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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tree of Smoke


I've worked my way through the ninth book on the New York Times Ten Best of 2007, Tree of Smoke, a novel by Denis Johnson. This is a long, dense book, with a brilliant use of language. However at times I found myself lost in the thicket of prose, unsure what was going on or who was who. I suspect this is more my fault than the author, as it is work that requires some attention to detail.

The subject, as a whole, is the Vietnam War. There are two sets of major characters: the Houston brothers, Bill and James, who are lowly grunts. Bill never goes to 'Nam, he is stationed in the Philippines and gets sent back home just as brother enters the war. Back home in Arizona he drifts from job to job and into prison. James sees action at the Tet offensive, and here the writing recalls many military films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, with zippy jargon and acronyms and the characters are known by nicknames or character traits (one refuses to be called anything but Black Man, while Johnson refers to a few others as the Screwy Loot or the Cherry Loot, sort of an homage to Catch-22).

The other main characters are Skip Sands, a CIA agent, and his uncle, known most often as simply the Colonel, even though he is a civilian. The Colonel is a Kurtz-like character, a larger-than-life man who worships Knute Rockne and is running his own intelligence scheme in country. There's also a missionary's wife who has a passionless affair with Skip, a few Vietnamese agents (one from the north, one from the south) and a German assassin thrown into the mix.

From the opening chapter, which details Bill shooting and killing a monkey, it's apparent that Johnson is a masterful writer. At times, though, the story threatens to blow apart at the seams. There's a certain hopelessness that pervades the work. A book that starts with an eighteen-year-old soldier shooting a monkey doesn't get any happier six-hundred pages later.

What strikes me most about this novel is the comparison of the U.S. experience between World War II and Vietnam. The Colonel straddles this divide, as he was a pilot in the Flying Tigers and later was a POW who made a spectacular escape. To paraphrase a remark once made about the comparison between Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair, World War II is something that seems to have been written by Shakespeare, while Vietnam is more like Beckett.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Property Is Condemned

In response to the passing of Sydney Pollack a few months ago, I'm going to take a look at some of his key films. Over the next few weeks I've arranged for ten of his films to rest atop my Netflix queue. Some of them I have seen before, but not in a long time. Pollack was a man who worked in quite a few genres and styles, and it's difficult to come up with a typical "Pollack film," so perhaps after taking a survey through his most notable work one will emerge.

His first film was The Slender Thread, which is not available on DVD. (It was aired by TMC in a tribute to him after his death, but I didn't catch it). This was followed by This Property Is Condemned, which was suggested by a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. The screenplay was co-written by Francis Coppola.

As one would imagine in a work based on Williams, the film is a slice of Southern Gothic. Set in a Mississippi town during the depression, Robert Redford plays a stranger who comes to town and takes a room at a boarding house. The town's economy subsists on the railroad, and it turns out that Redford works for the railroad, and is there to lay workers off. Complicating this is his relationship with the daughter of the boarding house, the town flirt (and perhaps much more), Natalie Wood.

This is an odd, unsatisfying film. It's filmed in glorious Technicolor by the great James Wong Howe, but has a small, black and white Playhouse 90 feel to it. As seen by the poster, it was sold as a steamy soap opera, but seems absurd in retrospect, and I suspect it was absurd even back in 1966. At big dramatic moments there are ridiculous music cues, and none of it seems authentic. Wood never really gets a handle on her character, who is a facsimile of a Williams heroine--independent, flashy and bold, but Williams didn't really create her (the original one-act consisted of her younger sister telling her story). Redford, who would end up making six films with Pollack, seems at a loss, too, playing the part of a stoic. It's unclear why these two characters are attracted to each other, other than that they are the most beautiful people around.

Also in the cast are Charles Bronson, Robert Blake, and Mary Badham, who was memorable as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. She was about fourteen in this film, and sad to say it's easy to see why she gave up acting, as she was outgrowing the appeal of her child roles.

Pollack would seem to have been a director-for-hire on this project, so other than it being an initial teaming with Redford, this film doesn't suggest anything of what was to come from him.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Vengeance Trilogy

I'm kind of in the dark when it comes to most Asian cinema. I've seen the films that have broken through to American audiences, such as those by Kurosawa or Ang Lee, but I haven't seen much of the genre stuff, such as martial arts or horror pictures. I was urged to see a trilogy of films by South Korean director Chan Wook Park which, though not connected by characters, are all unified by the overriding theme of vengeance, and are marked by an over abundance of both style and violence.

The first film I saw (though apparently not the first one made) was Oldboy. It concerns a typical businessman who has been mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years. He does not know who has imprisoned him or why. He is diligently kept alive, and somehow manages to maintain his sanity. He is then released, and tries to find out who did this to him and why.

Min-Sik Choi plays the man, and he is very good, but Park's stylistic flourishes really were over the top. This kind of cinema is reminiscent of Tarantino, with some brilliant flashes of droll humor, but in the end I was kind of worn out. There is one scene in which Choi battles about two dozen men and manages to defeat them all. Now, in Tarantino's Kill Bill, there was a scene like that with Uma Thurman dispatching about fifty assailants. That was filmed in ridiculous surrealism, but this scene is handled realistically, but at the same time I was incredulous. I was also bothered by the villain of the piece, who is supposed to be a schoolmate of Choi's but looked about twenty years younger.

The next film I saw was Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. Here the theme of vengeance is more complicated. A young deaf-mute sells his kidney in an attempt to get money for his sister's operation. But he's screwed in the deal, so he and his anarchist girlfriend kidnap a rich guy's daughter for the ransom. The girl ends up dying accidentally, so her father comes after the kidnappers. Thus we have two elements of vengeance--the deaf-mute's against the black market organ dealers, and the rich man's against the kidnappers. I liked the multi-faceted storyline, but again some of the stylistic issues weighted it down. The film was almost half over before I could piece together who was who and what exactly was going on.

My favorite of the films was Lady Vengeance (or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). A young woman has spent thirteen years in jail for kidnapping and murdering a child. When she comes out she rounds up some of her fellow inmates and plots revenge on the man who actually killed the child (Choi again). When revenge is within her grasp, she decides not to exact it herself but do something more selfless. Maybe I had grown accustomed to Park's quirks by the third film, or maybe I responded more to the "wrong man" plot element, but I found this film compelling from start to finish, and especially liked the scene in which a group of normal people are faced with a choice of how to dispense justice. The title role is well-played by Yeong-ae Lee.

It was nice to see some work from a different culture (although Park clearly has his Hollywood inspirations) but for a film to tolerate so much goofiness and bizarre camera angles it has to be very strong, and these films were a mixed bag. Or maybe they just required a conditioning on my part.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dick Dick Goose


For the seventh straight year, I drove up to Cooperstown to attend the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year there were six inductees: Rich "Goose" Gossage, Dick Williams, Barney Dreyfuss, Walter O'Malley, Billy Southworth and Bowie Kuhn.

I lucked out with the weather. Saturday night saw torrential rains in the central New York region. I stayed in Little Falls, a shabby town in the Mohawk Valley, about thirty miles north of Cooperstown. Sunday saw partly sunny skies and a temperature of about 80 degrees.

The event was sparsely attended, especially considering the mob that went to last year's ceremony, which annointed Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. That event gathered some 80,000 people, but this one was more like 20,000 (or perhaps even less). People showing up right before the ceremony started could get prime seats (VIPs and members get folding chairs up front, the great unwashed can park a lawn chair some hundred or so yards back, but there is a large video screen so it can be viewed well from a great distance).

I went solo this year, but ended up sitting next to a couple from Long Island. He was a bit of an odd duck--he came for Dick Williams, the itinerant manager. The fellow was once the president of the Dick Williams fan club. Who knew such a thing existed? He was a good fan to talk baseball with, though, and a fellow Yankee-hater.

Of the six inductees, only two are still living. The Veteran's committee, which heretofore had proven a huge obstacle and hadn't voted anyone in under the revised rules, was tweaked, so a bit of a floodgate opened and some real old-timers were put in. Dreyfuss was the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the Honus Wagner days. His great-grandson gave a nice speech on his behalf. Walter O'Malley was the owner of the Dodgers for many years, and is best known for moving the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles fifty years ago. This has made him persona non grata in Brooklyn, but it was frequently stressed that he did this because he had no alternative, as a new stadium could not be built in Brooklyn. His son, Peter, gave a short and dry acceptance speech. Billy Southworth was the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals during their glory days during the war years, skippering them to two World Series titles.

The most controversial choice for induction was Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of the game from the 1969-1984. Kuhn presided over a certain boom in baseball, which included night post-season games, fan voting for all-star games, the designated hitter, teams divided into divisions (and the resulting extra round of playoffs) and an expanded TV contract. He was also an opponent of free agency, which makes him look in retrospect a bit like King Canute talking to the waves. His son gave a long-winded speech that was mostly defensive, answering Kuhn's critics. Many feel he didn't deserve induction, and that all of the improvements to baseball happened in spite of him, not because of him. It was also galling that he got voted in while Marvin Miller, who was the labor representative of the player's union, was passed over, as Miller had much more impact on the game.

Still around to experience his induction was Dick Williams, the manager of several teams over twenty-some years, including the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Red Sox and the Oakland A's team of the 1970s. At 79, one could tell how tickled he was by the whole thing, and if his speech was a bit unfocused it was heartfelt. He was followed by Gossage, the burly relief pitcher for 22 seasons, most notably with the New York Yankees. Gossage, by today's statistical standards, didn't have mind-blowing numbers: he had 310 saves, far down the list among the all-time leaders. But he was a different kind of relief pitcher, often going two or three innings, and coming in with men on base. Of his 310 saves, 52 were seven outs or more, unheard of for today's closer. I have no problem with him being elected, and that he had to wait for nine years made it sweeter for him.

Of course, being a Tiger fan, I can't think of Gossage and Williams without remembering one of my best moments as a fan. It was 1984, and Gossage was pitching for the San Diego Padres, who were managed by Williams. They faced my Tigers in the World Series. It was game five, and the Tigers needed only one victory to win it all. Gossage was on the mound in a game in which the Tigers had a slight lead. Runners were on second and third, and Kirk Gibson was at the plate. Williams came out to the mound to urge Gossage to walk him intentionally to fill the bases. Gossage demurred, saying he owned Gibson (he was right, Gibson was 1 for 9 for his career against Gossage, with seven strikeouts). Williams trusted his pitcher. From the Tigers dugout, manager Sparky Anderson called out to Gibson, "He don't want to walk you!" Gibson nodded dourly, and almost before William could take a seat, deposited Gossage's offering into the upper deck, sending Detroit into bedlam. Gossage, in his acceptance speech, turned to Williams and admitted he should have listened to his skipper, and walked Gibson.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rebecca


Since I've already written about Gone With the Wind, which won the 1939 Best Picture award, I'll skip on to 1940, when producer David O. Selznick won his second consecutive Best Picture, after bringing to Hollywood a British director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock. The film was Rebecca, based on a best-selling novel by Daphne du Maurier.

The film, as well as the book, is a Gothic romance. A pretty but mousy young woman, Joan Fontaine (whose name is never revealed in the film) is working as a paid companion to a vulgar American battle-axe vacationing in Monte Carlo. She meets the handsome and mysterious Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) and they have a whirlwind romance. They marry and he takes her back to his Cornwall estate, Manderley. There, she realizes she is competing with the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca.

Though I use the word ghost, Rebecca is not a poltergeist in the haunted house tradition. Instead she is a presence of memory, particularly embodied in the mind of Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper from Hell, played evilly by Judith Anderson. Danvers resents the new Mrs. DeWinter immediately, and does everything she can to make her life miserable. In one memorable scene, after engineering Fontaine's humiliation at a costume ball, she almost induces her to jump out the window to her death.

This pseudo-ghost story turns toward the end of the picture into something of a murder mystery, as the circumstances of Rebecca's death, and her true character, come under scrutiny. It's a bit of jarring swerve, and the nuts and bolts of how Rebecca's boat sank sort of scramble the eeriness of the first two-thirds of the picture. However, this section also contains a delicious performance by George Sanders, who was Rebecca's favorite cousin and, it seems, so much more than that.

Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood for this project, and it wasn't exactly a smooth marriage. Of course Hitchcock was famous for in-camera cutting, and Selznick well known for his lengthy memos on production details (twenty years later Hitchcock mentioned that he finally finished reading one of Selznick's memos). The script was as faithful to du Maurier's novel as the production code would allow, as the book had a murderer getting of scot-free, which was a no-no in Hollywood films. There is also more than a hint of a lesbian relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca.

The film is a good one, but in retrospect it is not among Hitchcock's greatest, but it is the only film of his to win Best Picture. He did not win Best Director, that prize going instead to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath (which really deserved to win the top honor as well). Of course, Hitchcock never would win a Best Director Oscar, having to settle for a honorary award late in life (for which his entire acceptance speech can be quoted here: "Thank you.") Also noteworthy are the cinematography by George Barnes, which did win an Oscar, and employs masterly use of light and shadow, and the spooky music by Franz Waxman.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

I am an X-Phile, or at least I was. I diligently watched what I consider to be the best TV drama of the 1990s, and even read paperback novels and comic books based on the characters. When the show ran off the rails after cast changes and an increasingly tangled storyline, I still stuck with it, but after it went off the air (in 2002, I see from IMDB--I would have thought it ended three or four years before that) I haven't given it much thought at all. I don't own any of the DVDs, and the tangled mythology involving black oil aliens and the cigarette-smoking man have long been buried under the asphalt of my memory.

Therefore, I suppose it could be said that an alternate title for this film could have been The X-Files: I Wanted to Like This Movie. Series creator Chris Carter directed, and the two stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have returned. But, and I probably sensed this would be true, the film is kind of disposable, containing nothing that couldn't have been explored in a two-part episode of the show. There's nothing larger-than-life about it that merits the big screen.

The title of the film refers both to the ominipresent UFO poster that Duchovny's Fox Mulder keeps on his wall, and his overall philosophy about the unexplained. As the film starts, he is in hiding, ostracized by the FBI. Scully, his one-time partner and now his--I'm not sure, their relationship is never fully explained, though they are seen snuggling in bed at one point--has also left the FBI and is a physician working at a Catholic hospital. They are asked to assist on a case by an FBI agent played by Amanda Peet, who is looking for a missing agent. She needs Mulder for his insight, as the FBI has been assisted by a pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who has had visions about the case.

Mulder and Scully, of course, end up reluctantly involved, perhaps much like the actors themselves (but who knows, maybe they were grateful for the work). We get a lot of the main theme from the series--Scully's skepticism, balanced against her Christian faith, versus Mulder's belief in the paranormal.

The film is kind of blah until the last half hour, when the plot reveals medical experiments out of a 1950's horror film, but it never quite fully engaged this viewer. There's no vividly etched villain, nor is there the omnipresent menace of the mythology episodes.

I can't imagine that this would appeal in the slightest to anyone who has never seen an X-Files episode. I've seen them all, and I was a little confused. It's curious as to why a show that has been off the air for six years would get a second film opening on a plum weekend in July, but it is what it is. They got this die-hard to go, but there can't be enough of people like me to make it worthwhile, I would think.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You Can't Take It With You


In 1938, Frank Capra solidified his standing as the preeminent director of the 1930's when he won his third Best Director Oscar for You Can't Take It With You, which also won the Best Picture prize. An adaptation of the hit play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is one of the few outright comedies to win top honors from the Academy. It is also notable for being the first pairing of Capra with James Stewart, as the two would go on to make cinema magic a few more times.

Looking at the film today, there is a lot of charm, but mostly it's quaint, and occasionally creaks from sentimentality. It's easy to see how the context of the depression made this story about how money doesn't necessarily buy happiness resonate. Stewart is the scion of a cold-hearted banker, played by Edward Arnold. He is a dreamer, not cut out for banking, and has fallen in love with his secretary (Jean Arthur) who comes from a family of eccentrics. They are led by the patriarch, Lionel Barrymore, who was a businessman but one day quit and is surrounded by a family of both relatives and friends who follow their bliss, whether it's stamp collecting or making fireworks. One of the menagerie is the iceman, DePinna, who came one day nine years ago and never left.

The lifestyle of following one's passion, and not working at a job that one doesn't enjoy, is very appealing, and I must admit it's a siren call for me, as I currently work at a job I do not have fun with, but there are certain realities that keep one from just walking out and never leaving, such as eating three meals a day. This is never completely explained in the film, and though the film relies on whimsy to keep it afloat you can't help but wonder who pays the bills. There's a scene in which an IRS agent (played by the great Charles Lane, who only died a year ago after living past 100) pays a call on Barrymore to point out that he has never paid income taxes. Barrymore engages him in circuitous logic, saying we don't need to pay for battleships, etc. This, of course, was three years before Pearl Harbor.

If you can just go with the flow, You Can't Take It With You is pleasant entertainment. Barrymore is terrific (interestingly, Capra would cast him eight years as the polar opposite, the evil Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life). I also thought Arnold did good work here, as the embodiment of capitalism as it's worst, but still maintaining his humanity. Though the ending, when all the characters are dancing to the tune of Polly Wolly Doodle, is rank sentimentality, I couldn't help but get a little choked up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Life of Emile Zola


1937 saw a couple of firsts that would be repeated many times over Oscar's history--it was the first time that a Warner Brothers film won the top prize, and it was the first time that a biopic, which would become an Academy favorite, won. The winner was The Life of Emile Zola, directed by William Dieterle.

To be accurate, though, this is not so much a biopic as a courtroom drama. The main character is the French novelist and social critic Emile Zola, but after a prologue of sorts, which deals with his days as a starving artist, rooming with the painter Paul Cezanne, the bulk of the film depicts his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, in which a captain of the French army is wrongly convicted of treason and sentenced to imprisonment on Devil's Island.

Paul Muni plays Zola. He went from the Yiddish theater of New York City to playing gangsters to finally establishing a reputation for playing famous men of history (he won an Oscar the preceding year for The Story of Louis Pasteur). Here he is a writer of absolute integrity, who writes novels exposing the social ills of the age. We see how he meets a young prostitute that inspires him to write his first novel, Nana. He then goes on to openly criticize the government and the military, and though told my censors to desist, his fame allows him to write what he wants.

He is fat and complacent when a young Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, is accused of writing a letter exposing military secrets to the Germans. The film very subtly implies that his arrest is prompted by anti-Semitism, and he is railroaded into a conviction. Even when evidence of the real culprit surfaces, it is suppressed due to potential embarrassment to the military command. When Dreyfus' wife, Gale Sondergaard, goes to Zola for his help, he is at first resistant, but he remembers his ideals and throws himself into the case. He writes an open letter to the French president, which became known as "J'accuse!" (I accuse). Zola's intention was to be tried for libel, so he can reopen the Dreyfus case, and that's what happens, although the French court makes it almost impossible to present evidence.

There's a lot to admire about this film, though it suffers some from a certain stuffiness. There's lots of speechifying and airing of lofty ideals, the kind that impresses those who look for intellectual chops in film. There's some good acting. Joseph Schildkraut, as Dreyfus, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but I liked Donald Crisp as Zola's attorney. Dieterle's direction is economical, as a lot of ground is covered in under a two-hour time frame. It's an impressive movie, if not necessarily one that stays with you for years to come.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Great Ziegfeld


The 1936 Best Picture Oscar winner was The Great Ziegfeld, a lavish, three-hour-long musical spectacle about the life of the theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. It was an MGM film directed by Robert Z. Leonard, and was a smash hit at the box office. The win was somewhat controversial, though, as even then there were negative opinions about the film.

To be fair, this film does not date well. It belongs to a different era, much like Ziegfeld himself. It's all about excess, with huge sets, garish costumes, and lots of showgirls. It's length is also inhuman for a picture of this type, and I'll admit I watched it in two different stretches.

However, I didn't hate it. I think most of the credit for that has to go to William Powell as Ziegfeld. Powell was at the top of his form in the mid-thirties, and in 1936 alone starred in a Thin Man sequel, My Man Godfrey, and Libeled Lady. He played Ziegfeld as a smooth operator, who got his start in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as the producer of a sideshow attraction, Sandow, the world's strongest man. He was engaged in a rivalry and friendship with Frank Morgan (later the Wizard of Oz), and Ziegfeld always won, managing to snatch Morgan's dates, his valet, and his talent.

This is all a lot of fun. Ziegfeld was also a man who lived on the margin, frequently broke but almost always with another card up his sleeve. When he stole French singer Anna Held out from under Morgan's nose, he didn't have any money to pay her, but smooth-talked her into signing with him. Later, she would become his wife. Held was played by Luise Rainer, who would win the Oscar for her performance. Today's audiences would probably find her melodramatic excesses tedious, but she probably won the award for a scene in which she calls Ziegfeld on the phone to congratulate him on his new marriage to his second wife, Billie Burke. As she's congratulating him she's weeping for her loss, and it is said that audiences cried along with her.

Burke was played by Powell's Thin Man partner Myrna Loy, and it was with Burke's permission that the film was made (Burke herself was best known as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz). Ziegfeld was wiped out by the stock market crash of '29 and died shortly thereafter. Also playing themselves in the film are Ray Bolger (another Oz connection), Will Rogers and Fannie Brice, who were all performers in Ziegfeld's Follies.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight


To avoid any confusion, I want to state up front that I think The Dark Knight is a good picture, with some fine performances. It is not, though, a great picture. Unless it's a dreadful year at the movies, it won't be among my favorites of the year, nor do I think it will deserve any major Oscar nominations. As superhero pictures go, it is not as good as its predecessor, Batman Begins (the best the genre has seen), and I didn't enjoy it as much as Spider-Man 2, or have as much fun with it as Batman Returns. It is certainly better than Iron Man, though.

Okay, enough of that. Directed by Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight continues the revision of the character that owes much to the graphic novels of Frank Miller, which cast the crimefighting billionaire as a vigilante, a man who lives in the shadows and struggles with a moral code and his own sense of justice. As the picture begins, he is a hot topic on chat shows, as some wonder whether he hurts more than he helps. He has cut crime down, though, as all of Gotham City's mobsters fear him.

The tone of the picture is less comic book than crime melodrama. As others have pointed out, you'll be reminded of The Untouchables, Heat, and The Departed. The opening bank heist, reminiscent of Michael Mann, is well-done, and introduces the one criminal mastermind who not only doesn't fear Batman, he seeks to vanquish him. He is known only as The Joker, a psychopath in harlequin makeup and a purple suit.

The Joker, who has no back story in this film (which is a fine choice) also recalls Lon Chaney in The Man Who Laughed, as someone has carved a smile on his face. He has no particular scheme other than to be a mixer, stealing money from the mob and then making deals with them. In the annoying tradition of these things, he has infinite resources in personnel and and munitions, and seems to make things up as he goes along. I think it's summed up best when he tells Batman that he is like a dog chasing a car--he doesn't know what he'll do with it if he catches it.

There's a subplot involving Bruce Wayne's love, Rachel Dawes (played gloweringly by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is now dating the crusading district-attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is eager to tackle organized crime, and through detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) meets Batman, who is technically a wanted man. Meanwhile The Joker wreaks havoc, and eventually will strike very close to both Wayne and Dent.

The first problem with this film is the handling of action sequences. The bank heist is done well, but then there is a fight in a parking garage involving fake Batmen (they are never fully explained in a satisfactory way) that is complete confusion. Nolan uses way too many closeups and quick cuts. I also had trouble with the sound mix, with lines of dialogue buried under the score.

Secondly, this film lacks the operatic sweep of Batman Begins. It's really just a well-done crime picture that happens to have the protagonist and antagonist wear provocative outfits. Their overarching theme has to with the duality of heroes and villains (which is bluntly spelled out in a twist that occurs to Dent's character) but we've really heard that many times before, and I didn't find this script particularly profound. In fact, I was getting annoyed with Wayne's butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) who sounded like a pop psychology book.

As for Heath Ledger as The Joker--well, I don't know what to think. I admired the performance, as he chose to lose himself in the character, unlike what Jack Nicholson did. His performance is creepy, employing a lizard-like tongue, rolling eyes and a menacing cackle. But, let's face it, this is the kind of role that an actor covets, which allows him to pull out all the stops and flex muscles never before used. I'm not sure he was any more brilliant than any other hot actor of the moment would have been. In contrast, Christian Bale as Batman doesn't have much to do, and his gravelly voice while wearing the cowl is starting to sound like self-parody. I think the best performance of the film belongs to Gary Oldman as Gordon, the workmanlike cop who oozes integrity. It's a difficult role to make sing, and Oldman is terrific.

Given the haul of this weekend's box office receipts, it would seem likely that there will be a third Batman film by Nolan, and I look forward to it, but perhaps not as much as I did for this one.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two for the Money

This selection from the Hard Case Crime series is a bundling of two books by Max Allan Collins, perhaps best known for his graphic novel Road to Perdition. He wrote them around 1970, and they concern a professional thief called Nolan who, in the grand tradition of professional thieves, is looking to pull off one big last score so he can retire and sever ties with the mob.

In the afterword, which Collins wrote in 2003 upon publication of this edition, he cites his influences, and therein lies a problem. This book was a bit of a slog to get through, because it seemed wholly unoriginal. Collins mentions the Donald Westlake creation Parker, but he also seems indebted to Mickey Spillane. This was clearly the work of a writer wet behind the ears.

Nolan is one of those characters that's larger than life, so much so that he seems ridiculous. When we meet him he's laid up by a gunshot wound. He's 48, and has been on the run from the mob for sixteen years. An old friend offers him a chance to settle his scores with the Mafia if he will pull off one last job. He has no choice, but has to work with a group of amateurs to pull a bank heist in of all places Iowa City, Iowa (the book is mostly set there and in the Quad Cities, which is kind of a nice change of pace). Of course the robbery doesn't go as planned.

That's the first book, originally called Bait Money. The second, called Blood Money, concerns Nolan settling all accounts with the mobster who has constantly bedeviled him. This book was a little better, more gritty and had less stylistic flourishes (among them are a tendency for Collins to rehash scenes from different perspectives, which is common in cinema these days but laborious in print).

Perhaps true to a homage to Spillane, the books are also casually sexist and racist. Would a guy really tell a girl that if she gets a darker tan she'd have to ride on the back of the bus? Women are treated either as disposable sex objects, or as uptight do-gooding liberals who would look better if they only tried. I'll give Collins the benefit of the doubt that he was only parroting pulp crime conventions, but geez they go down hard in 2008.

What bothered me most about these books is their lack of authenticity. I didn't believe any of this could happen. It was clear that Collins didn't know much about the Mafia or bank robberies when he wrote this--it unspools like a kid writing a thriller in his notebook after school. I've read one of Collins' Heller books--Majic Man, and that was much better, so I'll have to chalk this dud up to a lack of experience.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Mid-Summer Classic

Last night a very exciting All-Star game was played. I watched about two innings. These days I can't stay up very late, and my eyelids were already heavy after the second inning, so I turned the set off with no score. I did, however, enjoy the pre-game festivities, even though they dragged on so long it made the game start at nine o'clock.

Baseball, sort of like Hollywood, loves to navel-gaze and bask in nostalgia. Perhaps that's because with both institutions, it always seems like the old days were better. So, as the players were introduced, old-timers who are now in the Hall of Fame were also introduced, ranging from the fairly young guys like Wade Boggs to the ancient Bob Feller. It's interesting to note the demeanor of these guys. Some, like George Brett or Ozzie Smith, seem connected to today's players, and greeted them enthusiastically. Others (most specifically Willie Mays) seem comfortable with being cast as royalty, and Mays didn't even bother shaking hands with either of the current starting center-fielders, he even didn't seem to notice they were there. Also, where were Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan?

Now, I do hate the Yankees as a foe, but I couldn't help but get swept up in the emotion of George Steinbrenner, who looks very ill, being driven around the stadium and then to the mound to deliver balls to the living Yankee Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Whitey Ford and Goose Gossage (Goose will be inducted in just about ten days). It was touching to see the affection displayed for the Boss, especially by Yogi, who stayed away from Yankee Stadium for years because of the way Steinbrenner treated him.

After the first pitch, we got the National Anthem by Sheryl Crow (I wonder if Yogi likes her sound?) and then the obligatory show of military might by the flyover of a Stealth bomber. After all that, the game almost feels superfluous.

I watched the highlights of the game this morning. It went fifteen innings and well over four hours. The fun thing about extra-inning all-star games is that the starters are long gone and the key moments are played out by people many haven't heard of. In that way, the torch is passed. I just wish I could have stayed up to watch it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Obama New Yorker Cover

I'm a bit reluctant to write about the stink that the cover of this week's issue of The New Yorker has raised, because the caterwauling echoing across the media is giving this imbroglio more ink than it's worth. But no one really reads this blog and the issue is worth commenting on.

First of all, the artwork, by Barry Blitt, is brilliant. He manages to encapsulate all of the fears about the Obamas in simple brushstrokes: Obama in Muslim garb, Michelle as some sort of resurrection of Angela Davis (tossing around the epithet "whitey", no doubt), the portrait of Osama bin Laden above the mantle, and the flag burning in the fireplace. It even includes the "fist-bump" that sent the Fox News network into a tizzy. It is a deftly done satire of the small-minded who would not vote for the man for the most idiotic, petty reasons.

But what is the result? Those who continue to think that Obama is a Muslim, or were angry that he wouldn't wear a flag-pin in his lapel, are unlikely readers of The New Yorker. And yet they may encounter this image, completely removed from its context. Would this cartoon be out of place in a John Birch newsletter? By mocking the simple-minded voters, The New Yorker has succeeded in stirring the ashes of the fire, getting the flame going again, rehashing the fears of an Obama presidency.

But then again, it may end up helping as much as hurting. Even John McCain thinks the cover is tasteless, so will it end up getting Obama sympathy?

In the final analysis, I doubt his cover will switch anyone's votes. It will certainly help the circulation of the magazine itself, as the troglodytes may buy it for the first time so they can frame it next to their glass-case full of Nazi memorabilia. Of course, you can just as easily get it online, so it may not sell one extra issue.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mutiny on the Bounty


The 1935 Oscar for Best Picture went to MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty, directed by Frank Lloyd and based on a popular novel. The film has been remade twice since then, with lessening impact and quality, the original remaining the best version.

The film offered some big star power, with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, with new and upcoming star Franchot Tone as Byam. All three would be nominated for Best Actor, the only time there have been three nominees from the same film in that category. They all lost, though, to Victor McLaglen in The Informer (that film also won Best Director for John Ford and best screenplay for Dudley Nichols, though Mutiny far outpaced it in the Best picture balloting--results were made public in those days).

Of course, the story concerns a British cargo ship, The Bounty, which leaves Portsmouth bound for Tahiti. Early on we get a glimpse of how unfair life was in those days--Christian goes to a pub and presses a half-dozen men into service, a rustic form of the draft, with no excuses tolerated. Once these men are aboard it becomes evident that Captain Bligh is not just a strict disciplinarian, he's psychotic, exercising power simply to make himself feel powerful. Freud would have had a field day. His offenses include having a man flogged after he is already dead, and sending Byam up into the rigging during a storm.

Once the ship reaches Tahiti, which is a paradise for the men, Christian has just about had enough. When the ship's doctor dies after Blight forces him out of his sick-bed, Christian decides to mutiny. He seizes Bligh and sets him adrift in an open boat with some meager supplies. Byam, who wants no part of the mutiny, isn't allowed on the boat with Blight. The Bounty returns to Tahiti, where Christian marries a local girl and starts a family.

The film then follows Bligh as he and his supporters complete an incredible, 3,500 mile journey to safety. Much later, he returns to search for the mutineers.

While this film is historically inaccurate (many historians feel that Bligh's reputation is undeserved) it's still a rousing adventure and succeeds on almost all levels, both as rollicking yarn and as a psychological study of a power struggle. Christian, embodied by the matinee idol Gable, is clearly depicted as the hero, while Laughton, scowling and homely, is the villain. However, Laughton invests the character with more than even the script indicates, and though certainly a martinet, he is more complex than what first meets the eye. The scenes involving his voyage in the launch shows what a great seaman he is.

The subplot involving Byam, who is a fictional character, is also well-handled. A trial scene near the end of the film is well-done, even though there's a somewhat grandiose monologue by Byam at the end.

The look of the picture, though in black and white, really gives on a sense of both the harshness of life on the sea and the paradise that is Tahiti (the natives there are somewhat patronizingly viewed as eager to help the British). This film richly deserves its status as a classic.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bozo the Clown, RIP


I learned in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly that Larry Harmon, the man who owned the rights to Bozo the Clown, passed away at the age of 83. After doing a little research, I realize that I may have never actually seen Harmon play Bozo, but I certainly was a Bozo fan. In fact, I have long been fascinated by clowns, which lingers today.

This is probably a minority view. Most people find clowns creepy, and children, when confronted with an actual clown, may find the encounter unsettling. There's actually a term for fear of clowns--coulrophobia. Things were not helped by Stephen King creating the evil clown Pennywise in his novel It.

Clowns were much more prevalent on TV when I was a kid. There was Bozo, who was franchised, which meant there was a different Bozo in every market where he was syndicated. When I was of clown-watching age I lived in suburban Detroit and then in Toledo, Ohio, so I'm not sure who I saw. Bob Bell was the dominant Bozo, who worked for WGN in Chicago and wore the makeup until 1984. While living in Detroit I remember a local TV clown called Oopsy, who dressed in green and wore a flower pot on his head. There was also the Town Clown on Captain Kangaroo, who was silent, in the mode of Emmett Kelly.

I liked clowns so much when I was a kid that I wanted to be one when I grew up. I had a hyperactive imagination and played by myself a lot, so I invented several different clowns, each with his own name and look. My encounters with clowns weren't scary, although they were somewhat awe-inspiring. I remember going to the circus and getting an autograph from a clown, who seemed huge. He was a true pro, though, and referred me to the page in the program that his picture was on for signing.

My interest in clowns today is more theoretical. The only noteworthy TV clown today is the satire of one, Krusty on The Simpsons (inevitably episodes featuring him are my favorites). What amuses me about clowns today are not their antics, but imaging them as sort of a slice of humanity, like Frenchmen, with their own sociology. For example, two of my favorite New Yorker cartoons feature clowns. One has two cannibals finishing up a meal that has obviously been a clown (large floppy shoes and a rubber nose are among the bones lying at their feet). One cannibal says to the other, "Did that taste funny to you?" Another I have tacked up at my cubicle at work. It has a family of clowns--mother, father, child, baby--sitting around the dinner table. The father says, "Something funny happened at work today." And, of course, there's perhaps the funniest half-hour of television ever, the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, where the local TV clown gets killed by an elephant wearing a peanut suit.

I think the world of TV clowns faded out long ago. I would imagine most people under 30 have no memory of such shows, and the only clown they know is probably Ronald McDonald. But there was a time when every TV market had one. Those were the days.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army


Hellboy II: The Golden Army was written, directed and photographed by Guillermo del Toro, one of the most innovative and exciting directors working today. It's full of action, bizarre creatures, and has two love stories. Yet, my reaction is that of Peggy Lee's: Is that all there is?

I suppose if one were Rip Van Winkle and awoke after a long sleep and this was the first film they saw, they might well be dazzled. But it seems that every week, especially in the summer, we see another special effects extravaganza, and after a while they blur into one long spectacle. The films that stand out do because of a particularly impelling story or interesting characters, and Hellboy II is lacking in this area. I'm sorry to say that it's ho-hum.

Hellboy, for those who didn't see the first film, is a demon who was captured by the U.S. military as a baby and raised as human, and works for an ultra-secret organization that deals with paranormal occurrences. As embodied by Ron Perelman, he is a cigar-chomping rogue who loves cats, TV, and candy. His cohorts are his sweetheart, Liz (Selma Blair) who can set herself ablaze, and Abe (Doug Jones), a kind of gill-man (think of the Creature From the Black Lagoon) who is also an intellectual and classical music buff. New to the team this time is Johann Krauss, who is nothing but ectoplasm inhabiting what looks like an old flight suit.

In this adventure, they are dealing with creatures from folklore who are very real. In a prologue in which the eleven-year-old Hellboy is read a story by his father-figure (John Hurt) about a war between the elves, goblins and trolls vs. humans. The elven king had an indestructible golden army built that couldn't be stopped, but he regretted the bloodshed and struck a live-and-let-live truce with the humans. His son, though, wanted to keep the war going, and has spent all these years in exile. When a piece of a crown that is necessary to get the golden army back up again comes up for auction, the baddie prince snatches it.

Given this premise, del Toro has a field day with mystical creatures. Mike Elizalde is billed as the creature design man, and he is to be lauded, even though I'm sure del Toro had a lot of say in the matter. Anyone who has seen Pan's Labyrinth will recognize his distinctive imagination (he favors creatures who have eyes anywhere but on their faces). As wonderful as all this is, there is a distinct sense of been-there, done-that. Ever since the cantina scene in Star Wars 31 years ago, bizarre creatures in a communal setting has a high bar to reach. In Hellboy II it is the troll market, which is under the Brooklyn Bridge (how did del Toro resist calling it the Goblin Market, in a nod to the poem by Christina Rosetti?)

In between the battles featuring pint-size tooth fairies, massive ogres named Wink, and towering forest gods, the characterization focuses on Hellboy's relationship with Liz (she's got a devil-bun in the oven) and the well-worn theme of the superhero as "other," feared and misunderstood by the people he is protecting. Perelman does very well with the character, who speaks like a character out of Mickey Spillane while looking like Mephistopholes. There is also more focus on Abe, who falls hard for the evil prince's sister (Ann Walton). He and Hellboy share a humorous moment of getting drunk while listening to Barry Manilow.

That moment pretty much stands alone, though. There's little wit in the script (the comedy involving Jeffrey Tambor's put-upon boss is lame). Krauss is initially an interesting character, but not for long, and the climactic battle is resoundingly empty. I don't know if del Toro is signed for any more of these, I hope not. Let Hellboy and Liz ride off into the sunset, and del Toro can concentrate on The Hobbit or whatever else springs from his fertile imagination.

Friday, July 11, 2008

It Happened One Night

Over the next few weeks I'm going to take a look at some more of the Oscar-winning Best Pictures. I'm picking things up in 1934, when It Happened One Night was the first film to sweep the major awards: Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Actor (Clark Gable), Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Screenplay (Robert Riskin)--this has been matched only two other times, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.

The film was made by Columbia, which at the time was one of the "Poverty Row" studios, meaning that they were kind of a second-rate outfit, and when they got major stars it meant they were being loaned out by other studios. Gable and Colbert were not the first choices for the roles, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were. Capra had read a story in Cosmopolitan called Night Bus, which was the genesis of the script.

The film, viewed today, is still a breezy entertainment with most of the scenes still managing to sparkle. It was also one of the first examples of screwball comedy, and includes many elements that have become extremely trite over the decades, but were still fresh here, such as the romantic pair meeting by being forced together and initially hating each other, the road picture, and the interrupted wedding. If you end up watching this and thinking, "Didn't I see a Jennifer Lopez movie like this?" you probably did, but this was the far-better original.

The plot is pretty simple. Heiress Colbert is kept under lock and key by her father, because he disapproves of her hasty marriage to a famous aviator. This kind of thing wouldn't play today, because since she's over 21 most jurisdictions would consider this kidnapping, and a movie today would have her hiring a battery of attorneys. She escapes, though, and she hops a bus in Miami to try to get to New York. On said bus she meets Gable, who is a wastrel newspaper reporter. He recognizes her (her story is front-page news) and offers to help her if she gives him an exclusive. Of course, over the course of the story, these opposites end up falling in love. True to the genre even then, though, there is a misunderstanding that must be overcome.

The two characters endure hardships along the way, trying to keep her identity from being known and dealing with a lack of funds (the most famous scene is certainly the one where Gable tries to show his hitchhiking prowess but fails miserably, while she stops the first car that goes by flashing some gam). The fact that America was in the midst of a depression creeps through as they meet some folks down on their luck, and it's interesting to see the old motor courts (two dollars a night). I also liked scenes on the bus, which was a more more frequent mode of travel than today. There's a charming scene in which the passengers sing three choruses of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" and it seems like so much fun. This movie was made pre-code, but the script makes central use of the lingering Victorian attitudes, as the characters split a room but hang a blanket between their beds, which Gable refers to as the "walls of Jericho."

Both leads are terrific. Colbert gives her character the right amount of haughtiness but also a madcap spirit, while Gable is great as a guy who thinks he knows all the angles but is really a sofite underneath. Capra would go on to make a number of pictures that centered on sentimentalized Americana, but this one reins in the sentiment and instead simply presents a nice love story. A very nice picture.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Professionals

The Professionals is a Western from 1966, written and directed by Richard Brooks. It received a few high-profile Oscar nominations, two for Brooks (screenplay and direction) and a cinematography nod for the great Conrad Hall, but it seems to have slipped between the cracks, as I had hardly heard of it until it was released on DVD. Turns out to be a first-rate action yarn, with a fantastic script and a fine cast.

What strikes one immediately is how economical it is. The four main characters are introduced during the opening credits in short sequences that immediately establish character. The set-up of the plot is established before the ten-minute mark: a wealthy man, Ralph Bellamy, hires a team to go into Mexico to retrieve his wife, kidnapped by a guerrilla. The four-member team are played by Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode and Robert Ryan, who ooze testosterone.

The setting is a later Old West, well after the introduction of the automobile, sometime around World War I. Marvin's character had run with Pancho Villa. This is the same time of the dying West of The Wild Bunch, which came a few years later, and has perhaps outshone The Professionals as an example of a sixties film that deal with this topic.

Of course, once the men reach their target, who is played with va-va-voom intensity by Claudia Cardinale, they discover the job wasn't exactly what they thought it would be. There is all sorts of musings on the nature of duty, honor and courage, and what it means to be, well, a professional.

Marvin and Lancaster are particularly solid, with the former as a no-nonsense tactician, a foreshadowing of the leader he would play in The Dirty Dozen. After watching this film I would have followed this character anywhere. Lancaster is his amigo and partner, who is more free-spirited and amoral, who says his epitaph should concern "100 proof women, 90 proof whiskey, and 14 karat gold." Ryan is the horse expert, a little of out his league for this job, but the conscience of the group, while Strode is the strong and silent type who is an expert marksman.

Almost everything about this picture works. The depiction of Mexicans in this film is very even-handed, even if notably non-Latin Jack Palance plays the guerrilla leader. The backdrop of the Mexican revolution is handled with historical care. Nothing any of the characters do or say is out of left field, and wow are there some great lines. A sampling: Lancaster is told to go to Hell, and he replies, "Yes ma'am, I'm on my way," or the great last line, when someone calls Marvin a bastard and he replies, "Yes sir, with me an accident of birth. But you sir are a self-made man."

Anyone who enjoys a rousing Western or just the simple pleasure of watching a well-written, well-crafted film would do well to catch The Professionals.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Shotgun Stories

On a tip from Brian from Gone Elsewhere, I rented Shotgun Stories, an independent film that was shot in 2004 but got an extremely limited release earlier this year. It was written and directed by Jeff Nichols and set in his home state of Arkansas. The story, which pits two sets of half-brothers against each other, is reminiscent of the work of Sam Shepard with a hint of Romeo and Juliet (without the romantic angle).

The paterfamilias of the story is never seen--he dies off-screen in the opening moments of the film. He has had two families. He mistreated and abandoned the first, even giving them nondescript names of Son, Kid and Boy. After giving up booze and finding Christ, he remarried and had four more boys, who got proper names.

The three boys from the first family are a motley crew of severe underachievers. Son, the oldest, is the responsible one, married with a son, working at a fish farm for twenty grand a year. Kid, though employed, sleeps in a pup tent in Son's yard, and Boy, who seems to have no other business but coaching boy's basketball, lives in a van, which he says beats paying rent. When we first meet Son, his wife has left him for his gambling, and we also see that he has a constellation of scars on his back, likely coming from shotgun spray.

At the funeral of the father, the first group of boys makes an uninvited visit and Son condemns his old man. This sets in motion the wheels of Aristotlean tragedy, as a Hatfield and McCoy-like feud develops. Though the pacing is languid and the behavior of the characters is measured, there is a pall of menace that hangs over the proceedings, and it isn't a shock when a few of the characters end up dead. It's how the feud comes to a resolution that Shotgun Stories provides some surprises.

The only recognizable actor is Michael Shannon, as Son. I've been intense work from him in Bug and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Here he is like a laconic cowboy, a bit like Gary Cooper in High Noon, who wants to protect his family but realizes he can't let certain things go. In fact, all three of the older brothers are so laid-back that at times I wondered if they fully realized what was going on. I recognize that this may just be an attribute of how men in southeast Arkansas behave, but there were times I wanted to see some displays of emotion.

Nichols has a great way of letting scenes unfold and has written some great dialogue. Kid and Boy seem to spend their time discussing basketball, and I loved a scene in which Kid asks Boy what is the best performance by a basketball player in a movie not about sports. Boy answers Wilt Chamberlain in Conan the Destroyer. I might go with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane, but I'll have to think more on the subject.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bleach

I'm a big Nirvana fan, but I had a hole in my collection. Considering their output is slim, with only three studio albums, it seemed silly that I still didn't have their first record, called Bleach. I remedied that a few days ago.

It was released in 1989, and recorded for $600. It initially sold 3,000 copies, but after the success of Nevermind it went on to sell four million. It is not nearly as interesting as Nevermind (which I consider the best rock record released in the nineties) or In Utero, but it has it's moments. It's hard not to listen to it for clues at the greatness to come.

All but one of the songs are written by Kurt Cobain (who is billed as Kurdt Kobain). This also pre-dated the arrival of Dave Grohl on drums--Chad Channing is the credited man on drums (was he the Pete Best of the grunge era?). The sound is definitely more head-banger than what Nirvana would become, with a heavy, droning chainsaw guitar sound, with heavy rhythm sections (particularly on songs like Floyd the Barber, Paper Cuts and Sifter, which all have beats that sound like Satan knocking on the door).

Lyrically, it's tough to know what's going on because Cobain is practically impossible to understand and there is no lyric sheet. I'm going to go out on a limb and imagine that none of these songs is upbeat. In Negative Creep, he can be heard to be singing over and over again, "Daddy's little girl is a girl no more." Maybe I don't want to know the rest of that.

The one song that presages Nirvana's sound is About a Girl, and it's the only one that surfaced on their great live album, Unplugged. Apparently Cobain was inspired to write this after an afternoon of listening to Meet the Beatles, and he was reluctant to expose his more pop sensibilities. It's a great song, though.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Birth

I don't know if you can find any two-film resume that has such contrasting films as Jonathan Glazer's, whose debut was the profane and kinetic Sexy Beast, but followed up with the lugubrious Birth in 2004. The film didn't make much of a splash except for the notoriety of a scene in which Nicole Kidman shares a bath with a ten-year old boy.

The premise of the film is simple--Kidman is a widow, her husband dead from a heart attack while jogging. Ten years later a little boy shows up claiming to be him, reincarnated. She eventually comes to believe him, much to her family and fiance's consternation. A lot of this plays like a ghost story--the way it is lit, scored and acted. Whenever the kid, who is played with steely focus by Cameron Bright, shows up it's like a ghost sighting.

This all plays more interesting than entertaining. As I watched it I thought it would make a nice short story, but as a film there are definite problems. No matter how skilled the handling, there's just no way you can have Nicole Kidman and a ten-year-old kid talking romance without it being creepy. And if it's nothing but creepy, the film is not successful, because we're supposed to get a sense of eternal love. Kidman does nicely with the role, and Glazer gives her all sorts of opportunity's, including a long close-up as she silently comes to understand that she believes what the boy is saying.

This is not a film for anyone who is sleepy, though. There is a lot of silence in this picture, and hardly anyone raises their voice. Anne Heche, Lauren Bacall and Danny Huston all have supporting roles and are quite good (Huston has the role of the fiance--just how do you react when the woman you may be losing the women you are about to marry to a ten-year-old?)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Marilyn and Ulysses


A few days ago I posted this picture on Gone Elsewhere, and I'm still fixated on it. It's on the cover of the latest issue of Poets & Writers, and I picked up a copy of the magazine at the newsstand (it was a good bit of marketing, as I ended up reading it from cover to cover and ordering a subscription).

The photo of Marilyn Monroe was taken in 1955 by Eve Arnold. According to the editor's note, Arnold wanted to get a shot of Monroe doing something she did in her spare time. The actress had a copy of Ulysses in her car, which she read from time to time. She didn't fully understand it, but she enjoyed the beauty of the language.

The photo is fun because it is greatly suggestive of a different era in both the film and book worlds. When I visited the Hollywood History museum in Hollywood I was more fascinated than I expected to be by the large display of Monroe memorabilia. I'm never considered myself a fan of hers, but she interests me as an icon. She was certainly the dominant sex symbol of the twentieth century, as well as the first centerfold for Playboy.

Of course, she was also the classic victim of her attractiveness, used by men and ultimately chewed up and spit out. From the biographical material I've read about her she led a profoundly unhappy life that came to a staggeringly sad end. It's almost impossible to watch her in films today without feeling sympathy towards her.

She was also an underrated actress who took her craft seriously, studying with Lee Strasberg, At the same time, she became a problem for those who worked with her. I popped in my copy of Some Like It Hot and watched it for the umpteenth time, marveling at how good her performance was, in a role that wasn't as easy as it looks. She had to be drop-dead sexy as well as projecting innocence, a quality that is rare. In the supplemental materials, Tony Curtis recalls how difficult it was to work with her. She was frequently hours late to filming, and Billy Wilder told Curtis and Jack Lemmon to be at their best, because if she got it right, Wilder was going to print it.

Monroe has been the subject of elegies from Norman Mailer to Bernie Taupin, so it's difficult to imagine anyone could write anything new about her. I do find it disheartening that so many young women look up to her as some sort of hero, when instead she should be a cautionary tale. One of her most prominent fans was Anna Nicole Smith, who took her hero worship to dangerous levels.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Teeth

Vagina dentata, or a toothed vagina, appears in the myths of many cultures, and serves as a cautionary tale for the hero who is journeying back to the "dark crucible that bore him." In the post-Freudian era, it is much more likely the reflection of the male fear of female sexuality. This is explained well in the fine film Teeth, written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, which is a kind of feminist horror picture.

Jess Weixler is Dawn, a high school girl who is in one of those abstinence groups. She wears a promise ring, that will only be replaced by a wedding band, and refuses to have any sexual conduct, even masturbation, before marriage. She is therefore unaware that there's seriously something funky going on down there, though her step-brother has an idea, because as very small children he had the tip of his finger bitten off while playing a game of doctor.

Dawn is attracted to a boy in her chastity group, and they have feelings for each other but do their best to resist the impulse. However, while frolicking at an idyll setting at a swimming hole, the boy goes too far and they both discover, to their horror, that Dawn has a pair of choppers in her sex canal.

The film handles this scenario very intelligently, and the characters of Dawn and her brother are very well-etched (the brother has turned to exclusively partaking in anal sex). Also, Weixler, who is reminiscent of a young Helen Hunt, gives a very assured performance in something that could have been very silly. Lichtenstein also suggests that Dawn's mutation may come from the influence of man, as the family lives near a nuclear power plant, and the cooling towers are a frequent visual cue.

A fair warning, some (especially men) will get very squeamish during the film. There are no less than three severed penises, and not much is left to the imagination (there are also some severed fingers of a gynecologist).

Friday, July 04, 2008

Hancock


What if Superman were an asshole? Not only an asshole, but a drunk as well? I'm sure that was part of the pitch for Hancock, a lackluster entry into the summer blockbuster season. This film, though not incompetent (it looks as bright and shiny as most other films that revolve around vehicles being tossed about like toys) fails to work as an exciting superhero thriller, as well as a meditation on the nature of immortality, which seems to be have impressed some critics.

Will Smith is the title character, a boozing malcontent who lives in a trailer and quite often sleeps on city benches, hungover and pissed off. He helps out the citizens of Los Angeles, but inevitably does so much damage (he drops an SUV full of machine gun-toting thugs on to the spire of the Capital Records building) that people wonder whether his efforts are worth it.

When Hancock ends up saving the life of a PR guy, Jason Bateman, he is thanked with a home-cooked meal. Bateman's wife, Charlize Theron is naturally suspicious of the effect of the dipsomaniacal Hancock on her young son, but Bateman smells an opportunity. All Hancock needs is good publicity.
Yes, the first half of this film is all about the exciting world of public relations. I hope all of you can handle the rollercoaster ride! Bateman convinces Hancock to voluntary allow himself to be incarcerated, and then when crime goes up the city will turn to him to rescue them. Sounds like a pretty half-baked plan, but this being a dumb summer movie, it works like a charm.

Then the film takes a sharp turn, and becomes something else entirely. I won't spoil it, but even with the humdrum nature of the first half, this turn is not welcome and really it's downright silly. The film has no internal logic and has rules that seem to exist simply to accommodate the story twists. I suppose the climax of the film is supposed to be some big emotional pay-off, but all I could manage was a yawn.

There's lots of blame to go around. Primarily it's the script, which has all sorts of holes in logic and no particular point of view. The direction, by Peter Berg, is in the Michael Bay school of shit blowing up, and like Michael Bay, has no subtlety, originality or individuality. And as for Will Smith, well, a lot of people find him charming, but I am not one of them. An actor of incredibly limited range, he's not particularly convincing as a cretin in the first half, or particularly likeable when he's supposed to have changed. I just didn't care anything about his character.

The end of the film suggests a sequel is possible, depending on the audience reaction. To which I say, to use a Smith catch-phrase, "Aw, hell no!"

Thursday, July 03, 2008

M31: A Family Romance

Stephen Wright's M31: A Family Romance, is ostensibly about a family living in Iowa. That the parents of the family are luminaries on the UFO circuit, and claim to come from the planet Etheria in the M31 galaxy, is almost beside the point, for at the heart of this book is the soul of middle-America and the meaning of the American family.

The mother and father are Dash and Dot, who travel the country lecturing about UFOs and other metaphysical topics. They have an unruly brood of children, although we're never quite sure who belongs to whom, as parentage is called into question, and we're never quite sure how old they are. The older kids are Dallas, who spends his days drinking beer and making fun of everyone else, Trinity, who seems strangely normal, and Maryse, who is constantly clutching a sickly looking infant called Mignon. The younger kids are Edsel, who is convinced he's an orphan, and Zoe, who is supposedly some kind of receiver of intergalactic communication, and is therefore completely wild and has to be either tethered or sedated.

They live in a decommissioned church in Iowa, and the description of their home life reads like classic white trash literature. The place is a mess, with beer cans everywhere, and a pet goat roaming the yard (there's also a spaceship in the middle of the church). The kids are completely undisciplined. Into his mix enter Beale and Gwen, two acolytes who want to get up close to the great Dash. Beale is a true believer, while Gwen is more suspicious, although she has had a strange experience that may have been an alien abduction. It is through her eyes that we experience the first two-thirds of this slim book, as outsiders.

The book really takes off into virtuosity when the family is forced to flee the church. They hit the road, and it is here where Wright is both brilliantly funny and poignant as he depicts this strange caravan as essentially American. It is a bit breathtaking for a man who says he comes from another galaxy to tell his offspring the old classic, "You know what will happen if I'm forced to stop his car." Or consider this passage describing a rundown motel near the Illinois border: "The rooms were small and dank as monastery cells with a lingering canine aroma, the beds lumpy concavities of little comfort, but lapping at their door was a patio-sized pool of blue water seasoned with enough chlorine to sting the eye and bleach the facial hair." I think I've stayed there.

As this is a lyrical, literary work, there a lot of unanswered questions. Dash and Dallas have a row and the last section of the book concerns Dash as he takes Zoe to Washington, D.C., completely losing his moorings, and we never know what happens to the rest of them. In that way the end is a little unsatisfying. But for sections of this book I was completely transported by the prose, and having once attended a UFO conference, where speakers have straight-facedly told of their many abductions by alien races, it rings pretty true.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Soylent Green


The last of the "Charlton Heston Dystopia Trilogy" was Soylent Green, released in 1973, directed by Richard Fleischer and adapted from a novel by Harry Harrison. It was set in 2022, and was based on the Mathusian laws that population growth would outpace the growth of resources. We see a New York City with a population of 40 million, with fresh food a rarity only for the rich, and the destitute sleeping like sardines in stairwells and alleys.

Heston plays Thorn, a cop, who is lucky because unemployment is at fifty percent. He shares digs with his researcher, played by Edward G. Robinson (it what would be his last role) who is constantly talking about the glories of the old days. He waxes rhapsodic about foods from his youth, while all the proletariat eats is wafers of various colors provided by a super-large corporation. The newest one is called Soylent Green, which is supposedly made out of plankton.

A member of the board of Soylent corporation is murdered, and Heston investigates. First, though, he helps himself to many luxuries from the dead man's home, and also ends up helping himself to his "furniture," which is a word used for a prostitute who comes with the apartment (Leigh Taylor-Young). In the tradition of noir, Heston's policeman is extremely amoral, but over the course of the film he comes to realize some truths, foremost the exact makeup of Soylent Green (the answer to this is pretty well-known, but for those who haven't seen it I'll keep mum).

The film is passable, working better as science-fiction than detective story. The bleak future is vividly rendered (the concept of whore as "furniture" is pretty clever) and it's interesting in retrospect to see how they got some things right about the future and some incredibly wrong. For example, the society of Soylent Green has no computerization at all. Robinson, when he does research, goes to old musty books, as the Internet wasn't even dreamt of by the screenwriters. I also had to chuckle when Heston reports into headquarters on an old-fashioned police phone-box. He doesn't even carry a walkie-talkie, let alone a cell phone. And you'll be sure to giggle when Taylor-Young is playing the newest toy: a game of Asteroids. I guess in 1973 that was the state of the art, but to think it would still be in 2022 is short-sighted. I also laughed at the decor, which is the kind of space-age design that was popular in the early sixties. I'm reasonably certain that will never again be in style.

What the film gets right is the inevitable blurring of government and corporation. And while Malthus' theories were offset by innovations in fertilizer, there is an ever-expanding breach between the haves and the have-nots.

This is another role that proves Heston was not always playing the same character. He camps it up a bit, and it's also a bit jarring to see him frolic naked with the much younger Taylor-Young. Robinson, though, provides the heart and soul of the picture, and the scenes involving him visiting a euthanasia center are almost too heartbreaking to watch.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Va Savoir

A few years ago I spent a few weeks watching as many films from the French New Wave that I could my hands on. None of them, though, were by Jacques Rivette, one of the key members of the movement. His films, apparently, were quite experimental and challenging in nature (one of them was thirteen hours long).

So the first Rivette film I've seen is Va Savoir, which is from 2001, and it's quite ordinary in structure. It has a few subtle jump cuts, but all in all it's an orderly romance that bears a lot of similarities to the films of Woody Allen--a bunch of arty types form attachments and exchange droll quips. It's not as funny as Allen's films, but it has a nice heart.

The two main characters are a French actress who has left Paris to join a company in Italy, and she has married the director. They return to Paris in a tour of a Pirandello play, and she is unable to resist looking up her old lover, a philosophy professor. Lines of dialogue allude to the fact that when she left he was devastated. But he's taken up with a woman with a checkered past who has settled into domesticity and teaches ballet to little girls.

The Italian director (lovely played by Sergio Castelitto) uses his free time to research in libraries for a missing play by the Italian playwright Goldoni. He meets a beautiful young scholar and she is intrigued by his quest. Of course an attachment forms. Meanwhile, the actress has actually become friends with her old lover's new girlfriend. Add to the mix the young scholar's scoundrel brother, who is seducing the ballet teacher so he can steal her valuable diamond ring...

The film starts slowly, as it takes a while to get to know the characters and their connections to each other, as it is a European film and doesn't tell you everything right away. If you can stick with it, it brings its own rewards, and you learn things along the way, which is more satisfying that boring stretches of exposition. As I stated, the humor is droll, with no particularly laugh out loud sequences, but several that are amusing, especially when the Italian director challenges his wife's ex-lover to a duel, which turns out to be drinking vodka on a catwalk well above the theater's stage.

As a side-note, I must say that the actress who plays the young scholar, Hélène de Fougerolles, is one of the more beautiful women I've seen in films in quite a while.