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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Miami and the Siege of Chicago

As we are in between the national conventions of the two major political parties in the U.S., I figured it would be a good time to look back forty years, when literary lion Norman Mailer covered the conventions for Harper's and published the result as Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Mailer was one of those writers, like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote, who were part of "new" journalism, that is journalism that was written in a fiction style. He had tremendous success the year earlier with Armies of the Night, a chronicle of his participation at a rally at the Pentagon.

The first convention that year was in Miami for the Republican Party. There wasn't a lot of suspense--Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead in 1962 when he lost the race for California governor (and lied when he said "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore") had pulled off a political Lazarus act. He was dogged by Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan, but won the nomination in a staid, orderly gathering. The greatest attribute of this book is the way Mailer encapsulates the candidates in novelistic fashion, such as describing Nixon as "universally half-despised," and Rockefeller's unpleasant "catfish mouth."

You really get the sense that the Republican convention that year was about as exciting as a county fair. The only intrigue is who the Vice-Presidential nominee would be. Nixon, beholden to the South, named Spiro Agnew, the governor of Maryland.

The scene in Chicago was a lot different. The tumult in the Democratic Party was as a fever-pitch, even before Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election in March. Then Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and Gene McCarthy, was left with the most primary wins. However, the rules for nomination were a lot different then. The sitting vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, entered zero primaries, but somehow ended up with the most delegates. No wonder protesters arrived in the city en masse.

Mailer's descriptions of the police brutality on Chicago's streets is vivid and horrifying, but interrupted by bouts of solipsism, as he is constantly questioning himself for not being in the middle of it (he uses several accounts by other journalists, notably from The Village Voice, or recounts his viewpoint from his hotel window). Perhaps due to this wondering about his own manhood, he ends up getting arrested for taking notes about a National Guard vehicle, and then has an amusing encounter with the Chicago cop at the precinct-house.

Running through this section of the book is also a moving elegy to Robert Kennedy, including how Mailer learned of his death. I was only seven years old that summer, so don't remember much of it, but it really must have been an amazing time, a time when serious people had to wonder if the entire experiment of America was unraveling. The choice come November--Nixon, Humphrey, or the third-party candidate, George Wallace, who was a segregationist, must have been profoundly dispiriting.

Even if there's too much Mailer here, the writing is often so virtuosic that it's like listening to music. I liked this passage in particular: "The deed was completed. The future storefront of the Mafia was now nominated to run against the probable prince of the corporation. In his hotel suite at the Hilton, Humphrey kissed Mrs. Fred R. Harris, wife of the Oklahoma Senator and co-chairman of his campaign; then as if to forestall all rumors, and reimpose propriety in its place, he rushed to the television screen and kissed the image of his own wife, which was then appearing on the tube. He was a politician; he could kiss babies, rouge, rubber, velvet, blubber and glass. God had not given him oral excellence for nothing."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dodge City

At first blush Errol Flynn wasn't a likely candidate to star in Westerns. He was born in Tasmania, and certainly projected a decidedly British persona. He was resistant to be in Westerns, but made his first in 1939 in Dodge City. He was reteamed with Michael Curtiz and Olivia DeHavilland after the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Dodge City is claimed by many to be a classic Western, and it certainly has elements that are in that category, such as perhaps the most elaborately staged barroom brawl in cinema history. But I found it to be the kind of Western that represents a fantasy version of American settlement, with simplistic black-hat and white-hat notions of good and evil.

Flynn, not disguising his British Commonwealth roots, plays an Irishman who has settled in the West, working a variety of jobs including buffalo hunting to provide food for railroad workers in Kansas. The completed railroad creates a boomtown of Dodge City, which is a terminus for cattle drivers, and as such also becomes a lawless haven for cowboys. It comes under the control of the villainous Bruce Cabot, who runs the sheriff out of town.

Of course, the citizens ask Flynn to take over, and though he is a restless sort, he finally agrees, and manages to clean up the town and win the girl in the process. This kind of story has been told several times, and perhaps this was the first one, because it is also the most rudimentary (it is the basic template that Mel Brooks spoofed in Blazing Saddles). Flynn's character is such a Boy Scout that he isn't very interesting, and the depiction of the town is awash in a lack of authenticism.

It is a handsome production, shot in Technicolor, and with some good supporting performances, most notably Alan Hale as Flynn's sidekick (today Hale is probably best known as being the father of Alan, Jr., who would play the Skipper on Gilligan's Island).

Friday, August 29, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

I didn't watch the whole Democratic National Convention. I skipped over Monday and Tuesday nights, mostly due to the fact that if I stay up until eleven I'm ruined the next day. But I did keep my eyes pried open to watch Joe Biden's speech on Wednesday and Barack Obama last night.

I'm kind of sorry I missed Hillary Clinton's speech, I hear it was good, and she did the right thing for her party by unequivocally calling for her supporters to turn to Obama. One of the most infuriating bits of residue from the primary season is the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) contingent, the Hillary delegates who have engaged in a prolonged pout about her not winning nor being selected as a running mate. Of course it's lunacy for anyone that believes is what Hillary stands for to even think about voting for John McCain, and I'm glad Hillary pointed that out. I think as we get closer to November 4th the remaining PUMAs will become marginalized, much like members of the Flat-Earth Society.

On Wednesday night Bill Clinton did his part, and I think it was the best speech I saw. Like an old knuckle-baller baffling opposing batters, Clinton reminded everyone of how effective he was sixteen years ago in taking down a president who at one time had a ninety-percent approval rating. He laid out in effective and folksy fashion why McCain is the wrong choice and Obama the right one.

As for Biden's speech, it lacked some of the rhetorical flourishes I might have expected, and was more a kitchen-sink affair, with a direct appeal to blue-collar voters. I've admired Biden tremendously for years, and was an early supporter of his in the 1988 campaign, so I'm thrilled he's on the ticket. He's always struck me as an authentic politician, true to his beliefs (although he apparently has carried a lot of water for the credit card industry, who are huge in Delaware). He has to appeal to white Catholic voters, who always back the eventual winner of a presidential election.

As for Mr. Obama's speech, it was not what I expected. It wasn't literary so much as a litany of proposals. He answered the call to be more specific, spelling out over two-dozen different examples of what exactly he will do as president. He also was feisty, spending more time attacking his opponent than usual in these sorts of things. While this speech didn't have any particularly Bartlett's-ready quotes, I think it was utilitarian and probably helped some.

I viewed these proceedings on C-Span, and thank god for that. No commercials, and no kibitzing by an army of self-styled experts talking over each other, telling us how we should react. Whether it's Keith Olbermann on the zany left or Sean Hannity on the troglodyte right, I'm sick and tired of the spin and blather that these chatterers regurgitate on television. In a moment of weakness, I turned to PBS after Obama's speech, thinking I might hear some reasonable commentary. After some hyperbole by "presidential historian" Michael Beschloss, who proclaimed Obama's speech better than John F. Kennedy's 1960 acceptance speech, William F. Buckley acolyte David Brooks proved to be the skunk at the garden party, criticizing almost everything about the speech except Obama's choice of necktie. Richard Norton Smith, a historian who is a through-and-through Republican (he was perhaps Gerald Ford's greatest fan) had a nice riposte for Brooks, saying roughly that though the speech may not be some day carved in granite, it doesn't matter if he gets to make an inaugural address. Amen!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

J.M.W. Turner

On a busy Saturday that included Woody Allen's latest film and a production of Hair in Central Park, I also stopped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch a large exhibit of the work of J.M.W. Turner, a British painter from the first half of the nineteenth century. Many of his paintings are quite beautiful to behold, and suggest that he was ahead of his time.

Turner's early career consisted of landscapes and historical paintings, such as two of the Battle of Trafalgar. As was the style, he tended to place the humans, if he included any at all, in the foreground, and make them quite small. This was done, probably, to suggest how insignificant people are when compared with nature. However, when you look at the paintings up close it's clear that people were not Turner's strong point, as they seem cartoonish and unfinished. He might as well have left them out.

As his career went on, Turner's eye for light became increasingly strong. Often he would paint scenes, such as several of the Grand Canal in Venice, with the sun directly in the viewer's eyes, and thus the sunlight bleeds into the work, creating magnificent effects. Later, he would become obsessed by a fire that consumes the Houses of Parliament. An entire room of the museum consisted of the many studies he made of that fire, and how the blaze wrapped itself around the buildings.

The notecards by the paintings make it clear that Turner was hammered by critics during his lifetime. It's not hard to see why--he was turning away from the style of the time and prefiguring the impressionist movement. It isn't a big leap to look at his paintings and then wander over a few feet to the nineteenth-century European paintings wing to see how Monet, Degas, and others were influenced by him.

I liked his late paintings best, when they become almost abstract. Consider the one pictured here, titled Snowstorm: Steamboat Off a Harbour's Mouth. There's nothing terribly realistic about this picture--I suppose you can identify the central image as a watercraft of some kind, but would one be so quick to do so if the title weren't readily available? The swirls of color and light are mesmerizing, and seem to be almost bleeding and pulsing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Captain Blood

Over the next week or so I'll be taking a look at the films in the boxed set called the Errol Flynn Signature Collection, which consists of five features and a documentary. The set does not include what is probably Flynn's best-known film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, but it does have a fair representation of his Warner Brothers output.

Flynn's first starring role was in the swashbuckling tale Captain Blood. Based on a popular novel, Warner Brothers ran through many possibilities before settling on Flynn, who was a complete unknown. This role made him a star overnight, and according to one film expert quoted on the supplemental materials, it was the most successful movie debut of all time (I'd argue Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, but what do I know?)

Flynn plays Peter Blood, a physician in 1685 England. There is a rebellion going on against the current monarch, James II. When Flynn is called on to treat a wounded rebel, he is arrested and charged with treason. He is sentenced to die, but instead is sent to Jamaica as a slave. He ends up working on the plantation owned by the villainous Lionel Atwill, but Atwill's niece, Olivia DeHavilland (also her first starring role) takes an interest in him. Ultimately Flynn and his compatriots escape and become pirates of the Caribbean.

Captain Blood was directed by Michael Curtiz, who would make several pictures with Flynn (as would DeHavilland and composer Eric Korngold). Curtiz was kind of a utility man in Hollywood, making all sorts of movies, from swashbuckling epics like this one to Westerns, musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and one of the greatest movies of all-time, Casablanca. He shows a firm hand here, as almost every scene is perfectly suited to the action. The first half of the picture, in which Flynn is a slave, does drag a bit, but the second half, on the high seas, really ramps things up. One of the most enduring images from this golden age of Hollywood is the sight of two high-masted ships exchanging cannon fire (in Captain Blood, they used miniature ships--miniature meaning eighteen feet, so they weren't exactly toys). It's a shame the film wasn't done in color, but of course it was 1935 and Technicolor still wasn't available.

I wonder how well Flynn is known today. He was a huge star at the time, but wasn't taken very seriously as a thespian, almost all of his roles were in action films. He died very young after years of alcohol abuse and sex scandals. Before seeing Captain Blood, the only Flynn film I know for sure I've seen was Robin Hood, so these next few days should be fun.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Romeo + Juliet 1996

The most recent film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was the hyperkinetic, modernized version by Baz Luhrmann, which capitalized on Leonardo DiCaprio's heart-throb status and a contemporary music score. I liked some parts of it, but overall it leaves one with a feeling of incompleteness. It's really best for those who have never read a word of the Bard.

Set in Verona Beach, which looks to be in Southern California (but filmed in Mexico) Romeo + Juliet does capture the heat of the play, and Luhrmann and his co-screenwriters bend over backwards to update the material, sometimes ingeniously. The feuding Montagues and Capulets are competing tycoons, complete with armed guards and big limos. The rowdy young ones ride around in souped up convertibles, armed to the teeth (the guns are labeled with the brand name "Sword," to get around the pesky problem of the characters referring to them as such). Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is not about a fairy but a drug not unlike Ecstasy. And so on. Some of it's clever, some of it is groan-inducing. At some point one wonders why they just didn't do a complete update, and keep the plot but jettison the language, like they did in West Side Story.

There's also Luhrmann's visual tics, which ran amok during Moulin Rouge. He speeds up the film, makes swooping cuts, and threatens epileptics with seizures. This may go down with the MTV generation, but I think Shakespeare deserves a tad more reverence.

But there are things to like. DiCaprio and Claire Danes, as Juliet, more than hold their own. Luhrmann has hit upon a recurring theme of water to frame his star-crossed lovers, as they meet by gazing at each through a fish tank, and the balcony scene is performed while in a swimming pool. Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, are both fine, and Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence is excellent. I had to laugh at how Luhrmann chose to have Laurence's letter to Romeo, which is crucial to the plot, delayed. In the text it is because the messenger is quarantined by an outbreak of pestilence. Here it is by a way-laid package by a Fedex type service. I suppose the next version will have email server problems.

The film cuts a lot of the text, a lot. Not so much in the first half, but the second leaves chunks out, including much of the dialogue in the tomb scene. It's a bit jarring for the cognoscenti, but makes sense for the intended audience.

If the future holds to the past, another version will roll around in about ten to twenty years (there was a 1954 version, apparently not available on DVD). It will be interesting to see what this future director decides to do with it, but even the most incompetent of filmmakers can't diminish the essence of why this story has been eternal for over four hundred years, and that is the language. As long as it is served, all will be well.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hair in the Park

Last year I wrote about the fortieth anniversary of the musical Hair and how obsessed I am with it. At the time I thought I would never see a revival of it, let alone a professional one, but I was gobsmacked to read earlier this summer that the New York Shakespeare Festival, which mounted the original production, was going to do it as part of their summer program of free theater outdoors at the Delacorte in Central Park.

So of course I had to go. When I lived closer to New York I used to go to Shakespeare in the Park all the time. All it requires is getting there early enough to take your place in line and then waiting patiently until they hand the tickets out. Since moving farther away, though, I have only done it a couple of times, but nothing was keeping me from this.

My friend Bob and I left his house in northern New Jersey at about six and got in line about 7:15 AM, and there were already a few hundred people in line. Clearly a musical about hippies that is over forty still can resonate with New York audiences, as when we settled into our seats at just before eight there was a full house.

As I watched the show I felt as if I were in a golden glow, a kind of unreal feeling. The production was magnificent, completely faithful to the original, without a hint that it was forty years later. I savored every moment of it, every note of the music, every tie-dye shirt and bandanna of the costumes, every peace sign. When it was over I could have stayed to watch them do it all over again, and if I lived in New York I would certainly see it several times.

The production was directed by Diane Paulus, and in the notes in the Playbill she discusses how she resisted updating it, exchanging Iraq mentions for Vietnam, etc., and that was the correct decision. Certainly this show has more relevance to audiences when the country is in the midst of an unpopular war, so it's not lost on the spectators, and hammering home these parallels by monkeying with the mixture would be too jarring.

The story is very simple, and the "non-book" as it was referred to, is the weakest part of the show. It has a kind of sketch format, as each of the major characters are introduced by a song--there's the "fury with the fringe on top," George Berger, who has been kicked out of high school, the pansexual Woof, who sings an ode to alternative sexual practices, "Sodomy," Hud, the militant black man who sings an long list of derogatory terms for his race called "Colored Spade," Sheila, a radical college student, and Jeannie, a pregnant hippie-chick who is in love with Claude, who is from Flushing but fancies himself as hailing from Manchester, England. Sheila is in love with George, and Woof is in love with Mick Jagger. If the book isn't exactly cracklingly good, I did like one joke, which I'm not sure was in the original. Jeannie, when about to take a puff on a joint, announces, "As Mary Magdalene said, 'Jesus, I'm getting stoned!'"

The through-line of the piece is that Claude has received his draft notice. He is urged to not report, but does anyway, and then to burn his draft card, but he does not. Claude's slow slide into the maw of the military is the spine of the action. Though much of Hair is bright and spritely with optimism--is there any cheerier opening than Aquarius, and what could be more enchanting than Good Morning, Starshine, there is an overall sense of anger and mourning to the lyrics. These kids, some of whom have no other home but the park, are completely at a loss, and sing about a "dying nation," or a litany of things they don't have, from faith to underwear. Paulus gets that, and though the evening ends with the cast dancing on stage with the audience members, the last moment of the play itself is the song "Let the Sunshine In," which is not a happy hosanna but instead a plaintive cry for salvation.

One of the best things about doing a professional production of Hair is that you're going to see a lot of bright young talent. There are no star turns, so everyone in the cast was quite unknown to me. I hesitate on mentioning anyone in particular, since the cast was uniformly excellent, but I can single out Bryce Ryness as Woof, Will Swenson as Berger, Caren Lyn Manuel as Sheila, and Christopher J. Hanke as Claude. It was really a magical evening for me, and I thank them all for realizing a dream come true.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Good news: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's most enjoyable film in a decade (Match Point may have been a more completely accomplished film, but it was also a bit airless and oppressive). There are a lot of laughs, plenty of magnificent Spanish scenery and an interesting and complex love triangle (or is it a quadrangle). The film does have some flaws, though.

The 800-pound gorilla in this film is the voice-over narration. There is a lot of it, perhaps the most I've ever heard in a film, and at times seems like a filmed audio-book. It is read by a flat voice of someone who is not in the film, and seems to be there to give the film the appearance of being adapted from a novel. It would send Robert McKee into fits of rage.

I wondered what it would be like to watch the film without it. There is little information given that could not be deduced from the action, but it does generate a few laugh lines. It would seem to violate the dictum of "show, not tell," and if anyone hates the experience because of it I wouldn't begrudge them.

However, I still enjoyed myself. The story concerns two young American woman, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, spending a summer in Barcelona. Hall is engaged to a blandly handsome and wealthy fellow, Chris Messina (fifty years ago this would have been termed the "Ralph Bellamy role"), while Johansson, who has yearnings to be an artist, is adrift in both her career and her love life. They meet a smoothly sexy painter, Javier Bardem, who is so self-confident that he approaches them at a restaurant as a complete stranger and invites them to spend the weekend with them, where they will see the sites, drink wine, and make love.

The scene is terrific, as all of the actors completely encapsulate who they are. Hall is outraged by Bardem's aggressiveness, while the more adventurous Johansson is intrigued. Bardem's painter is simply who he is, a bedroom-eyed seducer, but still hung up on his tempestuous ex-wife, even though she stabbed him with a razor.

Needless to say, romantic entanglements ensue. Both women end up attracted to Bardem, but Hall pulls back and sticks to her fiance. Barden and Johansson move into together, and all seems well until his ex-wife, Penelope Cruz, comes back into his life. She is mentally unstable but he can't get her out of his system, as she inspires his art and is, well, that kind of crazy/beautiful that has been the bane of men's existences for ages. Soon the three of them form a cozy menage a trois, as Cruz realizes that Johansson is the missing ingredient that allows her and Bardem to be happy together. This is, of course, venturing into creepy male fantasy territory, but a worthy topic of exploration, as human relationships certainly can be complicated, and these characters are vivid and well-written and acted.

The notion that Americans can be rejuvenated by the exoticism of foreigners is sometimes an over-worked theme, but it works here, particularly with the character of Hall, who I think is the focal point of the piece, as it is her story that provides the spine. Cruz will get the most attention, though, probably inserting herself into the Best Supporting Actress Oscar conversation. She plays a spitfire, but creates a reasonably real person and holds back from all-out scenery chewing. Johansson, who I had started to wonder if the early talent she had exhibited was illusory, is used well here by Allen. Cruz sums her up as being someone who has "chronic dissatisfaction," and she manages to be both sexy and interesting.

After the many lackluster films over the Allen's latest decade, I was heartened to see that he hasn't completely lost his touch. I think it also helped that I saw this in a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where even the mention of Bedford Hills can get a laugh. Though he's now made four films in a row outside of his beloved home town, he's still essentially a New York filmmaker.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Romeo and Juliet 1968

In 1968 a film version of Romeo and Juliet was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and for my money it is the best, and is also one of the finer Shakespearean film adaptations, regardless of play. Though made during the time of hippie counterculture, it is strictly traditional (save for some bits of partial nudity), unlike say the "hippie" Hamlet that starred Nicol Williamson and Marianne Faithful.

There are a number of things that are admirable about this film, perhaps none more than it seems essentially Italian, even if the cast is almost entirely British. The photography, by Pasqualino De Santis, brims with the heat and dust of Renaissance Verona, and the costumes, by Danilo Donati, tie in with the overall palette of umbers, ochres, and oranges. Also, the leads are age appropriate. Both Leonard Whiting, as Romeo, and Olivia Hussey, as Juliet, were teenagers, and Hussey in particular captures the youthfulness of a character who is supposed to be only thirteen years old. Even more, Natasha Parry, as Lady Capulet (who seems to have a touch of Lady MacBeth here) seems age-appropriate, as the text specifies that she was a mother at an earlier age than Juliet is at the time, which would mean she could be no older than twenty-six.

The production is so rich that you can almost smell and taste the various flavors of the composition. And there's passion in the actors' performances. Whiting, who has Tiger Beat good looks, acquits himself nicely, and Hussey is, well, sexy as Juliet. It's easy to see why Romeo goes bonkers upon clapping eyes on her. I also liked John McEnery as Mercutio, who makes him a bit deeper than most productions, Milo O'Shea as Friar Lawrence, and Michael York as Tybalt.

As with any film of Shakespeare, and as I mentioned below, cuts are made. Zeffirelli, for example, spares the life of Paris, who in the play gets killed by Romeo in front of the Capulet tomb. It's not known whether this was a deleted scene or just some compassion for the poor stiff. Also, a few lines are dropped here and then that are puzzling, such as "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!" And as with the '36 version, Friar Lawrence's big speech on plants and herbs is nowhere to be found.

I've seen this film several times. When we were rehearsing the play in college are director screened it for us, and ended up using a thing or two. He called it "stealing from the millionaire." Or, as Woody Guthrie said about folk music, "Plagiarism is part of all culture."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Romeo and Juliet 1936

Earlier this summer I went to see a friend who participates in community theater in a production of Romeo and Juliet. It was a kind of a sad spectacle (aside from my friend, of course) as the director chose to mount the play in modern-dress, using guns instead of swords, etc. This does not automatically doom a production, but when a director makes this choice there has to be some kind of point to be made, such as when Orson Welles set Julius Caesar in fascist Europe. For this particular production, I fear the director chose to do this because he wanted to make it more accessible to modern audiences. When you start by assuming your audience is dumb, you're sunk.

I know Romeo and Juliet better than any of Shakespeare's plays, because when I was a theater student in college we did a year-long study of the play, which culminated in a production (I played Benvolio). In the fall we studied the text, Shakespeare's time, and almost everything else about the play, and then in the spring semester we rehearsed and performed the play. Our director, after flirting with the idea of setting it in gangland Chicago (a common choice, but too much like West Side Story) we ended up doing a traditional production, set in, of all places, renaissance Italy. How novel! It was the most rewarding thing I did during my college years.

There have been three major film productions of Romeo and Juliet, all of them available on DVD, so I'm going to take a look at them over the next few days. The first, which I had never seen before, was a George Cukor production released in 1936. Today this film is something of a figure of fun, as the first thing noticed is that the actors playing the leads are far too old for the parts. Leslie Howard was 42, Norma Shearer 34, and John Barrymore, playing Mercutio, was 54! The film was from MGM, and set up by Irving Thalberg specifically for Shearer, his wife.

It's not a bad film. It's certainly very conventional, couched in a kind of Victorian approach to Shakespeare (a style that was dying out, due to people like Welles). The actors declaim in a fashion that is years away from naturalism--Shearer actually puts the back of her hand to her forehead on a few occasions, something that is only done today in parody. But the actors also are magnificent at speaking the poetry. Howard, in particular, is a pleasure to listen to, and Barrymore seems to have great fun. Also excellent is Edna Mae Oliver as the Nurse and Basil Rathbone as Tybalt. I'm not so sure about Andy Devine, who was best known for Westerns (he's the stagecoach driver in Stagecoach) as the comic character of Peter.

One thing I always am amused by in films or stage productions of Romeo and Juliet is what is cut or rearranged, as no one does Shakespeare unabridged (except Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet). Cukor does rearrange a few things, such as introducing Juliet before Romeo, and cutting the Friar's speech that cues us in on his fascination with making potions out of plants. But there's nothing controversial about Cukor's moves, and this film does nothing that would Shakespeare roll in his grave.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Who Will It Be?

The political press is in a tizzy, and I kind of am, too, waiting for Barack Obama to name his running mate for the November election.

The selection of the vice-president is charmingly undemocratic, as it remains in the hands of one person (and his advisers) and is part of an elaborate game of addressing weaknesses in experience, geography, and temperament. It's also, for a person who is not president, their first major presidential-level decision. The party conventions do ratify the selection, but that is a fait accompli. I don't believe any VP nomination has ever been voted down. In one instance, in 1956, Adlai Stevenson threw open the nomination to the Democratic delegates, and they selected Estes Kefauver (John F. Kennedy finished second). Of course Obama would never do that, because Hillary Clinton would probably get it.

So who will he choose? The pundits seem to have focused on three names, with a few more as outside possibilities. The big three are Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana, and governor of Virginia Tim Kaine. All have pluses and minuses, and 'tis a pity the best of the three couldn't be rolled into one candidate.

The hot money is now on Biden, after his quick trip to war-torn Georgia. A senior lion in the Senate (he's been there since 1973), Biden has extensive foreign policy experience as the sometime chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He can be a gifted public speaker, when he's not putting his foot in his mouth, which he's wont to do. Also, his candidacy for president in 1988 was derailed by charges of plagiarism, but that seems to be a non-issue now, but I imagine they will be resurrected should he be the pick.

Evan Bayh is the safe, bland choice. Biden's Delaware is a likely blue state, but if Obama could use Bayh to get Indiana it would be a big boost. Bayh has experience as both a senator and a governor, including a stint on the Intelligence committee. However, he may be too centrist for the firebrands of the party, particularly on his support for the Iraq war (Biden opposed the war, but during his brief run for president this year he did not support an immediate withdrawal of troops). Neither Bayh or Biden signify any kind of change, either, as they are firmly in the Washington establishment.

That brings me to Tim Kaine, who has been governor of Virginia for three years. Before that he was mayor of Richmond, so he certainly doesn't help Obama on the inexperience charge. Kaine is also very religious, and would be a rather obvious fob to religious voters. I don't know much about his views on anything. Frankly, I think this would be a bad choice, as Obama is still pretty much an unknown to voters, they don't need another one to get acquainted with.

In the second tier of outside chances are Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Sebelius also lacks international experience, and if Obama selects a woman not named Hillary Clinton there may be hell to pay. Dodd and Richardson would be solid picks, even if they are kind of stiff on TV. Don't know much about Reed--he doesn't offer anything geographically.

The choice will probably be made by Friday. McCain will then likely make his choice on Friday the 29th, the day after the Democratic convention, in an attempt to squelch whatever buzz Obama has received from it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

White Butterfly

It's been quite a while since I've read an Easy Rawlins mystery by Walter Mosley. White Butterfly is the third in the series, and also the third I've read. The first two were Devil in a Blue Dress (which I thought made an unfairly overlooked film in 1995) and Red Death.

Rawlins is a black man living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He is something of a private investigator, turned to by those who can't go where he can. This novel is set in 1956, and Rawlins is married with a baby. He also happens to own a lot of land, but keeps that fact hidden, even from his wife.

Mosley's books follow the template of classic private-eye fiction, but of course with a twist, that is we see the lives led in the shadows by a beaten down minority. Rawlins is always aware he's a black man in a white world, and feels the pain and sees on it the faces of others. In the books opening passage he crystallizes it: "Defeat goes down hard with black people; it's our most common foe."

A serial killer has struck several times in the black community, killing good-time girls. It's only when a white girl is murdered that the police snap into action. One of the few black detectives on the force approaches Rawlins and asks for his help. Quickly he finds that the girl, who is mentioned in the papers as a UCLA co-ed, in fact has a much more sordid past.

White Butterfly, like the other two I've read, are immensely satisfying. They are mysteries, yes, but also effective literature, and some of the best writing about what it was like for a race of people to be beaten down. When Rawlins is arrested at one point in the book, he knows the drill, knows there is nothing he can do to stop it, and does his best to survive.

I see on Mosley's Wikipedia page that I've got a lot of catching up to do, as several more Rawlins mysteries have been written, which take him up to the Watts riots in 1967. I've got to add them to my Amazon wish list.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Leopard

The other film on Scorsese's list of his five favorite films I hadn't seen was The Leopard, from 1963, directed by Luchino Visconti. I haven't seen any other films by this director, so I don't have a wealth of knowledge about him or his work. As with The Red Shoes, I admired more than loved this film.

I saw the Italian version. For its release in the States, it was truncated from its three-hour length and dubbed into English. The star, Burt Lancaster, spoke his lines in English (which are heard in the American version) but dubbed in Italian in the original, which is a bit strange to experience for one familiar with his voice. But that passed quickly, and it was interesting to watch his very poignant performance, which came across clearly in any language.

The story is set in 1860 in Sicily. There is a movement afoot to reunify Italy, which had been broken into two kingdoms. The leader of the movement, or revolution, depending on your point of view, is Garibaldi. Lancaster is the Prince of Salinas, and opposes Garibaldi, but when his favorite nephew (Alain Delon) joins the cause, he comes around. Still, he is saddened by the inevitable end of his way of life. As he puts it, his type were the lions and leopards, but they are being replaced by jackals and hyenas.

The film is operatic in scale, with large battle scenes and opulent balls. I was struck by how similar in tone, if not necessarily in plot, it was to the Godfather (certainly the Sicilian connection works). Lancaster is very much like Don Vito Corleone, watching over a family and adhering to a time-honored code. He just doesn't have anybody whacked.

Judging by The Leopard, Visconti was a master of composition. He brings a very painterly eye to the work, particularly replicating the impressionists (one picnic scene suggests Manet's Le Dejeuner sur L'herbe). The camera work, by Giuseppe Rotuno, is also brilliant, with some breathtaking use of deep focus.

However, I found it all a bit dry. Lancaster's character is a very interesting one, but much of the film was a chore for me. There are long scenes of dialogue concerning the Italian government. Whereas The Godfather was brimming with passion, The Leopard is far more intellectual (perhaps because it is based on a literary novel rather than a potboiler). It is a must-see for hard-core cinemaphiles, but I would imagine a general audience would be bored to tears.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Red Shoes

A few months ago, I was reading Martin Scorsese's MySpace page (I know, that sounds odd) and he wrote what his five favorite films of all time are (and stressed that they are in no particular order): Citizen Kane, The Searchers, 8 1/2, The Red Shoes, and The Leopard. I was a little taken aback, as I had never seen two of them. I'm now getting around to changing that.

First up, The Red Shoes (1948), which I guess I had avoided all these years for its reputation as a "women's" picture. Upon seeing it, I can say that it's not really a film onlyfor women, but if you happen to be a balletomane it would probably help. It's also easy to see what gets Scorsese excited about it, as it is a technical marvel, much like Citizen Kane. As a piece of emotional storytelling, though, I found it to creak with melodrama.

But it is sumptuous. The color, particularly, is stunning in its vividness. It's almost like a moving watercolor painting. The photography is by Jack Cardiff, and he had also done Black Narcissus (which was done by the same directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). On the reputation of those two pictures alone Cardiff won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar a few years ago.

When I say the film creaks a bit, I don't mean to dismiss the story, though, as there are times when it unfolds with supreme grace. It begins with students rushing to grab balcony seats at a new ballet. At first you think these characters might be just extras, and it turns out that all but one are. Only one of these characters appears again, and he is one of the triad that the film rests on. Marius Goring plays a young composer who, as he listens to the music of the ballet, realizes that it is his music, plagiarized by his professor. He writes an angry letter to the director of the ballet company, Anton Walbrook, and when he tries to retrieve it, Walbrook hires him as a deputy conductor.

Attending a party, Walbrook meets a young British dancer, played by Moira Shearer, and admiring her spirit, adds her to the company. Eventually he sees her capability for greatness, and also falls in love with her, in his own way. He commissions Goring to write a ballet for her, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Red Shoes. She becomes a star, but when she and Goring fall in love, Walbrook angrily tries to break them up and fails. He believes that love is a distraction and no one be both a great dancer and part of a relationship.

Walbrook is the focal character of the film. Said to be based on Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario, Walbrook is a charming monster, a man who likes to control those who work with him. He wants to forge Shearer in his own image, and possess her, not in a romantic sense. In fact, Walbrook's character would seem to be asexual, concerned only with creating the best ballets he can.

This issue of art versus the simple happiness of love is fairly compelling, and builds to a gripping climax, as Shearer is forced to choose between Walbrook and Goring. The spine of the fairy tale, which has a young girl wearing red shoes that don't allow her to stop dancing, is apparent as well. The extreme ending, though inevitable perhaps, is still a bit over the top.

The Red Shoes is the type of movie that other filmmakers can watch endlessly and point out touches of brilliance in technique, but for me I need to be involved on an emotional level, and it just didn't do it for me. I also have to admit that the centerpiece, the twenty-minute actual ballet of the Red Shoes, though beautiful, had my mind wandering a bit. I'm a hopeless philistine when it comes to ballet, I guess.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is an occasionally very funny but mostly labored comedy that probably gets a lot more laughs in the private screening rooms of industry folk from Malibu to Sunset Boulevard than it does in multiplexes in Topeka. I mean, how many of us can relate to a storyline about a pampered star not getting TiVo?

The film turns a cynical eye at the excesses of Hollywood and the self-important pricks who run it. A Vietnam war film, also called Tropic Thunder, is being made by a disparate group of Hollywood types. There’s the action star whose career is on the decline (Ben Stiller), a multi-Oscared method actor from Australia who has had his skin darkened in order to play an African-American (Robert Downey Jr.), a Chris Farley-like comedian with a monkey on his back (Jack Black), a hip-hop star (Brandon T. Jackson), and a young actor who still finds the behavior of his co-stars bizarre (Jay Baruchel). They are directed by a British stage director over his head (Steve Coogan). Nick Nolte plays the crusty veteran who wrote the source book, and he suggests that the actors be dropped into the jungle and left to fend for themselves. When Coogan is removed from the scene (in a moment that garnered the loudest laughs in the screening I went to) the clueless thespians manage to get entangled with druglords and have an adventure far beyond anything they could ever imagine.

This reminded me a bit of an off-Broadway play I saw about twenty years ago called Geniuses, by Jonathan Reynolds, which was clearly inspired by Francis Coppola directing Apocalypse Now, so Tropic Thunder doesn’t exactly till new ground. The ridiculous lives of movie people have been made sport of for years, and it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The script, by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, has jokes both obvious and inspired. Most of the good stuff comes in the byplay between Downey, whose character is a brilliant combination of writing and acting, and Jackson, who as an actual African-American is understandably indignant.

I also liked the use of some cameo roles, particularly Matthew McConnaughey as Stiller’s devoted agent, and in an about a ten-second span at the end of the film, during an Academy Awards broadcast, Jon Voight, Lance Bass and Jennifer Love Hewett are all deployed successfully. I’m less sure of what I think about Tom Cruise’s turn as a vulgar studio head, wearing a bald cap and a gorilla mat of chest hair. It’s a ballsy performance, probably inspired by guys like Joel Silver and Scott Rudin, but I didn’t really laugh at it, I kind of stared, slack-jawed.

This is Downey’s picture, and his co-stars suffer in comparison. Black’s character is basically one joke, as he is without drugs and goes through withdrawal (although I was amused by what oral favors he promised Jackson). It is Stiller’s character, though, that really drags down the film. He has two film personas: the dimwitted egomaniac (Zoolander, Dodgeball) and the dyspeptic schlemiel (Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary). He combines the two characters here, and neither elements are particularly gripping or funny. I think the lesson of Joe Piscopo applies here: comedians should not bulk up. The less said about Danny McBride, who plays a demolition expert, the better. He has now fouled the waters of two comedies in two consecutive weekends.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Smell of Oscar

August is almost half over, and back-to-school sales are in full swing, and guys are preparing for their fantasy football drafts. That can only mean that it's time to start thinking about who will win this year's Oscar.

For those who are new, I'm an Oscar geek of the highest order, have been since I was ten. It mixes my love of movies with my love of sports, and I'm generally pretty good at predicting. Last year I posted a list of ten films and four of them got nominated for Best Picture (didn't count on Juno--I don't think I had heard of it at this time last year). Most of the fall releases are slotted for release, and at least one picture already released has a chance at a nomination. In alphabetical order:

Australia (Baz Luhrmann): Luhrmann does Out of Africa, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Sounds like it will have spectacular photography and will also be a frightful bore, but also seems Academy-friendly.

Changeling (Clint Eastwood): Never count out Clint, but which film? He also has Gran Torino scheduled to come out this year. I'll go with this one, which is period (set in the twenties, a woman comes to believe her returned kidnapped child is not hers) which the Academy has a soft spot for. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Eastwood pulls a Soderbergh and gets two nods.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher): This film is on a lot of Oscar-watchers lists, but I'm not so sure. Fincher is no Academy favorite--total nominations for Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac? Two. Based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so has some literary snob appeal, and nature of story--a man aging backwards--may provide high-profile acting style points for Brad Pitt.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan): The stratospheric box office has made this film impossible to ignore in the Best Picture category, but I'm still dubious. Sasha Stone pointed out that four out of the five all-time top grossers have been nominated, but that's incorrect (she's assuming Dark Knight will get nominated). It's really only three: Titanic, Star Wars, and E.T. (Shrek II missed the cut). All of these films are completely different in tone and have a different contextual place in time, and it's a pretty piddling sample (the next several BO kings were not nominated for Best Picture). But only a fool would leave DK off a shortlist.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley): Adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning play about pedophilia at a Catholic school, this film screams prestige, with a cast including Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Sure to get acting nominations, but who knows if it's too stagey to get Best Picture nod. Only one film based on a Pulitzer-winning play has won the Oscar: Driving Miss Daisy

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard): Sounds fascinating, even if it is directed by the equivalent to white bread. Behind the scenes at the interviews David Frost did with disgraced Tricky Dick in the mid-seventies, with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. The latter seems a solid bet for Best Actor, as the Academy loves people who play real people.

Milk (Gus Van Sant): More real people, only far less known than Nixon. All about groundbreaking San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk, who was gunned down by a nut who got off because of the "Twinkie defense." Question here, aside from quality, is the gay issue, as the Academy is still grappling with it. Sean Penn seems a good bet for another Best Actor nomination.

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes). Englishman Mendes takes another look at the oppressiveness of American suburbia (this time in the fifties) and reteams Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Another picture that has a prestigious appearance, who knows if it will be any good.

The Road (John Hillcoat): A lot of Oscar soothsayers aren't giving this film much of a chance, but I have a feeling about it. I'm not saying it will win (my god if it did it would be two Cormac McCarthy adaptations in a row) but if it's as impactful as the novel I think it will turn some heads. A very simple story about a man and his son in a post-apocalyptic America, it is directed by Aussie Hillcoat, who made a very good picture called The Proposition.

The Soloist (Joe Wright): Sounds horrible to me, a retooling of Shine except this time the pianist is a homeless man (Jamie Foxx). I will probably hate it, but the Academy seems to lap this stuff up. Robert Downey Jr. is in it, and if it hits big he will just absolutely own 2008.

Other films that are mentioned include Soderbergh's Che, but a release date is not fixed and I don't know how they'd deal with two films. There's also Stephen Daldry's The Reader, Edward Zwick's Defiance, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies and Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Murder by Numbers

I wonder if the Leopold and Loeb case didn't exist, Hollywood would have invented it. It's been the basis of many films, as well as other literary forms, and seems irresistable. Two young men, who think of themselves as Nietzschean supermen, murder someone to see if they can get away with it. This provided the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, as well as an already forgotten film from 2002 by director Barbet Schroeder, Murder by Numbers.

The killers in this instance are played by Ryan Gosling, in one of the first roles that brought him some attention, and Michael Pitt, who is still playing variations on the role as late as this year, in Funny Games. Gosling's character is the popular kid, Pitt is the loner genius who has an unhealthy interest in forensic science. They have sort of odd symbiotic relationship that is not explicitly homosexual, but sure has all sorts of signs indicating that it is (unlike Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which was a version of the Columbine shootings that had the killers frankly groping in the shower).

The focal point of the film is not so much the killers, though, as the investigators, primarily Sandra Bullock as one of those quirky detectives that are so prevalent in films. She's got a deep secret in her past that spurs her on, and also makes her something of an asshole. She's got a new partner, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Ben Chaplin, and when she sleeps with him for sport he gets all pouty about it. When Bullock gets on Gosling's trail, she immediately hates him, as we are cued to wonder about how she got some interesting scars.

This film is ultimately a let-down, but it has moments where you start thinking it might be good. The puzzle is somewhat interesting, but ultimately gets very little attention (it involves a broken clock, which was probably lifted from an Encyclopedia Brown book). Instead the filmmakers focus on the psychological angle, whether Bullock's deep-seated pissed-offedness or Gosling and Pitt's bizarre relationship.

Just when you think it gets interesting, the film surrenders to multiplex standards. The ending, in an abandoned house atop a cliff (why would such prime real estate be left to rot?) is run-of-the-mill "look out behind you" stuff. Also, the title is meaningless, the murder and its subsequent investigation has nothing to do with numbers.

Most of the time I spent this film wondering about things, like Bullock's career. She's obviously made a mint and is a well-known name, but as she ever really knocked one of the park? She executive produced here, so obviously this is what she wanted to do, but aside from a supporting role in Crash the last thing I remember her doing is Premonition and Miss Congeniality 2, which are not exactly sterling moments. And what happened to Barbet Schroeder? After Barfly and Reversal of Fortune I would have thought he would have ended up doing better stuff than this. And what happened to Agnes Bruckner? She plays the girl who is sought by both boys here, for good reason, as she is an alluring and interesting presence on film (I thought she was terrific in Blue Car). Looking at IMDB, she seems to be doing nothing but disposable horror films. The only thing to have escaped this film seems to be Gosling.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Greatest Olympian Ever?

Last night (or I guess it was this morning, China time) Michael Phelps set the record for most gold medals won by Olympian, man or woman, with 11. You'll get no argument from me that it's a tremendous achievement, and that he is certainly the greatest swimmer of all time. But I have a bone to pick with TV people who cavalierly say that he is "the greatest Olympian ever." Just because he has won more medals than anyone else doesn't mean that he is the greatest Olympian.

Phelps, as a swimmer, gets far more chances to win medals than other athletes. He is in eight events this year, for god's sake. Many other athletes, including decathletes, basketball players, volleyball players, boxers, wrestlers, etc., only have a chance at one medal per Olympics. Now, those are the breaks, but claiming that Phelps is the greatest ever is kind of an insult to people like Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, or Al Oerter (who won the discus in four straight Olympics). And those are just American names. Phelps is the greatest gatherer of gold medals of all-time, but he's not necessarily the greatest Olympian of all time. I remember when Pete Rose was asked when he was chasing Ty Cobb's record for most hits in a career if he was a better hitter than Cobb. "I don't know if I'm a better hitter than he is," Rose answered, "But I will end up with more hits than him." Nicely said by a man who wasn't exactly known for decorum.

I haven't been been watching too much of the Olympics. I can't operate on too little sleep, so have turned in before Phelps' races. The thrilling relay race, which the U.S. won by an eighth of a second, I saw in replay, as I did gold medals three, four and five. Fortunately he goes for his last two on Friday and Saturday nights, when I can safely stay up and watch.

I haven't gotten excited by too much else. Gymnastics and beach volleyball seem to be the most covered by TV. Gymnastics, while certainly a great display of athleticism, kind of bores me. And beach volleyball? Well, I'm kind of perplexed how the game became as prestigious as it is. I'm sure that's because Americans do it well, and the women play with as little clothing as the laws of society allow. But it just seems kind of dumb to me, as if Frisbee or horseshoes became Olympic events (which may someday happen).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Out of Africa

In 1985 Sydney Pollack scored his biggest triumph, artistically speaking, with Out of Africa. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture, and he won for Best Director. I remember seeing it for the first time in a Times Square theater and being completely unimpressed, and twenty-three years later my opinion hasn't changed much.

The film tells the story of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), a Danish woman who, spurned by the man she loves, marries his twin brother, who was a friend. They set up a coffee plantation in East Africa (it was supposed to be cattle, but the husband, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, switches to coffee, the first of a series of scurrilous things he does). When Brandauer goes off hunting and whoring, Streep takes up with a big-game hunter, Robert Redford.

There is a lot to like here, particularly the breathtaking photography by David Watkin and the tender romantic music of John Barry. But, as Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, the film comes off as a National Geographic special. The heart of the problem is a certain bloodlessness to the proceedings. Redford, as with other films directed by Pollack, just doesn't have chemistry with Streep. The second half of the film is essentially a long dialogue about whether they should get married or not, and frankly I didn't care. More interesting is her relationship with her servants.

So what have I learned after watching ten Pollack films in two weeks? Well, he was certainly not an auteur. I don't think you could identify a certain style with him. He made films in all genres, and he worked exclusively with big stars--you can't find a film on his resume that doesn't contain above-the-title talent, beginning with The Slender Thread, which starred Sidney Poitier, and ending with The Interpreter, with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. In some ways he reminds me of Michael Curtiz, a man who made all sorts of great films in the thirties and forties (like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) but is little remembered today. Both men allowed themselves to play second fiddle to the work itself, and were more craftsmen than artists.

Pollack made five more feature films after Out of Africa, none of which were big successes (they were Havana, The Firm, Sabrina, Random Hearts, and The Interpreter). Of those I've seen is The Firm, which I remember disliking, except for a performance by Gene Hackman, and The Interpreter, which was a snooze. Nevertheless, he certainly was a force in Hollywood, particularly as a producer. His last Oscar nomination came for Best Picture for Michael Clayton. Clearly the man was not in retirement mode, which makes his passing all the more untimely.

Monday, August 11, 2008


In Sydney Pollack's long career, the only flat-out comedy he made was Tootsie, and it's kind of remarkable that a man who confessed to not being a comedy director ended up making one of the most beloved American comedies of all time. The AFI list of top comedies had Tootsie at number two, behind Some Like It Hot. I wouldn't put it that high, but it's a terrific film, and gets my vote for Pollack's best work.

The story, of course, involves Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who is unemployable because of his reputation for being difficult. He decides to impersonate a woman and manages to get a job on a soap opera, and in the process falls in love with the leading lady, Jessica Lange. There are all sorts of complications that ensue, from Hoffman being forced to seduce his friend, Teri Garr (to cover for being in his underwear, when he really wanted to try on one of her dresses) to Lange's father, Charles Durning, proposing marriage to Hoffman's female identity.

The thread through the film is that Hoffman learns to become a better man by pretending to be a woman. It was this spine that Pollack needed in order to sign on to do the film (the DVD includes a fascinating documentary on the making of the film). That bit of pop psychology is necessary to make the film more than just a simple bedroom farce, but it's really the least interesting thing about the film. What compels me to like it is the impeccable timing and construction of the dialogue, which had many fathers (and a mother)--Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart are the credited writers, but according to the documentary, Elaine May contributed key things to the script (such as the creation of the characters played by Bill Murray and Teri Garr). Murray, as I suspected, improvised most of his lines, including a great bit where he says that he wants to write plays that are attended only by 90 people who have just come in out of a rainstorm, and then has the perfect capper to the reveal scene, in which Hoffman lets the entire world know of his duplicity. "That is one nutty hospital," Murray says, in his signature deadpan.

There are many great moments in this film, such as how Durning's face visibly clouds into anger at a bar when he runs into the man who was pretending to be the woman he proposed to, or the priceless scene in which Hoffman argues with his agent, played by Pollack, about his choices when he was asked to play a tomato. Pollack was talked into playing the part by Hoffman, for reasons that fit right into the scene itself (Hoffman was parodying himself, as he admits to being a notoriously difficult actor). Pollack hadn't acted in twenty years, but finally agreed, and went on to have a great second career as a character actor, especially in films like Husbands and Wives, Changing Lanes, Eyes Wide Shut, and Michael Clayton.

The only problem I had with the film is the concession to the usual Hollywood drivel quotient with the inclusion of an extremely sappy song by Stephen Bishop, which accompanies a banal montage. It reminds me of the scene in Animal House when John Belushi smashes Bishop's guitar. If only Belushi could have been called upon to do that in this film.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Scandal of the Season

The Scandal of the Season is set in London in 1711, and details the events that led to Alexander Pope writing the classic poem The Rape of the Lock. Now, to many who don't know Alexander Pope, or only dimly remember the poem from their undergraduate days, that may sound dull. And, I must admit, the first few chapters, while engaging as they deal with the social mores of the elite class of the time, didn't exactly grip me in a spell. But then I was taken by surprise, as this novel turns into a very effective erotic thriller. And when I say erotic, I mean hot stuff.

The author, Sophie Gee, is a professor of English at Princeton University and teaches Pope, and you can almost smell the must of library stacks, as she has clearly done extensive research. But who would have expected that this subject, which makes one think of the tweed and ivy of universities, would be so forthright about sex? Still waters obviously run deep.

Alexander Pope, as the novel begins, was a young man who aspired to be a great poet. He was deformed by illness, and was self-conscious about it (and knew deep down he would never find the love he desired). He leaves his home in the country and takes residence with a friend in London, as do neighbor sisters, Theresa and Martha. Pope has a thing for Theresa, but it is Martha who really cares for him. It should also be pointed out that they are all Catholics, which was a minority in England, and who are viewed with some suspicion, as there is a faction of Catholics, called Jacobites, who want to restore a Catholic king to the crown.

The sisters have a cousin, Arabella Fermor, who is one of the most beautiful women in London, but is hampered by not being wealthy enough to attract a royal suitor. She does catch the eye of Lord Petre, a dashing baron who happens to be Catholic. Petre ends up making Arabella his mistress, and she believes that he will marry her. But Petre is caught up in Jacobite intrigue, and things don't turn out the way they want. Thus, this leads to the event of the poem, a mock-epic which describes, in couplets, how Petre takes a snip of Arabella's hair at a ball, which thus humiliates her.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel, once accustomed to its language and rhythms. For one thing, how lovely to spend time with people who speak so elegantly, and take pride in their witticisms. Also, what a time to have lived in when poets were celebrities. Also, the traditions and protocols of courtship and social gatherings are so intricate, yet Gee has a thorough knowledge of them and makes sure her readers understand every nuance.

And then there are the sex scenes. It's always a risk for a literary novelist to tackle play-by-play erotic adventures. I've read and written a lot of erotica, and when it's placed in a context where it's not expected it can sometimes seem awfully silly. Not so here. Not only is it well-written, but it's also stimulating.

Helpfully, Pope's poem is included in an addendum, although I must admit I find it tough sledding, even after having read the book. Still, I would recommend anyone that is taking a course in eighteenth-century British literature to read this book. It may give you information that helps lay the groundwork, and it may also make you blush.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Pineapple Express

The latest installment in producer Judd Apatow's takeover of American film comedy, Pineapple Express offers something of a change: instead of being a raunchy romantic comedy, it's a buddy comedy. In fact, it's the second film I've seen in a row that is about the tight bond between a dope dealer and his client. It kind of makes me regret that I never got in the habit, especially when the product itself is described as being like "God's vagina."

The comedy was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also wrote Superbad, which I thought was a gas, and this one is almost as funny, but has some serious third-act problems. I say this even though it has to viewed as a live-action cartoon to be enjoyed, we know this from the beginning when Rogen, who also stars, plays a twenty-five year-old loser and burnout who is dating a high-school student who looks like a model (and is played by one, Amber Heard).

Rogen is a process server who seems to be perpetually stoned. He buys from James Franco, in a performance that will remind no one of his turns as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films. Franco's Saul is a remarkable creation, a sensitive soul and savant of cannabis who values friendship and loves his grandmother, but appears to not be on good terms with a personal grooming kit. In an opening scene, Franco sells Rogen a variety of pot called Pineapple Express, which is so special and rare that Franco says smoking it is like "killing a unicorn." Rogen is toking on it later when he witnesses a murder in the home of a man who happens to be Franco's supplier, and leaves his roach behind. Later, in a moment of rare lucidity, he realizes that the supplier, Gary Cole, will put two and two together and realize that the rare strain of grass is only in the hands of Franco, and the two frantically go on the lam.

This hour or so of the film is pure enjoyment, as Rogen and Franco make a gifted team that recall all sorts of film comedy teams (in her review, Manohla Dargis makes an almost encyclopedic list of them all). The familiar Apatow touches are there, as the dialogue is a vivid blue and the behavior merrily moronic. Sometimes you just have to surrender to the happiness of watching a man beat another man with a dust-buster, or simply run into a tree. There's also so many bon mots of vulgar hilarity that it's hard for me to remember them all.

There are missteps--a third character, Franco's middle-man, played by Danny McBride, is like one of those guys who forces himself into a witty conversation but brings it to a dead stop with an intense lack of humor. He seems to be trying way too hard. I did like a frantic three-way slugfest that occurs between them all (where the dust-buster comes into play), but when McBride seems to be killed I was pleased to be rid of him. Turns out this is a false hope.

The film really runs off the rails in the final third. Franco and Rogen are now in Cole's massive underground agribusiness, and are joined by Asian drug-lords armed to the teeth and dressed like ninjas. Many guns are employed, and the result is a sloppy bit of gun porn that reflects neither humor nor skill (although I laughed when Rogen uses a tittie twister on an opponent). The movie is directed by David Gordon Green, heretofore an indy minimalist, and I would venture to say he does not have much a future in the action film biz. (I've only seen one of his films, All the Real Girls, which is as about diametrically opposed from this one as possible).

But I still liked this film a lot, and laughed often. I haven't mentioned the two hit men who are chasing Rogen and Franco, one of whom just wants to go home to have dinner with his wife, and the other who is frequently given to emotional breakdown, or Rogen's speech about how making mistakes in this life may make the difference between coming back in the next life as an anal bead or Jude Law. Very funny stuff.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Electric Horseman

It has become clear that any retrospective of Sydney Pollack's films is also something of a retrospective of Robert Redford's. The two teamed yet again in 1979 for The Electric Horseman, an easy to digest romantic comedy that was also a jeremiad against corporate America.

Redford plays a washed up rodeo star who is a pitchman for a large conglomerate's breakfast cereal. It is so beneath his dignity that he drowns his shame in booze while he's attended to by old pals (one of them played by Willie Nelson). His latest gig is to ride a champion race horse that has been purchased by the conglomerate as a corporate symbol during a Las Vegas stage show. Redford is outraged when he discovers the horse is doped with tranquilizers and steroids, and on an impulse he mounts the stallion and rides right out of Caesar's Palace and into the desert, planning on releasing him into a herd of wild mustangs.

Jane Fonda is a hard-nosed newswoman who manages to track him down, and here's where the movie goes south. Up until then it's an amiable mix of Redford's charm and self-satisfied anti-big-business feel-goodism. But they had to make this a romance, even though it defies all sense. Having Fonda's shrewish reporter fall for Redford's laconic cowboy just wants to make you throw things at the screen. Watching Fonda, who is tough as nails in the first half of the picture, basically do nothing but look adoringly at Redford in the second half is painful.

Still, this film has its merits, and goes down smooth, like good sipping whiskey. What it needs more of is Willie Nelson, who has a brief role and supplies two songs, "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," and then, rethinking the matter, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys." He also has the film's best line, when he says, "I'm going to get a bottle of tequila and one of those Keno girls who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch and kinda kick back."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Three Days of the Condor

Sydney Pollack certainly glided from one genre to another. After The Way We Were, he did a film about Japanese organized crime, The Yakuza, and then did an espionage thriller, Three Days of the Condor, which again teamed him with Robert Redford. It's a taut, well-executed film, with a few notable flaws.

Redford plays a researcher for the CIA. He's not a spy, he reads spy novels and analyzes the plots. When he returns from lunch one day to his New York office, he finds all of his colleagues have been murdered. When he reaches out to the CIA brass for help to come in safely, he learns that he can trust no one.

This film, made in 1975, is precursor to the fast editing style that is old-hat these days. Some one actually took a stopwatch to the thing and the average cut lasts about five seconds, but it doesn't feel jittery or jumpy. Instead it's very gripping, and manages to make Redford's paranoia an effective over-riding theme. There is also a chilling performance by Max Von Sydow as a free-lance assassin who changes allegiances based on whomever is paying him. He has a great speech at the end about how he finds his job peaceful.

Where the film fails is the use of Faye Dunaway as the "girl." Redford, on the lam, picks her out at random at a sporting goods store and holds her hostage, hiding out in her apartment. All well and good, but before the night is over they have a sexual relationship, and this is a mistake. I can buy that she would come to see his side of things and help him out, but willingly falling into bed with a man who has just held you at gunpoint is far-fetched, and more than a bit misogynistic.

Also, this film is dated a bit by the music and the overall look of the film. Dave Grusin's score is a kind of wocketa-wocketa thing that seemed more like something you'd hear in a Quinn Martin TV show, and the the photography and design don't elevate much above TV movie quality, either.

Finally, as someone who is familiar with New York City, the ease at which people find parking spaces exactly right in front of where they want to go is in the realm of fantasy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Way We Were

In 1973 Sydney Pollack scored his first box-office hit with The Way We Were, a romance starring megastars Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. It also has the dubious distinction of launching into the world the ubiquitous title song and making Marvin Hamlisch a household name.

The story is an amber-hued weepie about how a Jewish leftist chick, Streisand, has an implausible romance with a WASPy golden boy, Redford. They meet in college, where she is a member of the Young Communists and he is the popular jock. He's fascinated by her, though, and she is attracted to him, even though she thinks he's lacking in political fervor.

They meet again during World War II, when she's writing for radio and he's a naval officer. They end up having an affair, and after some rough times (she can't stand his laissez faire country club friends and he tires of her constantly politicizing everything) they marry and move to California where he becomes a screenwriter. The story then touches on the Hollywood blacklist era, and the realization that these two lovebirds will never make it. So sad!

Audiences ate this up for some reason, but I found it a crashing bore. It's interesting to look at Streisand's film career and see it as some kind of cry of "I'm attractive!" In this film, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, she plays characters who end up bewitching hunky goyish actors. Streisand is not ugly, I'm not saying that, but jeez, does she really need to air her insecurities in film after film? I didn't think the pairing in this film had any heat, but I don't blame Streisand, I think Redford seems as though he's looking for the first exit out. In all the films I've seen him in he never really has chemistry with any of his leading ladies, unless you count Paul Newman.

Though his film was a yawn and frequently ludicrous, I did watch a long, self-congratulatory "looking back" documentary on the DVD. It was interesting for a number of reasons: Arthur Laurents wrote the script for Streisand (based on a girl he knew in college), Pollack practically begged Redford to do it (Redford, rightly so, thought his character was a bit of a spineless pin-up), and the climax of the film, in which Redford leaves Streisand because her subversive past may jeopardize his career, was cut out of the film. Laurents and Streisand still smart about that, and Pollack justifies the incision of the political material by mentioning the reaction at two previews. Watching the deleted scenes, they wouldn't have made the film much better, but they would have given it a lot more gravitas.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Jeremiah Johnson

In 1972 Sydney Pollack reteamed with Robert Redford for Jeremiah Johnson, the tale of a man who leaves civilization behind to trap and live off the land in the Rocky Mountains. The only difference was that by this time Redford was a huge star. His persona dominates the picture, but I've learned in the last few days that Pollack's imprint is also on the picture in ways I didn't realize.

Of course, everyone knows that Redford is a keen environmentalist and lives on a large ranch in Utah. In fact, much of Jeremiah Johnson was filmed on that ranch, so in essence it was shot in his backyard. But I didn't know that Pollack also had a home at Sundance, and shared Redford's enthusiasms, so the result is a labor of love that is also a fine Western.

There is no backstory for Johnson, we meet him as he is outfitting for his life change. We know that he was a veteran in the Mexican War by the uniform pants he wears, but beyond that we are clueless, and this adds a nice air of mystery to the film. He has some skills (certainly more than Chris McCandless in Into the Wild) but is green in some areas. He is helped immeasurably when he runs into another mountain man, played in enjoyably crusty fashion by Will Geer.

Johnson wants to be alone, but ends up with a de facto family when he takes on a boy who is the sole survivor of an Indian massacre, and then manages to get himself married to a squaw (he is told by another trapper that to refuse the gift of a chief's daughter would be an insult that would prove fatal). Johnson finds he enjoys the company, and builds a cabin for the three of them to settle down. But wouldn't you know, a company of U.S. bluecoats come through and their actions upset the balance of respect that Johnson had had with the local Indians and his idyll gets shattered.

Though the film has an underlying feel of 197os do-goodism, it still holds up as a solid entertainment. Redford is very good at this sort of thing, the stoic loner who only reluctantly forms relationships. Aside from a few drippy songs, the production could have come from any time period. Pollack's direction is no-nonsense and makes excellent use of the beautiful terrain, photographed by Duke Callaghan. Also notably, the film does not make blanket apologies to treatment of American Indians. They are depicted as most humanity should be--there are some good ones, and some bad ones.

Monday, August 04, 2008

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

In 1969 Sydney Pollack hit the big time with the release of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which was a critically-acclaimed film that garnered a slew of Oscar nominations, including Pollack's first. I had never seen it before, and I was glad to see that it holds up as an excellent picture today, even if it was among many films of the period to present a downbeat view of human existence.

Set during the depression, the film is all about a dance marathon, a fad of that time. A link in the chain from gladiator contests in the Roman Colosseum to reality-TV of today, dance marathons pitted couples staying on their feet in continuous motion for as long as possible. These things could drag on for weeks, with paying customers watching the spectacle, which were hosted by slick masters of ceremonies who manipulated the contests in order to put on the best possible show.

This particular marathon is set in Los Angeles, and the focus is on a handful of contestants. Jane Fonda, in her breakthrough role, is a bitter young woman who has come to Hollywood to be an actress with little success. After her partner is refused entry due to health concerns, she teams up with Michael Sarrazin, who is a drifter who just happened by looking for work. Also in the contest are a British actress (Susannah York), a young married couple, with the wife extremely pregnant (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia), and a sailor who is probably a little too old to be in these things (Red Buttons). The emcee is the slick Gig Young (who won an Oscar for his role). He keeps things moving with a constant refrain of "Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah," and acts like a puppet master, pulling the strings on the contestants.

Almost the entire film takes place inside the dance hall, lending an effective claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. At one point Sarrazin ducks his head outside to look at the sunset, and it's almost like we the audience are also seeing the sun for this first time in ages. We also get a sense of the torture they are going through, with sore feet, unwashed clothes, and very little sleep (contestants get ten minutes every two hours to rest). Periodically Young will make them go through what he calls the "Derby," which is a ten-minute sprint, the last three couples being eliminated. Pollack works some magic with these scenes, as the desperation is etched on the dancers faces as they run, after being on their feet for days, just to stay alive to win a $1500 prize.

Many have commented that this film, which was based on a 1935 novel, is a microcosm of American society in the Depression. True, but I think it goes further than that. It's really a microcosm of life, period, especially viewed by those who think that existence is a rigged game. Certainly that's a very bleak point of view, and it's hard to imagine such a film being made today (even if the economy is in the toilet). Thankfully, there was a period in Hollywood history when this type of film could be made by major studios with first-line talent.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Wackness

There would appear to a couple of major obstacles preventing me from enjoying the film The Wackness, which is about a pot dealing, rap-loving kid during the summer of 1994. I can count on two fingers the number of times I've smoked pot, and I don't like rap music or the cultural residue of it, such as white kids using the exclamation "word" or pronouncing the words "all right" as if it sounds like "ah-yite." Despite this film being enshrouded in a cloud of marijuana smoke with a soundtrack from Yo! MTV Raps, I found it absorbing and touching, one of my favorites this year.

Most of this is due to the performance of Sir Ben Kingsley as something of a movie cliche--the doctor who can't heal himself. After an initial resistance to this old chestnut, I began to admire the performance of a man who hates himself while dispensing advice to others. This despite a scene in which Kingsley makes out with Mary-Kate Olsen in a phone booth, an "ew" moment that is more revolting than it sounds.

Josh Peck is the central character, Luke Shapiro, a lumpen high school kid who deals dope from an Italian ice wagon. One of his clients is Kingsley, a psychologist who exchanges therapy for dime bags. Luke is about to graduate from high school, and has a typically pessimistic view of this stage of life: "I would graduate, go to my safety school, grow older, and die, " he says. I can empathize, there's no moment in a person's life that has such a disproportionate sense of excitement in comparison to the fuss that is made, except maybe for college graduation.

Luke has a tendency to see the dire side of things, and that's where the title comes from. He is told that instead of seeing the "dopeness" of things, he instead sees the "wackness." I gather from this that "dope" means good and "wack" means bad, but there was no glossary with the film. Luke hates his parents, who are constantly fighting, and would seem to be the only drug dealer in the history of the profession who has trouble getting laid.

Then he starts hanging out Olivia Thirlby, a popular girl from high school and Kingsley's stepdaughter. As he and Kingsley form a friendship, his attraction to Thirlby complicates things. Despite this triangle, the friendship between Peck and Kingsley strengthens into a bond that is immensely satisfying to watch. Yes, Kingsley gives his character a variety of quirks, perhaps none more than his leonine head of hair, but by the end, when his own marriage falls apart and he and Peck realize they are each other's best friends, I was moved.

Kingsley's character is so interesting that it almost excuses that Luke is a bit of a blank slate. Yes, he's a pot dealer, an aficionado of rap, and has excellent taste in women, but beyond that we know little about him, and at times comes off as a doofus. The courtship of Thirlby is somewhat gilded with a Penthouse letter fantasy, but that's certainly okay by me.

The music is important to this film, although I will admit ignorance on most of it. According to one description of the film, 1994 is hailed as the greatest year for rap. Okay. In 1994 I was listening to "alternative" music, and there are brief mentions of the death of Kurt Cobain. But there are bones thrown to old guys like me. This is the era when people were constantly making mix tapes for each other, and no less than three are made in this film. At the end Peck listens to one made orm him by Kingsley, and it includes All the Young Dudes, by Mott the Hoople. I almost had a tear come to my eye, as much due to the emotion of the scene as to finally hearing a song that I knew.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Castle Keep

This 1969 film is an example of how a film can be so defined by the time-period in which it's filmed that it becomes instantly dating, curdling like milk left out in the sun. The trippiest World War II combat film you're likely to see, it's easy to imagine the entire crew wearing Nehru jackets and peace medallions, the aroma of cannabis redolent at the craft services table.

The plot concerns a squadron of eight American soldiers, led by an eye-patch wearing, tough as nails major, Burt Lancaster. They are traveling through Belgium, and come across a medieval castle owned by a fancy-pants royal (Jean-Pierre Aumont). The American soldiers are the typical assortment of types: the Southerner they call Cowboy, a phlegmatic Italian baker (Peter Falk), an eminent art historian (Patrick O'Neal), the quiet and religious guy (Tony Bill) and the narrator of all this, a black kid who is writing a novel (Al Freeman, Jr.) Of course, troops were segregated back in that war, but I think they slipped a line in there about Freeman being separated from his unit.

Lancaster wants to hold off the oncoming Germans by using the castle as a fortress, which dismays both Aumont and O'Neal, who sees all the treasures inside. The film becomes a stand-off between the impersonal destruction of war versus the civilization of art. Meanwhile, director Sydney Pollack employs every trick in the sixties cinema book, such as jump cuts, hallucinatory images, and just plain weirdness. Falk wanders off and starts working in the local bakery, wooing the wife of the actual baker, who has presumably died in the war. The enlisted men frolic at the town's bordello, called the Red Queen, with whores who seem to have been cast from the Playboy Mansion. And Lancaster plays house with Aumont's wife, who if I heard correctly is also his niece.

As with almost all World War II films made during the Vietnam period, this film is really about that conflict, pointing out the futility of war and how men on both sides are all really the same. I suppose this film would play much better at a midnight show after a few bong hits, but in the sober-eyed twenty-first century, it comes as more than a little ridiculous and pretentious.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Scalphunters

This 1968 film from Sydney Pollack is, on the surface, a conventional Western, but it doesn't take a graduate student to quickly see that it fits in the revisionist school of oaters that were popular during the sixties.

Taking place in antebellum Texas, Burt Lancaster plays a trapper who is held up by a band of Kiowa, who steal his entire winter's worth of furs. They offer him a runaway slave they have captured from the Comanche. This slave, played by Ossie Davis, is highly educated and has a tremendous gift of gab. He and Lancaster make an entertaining duo as they verbally spar.

Lancaster tracks the Kiowa, but he watches helplessly as they are slaughtered by a band of scalphunters, white bounty hunters who sell the scalps. They are led by Telly Savalas, who is traveling with an ex-whore turned astrologer, Shelley Winters. Lancaster and Davis then start shadowing this group, with Davis hoping for freedom and Lancaster wanting nothing else but his furs.

The film is somewhat comic in tone, with the dialogue witty and the action slapstick. In addition to the pleasure of watching good actors like Lancaster and Davis perform, the Savalas-Winters pairing, which sounds dreadful on paper, is actually pretty funny. They are like the Ralph and Alice Kramden of the West. Davis carries the picture, though (he got a Golden Globe nomination) as the slave who knows Latin and Greek and is able to talk himself out of almost any situation.

Of course this film offers social satire, as it was contemporary with the tumult of the Civil Rights movement. That Davis is the smartest character in the piece is consistent with other films of the era, like In the Heat of the Night, that bent over backwards to portray racial inequality as barbaric. That Lancaster and Davis will grow to have a mutual respect is certainly a given as the picture progresses, but it still fun to watch.

As for Pollack's direction, it is first-rate, with comic and action sequences handled deftly, and getting great work from his performers. It is also very straightforward, unlike the war picture he would next, which I'll write about tomorrow.