong with this film is the script. It plays like a History Channel documentary, without much shading. The most interesting character, and the best acted, is Khan's blood brother, Sun Hong Lei, who gives an intriguing performance. Otherwise, it's just hero is captured, hero escapes, hero builds army, and that goes through a few gyrations. I wonder if Shakespeare knew this story--he would have done something interesting with it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tegan and Sara

A while back I received as a gift a CD compilation of songs that Little Steven Van Zandt considers "cool." The one that really grabbed me was "Walking With a Ghost," by Tegan and Sara. In fact, I have on numerous occasions put it into the stereo and hit the repeat button, it's that good a song.

Tegan and Sara had been on my radar, on the extreme periphery. I guess I knew they were twin sisters, but for some reason I figured they must be some kind of coffeehouse folk act (which is not a put-down, I like coffeehouse folk). Instead they are, well, hard to categorize. It's power-pop, I guess, with a hint of something else, like an unidentifiable spice in a savory dish. Buoyed by the Ghost song, I purchased their album from last year called The Con. It's intriguing, challenging and finger-snappingly good.

The whole thing is packaged as if it is a novel, with the cover looking like parchment paper and the tracks labeled as chapters. Even so, it doesn't come off as the pretentious doodlings of English majors. The opening song, "I Was Married," starts things off sunnily: "I married in the sun. Against the stone of buildings built before you and I were born." From there, though, things spiral downwardly, as each succeeding song deals with some sort of heartbreak and despair. It's like listening to someone talk to an ex-lover on their cell-phone, as we get one side of the conversation.

My favorite songs are "Relief Next to Me," the title song (the words "The Con" are never mentioned--should we assume that the con is the emotion of love itself?), and "Back in Your Head," which has a deliriously infectious hook plinked on the piano. It contains the marvelous lines, "Remember when I was so strange and likable?...Remember when I was sweet and unexplainable?" There's also an eerie and moving song cryptically titled "Like O, Like h."

By the end of the record you are bound to feel moved, hopefully not to slit your wrists. The last two songs are "Dark Come Soon": "Dark you can't come soon enough for me. Saved from more day of misery," and the bluntly titled "Call It Off": "Maybe I would would have been something you'd be good at. Maybe you would have been something I'd be good at. But now we'll never know."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Sure Thing


I took a trip back in time last night, to the mid-eighties, with the film The Sure Thing. From the opening moments of the film, when the notes from a Rod Stewart song accompanied shots of Nicolette Sheridan on a beach, it was as if I was back in my early twenties, working in New York as a copy editor, when Rob Reiner still made good movies, Anthony Edwards had hair, and romantic comedies had that slightly out of focus photography prevalent in MTV music videos.

This was a time when John Cusack was at the height of his powers, and I was a bit stunned to realize he was only seventeen when he made this picture. He is so self-assured and in command in this part, anchoring the film and making it is pleasant as it is. He made several films in the eighties, but this one, along with Better Off Dead and Say Anything, cemented his role as the stand-in for American male youth of the period. He was the avatar for any guy who fancied himself smart and funny and charming, or wanted to be.

For those who haven't seen it, The Sure Thing is a road picture featuring the old "opposites attract" gambit. Cusack is the sex-obsessed Gib, who ends up paired with Daphne Zuniga as Allison, a prim goody-goody. They are both headed to California, and of course they hate each other to start but by the end they are locking lips. Zuniga, who would go on to star in Melrose Place, would become something of an inamorata for the egghead crowd I ran with. She was pretty without being intimidating, and looked really good in a sweater.

This film, I'm glad to say, has aged very well. Yes, it's something of a time capsule, and you can laugh or wince at the fashions and hairstyles. The soundtrack is full of Huey Lewis and the News, Wang Chung, Culture Club, and other mid-eighties mainstays, but the sweetness of the romance and the effervescence of Cusack's character still manage to entertain. It all goes down easily, much like shotgunned beer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Willie Randolph Firing

In the New York area, the media is going through a Gothic melodrama concerning the termination of the New York Mets manager Willie Randolph, and it brings up a number of interesting factors concerning sports, the media, and the psychology of fans. Randolph's firing in and of itself was not a surprise--he had been on the "hot seat" for several weeks, as the team that has one of the largest payrolls in baseball has been underperforming. This comes on the heels of a historic collapse last season that saw the Mets missing the playoffs.

What has everyone's feathers ruffled is not that he was fired, but in the manner in which Randolph was fired. Those calling for his head are now crying crocodile tears over his demise. The press release went out at three-something in the morning, New York time, after the end of a game against the Angels on the West coast (a game in which the Mets won). It was the first game of a road trip, so it is a bit puzzling why the Mets brass pulled the trigger on this with such awkward timing.

The head coach in U.S. sports is a tricky job to hold. It's one of the few where a person in a managerial role makes far less than his charges. You are almost certain to be fired, as few men leave these posts on their own terms. The title should probably be scapegoat rather than manager or head coach, because the firing of one is almost always a public relations ploy. If teams aren't doing well, it's easy to fire a manager instead of overhauling the team's players, and a manager getting the boot gives a general manager some time to hold on to his own job. Randolph was one pitch away from getting the Mets to the World Series in 2006--did he get stupider over those eighteen months? Of course, there could be other factors we aren't completely privy to, such as a roiled clubhouse, which would probably require a change of stewardship.

Many Met fans and talk-radio hosts were calling for Randolph to be fired, but have gotten on their high horses about the nature of the firing--I guess the fact that he was let go in the middle of the night and at the beginning of a road trip, so he would have to fly back in some sort of shame (I presume the Mets picked up his return air fare). Yes, that's certainly shabby treatment, but let's have a little perspective here. Would it really have made Randolph feel better to be fired the next morning, or on the Sunday before the Mets made the trip? Minaya says he decided to fire Randolph Monday morning, and if we take him at his word then he couldn't have fired him over the weekend, so the alternative was to wait until Tuesday morning. Instead he waited until the game was over (firing a manager mid-game might be problematic). Because the game was on the West coast the timing was in the wee hours. Had the Mets been at home, or in an East Coast city, and the firing was announced at 10:30 PM, would that have been okay?

Now, those who follow the Mets closely may cry bullshit, that the hand of Jeff Wilpon, one of the owners, is in this. If that's true then this does stink.

I really don't think what time of day Randolph was fired would raise or lower his hurt feelings. It's never pleasant to be told you're not doing a good job, especially when you're in the middle of the public eye. But every time one of these managers get hired, and they have the little ceremony where everyone is all smiles and they put on the cap of their new team, there is the realization that nine times out of ten, this scene will one day have an ugly little counterpart, when the manager is given the heave-ho, because the team "wants to go in a new direction." Fortunately they are well-compensated, because men with any delicacy in their egos will take a bruising.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep was a 16mm film shot in 1977 by then student Charles Burnett. Burnett had almost forgotten about it when he was told that it was deteriorating, so it was restored to a 35mm print and released theatrically last year. It was made for just about $10,000 with mostly amateur actors. The re-release was something of a sensation among the cognoscenti of independent American films.

I've only seen one other Burnett film, To Sleep With Anger, and I don't remember much about it. What's notable about Burnett is that he chronicles African-American life, which still, sadly, is something of a novelty. Killer of Sheep deals with black folks who live in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts. The main character, Stan, works at a meat plant, where he slaughters sheep. That's about the best I can do in a synopsis, for this film really doesn't have a plot, nor does it have character arcs. In the style of Italian neo-realists, it's simply a series of vignettes featuring Stan, his family, and his community.

I must take a deep breath and admit here I found it all a little dull. There are some interesting scenes and images--I laughed out loud at a scene where Stan and his buddy struggle to put a car motor in the back of a pickup truck, only to have it fall out and break when they begin to pull away. There's also a lovely scene in which Stan and his wife dance, with the black and white photography silhouetting their forms in the sunlight through a window. There's a lot of shots of kids playing and roughhousing (usually one kid ends up hurt and crying). But most of it just is, and without much of a point. I guess it's interesting in an sociological sort of way, but as a movie it made my eyelids pretty heavy. Fortunately it's only 83 minutes long.

The film was never released back in the day because Burnett couldn't afford the licensing of the music, and it's easy to hear why--the soundtrack is loaded with the giants of African-American music, from Scott Joplin to Paul Robeson to Dinah Washington to Earth, Wind, and Fire. This works with the film to an immensely satisfying degree. But I wouldn't advise watching this film while sleepy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Dying Animal

Philip Roth is my favorite author, but this slim volume slipped by me when it was released about five years ago. It returns his character David Kepesh, the protagonist of two previous works: The Breast, and The Professor of Desire.

Kepesh is now seventy, a TV intellectual and part-time teacher, and over the years has had a string of affairs with his students. One in particular, a Cuban-American named Consuelo Castillo, haunts him. Her breasts, in particular. Since Kepesh was once in a book by Roth where he turns, Gregor Samsa-like, into a large breast, perhaps this is not surprising.

Literature is full of work about college professors sleeping with students, particularly middle-aged or older men with girls. This is pretty distasteful and somewhat unbelievable. Would a guy in his sixties, even if he was on TV, managed to bag a female student each and every semester? We certainly aren't meant to admire Kepesh--he's brutally blunt about what he's up to: "No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you're not superior to sex. It's a very risky game. A man wouldn't have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn't venture off to get fucked. It's sex that disorders our normally orderly lives. I know this as well as anyone."

Kepesh is a particularly vivid cad. There's a scene in which he lies to an older lover who has found the younger woman's bloody tampon in his garbage can. He's like one of those scary individuals who can beat a lie detector test. He also has a turbulent relationship with his son, and in one section tries to convince him not to marry his pregnant girlfriend, in a bizarre reversal of the usual father-son "responsibility" talks.

As often with Roth, there is some pretty frank sexual discussion, and some heavenly writing. In the long run, though, Kepesh was so vile it was hard to not want to see him thrashed, and the ending, which again involves Consuela's breasts, was teetering on the completely ludicrous.

Roth, in the novels he has written in the past few years, is clearly grappling with issues of mortality (the title, by the way, is a line from Yeats). In this book the dying animal may just be the libido itself, or the end of a pursuit of youth by a man who gained it from younger women.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is a slightly-above-average action film, smack in the middle of quality when considering the large and ever-growing pile of comic book films, but I have to believe the most fascinating scene is one which we will never see. Oh to be have been a fly on the wall for this:

"I know what the next Marvel character we should do--The Hulk."

"Didn't we do the Hulk? (long pause) And wasn't it pretty much a critical and box-office flop?"

"Yeah, but this one will be different."

How this film got made is worth is probably worth its own movie. But it got made, despite the lackluster response to Ang Lee's brooding film five years ago, Marvel Studios continues its utter domination of the movie business with a complete reboot of the green-skinned, post-atomic Jekyll and Hyde. This is not a sequel, and though the core characters are the same--Bruce Banner, Betty Ross, and General Ross, they're played by new actors, with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana, Liv Tyler in for Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt taking the place of Sam Elliott. This is also not an origin story. Instead, we get Bruce Banner's transformation into his rage-fueled alter-ego with a montage of clips from a fake earlier film. I wouldn't be surprised if many viewers think these are scenes from the Ang Lee film.

After that montage, we find Norton as Banner living on the lam in Brazil, laying low and trying to control his anger. We then get some sequences owing a lot to the Jason Bourne films, with the government trying to bring him in. Prominent among these government agents is a Russo-Briton played to the hilt by Tim Roth, who when he learns of the Hulk's existence sees him as the ultimate warrior's challenge.

Banner, who has been corresponding with a scientist who may be able to help him, returns to his home to get data and is reunited with his love, Betty Ross (it's indicative of how these Marvel characters are rooted in the sixties by the names of some of the female characters: Betty, Susan, Mary Jane. Names that are rarely used for girls today). All the while Betty's dad, General Ross, is on Banner's heels, hoping to use the gamma radiation technique to make super-soldiers. Roth likes the idea, too, and ends up juicing himself with it and turning into a bigger, meaner Hulk, and a face-off occurs in the middle of Harlem.

Most of this works okay. Louis Leterrier, who made the Transporter films, is about as far removed from Ang Lee as you can get. Still, I didn't think the action sequences were great, some of them were a little too frenetic. And I just don't find the Hulk that interesting, even when I was reading Marvel comics years ago. He's just too limited (for a while he was a smart Hulk, and that's what we may get next). At least the dialogue and story aren't insulting to the intelligence, like the Fantastic 4 films are.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by mentioning that Robert Downey, Jr. has a cameo in this film as Tony Stark (Iron Man) to set up the future Avengers film, and I'll admit that that stimulated the geek part of my brain. Face it, people who don't like comic book films, they are not going away anytime soon.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Bastard Fairies

I would have never known about The Bastard Fairies except that Playboy's web site, in a feature called "Women on the Verge," featured their lead singer and lyricist, a stunningly beautiful woman named Yellow Thunder Woman. She is a full-blooded Yankton Sioux, and though Playboy didn't run any pictures of her naked, she came damn close.

Now, buying music based on the singer's appearance is pretty fucking stupid, but I don't profess to always exercising the best judgement in these matters. So I put their album on my Amazon wish list and finally bought it (one can download their music for free on their web site, but I'm too technologically retarded to do so, so I stick to the tried and true compact disc). It's pretty good.

The band consists of Yellow Thunder Woman and a Brit, Robin Davey, who writes the music and plays the instruments. Davey's music isn't particularly sophisticated--it's a lot of melodies that could be plinked on toy pianos, or heard in music boxes, but damn if he doesn't mix some juicy hooks. He also steals from himself: the songs "We're All Going to Hell" and "Exoskeleton" are essentially the same tune.

But this is really Yellow Thunder Woman's show. I mean, to have a beautiful, alt-rock girl Indian singer is pretty remarkable, but she's also quite the individual thinker. She seems to delight in a lot of provocative verbal bomb throwing, such as A Case Against Love: "Love is a thing that comes from fear, of being alone, of dying alone. Just an over complicated commitment to a bag of bones." Or a song called Maybe She Likes It, which is the chorus of a song about a battered woman. Is she saying that some women like to be beaten up, or is she protesting the attitudes of those who say she would?

A DVD was included with some raw videos, and it's clear that she's a supreme iconoclast, hating religion. The most catchy song is We're All Going to Hell, a ditty that basically says we're all hell-bound and we might as well enjoy it. The title song, Memento Mori, reminds us that we're all going to die (and then we'll go to Hell, I guess). She includes a chorus of "Eat, drink and be merry." I'm not sure if she knows this, but that's not an exactly original sentiment, and goes back to the Bible.

So anyway, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover and hot girls do make good records. I have no idea if The Bastard Fairies will ever expand upon being an Internet-based group, but they are certainly interesting to listen to.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Night and the City


My discussion of Night and the City concludes my look at the films of both Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin (as it finally became available after several weeks on Netflix), and it's somehow appropriate, as it may well have been the finest work by both of them.

Released in 1950, it was Dassin's last Hollywood film before being blacklisted. Producer Darryl Zanuck saw the writing on the wall for Dassin, and rushed this film into production, giving him the novel and sending him to London to shoot it, telling him to film the most expensive scenes first so the studio (Fox) would be on the hook. Dassin, several years later, confessed that he never read the book, and was sympathetic to author Gerald Kersch for being angry.

What Dassin came up with instead is the story of Harry Fabian, played by Widmark. Fabian is first seen in the film running from someone, and he hardly ever stops for the rest of the film. He's a hustler, a tout for a "gentleman's" club where his girl, Gene Tierney, is a singer and hostess. She loves him but also enables him, as he is constantly short of money and has one cockeyed scheme after another. A neighbor says that Fabian "is an artist without an art," which can be very dangerous.

One evening Fabian meets a wrestling champion from Greece, who is disgusted by the fakery of the pro-wrestling that goes on, even though his son is the promoter. Fabian gets in good with the old man, and needs 400 pounds to set up as a promoter. The club-owner's wife (played evilly by the vividly-named Googie Withers) wants to leave her overweight, nasty husband (Francis L. Sullivan) so gets Fabian the money if he agrees to get her a license for her own club. Fabian, spinning several plates in the air, connives and schemes to bring off a match without getting snuffed by the rival promoter (played by Herbert Lom, later famous as Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies). Inevitably, everything starts to fall apart for Harry, and by the end of the picture he's back running for his life.

This is a brilliant film, but it's not easy to watch. The main characters have few redeeming qualities. Even Tierney, who is lovely and loves Harry, simply serves his needs as if he were a spoiled child. Widmark is amazingly effective as Harry. We can see the wheels spinning his head, calculating his moves, though he seems to be cursed to always coming up short and being behind the eightball.

Another interesting performance is by Stanislaus Zbyszko as the champion wrestler. He was a world champion wrestler, and had a face and body to prove it. Dassin recalls in supplemental materials that he was a very soft-spoken, cultured man and took his one acting job very seriously. There is a crucial fight between him and Mike Mazurki, as The Strangler, that is suspenseful and very well photographed.

Some of the London critics maintained that Dassin's London was not realistic at all, but Dassin maintains that he researched it with the help of those who knew the seamy sides of the town. His research pays off, as the viewer almost wants to take a shower after it's over. So many films from the forties and fifties have been packaged as "noir," even if they don't fit the definition. This, ladies and gentleman, is true noir, and is about a fine an example as you'll find.



Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Little Girl Lost

This entry in the Hard Case Crime series is an original novel by Richard Aleas. It's a tough, gritty story about a murdered stripper and the gumshoe who was once in love with her.

The P.I. is John Blake, and he awakens one morning to read in the newspaper that his high-school sweetheart, Miranda Sugarman, has been murdered, and not only that, she was a stripper. The last he knew she was off to go to college to be an eye doctor. Driven by the need to find the truth, Blake lifts the rock on the strip-club world in New York City and finds all the slimy things wriggling underneath. Eventually this leads him to a crime-boss who has been robbed of half a million dollars.

This novel succeeds best when Aleas gives us a sense of New York in winter, the gray skies and some of the windswept streets of neighborhoods where nice people don't go. He also has a handle on strip-clubs and how they operate, especially the strata that separates the glamorous places from the dives (I say with a perverse sense of pride that at one point I had visited just about every strip-club in Manhattan, so I have some experience in this area). Aleas isn't looking to glamorize the life of the stripper or necessarily to condemn it--in the end, it's just a job.

Some of the drawbacks of this book are the lack of deviation from the usual private-eye template--it seems that every fifty pages Blake gets the snot beat out of him. Also, there was a twist that I figured out about fifty pages before Blake did. I was almost racing ahead to see if I had figured it out correctly, and when I realized I had I kind of smiled in triumph.

All in all, a well-done bit of pulp fiction.



Monday, June 09, 2008

Call Northside 777

Call Northside 777 was released by Fox in 1948. Directed by Henry Hathaway, it is based on a real case in which an innocent man was imprisoned for killing a cop during the wild days of prohibition in Chicago. A reporter, assigned to a human interest story when the man's mother places a classified ad looking for information, eventually digs up the evidence to clear him.

The DVD of this film is included in the Fox Noir series, but there's debate on whether this film is really noir. It's more of a procedural--not a police procedural, but a journalistic one. It's also more of a docudrama in that regard, as much of the action is taken up with the reporter (played by James Stewart) chasing down leads. Aside from the cop's murder, which is shown in the opening moments of the film, there is no violence at all. At one point a man holds a gun on Stewart for a moment, but the gunman's wife yells at him and he lowers it.

This film has a pretty solid reputation, but I found it a bit dull. It seems to be fascinated with gadgets that must have been new on the scene. There is a long sequence with a lie detector machine, including painstaking exposition on how it works. The final bit of evidence comes in via a wireservice photo, and the machinery for that bit of technological legerdemain is shown in detail.

More interesting is that the corruption of the Chicago police during the roaring twenties is stated plainly. A few lines of dialogue bend over backwards to indicate that the contemporary force is upstanding and clean, but this film clearly establishes a line of contention between the press on one side and the forces of law and order on the other, and the press are the good guys.

Stewart, as usual, is terrific. This would begin a period where his gee-whiz persona would start to change, as his reporter character is highly cynical and hard-boiled at the start, but gradually comes to believe in the innocence of the man in question. By the fifties, Stewart would be playing some funky, psychologically developed characters.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Jim Webb

Now that Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee (and Hillary Clinton has fallen in line) the selection of vice-presidential running mates will dominate the political news leading up to the conventions. Both parties would seem to have numerous possibilities, but on the Democratic side the focus has been on a handful.

One of them is Jim Webb, senator from Virginia. He may not be the soundest choice for Obama, but he may well be the most interesting. He would be the first person on a national ticket to: have written a screenplay (for Rules of Engagement); won an Emmy, been in a boxing match with Oliver North, and have three tattoos (I heard him on a radio show talking about them this morning. He declined to answer what they depict or where they are on his body, but did reveal that if you catch him in a swimsuit you can see two of them). Webb was all over the place this weekend, introducing Obama at his first appearance following Clinton's withdrawal, featured in an article in The New York Review of Books (he has a new book of essays out called A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America) and an editorial in the extremely liberal publication The Nation is highly complimentary, if not coming out for calling for his appointment as running-mate.

Webb's credentials are appealing. He was a war hero, he was a Republican and Secretary of the Navy, yet he is fiercely against the war in Iraq. Candidates who have been in both parties seem to appeal to independents, perhaps because it suggests an adherence to principles above tribalism. He should also appeal to that magical group labeled "the white working-class," as he is from Appalachia (Southwest Virginia, and even wrote a book about how valuable the Scots-Irish have been in U.S. history), and is pro-gun.

On the down side, he seems to be a person who occasionally has a lack of discretion, and has been called a "hot-head." He holds grudges--he refused to shake John Kerry's hand for years and years after Kerry condemned actions by U.S. troops in Vietnam, and his scrap with President Bush is well known. In 1979 he wrote an article about why women should not be in combat, and referred to the Tailhook scandal as a "witch hunt." Apparently he has made peace with women's groups over that, but in this day and age we could expect to see it resurrected. He has also written several novels with explicit sexual content, which led to the spectacle of the George Allen campaign trying to use that against Webb by calling him a pedophile. Only a Republican could fail to understand how a writer of fiction is not necessarily endorsing everything that occurs in their work.

Webb has also been married three times, which is not in itself a condemning fact, considering John McCain is on wife number two, but it may give some pause. He does, of course, have a son currently in active duty in the military.

I don't know who Obama will choose. If I had to bet right now I might predict Ohio governor Ted Strickland, but who knows what other names will surface from now until the convention? I would, however, be gobsmacked if Hillary Clinton were the choice, as to do so would make Obama look like he was giving in to pressure, and the tail would be wagging the dog. Even if Obama wanted to choose her, he could only do so if he threw open the choice to the convention floor. The last time that happened was in 1956, and it didn't help Adlai Stevenson much.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


The 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Junot Diaz for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I finished reading it a few days ago. The title character is a young fellow of Dominican descent who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. However, he is something of an anomaly in the Dominican neighborhood. He is a big reader, especially of comic books, science fiction and fantasy. He is also grossly overweight and socially inept. Dominican men are supposed to be suave with the ladies, but Oscar seems doomed to permanent virginity. I think this line sums him up best: "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest."

The novel is narrated by a "watcher," whose identity we're not sure of until about half the book is done, with an occasional chapter from the point of view of Oscar's older sister, Lola. However, the main character of this book is really the Dominican Republic itself, which for years was under the iron rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo. There are a couple of long chapters about Oscar's mother and his grandparents, both of whom fell afoul of the military junta that Trujillo commanded. Diaz, who is Dominican himself, clearly feels that the stain of those brutal years lingers in the lives of Dominicans even today.

The book is fun to read, written in a loose style full of Spanglish. High-school level Spanish would come in handy (which I am without). If I knew the exact import of what it means to call a girl a "morena" (which Altavista translates as 'colored person') is an example of how much of the book was mystifying to me. And though I was a comic book fan growing up, and got a lot of references, there were a lot of references to sci-fi works that zoomed right over my head. But there are some lovely lyrical passages, including this one, that explains the title: "Who the hell, I ask you, had ever met a Domo like him? Halloween he made the mistake of dressing up as Doctor Who, was real proud of his outfit too. When I saw him on Easton, with two other writing-section clowns, I couldn't believe how much he looked like that fat homo Oscar Wilde, and I told him so. You look just like him, which was bad news for Oscar, because Melvin said, Oscar Wao, quien es Oscar Wao, and that was it, all of us started calling him that: Hey, Wao, what you doing? Wao, you want to get your feet off my chair?"

However, as I finished the book, I had to admit I felt a little let down. I suppose it's because Oscar's life wasn't all that wondrous. His ending comes in a grand romantic gesture, but it's not so much heroic as pathetic. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Throughout the book he pointedly refuses to improve himself, so it's difficult to get too involved in his story. The book best works as a historical look at Dominican-Americans and their torturous past.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Topkapi

In 1964 Jules Dassin reteamed with Melina Mercouri to make Topkapi, which was in essence a spoof of his most famous film, Rififi. It is caper film, but in much more light-hearted vein, and doesn't follow the usual patterns. In Topkapi, the job itself is the climax, and supposedly the fun. But I didn't have much fun watching it.

Part of the problem is how incredibly dated it is. It prefigures some of the worst aspects of sixties' films--the candy colors, the forced zaniness, the almost psychedelic camera effects (at the beginning of the film Dassin uses a lens that makes it though we are looking through a crystal). Also, due perhaps to the international nature of the cast, I had a hard time making out what people were saying. The DVD has French and Spanish subtitles, but not English.

The story concerns Mercouri, who is some sort of jewel thief (I think--it's never clear to me) teaming up with Maximillian Schell, a fellow thief. They want to steal an emerald-crusted dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Mercouri has made a duplicate, which they will leave in replacement. Just what they are going to do with it after they steal it isn't clear, either. They enlist an eccentric inventor, Robert Morley, as well as a couple of circus performers--a strong man and an acrobat, to enter the museum without touching the floor and setting off a sensitive alarm.

Enter into this mix Peter Ustinov, as a low-level hustler and con-man who lives in Greece. Schell hires him to drive a car across the border into Turkey, but when customs finds the car loaded with weapons (much to Ustinov's surprise) they enlist the "schmo" (as Schell refers to Ustinov) to spy on the thieves, whom the Turkish authorities believe are terrorists. Eventually Ustinov ends up working both sides of the aisle.

Aside from Ustinov's performance, which won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, I found little to like about Topkapi. I didn't care for the pace or the photography. It was just too rompish, sacrificing the precision of Rififi for a sun-splashed scenery and general goofiness. Ustinov is very good, he sort of reminded me of Ricky Gervais, who would be a first choice for me if there was ever a remake. He's cowardly, but will put aside fears when the opportunity for money arises (when he has to face his fear of heights, Schell tells him, "Close your eyes and think of $10,000!")

Dassin would make a few more films before he retired, but this was the last one that had any kind of impact. Sad to say it is the one I have liked least.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Your 2008 Stanley Cup Champions

After one of the most crushing losses imaginable on Monday night, last night the Detroit Red Wings sucked it up, bounced back, and held off the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, 4 games to 2. As the Detroit Tigers season circles the drain, I'm going to savor this victory for a long, long while.

Monday night's loss was one of the most brutal sports-watching experiences I've ever gone through. The Wings were winning that game 3-2, with under a minute left. Joe Louis Arena, the Detroit home ice, was shaking with anticipation of the hoisting of the Cup. The Penguins pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. With about thirty-five seconds left, Maxim Talbot managed to bang the puck in past goalie Chris Osgood's skate. Tie game, overtime.

So what is a person, like me, who needs sleep or I wilt? I wasn't about to miss the chance to the Wings win it all, especially on an overtime goal, which is rare and special way to win. So I watched, and I watched, and I watched. First overtime, second overtime, third overtime. It was now almost one o'clock, and I was doing mental calculations on how long it was to be before I had to wake up. Finally, in the beginning of the third period, the Penguins scored on a power play. I immediately clicked off the TV and stewed.

I was in such a funk over the loss that I stayed home from work the next day and caught up on my sleep. I now knew what it was like for the Red Sox fans who went through the excruciating end of game six in '86, to be one pitch or just a few seconds from wrapping it all up, but giving the opponent an opportunity to strike back. All day on Wednesday I was having kittens, wondering if I could possibly live through another game.

But I watched. This time the game was in Pittsburgh. The Wings scored early, and then added a second goal for the precious two-goal lead. After a Penguin goal, the Wings added a third, when Henrik Zetterberg's shot went between goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's legs, and ever so slowly, as if he were shitting a peach pit, emerged from beneath him and trickled toward the goal. No one knew where it was, and when Fleury fell back he sat on the puck and it squirted into the net. As players milled around, the referee signaled a goal with fervor.

Under two minutes left, the Penguins pulled the goalie on a power play and got a goal to cut the lead to one. Could the game possibly end the way it did on Monday? Could my heart take it? The seconds ticked down, and the Wings couldn't complete clear the puck. With ten seconds to go, Sidney Crosby got a shot on goal, that Osgood blocked. Marion Hossa grabbed the rebound, and just after time expired he got off a shot that slid harmlessly across the crease (it wouldn't have counted even had it gone in). The game was over, the Cup was won.

The captain of the Red Wings, Nicklas Lidstrom, was the first European captain to hoist the Cup. Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the Playoffs, so clearly this morning Detroit loves the Swedes. Zetterberg had the most goals in the playoffs, but he also played some amazing defense, including being a key part of two sequences, one in game four, one in game six, of killing off a minute and a half of five-on-three penalties. I think those two kills were key to the whole shooting match.

This is the fourth Cup win in the last eleven years for the Wings. A few of the players, like Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom, have been there for all four. Perhaps it was their experience and level heads that prevented the Wings from suffering what the Red Sox did twenty-two years ago.



Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Then We Came to the End

Seven down, three to go as I read my way through the New York Times Book Review ten best of 2007. This time it's a novel by Joshua Ferriss called Then We Came to the End.

We spend so much of our time at work; it really dominates our lives. I spend far too much time thinking about it, especially those moments before I get up in the morning, when I try to banish those thoughts from my head. There really hasn't been a great novel about the contemporary office, instead it is the dominion of TV sit-coms. Ferris hasn't necessarily written such a novel, but it is a keenly observed, wildly funny examination of how we act when we're at work.

I'm not the first to make this comparison, but it's really the Catch-22 of the modern workplace, with memorable characters who each are identified by particular quirks, whether it's being obsessed with getting an ex-colleague's chair, or another who has inherited a totem pole and keeps it in storage, or a laid-off employee who after being let go still shows up at meetings. And like Catch-22, where the hijinks were overshadowed by tragedy, whether it was the death of Snowden or the murder of a prostitute in Rome, Then We Came to the End has the pall of a boss who may or may not have breast cancer and a fired employee who everyone worries may go postal.

The best thing about this book is the droll description of the daily existence of the workers at an advertising agency in Chicago. They are copywriters and art directors, or creatives (a word that can be used as a noun, verb and adjective, sometimes all in the same sentence). They drink their coffee, get excited by free doughnuts, are obsessed with their tchotchkes, and enjoy killing time by gossiping. Ferris writes the book (except for one chapter) in the first-person plural, sort of a "corporate we." A lot of this is very familiar, such as the instance when a woman's nasty email ends up getting sent to the entire company, or the almost daily realization that "it's only 3:15." The "we" of the story are for the most part cynics, with built-in tautologies that are reminiscent of Catch-22, such as a character who is liked by everyone, therefore everybody hates his guts.

Where the book is less successful is balancing the comedy and tragedy. The intimidating boss is rumored to have breast cancer, and in a mysterious coincidence, the team is assigned the task of coming up with an ad that would make someone with breast cancer laugh. In a sense, the book Ferris has written is the answer to that assignment.

Also, the office depicted in this book isn't all that terrible. The worst part of it is the constant threat of layoffs, or as they describe it, being "walked Spanish," an old pirate term. Pranks are played, and a few of the characters are in desperate need of therapy, but I've been in places that are far more soul-crushing than this one. But as I read the last chapter, I realized that Ferris wasn't trying to dazzle me with horror stories, he seems to believe that real bonds can be made between co-workers, and nostalgia about former jobs can exist. I suppose that can be true, or as Hemingway once wrote, "it's pretty to think so."

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Never on Sunday

By 1960 Jules Dassin was living in Greece with actress Melina Mercouri. His film Never on Sunday could be seen as a valentine both to her and to his new home, or it could be seen as a parallel to how shortsighted Americans who think they know better try to "fix" other cultures.

Set in Piraeus, a port city, Mercouri plays Ilya, the classic prostitute with a heart of gold. She is a free-spirited woman who lives only for pleasure, choosing her clients based on how much she likes them. She resists living the life of the other hookers in town, who are forced to live in apartments owned by the town crime boss.

Enter Homer Thrace, played by the director, an American Grecophile who fancies himself a philosopher. He is enchanted by Ilya, but sees her as a symbol of why Greek civilization failed, not as a woman. He puts forth the Aristotlean theory that happiness comes from the mind, not from physical pleasures, and endeavors, Pygmalion-style, to transform Ilya from a hedonistic wild-child into a cultured lady of refinement. It is not giving anything away to reveal that this effort does not ultimately succeed, and Homer sees the error of his ways.

Though this film has its charms, a little goes a long way. I've never been to Greece, but I have a feeling that what we see is the Greek Tourist Board version of the country, similar to the way The Quiet Man presented Ireland as a land full of lovable eccentrics. The film's attitude about prostitution is certainly very European (the only character who raises a stink about it is Homer himself, the prudish American) but the characters are so one-dimensional that any statement this film tries to make is undercut. Also, Homer is such a pill that about a third of the way through the film you just want him to leave town.

The film is best known today for the titular theme song, which won an Academy Award, and the bouzouki-filled soundtrack. For a few years Greek culture was prevalent in film, as a few years later Zorba the Greek would come along and forever cement the image of Greek men as people who just want to drink and dance. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has long been a hero of mine, as he should be to anyone who values the courage of one's convictions. PBS tends to show the documentary made about him--Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, whenever they have a beg-a-thon, and both the Philadelphia and New York affiliates ran it again last night. I still haven't seen it all the way through, but I think I've caught most of it in two or three viewings.

The film itself is a hagiography, and you're left wondering could any man be that selfless. Surely he must have kicked a dog once or twice, but hey, maybe not. What you do get from the film is how the guy has been a key element in the history of folk music in the twentieth century, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to the musicians of today (at the end of the film there's a nice shot of a concert at Carnegie Hall where he's singing Guantanamera with Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, and Pete's own grandson, Tao Rodriquez-Seeger). You will also be left with the firm impression that Seeger always stuck to his principles, even when they seemed incredibly naive. Why? The guy has always been an optimist. When he was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify at the HUAC committee during the Red Scare, his son asks him if he was ever worried that he was going to go to jail. Seeger answers that he may be foolish, but he had the belief, deep down, that things like that didn't happen in America. He turned out to be right in this instance, as his conviction was overturned.

Seeger was son of a musicologist, and went for a while to Harvard, but after learning the banjo as a teenager that was all she wrote, and he ended up in The Almanack Singers with Woody Guthrie. Later he would be one of The Weavers, who had a huge hit with the Ledbelly song, Goodnight, Irene (thirteen weeks at number one). They played the fanciest nightclubs, but Seeger had been a communist, and that glory was short-lived (Seeger says he drifted away from communism in 1949, and admits that at the time he was shortsighted about the evils of Stalinism). The Weavers did make a comeback, managing to sell out Carnegie Hall to lefties who didn't care about Joe McCarthy, but he quit the group when they agreed to do a song for a cigarette commercial. "We didn't need the money that bad," he said.

Seeger wouldn't be on network television for seventeen years. When the Smothers Brothers booked him CBS agreed, but when he performed a song called "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," which was a thinly-veiled critique of LBJ's Vietnam policy, they snipped it from the broadcast. After a hue and cry, he was invited back to perform it.

Over the years he's been involved in many issues, perhaps none so important as the civil rights movement. It was he that introduced the old song "We Shall Overcome" to Martin Luther King, Jr. He also wrote the well-known songs If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and Turn, Turn, Turn (words from Ecclesiastes). To signal just how true that song is, that there is a time for everything, Seeger, who was at one time a finger in the government's eye, ended up being honored by the government at the Kennedy Center Honors.

While Seeger was in the wilderness, unable to appear on TV or radio or give big concerts, he went from school to school, performing for kids. The FBI didn't seem to think he could any harm there. Well, he probably managed to influence America more that way than any other, sparking the folk revival of the fifties and sixties and making sure that every school kid knew the lyrics to If I Had a Hammer and This Land is Your Land. Even today Seeger loves to perform for kids, as he says that when you look at their little faces it's hard not to feel hope.

Seeger is 89 and still going pretty strong. He's still a muckraker, and has spent a great deal of time and energy in a successful effort to clean up the Hudson River, where he lives. And he seems to be a genuinely nice man who anyone with any sense would love to have around, singing songs and swapping stories. One of my favorite records that I own is a double album of a concert he and Arlo Guthrie did some thirty-five years ago (Guthrie has a song on it called The Watergate Rag, to give you an indication how old it is). The two of them work so well together that even listening on vinyl you can feel the camaraderie and the pureness of spirit. Long may Pete Seeger continue to play the banjo.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Rififi

I love a good caper movie, in fact, it may be my favorite genre. The template is almost always the same--a disparate group comes together to pull off an almost impossible job, usually a bank robbery or jewelry store heist. Some of the group may know each other, but there are usually strangers that must learn to trust each other. Their ingenuity pulls off the robbery, but some human weakness, usually for women, but sometimes just greed, messes everything up and they are either captured or die, one by one, with one of the gang betraying another. It's kind of a microcosm of the view of life embodied by the pessimist, but with a moral overtone: there are no easy ways to get rich quickly.

But the moral viewpoint is usually wrong. When Rififi was released in 1955, it was criticized by the morally superior. The Catholic church gave it a condemned rating, and some said it was a primer for how to rob a jewelry store. But writer and director Jules Dassin disagreed, pointing out that, in fact, his film showed just how hard it was to rob a jewelry store. Nevertheless, all the hard work goes for naught, and even from the first frames of film, the viewer knows it. The fun is watching them accomplish the feat, and then waiting for them to screw up.

This film was released about the same time as The Asphalt Jungle, and these are the two best examples of the genre. But Rififi has a much more interesting back story. Dassin had been blacklisted and fled the U.S. But the long arm of McCarthyism affected him even in Europe, and he didn't find work for five years. Finally he was offered to do the film version of a pulp novel by a French writer, and even though Dassin hated the book (it was full of anti-Arab racism) he did it anyway. He wrote the screenplay in six days, and even played the role of Cesar the Milanese safecracker (the actor hired didn't sign a contract in time). Dassin took a small salary, due to his political circumstances, but took a percentage of the profits, which were great (the film, despite the efforts of the witch-hunting element in American society, did good business in art-houses in the U.S.). Dassin won a directing award at the Cannes film festival.

The story concerns a foursome that team to rob a jewelry store. Jean Servais is Tony the Stephanois, who is just out of prison. He is gaunt and grim, and Servais gives a terrific performance as a man who is almost the walking dead. In a shocking scene (for the times) he visits his old girlfriend, who dumped him after he went to prison and took up with the owner of a nightclub where she is a "hostess." She accompanies him back to his place, where he makes her strip and beats her with a belt. This is off-camera, but jarring nonetheless.

Tony and his associates--Jo the Swede, who has a wife and son, Mario, a garrulous Italian, and Cesar, who has an eye for the ladies, try to figure out to get past the store's alarm system. Then comes the scene that the film is celebrated for, a thirty-minute sequence that is without dialogue or music, in which they break in by digging a hole in the ceiling above, and then disable the alarm with fire-extinguisher foam. It's a breathtaking sequence that has been copied many times since.

Cesar's eye for the ladies, just like Sam Jaffee's weakness for young girls in The Asphalt Jungle, dooms the enterprise. It's a compelling scene when Tony confronts Cesar, who has given up Mario. "You know what happens when you break the rules," Tony tells him, and knowing Dassin's situation--he refused to name names and suffered the consequences, is moving. Dassin, as Cesar, closes his eyes and accepts his fate.

Rififi (the title is a word meaning fighting or brawling) is a gem of cinema. The only misstep is a clunky musical number with a title song, that seems to have been inserted to explain what the title means (it made me think of Veronica Lake's magic/music number in This Gun For Hire--what was it with inserting musical numbers into gritty crime dramas in those days?)

When Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar a few years ago, there were many that were outraged. Kazan, who had a magnificent directorial career, stained his reputation by turning evidence against friends to the HUAC committee. Many hoped that Dassin would one day win an Oscar, but sadly, he did not.