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Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween

So it's Halloween, but I hardly notice it. I don't work in one of those offices where people dress up, and I won't be home tonight for the trick-or-treaters, so this day is just like any other for me.

There was a time when Halloween was meaningful, mostly as a child (I think most holidays are for children). I was never really, really into it, not like Christmas, but over the years I have grown to admire the macabre aspects of it. When I think back, I can only remember a couple of the costumes I wore--when I was about ten my parents wrapped me in ACE bandages so I could be a mummy, but by the time I was done trick-or-treating most of the bandages had unraveled. The last time I went I was probably about twelve, and tried to do a home-made Frankenstein monster but one person thought I looked like an accident victim. When I ask other people what age they stopped going door to door, a lot of them cite older ages. I guess I just wasn't that into candy.

The other night I watched a program on the History Channel about the origins of Halloween. Of course, as most Western holidays did, it started as a pagan ritual called Samhain, which was the Celtic festival of the harvest. This merged with a Roman festival called Pomona, and as the Christians converted Europe they reconfigured this celebration as All Saints' Day on November 1 (also known as All Hallow's Day, so technically October 31st is All Hallow's Eve). In some cultures, particularly Mexico, this transformed into the Day of the Dead. All of that merges into the traditions that mark Halloween today, such as offering gifts to the spirits (trick or treating), celebrating the harvest (bobbing for apples), and the notion that at this particular time the spirits of the dead are walking among us.

That's all very interesting, but it doesn't move me to bother with any decorations or what-not. Some people have a lot more fun with holidays, but not me.

On a more personal note, the horrid economy has taken another victim, and it's me. After eight years, I have been laid off from my job. If anyone out there is reading this blog and has been dazzled to the point where they have a paying gig just waiting for me, please contact me (you can click on my email in my profile).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wednesday Night TV


It was certainly an interesting evening parked in front of the TV set last night. First was the half-hour "infomercial" for Barack Obama. He's got my vote, so I tuned in just out of curiosity. I have no idea if it accomplished what he wanted it to do, which must have been to reassure the heartland that he's not a wild-eyed zealot. It opened with amber waves of grain, for Pete's sake, and then featured struggling families from Missouri, Ohio, New Mexico and Kentucky, which I'm sure was no coincidence (Kentucky is the only state of those he seemingly has no shot in).

He also spoke from a wood-paneled office that may or may not been designed to look presidential. I think it looked more Camp David than Oval Office, as it had kind of a woodsy feel. But I think more and more voters have grown comfortable with who he is.

The ad also didn't mention John McCain. There wasn't a scrap of negativity in it. So while McCain and Palin go around the country bringing up Palestinian professors (McCain is also associated with him, for what it's worth) and bad-mouthing fruit fly research that actually helps autistic children, Obama can take the high road.

I would consider myself confident at this point, but you can never be sure. McCain seems strangely chipper, maybe he's at peace with losing and is putting on a happy face so Republicans don't get depressed and stay home, thus causing more GOP bleeding in the congressional races. Or maybe he knows something, like how voting machines are rigged. Who knows. It should be all settled at shortly after eight o'clock on Tuesday night. If Obama wins Virginia, that should be it, and especially if he wins Pennsylvania.

After the Obama special, I tuned in for the truncated end of the World Series game. It was certainly odd to see the first pitch of an evening of baseball occur in the bottom of the sixth inning. This was the first ever suspended World Series game, and all told it took over forty-eight hours for this game, which started on Monday night, to be completed. If you add the two nights together, it was a good game, with the Phillies taking two leads and the Rays tying, and then the Phillies went ahead for good in the seventh. The key play of the game was when Chase Utley psyched Jason Bartlet into trying to score in the seventh inning on a grounder, and then threw him out at home.

Between innings (and pitching changes, which seemed to occur every other minute) I flipped over to MSNBC. I've taken to watching the Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow shows on that network, which are unabashedly liberal, a left-wing version of Fox News. Olbermann is pleasantly acerbic, and while he does tend to go overboard at times in his vitriol, is droll fun, especially his "Worst Person in the World" segments, which inevitably cite Bill O'Reilly (I cracked up when Olbermann referred to him as the "Frank Burns of TV news"--so true!). Maddow is also extremely liberal, in the tank as they say for Obama. I like her segment called "Talk Me Down," in which she airs her fear of the dark menace of the right wing and has some expert allay her concerns. Last night it was about all this talk of "tightening" polls. I'm out on the ledge with you, Rachel, thanks for empathizing.

The game ended at just before ten o'clock, so I was able to watch the last out without worrying about how little sleep I was going to get, which was a relief. Of all the problems in baseball, this may be one of the worst--the late hour that these games go to on the East Coast. As much as I can loathe ESPN, I wish they (or some other cable outfit) would buy the post-season and then start the game at like seven-thirty, to give people a chance to watch these things.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

21

This is the second film this week I've seen co-starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth. Come to think of it, they were also in Superman Returns. Fortunately, in 21, there is no hint at any kind of relationship between the two of them.

21 is a largely disposable film adaptation of what I've heard is a very good book, Bringing Down the House, which was about MIT students who card-counted there way to riches in Vegas. The film takes the bare bones of that idea and creates something wholly different, as if the premise were filtered through one of those "how to write a screenplay" books. The result is lackluster.

James Sturgess stars as a whiz kid who needs $300,000 to go to Harvard med. Apparently he's never heard of college loans, or has no interest in any other med school, because he's hinged his hopes on one particular scholarship. When he's approached by his math professor, Spacey, to join a blackjack team that regularly makes runs to Vegas casinos, he is initially reticent but finally joins (perhaps because he has a thing for one of the other members, Bosworth). Lots of predictable plot twists ensue, along with some trickery at the end.

Part of the problem with this film is that for all the smarts that are supposed to be on display here by Spacey and his students, they have some questionable strategy. Why would they keep returning to the same casino (a security guy played by Laurence Fishburne gets suspicious of them), and why Vegas? Why not Foxwoods, which is only a two-hour drive or so from Boston? Seems to me that would save overhead. And some of the signalling the team members use to tip each other to hot or cold tables seems pretty blatant, as if they were raising red flags. Any sentient pit boss would spot them in a second. Also, the days of casino security pummeling card-counters in the back room are long gone, if they ever existed at all. Cheaters, maybe, but card-counting is not considered cheating, and anyone suspected of doing it is simply asked to leave and put on a blacklist.

There was some controversy that Sturgess was tapped to play this role, considering the lead in the book was an Asian-American, and Sturgess is British. He seems to have watched a lot of Tobey Maguire films before doing this film, because he projects the same squeaky-voiced masculinity. Spacey is perfect for the role, because it allows him to channel all his innate superciliousness.

The director is Robert Luketic, who adds nothing of any sort of style to the production. It is interesting to see that they filmed in actual casinos which were in operation. According to the DVD extras, the gaming industry loves this kind of publicity, because it encourages players to try card-counting, which is very difficult (particularly now that some tables recirculate cards into the shoe, which negates the whole thing) and will only earn the casinos more money.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Motor City Blue

I have been peripherally aware of a series of private-eye novels set in Detroit, but it's taken me this long to get around to reading one of them. I started with the first in the series, Motor City Blue, by Loren D. Estleman, published in 1980, concerning Amos Walker, and it was a good read. It was also a blatant rip-off (or maybe homage is the right word) of the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I think homage is more accurate, because the stylistic similarities are done with affection.

Walker is the kind of fellow who likes to watch old movies on TV, archaically wears a fedora, and keeps a bottle of Scotch in his desk. He seems to have swallowed the entire print run of Black Mask magazine, using terms like "widowmaker" to describe a gun, and at the climax of the book holds a gun on the culprit (a femme fatale, natch) and explains the entire plot. As any good dissolute P.I. would, he has a romantic interest in a hooker with a heart of gold, and gets beat up a few times. He also has a dicey relationship with the local police.

The plot even borrows from Chandler. Walker is hired to find the missing ward of a gangster, and the only evidence he has to go on is a picture of her in a pornographic still (shades of The Big Sleep). He also witnesses the kidnapping of an old army associate, and of course these two cases end up being related.

Where Estleman excels is in his vivid descriptions of Detroit. Of course it's winter, and I can practically see the slate-gray sky, smell the blackened slow and feel the sleet. His depiction of race relations is also uncompromising. The novel is set in 1979, and the city was still a powder keg back then. Walker is not a bigot, but he isn't Mahatma Gandhi, either (he admits that he gets nervous when he sees a group of black men). Another key setting is an old-fashioned porno shop, pre-video days, when stag films were in canisters. This type of thing would be obsolete in just a few years.

Though Estleman cribs his style, I found the book enjoyable and the character of Walker engaging, and I'll look to continue reading more in the series.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Beyond the Sea

What a curious film Beyond the Sea is. It's not very good, a cliche-ridden showbiz biopic, but underneath lurks something even weirder. Kevin Spacey wrote, directed and starred as the singer Bobby Darin, and it's clear that Spacey is enamored of his subject--too enamored, I think.

Bobby Darin is today a marginal figure in pop music history. He had a few hits that are remembered today, most notably "Mack the Knife" and the title song. Spacey, in an interview on the DVD, says that aside from Sammy Davis, Jr., Darin was the best nightclub performer of all time. That may be so, but that doesn't mean Darin warrants a film biography. To be sure there are some melodramatic elements to his story: he had rheumatic fever as a child, and was told he would be lucky to live past fifteen; his parentage was a complicated issue, and his marriage to actress Sandra Dee was occasionally rocky. But this doesn't add up to much, really. I'm not sure it would make a good episode of Behind the Music.

But Spacey's film treats Darin as if he were some huge star. I may be overstepping here, but I have to believe Spacey made this film so he could show off his musical talent. Spacey sings all the songs, and struts his stuff in some big dance numbers. These may be a thrill to those who are old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, but to most this will seem woefully dated.

I kind of feel bad taking shots at this film, because it is obviously a labor of love. Spacey looks too old to play the part (Darin died at 36, but Spacey was about 45 when he made the picture), which makes the scenes in which he romances Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth, 24 years younger than Spacey) unseemly. Some of the plot points seem absurdly amplified, such as Darin insisting that a black comic open for him at the Copacabana, and his turn toward anti-war folk songs in the late sixties. The whole thing reminded me of how Joe Piscopo used to do Frank Sinatra impersonations, and there was an uncomfortable feeling that he really thought he was Sinatra.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Saturday Night Live

NBC's Saturday Night Live is now as culturally relevant as it has been in a long time. The program of October 18th, in which Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin appeared, was the highest-rated episode since 1994. The show has proved so popular that they have been having special half-hour programs on Thursday night, focused on the presidential campaign specifically. Some of these skits are much better than others. The better ones usually feature Tina Fey (a former cast member who is proving to be magnanimous with her time) as Palin. Surely her natural resemblance to the controversial Alaskan politician was a gift from the comedy gods. On Thursday, she was reunited with Will Ferrell, another former cast member made good, who reprised his George W. Bush impersonation.

This got me to thinking about what the show means to me. There is a whole generation of Americans who have never known a time when there wasn't a Saturday Night Live, but of course all things have a beginning. The show began in 1975, but I didn't start watching until it's second season (I distinctly remember the first one I saw--a fourteen-year-old Jodie Foster hosted). I was immediately captivated by it, as I suspect many creative teenagers are. I wanted nothing more to grow up and be a part of it, either as writer or performer. I remember being dismayed at the end of that season that they would take the summers off.

Part of the appeal to me, as it probably has for teens over the years, that's it's among the first grownup things teens are allowed to watch. When I started watching, I would stay up, the rest of my family fast asleep (this was a novelty in of itself, as we had pretty strict bedtimes). Back in 1976, when I lived in Detroit, the local NBC affiliate didn't even carry the show, instead they had some local talk show on. I had to tune in the UHF station, Channel 50, to get it. The show itself in those days seemed as if were somehow illicit (the cast were known as the "Not Ready for Primetime Players," after all). The cast seemed dangerous (particularly Belushi, Aykroyd, and occasional contributor Michael O'Donoghue). When I would talk about the show with my fellow classmates that Monday morning, we felt somewhat superior, that we were part of some secret club. The best show they ever did is still the episode that Richard Pryor hosted in December 1976, which was transcendent (it didn't hurt that Frank Zappa was the musical guest, performing a song called "Slime from the Video").

Once that golden cast dispersed to Hollywood, I have only sporadically kept up with it. Of course their immediate replacements were legendarily horrible. There have been some good casts since then (a friend says that the Billy Crystal-Martin Short-Christopher Guest year was outstanding) but it's not appointment television for me any more. Usually I tune in if I'm still up on Saturday night and the host is appealing to me. I will watch the opening, and if the first skit is bad I know it won't get any better. Sometimes, but rarely, I'll make it to Weekend Update. I imagine most people watch the good skits on YouTube.

Even if the show is not what it once was, it has still proved to be an amazing part of American entertainment. The roster of players is a list of the dominant comic actors of the last thirty years, and some very indelible characters have been created in Studio 8H, from the Blues Brothers to Wayne and Garth to the Makin' Copies guy. I have no idea how long this show will go on (I suppose there's no reason for it to stop, since it is constantly restaffed) but even if I don't watch it all the time it's good to no it's there.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

W.


When Oliver Stone tackled the story of Richard Nixon, the result was operatic. But Nixon's rise and fall was Shakespearean. Stone's rendition of George W. Bush's life is more like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, and it doesn't have an ending. It is, pretty much, a complete mess.

I knew I was in for rough sledding from the very first scene of dialogue. It's a meeting in the Oval Office in which a speechwriter and the important cabinet members come up with the term "axis of evil." Each character gets a closeup, and is referred to by name in case we didn't get who they are supposed to be. All of the performers are made to look and sound their real-life counterparts, so I can imagine the intent is for moviegoers to be "aahing" as they recognize each person--"ah, that's Paul Wolfowitz!" It's very much like an SNL skit, except it's not remotely funny, and instead is full of clumsy exposition.

The film pretty much continues like this for two more hours. The structure is set up as Bush deals with the Iraq war--when to start it, and where those pesky WMDs are. Periodically we go back to his dissolute youth, a drunken frat boy who was a constant disappointment to his dignified father, and then his Christian conversion and political rise. But the problem is that George W. Bush is an elusive character, and Stone and his writer, Stanley Weiser can only create him from around the edges--there's no center. That may be just the way it is--it seems clear from this liberal Democrat's view that Bush is pretty much "all hat and no cattle," and is a blank slate that was filled in by Karl Rove and others. But this isn't the Karl Rove story, much to the detriment of the film.

What, exactly, was Oliver Stone trying to say? What is the spine of this film, the compelling reason for its existence? I don't think it's any revelation that Bush is an intellectually flaccid man who mangles the English language and has a myopic world view. It's also not news that the invasion of Iraq was based on a lie--there were no WMDs, and aside from Colin Powell, the administration arrogantly blundered into a needless war. When this film is interesting is when it boils down to its essence--Bush the younger has lived his whole life to try to prove his mettle to his father.

The best scenes in the film involve W. with his father, ably played by James Cromwell, who doesn't try to mimic the 41st President as much as embody him. I found Cromwell's performance the strongest in the film, but I also admired Ellen Burstyn, wickedly intoning Barbara Bush, who W. takes after. As a young man, W. wandered job to job and seemed like he wouldn't amount to anything, but somewhere along the line he turned it around and ended up Governor of Texas (when he tells his parents this they laugh it off, as his mother tells him he'll never beat Ann Richards). But missing from the film is the key to what changed him. We see him looking for guidance from a Christian minister, but I was still wondering what whipped into him shape. Perhaps their is no answer.

Josh Brolin is W., and I must say he's a splendid mimic. You could close your eyes and not tell the difference in the voices. He has all the mannerisms down pat. But Brolin has an uphill climb to make this more than a keen impersonation. The script doesn't give him much to work with, and he suffers for it. Elizabeth Banks, as Laura, doesn't have much to do, either (the film shows when they meet, and he boorishly shoves a hamburger in his mouth while he talks. It's hard to know what she saw in him).

The other celebrity impersonators fare pretty well. Thandie Newton really nails Condoleezza Rice, and Richard Dreyfuss captures the black heart of Dick Cheney. Jeffrey Wright is also good as Colin Powell, who is the only character in the film who comes off as halfway heroic.

Stone's direction is straight-forward, without the bells and whistles I expect from him. The only indulgence he goes for is having Bush in a fantasy where he prowls the outfield of his beloved Texas Rangers, in front of empty seats but acting as if he is basking in the glow of a huge crowd. There is also an effective dream sequence with the Bushes elder and younger sparring in the Oval Office. Otherwise, the direction is fairly flat, almost like a TV movie.

Though the film is long, it ends abruptly, perhaps because the entire Bush story hasn't been told yet. The crowd I was with seemed startled to see "The End" appear on the screen, and almost reluctantly reached for their coats. Despite the abruptness, though, I was more than ready for this film to be over.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Puck Drops

Tonight Princeton Women's Ice Hockey opens their season, the first of two home games against the University of Connecticut. Hopefully Sarah Palin will not be there to drop the first puck, since New Jersey is a solid blue state.

Last week the Tigers played an exhibition game against a team from Canada, the first time I have seen them this fall. It's a team that looks very different from last year's squad. Graduated are three players who were a huge part of the offense last year: Marykate Oakley, Brittany Salmon, and Lizzie Keady. Beyond the goal scoring, they had a grit and fire that is tough to replace.

The only remaining goal-scoring threat is Annie Greenwood, who is now a senior. She had a monster freshman season, scoring over 25 goals, but came back to earth a bit her next two years. I would imagine she will be key to Princeton's success. I read in a local paper that junior Melanie Wallace, who has contributed a few goals a year up to now, will also be asked to provide a lot of offense. There are also five freshman forwards, any one of whom could emerge as a goal-scoring threat. From what I saw last week, Danielle DiCesare, Heather Landry, and Paula Romanchuk have a nose for the net. But anticipating what freshmen will do is a very difficult proposition.

The defense and goaltending is not a question mark, though. Princeton returns five solid blueliners: Katherine Dineen, Sasha Sherry, Maddie Endicott, Laura Martindale, and Stephanie Denino. Dineen begins the year as my favorite player, as she seems to be tireless and makes very few mistakes. Sherry is a budding star, an offensive-minded D who will take the puck from end to end and is dangerous on the power play. The goalie is senior, Kristen Young, who last year played every minute in the net and was named the team MVP. She had some great games, but occasionally was susceptible to stretches where the wheels came off. If she can stay consistent she's one of the best in the country. Presumably she will get spelled a bit this year, as the Tigers bring in a frosh Rachel Weber as her backup.

I really don't know what to expect this season. Every year the Tigers figure to be in the hunt for a home playoff spot (which is fourth place or better in the ECAC--last year they finished fifth). Because this is such a young team, and the rest of the league is improving, they could have an off year, but I do anticipate them making the playoffs. UConn, who were a top-ten team last year, will be a big early test, and then next weekend Dartmouth and Harvard, the top two teams in the league, come to town, so if the Tigers can stay competitive in this first quartet of games (and even get a win or two) that portends well for the rest of the season.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Dharma Bums

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Dharma Bums, a novel by Jack Kerouac that is far less read than On the Road but is perhaps just as evocative of the period and of Beat literature. It details the friendship between Ray Smith (a stand-in for Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (who is based on poet Gary Snyder), and their involvement in exploring nature and Buddhism.

The word Dharma, to a Buddhist, means "higher truth," and the Bum part, well, that is a kind of truth as well. In the fifties, the bum, or hobo, lifestyle was still something of higher calling for a kind of intellectual who wasn't interested in the rat race. During the course of the novel, Smith criss-crosses the country, covering most of the miles by jumping trains or hitching rides. This is the opening of the book: "Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara." The prose almost has the rhythm of the click-clack of a train, and effortlessly draws the reader into Kerouac's world.

The short novel consists of a few parts. First Smith and Ryder and another friend climb the Matterhorn (the one in California, not Switzerland). Ryder is depicted as a child of nature, an expert on Japanese poetry and a Bodhisattva of some standing. Smith looks up to him, eager to learn more. Come winter, Smith hitches back to North Carolina to spend Christmas with his family. He goes out into the woods and meditates with the dogs while his brother-in-law grumbles about him not working (it's never clear where Smith gets his money--presumably his mother gives it to him). Finally, Smith returns back to California, spends some time with Ryder before the latter sails for Japan, and then spends the summer working as a fire lookout on a peak in Washington state, where he rapturously communes with nature.

Kerouac was a master stylist, who manages to be both lyrical and economical at the same time. The book at times is like a long poem (and includes many haikus). His description of the simple life in nature is compelling. Consider this passage, about a night spent in the desert outside of El Paso: "All I had for companionship was that moon of Chihuahua sinking lower and lower as I looked, losing its white light and getting more and more yellow butter, yet when I turned in to sleep it was bright as a lamp in my face and I had to turn my face away to sleep. In keeping with my naming of little spots with personal names, I called this spot 'Apache Gulch.' I slept well indeed."

Tellingly, Smith and Ryder do have disagreements, particularly about Smith's drinking. Knowing that Kerouac would die about ten years later from alcoholism makes the scene much more poignant. Also, as with On the Road, Kerouac was something of a misogynist. The women in this book are merely playthings for the men. A girl known only as Princess is passed around like a blow-up doll for their amusement (including to the character based on Allen Ginsberg, who was of course gay).

While reading the book I spent some time learning more about Buddhism. There are many different varieties of it (and Smith and Ryder discuss some of these in the novel) and it certainly has its appeal, but I doubt it would ever work for me, as the heart of it requires the ridding of possessions. I'm not ready for that. I guess I'll never reach Nirvana.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cinderella Men


So the World Series begins tonight, a match-up of the Philadelphia Philllies and the Tampa Bay Rays, a combo that at the beginning of the season would have seemed less likely than just pulling names of two teams out of a hat. Of course the Phillies are not a huge surprise, they made the playoffs last year and got caught in the Colorado Rockies buzzsaw. But everyone's focus was on the Chicago Cubs in the National League this year, so the Phils outlasted the Mets and waited in the weeds and let the Dodgers knock off the Cubs. Now they are in their first Series since 1993 (they have only been in six, total, and won the title only once, in 1980).

But the Rays, well, they are another story. They are the first team to go from the worst record in baseball to the World Series in consecutive years since the Atlanta Braves in '91, and the Rays came back from a worse record. What's even more remarkable about them is that in their previous ten years of existence they had never won more than 70 games, and were the doormat of the league. Whenever the subject of contraction came up, they were the first team mentioned. Apparently their stadium is no shrine, and as with the Marlins of south Florida, residents have much more to do during the summer in paradise than watch a baseball team get their brains beat out. When the Yankees or Red Sox would come to town, the fans of the visiting team outnumbered the home rooters.

But that all changed this year. By drafting shrewdly and making some good trades, the Rays built a great team from within. All season they were at or near the top of the division, no small feat, considering that is the division with the Red Sox and Yankees. All year long baseball watchers have written them off: when Evan Longoria got hurt, then Carl Crawford, then Troy Percival, each time it was said that the clock would strike midnight for these Cinderellas. A seven-game losing streak after the All-Star game seemed like a death knell, but they were stalwart and bounced back, and ended up winning the division. Then they dispatched the White Sox in four games.

Probably their severest test came after game five of the ALCS when they were seven outs from a pennant and up 7-0 over the defending champion Red Sox, but the wheels came off and the Red Sox came back to win the game, then took game six in a contest where the Rays played tight. I was now among the chorus of doubters, and figured the Red Sox had the guile and experience to end the magical season of the upstarts from Tampa. But no, the Rays got a great pitched game from Matt Garza and a few timely hits and their magic carpet ride would continue one more round.

There is no question that I'm rooting for the Rays against the Phillies. I usually root for the AL (unless it's the Yankees) and this story is just too good. I have nothing in particular against the Phillies, other than their boorish fans, but they just don't captivate me like the Rays do. And I think the Rays will pull it out in a seven-game series. They play great defense, get timely hits, and have great starting pitching. The advantage for the Phils is in the bullpen, but that only applies when a team is ahead. The Rays have a tendency to jump out to early leads, which offsets a good bullpen. If the Rays can keep their heads and not get tight, they should be able to win.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Unforgivable Blackness

Unforgivable Blackness is a two-part documentary by Ken Burns that aired on PBS a few years ago. I missed it, and just this weekend caught up with it on DVD. I'm glad I did, because it's a fascinating subject.

Jack Johnson was the first heavyweight champion boxer of African descent. He won the crown in 1908, which is in itself somewhat remarkable, as by the end of that decade over 750 black people had been lynched in the United States. As the script by Geoffrey Ward put it, it was the worst time to be African-American since the end of slavery.

But Johnson, who beat all comers, was a remarkable man, and in many ways a man considerably ahead of his time, much to his detriment. He was given to fancy clothes, fast cars, and most dangerously, white women.

The champion during the early part of the century was Jim Jeffries. He, like champions before him, refused to fight black men (mostly it was out of a fear that they would lose, which would have been unthinkable to most of the country). A few champions after Jeffries also avoided Johnson, but finally a champ named Tommy Byrnes, who had been pestered by Johnson for years, agreed to fight him in Sydney, Australia. Johnson won easily, and it's fascinating to watch the film of the fight (perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Burns' documentary is the fight films, which I'd never seen before). Fight films were big business in those days, and they are in pretty good condition, but this particular film stops mid-punch as no one wanted a black man beating a white man recorded for posterity.

Johnson's victory put white America in a tizzy. The call went out for Jeffries to come out of retirement, as he was "The Great White Hope," to restore order to the universe. Eventually he did, and the fight between him and Johnson, in Reno, Nevada, was a monumental event. Johnson toyed with the over-the-hill Jeffries, and in the 15th round his corner stopped the fight so he wouldn't be knocked out.

If Johnson couldn't be beaten in the ring, he would be by the Justice Department. Because he openly traveled with white women, the law came down on him, arresting him for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. It was intended to stop the flow of prostitution, not a couple of consenting adults, but the law was perverted and Johnson indicted. After he was convicted, he fled the country, but eventually returned to serve his sentence. He lived until 1946, when he died in a car accident.

The film's style is no different than other Burns documentaries: the white-on-black title cards for each section, the slow pans across period photographs, the narration by Keith David (who also narrated "Jazz"), the pointed comments by experts (most notably in this film Stanley Crouch) and well-known actors voicing the participants (Samuel L. Jackson is the voice of Johnson). I know Burns' style grates on some, but I find it comforting, the perfect balance of archive footage and contemporary analysis, and in all of his films I feel that the subject at hand has been well-researched and exhaustively rendered.

What I took away most from this film was how amazing it was that Johnson wasn't murdered by someone. Virulent racism was commonplace--editorials in respected newspapers condemned miscegenation, and blacks were treated as sub-human by most of society. Johnson somehow managed to stay above it, at least until his conviction. He openly taunted his opponents and demanded to be treated as any white man. In many ways he was precursor to Muhammad Ali, who was fascinated by Johnson and saw the play about him, "The Great White Hope," over and over again when it ran on Broadway.

When Johnson lost the title, at age 37 and overweight, it would be over ten years before another black man would even fight for the crown, and it would be 22 before Joe Louis would be the second to win it. Jackie Robinson would play in the Major Leagues ten years after that. Today we are on the cusp of seeing an African-American elected to the Presidency of the United States. To see what America was like 100 years ago makes that concept even more outlandish.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rachel Getting Married


Ah, weddings. If you're like me, and think that weddings are to be endured rather than enjoyed, then you'll probably have the same kind of mixed experience I did at Rachel Getting Married--sort of like watching a car wreck--fascinating in a way but emotionally debilitating.

Set in the upper-class suburbs of Connecticut, the titular bride is being married in the kind of service that is an NPR listener's dream: the bride is white, the groom is black, the ceremony is a quasi-Hindu one (the cake is the in the shape of Ganesh) and the music is the kind heard at the extreme left of the radio dial. Much has made by some critics that absolutely no mention of the bridal couple's race is even hinted at in the film (which says more about the critic that the filmmakers, I think) but I imagine this was intended by writer Jenny Lumet and director Jonathan Demme. These characters are the kind of people who are so color-blind that anyone saying anything would be given a dirty look.

Into this left-wing idyll comes Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel's younger sister. She is getting sprung from rehab for the occasion, and has been a problem for the family for years. Her father, Bill Irwin, always defends her, much to Rachel's annoyance, while their mother, Debra Winger, divorced from the father and remarried, keeps her aloof distance. Kym is a whirlwind of fidgety behavior and psychodrama, and when she arrives at the family home, which is being prepared for the nuptials, she is like a thundercloud at a picnic.

Over the course of three days there will be many arguments, the kind of family dust-ups where regretful things are said, plus faces getting slapped and an auto accident (not to mention Kym hooking up with the best man). Rachel, a paragon of normalcy, both loves and resents her sister, and alternates between wanting to protect her and then wanting her gone. Over all of this is the spectre of a dead child and the guilt that is associated with him.

As long as the film stays on the interdynamics of the family, I liked this film (enjoyed is perhaps not the right word, as the writer and actors do very well in making the viewer feel completely uncomfortable at spying on these private moments). The whole thing is filmed with a hand-held camera, though, which I don't think I will ever get used to, and whips around a little too much. But there are times, like a real wedding, when I wanted to bug out and get some fresh air. There's a very long scene at the rehearsal dinner when various guests make toasts. Of course, when Kym grabs the mic the room falls into a cringing silence, and she accommodates their unease by making inappropriate jokes about her life as an addict. But did we need to see all the other toasts, which go on and on and on? Then the wedding itself could have been trimmed by about ten minutes. Having the groom sing a Neil Young song during the vows is one thing, but the footage of the dancing is like being forced to watch the home movies of people you don't know.

The acting is terrific. I'm sure Hathaway will get a Best Actress nomination. She is radiantly beautiful, but in a haunted way, recalling the lines of Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna"--"the ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face." She does not invite the audience to sympathize with her--she may be nine months sober, but she's no pleasure to be around, and as warm and cuddly as razor wire. Rosemarie DeWitt, as Rachel, is also very good, a woman put in a difficult position. It's her wedding day, but whenever her sister is around her needs are put on the back-burner. She also clearly looks like someone who could be Debra Winger's daughter.

As for Winger, who makes a comeback in this film after several years of being out of the acting business, it's a small, non-showy role. She only has one "Oscar-clip" scene, in which Hathaway confronts her about a family tragedy. There's some Oscar buzz about her, but frankly if that does happen I would think it's only because of who she is--the role just isn't meaty enough.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Appaloosa


There was a time when Westerns were in common in cinemas as stupid teen comedies are today. Now when a Western comes along there's a tendency to evaluate it as if it is making a commentary on the whole genre, or applying it to the conditions of humanity today. Appaloosa, directed by its star, Ed Harris, seems not to be interested in any of that. It's the kind of Western that, aside from a bit more blood and some crude sexuality, could have been churned out in the era of Western saturation. It also, unfortunately, is only about as good as an average Western.

Appaloosa, in some respects, is a love story between two men (but a platonic one) that has a woman come between them. Harris and his sidekick, Viggo Mortensen, are peace officers who have been hired by the businessmen of the titular town to clean up a rough band of hooligans led by Jeremy Irons, who has killed the previous marshall. The first twenty minutes or so of this film is very reminiscent of one called Warlock, in which Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn are lawmen for hire brought in to clean up a town. That film focused on the nature of power, as Fonda demands absolute control, as does Harris in this film. However, the whole corruption of power issue is raised and then dropped, as Appaloosa isn't interested in political philosophy.

Instead, the film changes gears with the arrival of Renee Zellweger as a widow. Harris takes a shine to her (he's so deadly honest, though, that he asks her if she's a whore, because he's not used to single women who are not). The film then becomes something of a love triangle, as Zellweger is not the prim woman she seems to be, and makes a play for Mortensen the first chance she can get.

Harris is clearly a fan of Westerns, as he inserts almost every cliche known to the genre into the mix. You'll recall a dozen or so other films, aside from Warlock: Shane, High Noon, Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, and many others. It's difficult these days to make a totally original Western, and frankly Harris doesn't seem interested in breaking new ground, he seems more interested in recapturing a past era.

The film is smashing to look at. Harris proves to have a good eye (this is only his second film as a director, following Pollack) and he teams with cinematographer Dean Semler, to create some arresting visual images. My favorite was a shot of a cougar overlooking a ridge as a locomotive passes below. But there's also something fussy about his direction. It's meticulous to the point of obsessiveness. He milks the laconic cowboy dialogue for comedy (Harris and Mortensen's characters don't waste words and don't equivocate), but the story is muddled and meandering. Some of the characters' motivations are puzzling.

Harris' character is righteous to the point of fanaticism. He is prone to reading Emerson, and one of the reasons he fancies Zellweger is because of the way she chews her food. He may be the oddest gunslinger in film since Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks. Mortensen, who narrates the film, is more interesting, in that he seems completely normal yet has ridden with Harris for twelve years. One has to believe that he's put up with a lot over those years. It's Zellweger who gives the strangest performance, though, but I think the culprit is the script. She is in the classic madonna/whore situation. The source material is a novel by Robert B. Parker, who is best known for his Spenser detective novels. I've read several of them, and creating realistic women is not his strong suit. Zellweger's character is sort of a macho guy's fever dream come true.

If you stay through the credits, you'll hear an odd song that Harris wrote and sings. It's full of lyrics about whorin' and screwin.' Perhaps this is the key to the whole thing--Harris was determined to address those cheatin' women of the Old West.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Acid Tongue


When I heard Jenny Lewis had a new album I got it right away. Her first album, Rabbit Fur Coat, is one my favorites from the past few years. So I was a little disappointed the first time I listened to her follow-up, Acid Tongue, but after a few more spins I can say that it is a good record. It just may not be as good as Rabbit Fur Coat, which is extraordinary.

Rabbit Fur Coat was very gospel and honky-tonk flavored, while Acid Tongue has more textures. It starts with Lewis singing a sweet soprano on Black Sand, but it becomes apparent that the lyrics are very morbid: "I fell in love with a beautiful boy on the black sand. He took me away I was never the same on the black sand. He said, 'Who's going to love you when you're buried underground?' ooh ooh, on the black sand." The second track is the delicate Pretty Bird, which could be another death metaphor, when Lewis sings, "Pretty bird, why are you so still?"

Lewis has many guest stars participating. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes joins her for The Next Messiah, an eight-minute plus medley of three songs that recalls something out of the seventies, and would be perfect for playing on an eight-track. Elvis Costello teams with her for Carpetbaggers, a throwback to old Appalachia about the exploiters of the South during the Civil War days. And actress Zooey Deschanel is a back up singer on several of the cuts.

A few of the songs recall Rabbit Fur Coat, such as See Fernando, a foot-stomper, and Jack Killed Mom, a funky story-song. But a few cuts show an expansion of ambition, and are elegant and sophisticated. The title song, with references to drugs (acid tongue is not a person with a sharp wit), is plaintive and beautiful, and Bad Man's World is haunting (I've found myself humming it the past few days).

They always say a singer's first record is often their best, because they've had their whole lives to write it, while the second one is bound to be a disappointment. That may be the case here (although Lewis has also written songs for her band Rilo Kiley). But the disappointment is only minor, and lessens with each listen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

I have an uneasy feeling this morning. I went to bed last night with the Tampa Bay Rays up 5-0 in the sixth inning. I woke up to find out that the Red Sox had come back (from a 7-0 deficit, no less!) to win the game. I'm rooting for the Rays, so this was a downer, but it also reinforces the Yogism that it's never over until it's over, and that goes double for politics.

Barack Obama has had a decent lead in the polls for a few weeks now, and has only further solidified that lead by winning all three debates against his opponent, John McCain ("winning" being judged by the variety of polls taken, not by the spinning pundits). Looking at the electoral map, it's hard to figure out how McCain could win: If Obama wins every Kerry state, plus Iowa and New Mexico, in which he is leading, he needs only one of the "battleground" states to win, and he is leading or tied in all of them (particularly Virginia, where he has shown a ten-point lead in some polls).

So why do I have a sense of unease? The Red Sox have come back from 3-1 deficits in their last two league championship series. Even more than the Yankees, they are proving very difficult to kill. Terry Francona, as manager, has now won seven straight games in which the Red Sox faced elimination. They seem to me to be like the Republican Party, which has a remarkable bag of tricks, and is not above chicanery and thievery to win elections. Whether it's a "wag the dog" national security incident, challenged voters at polls (or mysterious voting machine malfunctions), or continuing to try to cast Obama as a shady "other" who is some kind of Manchurian candidate, the G.O.P. are Rasputin-like in their ability to stay alive. Sure, Bill Clinton beat them twice, but he also won both elections without gaining fifty-percent of the vote, thanks to Ross Perot.

The other huge unknown in this campaign is race. The Bradley effect gets lot of play (that's what happened to California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, an African-American who led the polls by ten points in 1982 but ultimately lost). The theory is that some people tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, but are overruled by their innate prejudices when it comes time to check the name inside the voting booth. Whether the Bradley effect ever existed, let alone if it exists now, is highly debatable, but the very fact that it floats in the media miasma is an indication that because Obama is the first African-American candidate for president, none of us can know what race will do to the numbers.

I'm going to be spending the next two and a half weeks in a steady clench, sweating this thing out. I think I'll feel a lot better if the Rays win a game this weekend and put the Red Sox away.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Night and Fog

The first time I saw Night and Fog, Alain Resnais' brief but powerful documentary on the Nazi concentration camps, was in a film class in college. The professor had first shown Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film celebrating Hitler. The professor said he couldn't show that film without following with Night and Fog.

Made in 1955, the film is just over a half-hour long. It intersperses color film of the camps as they were then--abandoned, overgrown with weeds, haunted--with black and white footage taken during the horrors that took place there. It's not a documentary of information as much as images.

And of course the images sear the psyche. Emaciated bodies, corpses being bulldozed into pits, a basket of severed heads, the phosphorus burn wound of a prisoner being experimented on, the fingernail scratchings in the concrete of the ceiling of the gas chamber.

There are many films, both documentary and narrative, about the Holocaust, but this one may be the most direct and powerful. In addition to the indelible images is a gripping narration written by Jean Cayrol. He closes the film with this passage, which I find to both moving and a warning:

"The crematorium is no longer in use. The devices of the Nazis are out of date. Nine million dead haunt this landscape. Who is on the lookout from this strange tower to warn us of the coming of new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? Somewhere among us, there are lucky Kapos, reinstated officers, and unknown informers. There are those who refused to believe this, or believed it only from time to time. And there are those of us who sincerely look upon the ruins today, as if the old concentration camp monster were dead and buried beneath them. Those who pretend to take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps. Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of humanity."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Talley's Folly

The McCarter Theater's second show of their 2008-2009 season is Talley's Folly, by Lanford Wilson, directed by his longtime collaborator, Marshall W. Mason, who directed the original production back in 1980, which won a Pulitzer Prize. It is a two-character play, done in real time without an intermission, and is a love story about two seemingly mismatched people, who are in reality perfectly matched.

Set on the fourth of July, 1944, in the small town of Lebanon, Missouri, the play was a prequel of sorts to Wilson's hugely successful play The Fifth of July. In that play a supporting character, Sally Friedman, carries around the ashes of her dead husband, Matt. Wilson was challenged by the actress who played that part to give her an idea of who Matt was. He suggested Judd Hirsch, and then planted a seed in his imagination, and he ended up writing a play about the night that Matt proposed to Sally. Judd Hirsch would play Matt.

For this production Matt is played by Richard Schiff, well-known to audiences for his stint as Toby on TV's The West Wing. Matt is an immigrant and a Jew, who is an accountant in St. Louis. The year before he met Sally Talley, the rebellious daughter of one of the prominent families in town, a family that had never even seen a Jew before. After being put off by Sally, Matt heads to her home, is chased off away from the house by her brother, and finds refuge in a boathouse. Sally comes down to tell him to go home, but over the course of an hour and a half secrets are shed and a lifetime bond is made.

I've seen or read several of Wilson's plays, and they all have a rich and beautiful language. This one starts with Matt speaking directly to the audience, telling them that it will all be done in 97 minutes, and that it will be like a waltz. He then wanders around the set, and what a magnificent one it is, designed by John Lee Beatty. The boathouse itself is rotting and entwined with vegetation. It is littered with the remnants of family life from long ago, like old ice skates (and a bottle of gin hidden by Sally). In conjunction the the lighting by Phil Monat, with suggests moonlight shimmering off the river, the entire evening is a pleasure to the eye.

That being said I wasn't tracking with the actors the entire time. Schiff works well with the character, a man who has a tragic past but is always chuckling. At times his accent is so thick, though, that I had trouble understanding what he was saying. As for Margot White, as Sally, I'm not sure she had the character down, but perhaps it's the writing. Sally is so antagonistic toward Matt through much of the play that you wonder what Matt sees in her. We are told repeatedly that her family find her an embarrassment (she's over 30, unmarried, and got fired as the Sunday school teacher for talking to the class about labor issues), but I'm not sure I saw that in White's performance. Part of the problem may be that the secret she is holding from Matt becomes pretty obvious at a certain point, and the audience has it figured out far earlier that he does.

Still, this play and production is a charming valentine (even if it is set on Independence Day) and an old-fashioned fish out of water love story.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fatherland

I reached into my pile of yellowing paperbacks to read Fatherland, a thriller by Robert Harris that is set in an alternative history where Germany won World War II. As these things usually are, the alternatives are handled well and tickle the brain, but overall I found the thriller part of it a bit dry and forced.

The protagonist is Xavier March, a Berlin policeman. He investigates the death of a man who turns out to be an old Nazi party big-shot. When another such man turns up dead in a suicide, March begins to question things, even after he is ordered off the case by the Gestapo. Eventually he partners with an American journalist (who is young and attractive, natch) and they follow clues that lead them to the discovery that fourteen men, all involved in the Wannsee conference that created the "Final Solution" for European Jews, have all died in mysterious circumstances.

The alternative history stuff is fun (if not a little scary to contemplate). Perhaps the cleverest bit is that the book is set in 1964, and Hitler is celebrating his 75th birthday. Attending the ceremony is the U.S.'s President Kennedy--Joseph P., not John F. (as Papa Kennedy was an isolationist and German sympathizer leading up the war). Harris also deftly supposes how Germany would have won, and the empire they would have created (the war is completely over except for Russian guerrillas in terrorist activity).

But mostly I found this book to be routine. The cloak and dagger stuff wasn't out of the ordinary, and the relationship between March and the American woman seemed right out of Hollywood. There was a particularly grueling description of March being tortured by the Gestapo, though.

Many of the characters in this book were real people of the Nazi hierarchy, including Reinhard Heydrich, and Harris has them living long after they actually died. For those steeped in the history of the conflict this book could provide intellectual titillation, but for those who want to read a good thriller, you might be disappointed.

Monday, October 13, 2008

All the King's Men


The 1949 Best Picture Oscar went to All the King's Men, written and directed by Robert Rossen and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. The book was a roman a clef about Louisiana governor Huey Long, (here called Willie Stark) who was a populist and a demagogue, and was assassinated before he could take his considerable ambitions national.

The film starred Broderick Crawford, heretofore a toiler in B-pictures, and he earned the Oscar for Best Actor (the part was initially refused, indignantly, by John Wayne, who called the script unpatriotic). Also winning an Oscar was Mercedes McCambridge as Best Supporting Actress as Stark's secretary. Her performance, while good, is something of a stereotype now--the career woman who is deep down lonely and bitter.

I found this picture to be trying. It creaks with melodrama, and the arc of Stark's rise and fall is predictable and familiar. The bends in the story are well telegraphed (when we learn that Stark's son is drinking too much, he gets his comeuppance only seconds later). What's missing is the man underneath the bluster and speechifying. In the beginning, Stark is seen as a hero, a man who will tell the truth and wants to do good (and inspires the narrator of the film, a reporter played by John Ireland). But once he is elected governor he becomes as corrupt as the machine he was fighting, and we never really know why. We know he grew up poor and uneducated, but we never get to see what truly makes him tick.

About nine years later a movie about the dangers of populist politics came along, A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith. This film was far better in its study of how power works and the masses are manipulated. That film received no consideration from Oscar.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Religulous


Full disclosure: when Bill Maher states at the outset of Religulous that he thinks that religion is a detriment to the progress of humanity, I'm right with him (I'm saying "Amen," to a certain effect). For the rest of the film I'm right with him as he points out the idiosyncrasies and nonsensical quirks of the three major religions (he seems to have no problems with the religions of the Far East) and lets the true believers make ridiculous statements. So if I find this film, which is now part of a continuing vocalization of atheist principles, which started in the books of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, to be the "gospel" truth, how is it as a film?

Pretty good. Certainly it is not objective. As I said, Maher makes his case right up front, and anyone who has any knowledge of him as a performer would not be surprised. When, in a discussion with a neurobiologist, they agree that religious belief is a kind of mental disorder, it's a good indication that this film isn't for everyone. But it is a slick and effective jeremiad, and frequently very funny. It was directed by Larry Charles, and is often a collage of of cultural detritus. Whenever some kind of provocative statement is made, there is some film clip that is used as illustration. When an ex-Mormon reminds Maher that they believe that American Indians are a lost tribe of Israel, we get a clip of Mel Brooks in full Indian-chief regalia. Funny stuff.

But at times the film suffers from the Michael Moore syndrome: the smug superiority of the host. Maher and Charles often utilize the Daily Show style of interviewing--whenever a subject says something silly, we get Maher doing a deadpan response, and when he asks them a question, we often see them staring into space, unable to answer. How much of that is a product of editing is hard to know.

Also, it doesn't take a genius to make mincemeat of religion when limiting one's self to the extremes. Maher talks to an evangelical who was once gay but is now "cured," a rabbi who doesn't believe that Israel should exist (and is seen cozying up to the leaders of Iran), and a Dutch minister of some sort whose entire church revolves around marijuana. When, at the end, Maher says that without religion the world would be a better place, he neglects to mention that there have been atheistic societies--Hitler, Stalin and Mao all had no use for religion, and their nations were not exactly paradises on Earth.

But he does score a lot of points, particularly because he knows his shit. He points out that before Christ, there were several similar myths--Horus of Egypt, Mithra of Persia, and Krishna of India--all products of virgin births, all resurrected, all healers. He also points out than many of Christianities tenets, such as original sin, are not mentioned in the Bible. He scores a nice coup by getting on camera the Vatican astronomer (he mentions that seems like an oxymoron, like "Gay Republican") that the Bible can not be used as science, and that creationism is a bunch of nonsense. He also has a great quote by Thomas Jefferson that I'd never heard of before: "Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man." That kind of takes the wind out of the sails of anyone that says the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation.

The answer that most people of religious belief give when confronted with the irrationality of their particular religion is that the questioner doesn't understand--it's all about faith. Maher has a pretty good answer for that: "Faith makes a virtue of not thinking, it's nothing to brag about." And While Maher certainly realizes that religion isn't going anywhere soon, he does call for those who are part of the sixteen percent in the U.S. who have no religious affiliation to start being more vocal, and to stop allowing the radical religious groups co-opt the political power. Hallelujah!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Duchess


The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a famous woman in Britain in the latter part of the eighteenth-century. Her maiden name was Spencer, which means that she was an ancestor of Princess Diana, and it is apparent that the parallels of her life to her unfortunate descendant are the meat behind the making of this film.

Georgiana, played by Keira Knightley, is a teenage girl when she is married off to the Duke, Ralph Fiennes. He is interested in her only in that she has the ability to bear him a son. She quickly finds out that he is a decidedly cold fish, who seems to care only about his dogs. He is also a serial philanderer, but she swallows her pride and hobnobs with politicians and theater people, and becomes a celebrated socialite.

Tensions increase when her first two children are girls. Then she makes the acquaintance of a Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell) who becomes her friend. I won't give anything away, but the relationship between the two of them and the Duke becomes extremely complicated. When she falls in love with a young member of Parliament (Dominic Cooper) the feces hits the fan, and the Duke reveals an ever darker aspect of his personality, and she realizes she is imprisoned in the marriage.

All of this is handsomely presented. The costumes, sets, music and photography are exquisite. The acting is uniformly good, and the script is lively, if not a tad too contemporary (did anyone in the 1780s really use the phrase, "let's make a deal"?) But as I watched this film I felt a certain deja vu. It's terribly familiar. There have been many costume dramas over the years concerning British royalty, and if there hasn't been a movie about this particular woman before, it sure seems like there has. I felt a certain restlessness, and was more interested in when it would be over more than I was about the characters.

What elevates this film into one worth seeing is the performance by Fiennes. His Duke is a singular creation, a man who is emotionally stunted, almost reptilian in his responses to humanity. He tells Georgiana at one point that he loves her, adding the caveat that it is the way he understands what love is. Georgiana tells her mother (Charlotte Rampling) after a few days of marriage that the man has no interests at all (other than the dogs), and it's to Fiennes credit that he takes this epitome of the class system run amok and makes him fascinating to watch. He is not overtly an ogre, sort of an empty powdered wig, but one that can be sinister when it suits him.

I also thought Knightley was quite good, even if the performance is reminiscent of some of her other roles. She has certain mannerisms that she still carries around with her, and while these tics aren't in themselves objectionable, the more one sees of her the more one can recognize them.

The director of The Duchess is Saul Dibb, and everything looks great. The pace is a little stately, and at times the action veers into potboiler romance novel stuff, but for those who like this sort of thing it hits all the right notes of the genre. I would have liked to see something a bit more transcendent, though.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Layout

As Woody Allen said of Los Angeles in Annie Hall, "They do nothing but give out awards here!" True--for even the adult film industry hands out hardware, from several different organizations. Perhaps the most prestigious are those doled out by the trade publication that covers the biz, Adult Video News. They give out their awards in January at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. There are several dozen categories, from Best Anal-Themed Release (won by Ass Worship 10), Best MILF Release (It's a Mommy Thing), and Best Oral-Themed Release (Face Full of Diesel). There is also simply an award for Best Film, and in 2008 it went to one titled Layout.

I've been reviewing adult titles for several years, and am amused by the dual-thinking that goes on. When adult films started (probably about five minutes after the invention of the film projector) they were simply short scenes of people having sex. Starting in the seventies the typical porn film began having a plot; in fact, they had to, as court rulings mandated that such films have a "socially redeeming" qualities in order not to be prosecuted. But when film gave way to video, and legal restrictions were relaxed, pornographers realized they didn't need to bother with such pesky obstacles as scripts or acting, they returned to the roots, and simply ran a camera while two or more people were having sex. This style of adult film became known as "gonzo," and it dominates the industry today.

However, as with Hollywood, who have magnates who chase Oscars even if it isn't in there best financial interests, some in the adult film community fancy themselves artists and try to make good movies that just happen to have sex scenes. Some of these films are very successful, usually catering to the couples crowd (as opposed to the single male crowd, which uses the films primarily as whacking material). For example, a big-budget extravaganza called Pirates was one of the best-selling adult DVDs of all-time, and now has a sequel.

Layout comes from Vivid, which is an outfit that has always tried to be classier than the rest. Their top line are shot-on-film releases which aren't particularly kinky, have plots, and are easily edited for cable-TV. One of their more ubiquitous directors is Paul Thomas, who was a performer himself back in the day and once said on a DVD extra that he likes to think himself as a director of "small French films." Pretentiousness, it seems, oozes into every art form.

Thomas is the director of Layout, which I must say is a fairly decent film, but no one would care about it if it didn't have sex scenes. It's also not a surprise that it won a top honor from Adult Video News, as the movie is about the editors of a magazine that is suspiciously similar. We have the jaded, self-loathing editor-in-chief (Tom Byron), the crazy owner (Tyce Bune), the new kid on the block (Marcus Leon), who becomes romantically involved with an older porn star making a comeback (Kylie Ireland), and an associate editor (Penny Flame) who likes to seduce the new starlets. Many of the sex scenes in this film are dispiriting, perhaps none so much as the one in which Flame has tied up her latest conquest, Joey Valentine, in her bathtub and drips candle wax on her.

The tenor of the film is that everyone in porn is filled with self-hatred, which might be true, but I don't really care to know that. There are scenes that ring true, like when Byron chides Leon for writing a bad review of a film from a company that is one of the magazine's biggest advertisers. There are also warts-and-all depictions of performers, especially by Briana Banks, an artificially-bosomed actress with a voice like a honking goose who plays a very unpleasant person.

I don't know how Layout did with the general public, but it appears to me that it was made for those in the industry to sadly nod their heads in recognition. Some of the scenes are sexy, but for the most part they are disturbing and depressing. All in all, I much preferred the winner of the Best Gonzo Release: Brianna Love is Buttwoman. Now that was some good porn.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet

When the 1948 Oscars rolled around, their future was very much in jeopardy. The studios, looking to cut costs (and probably angered by the Academy honoring so many British films) pulled their financing. The show went from the 6,000 plus seats of the Shrine Auditorium to the 900-seat Academy screening theater, which couldn't accommodate all the members.

This did not change the Academy voters fascination with the British, though. For the first time, the top prize went to a non-Hollywood film, Hamlet, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. Olivier also won Best Actor.

I've seen this film three or four times, and as I watched it again last night I realized how similar it is to a horror picture. Almost everything about the look of the film--the lighting, which makes use of deep shadows, the set--a foreboding castle with very little furniture, and winding stairs everywhere, like an Escher print, and the ever present fog makes one expect Vincent Price to jump out at any second. It is interesting to note that Peter Cushing, who would go on to star in several Hammer horror films (as well as the original Star Wars) played the small role of Osric. Olivier seems to have keyed the entire production from these lines:

"Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on."

Of course, Hamlet has elements of horror, in that the plot is pushed forward by the revelations of a ghost. Olivier opens the film with an almost Cliff Notes-like prologue. He says, in a voice-over, that this is a tragedy of man who could not make up his mind. An interesting statement, because I don't think that's necessarily true. Surely Hamlet is given to procrastination stemming from overthinking (he passes on a chance to kill Claudius while the latter is praying, which would thus send him straight to heaven). The tale of Hamlet, to me, is proto-Freudian, some three hundreds years before Freud became famous. Shakespeare, in his inimitable way, knew about the subconscious when doctors were still bleeding people with leeches.

Do I need to summarize the plot? Hamlet's father, the king, has died. His uncle, Claudius, marries the widowed queen lickety-split (less than two months later, we're told). Hamlet is justifiably disgusted, but then gets really mad when his father's ghost tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. He needs to know for sure, though, so contrives a group of players to act out a scene in which mirrors the murder. Claudius' agitated reaction convinces Hamlet of his uncle's guilt, but he dithers in getting his revenge, first toying with his sometime sweetheart, Ophelia, contemplating committing suicide, accidentally killing the foolish courtier Polonius, and getting involved with pirates on a ship to England. He returns, though, to find that Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, has gone mad and drowned herself. Her brother Laertes swears revenge against Hamlet, and in a supposedly friendly fencing competition everybody ends up dead.

Of course, any encapsulation of Hamlet robs one of the gifts of the play, which by most accounts is the greatest ever written. It is a magnificent treasure trove of language. Here's a game you can play--read or watch the play and count all the titles of other works that are contained in its lines. There are five or six alone in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Shakespeare wrote a play about grief, mortality, and the very nature of being a human, and he did it with language that positively sings.

Olivier was Britain's most celebrated stage actor, but was not new to Hollywood, having starred in films like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. When he took on Hamlet he made sure it would be palatable to the masses, and that meant cuts, as an unabridged Hamlet runs four hours. His philosophy was to make a minority wince to please the masses. Gone completely are any reference to the invasion by Fortinbras of Norway (Fortinbras has the last lines of the play; Olivier gives them to Horatio). Also gone, and it pains me to say it, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's university friends who arrive at Claudius' bidding to spy on him. Hamlet's exchanges with them are golden, including the "what of piece of work is a man" speech, one of my favorites in the entire canon. Also, some scenes are rearranged (To be or not to be is pushed back, and Olivier delivers it perched on a cliff, as if he might jump).

But even with these changes, a purist can't be too upset, for the film breathes and dazzles, and even at a muscular two-and-a-half hours, flies along at a brisk clip. The performance are all excellent (Jean Simmons, as Ophelia, received a Best Supporting Actress nomination). Olivier, of course, was never better, even though he does look disconcertingly like Sting.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Homestretch

With just under four weeks to go until the election, Democrats can be excused for feeling a little giddy. Nervous, because things have a tendency to get fouled up at the last second, but definitely giddy, as it appears that Barack Obama will be elected as the 44th President of the United States. Last night's debate in Nashville did nothing to change that.

The math is just too overwhelming for John McCain to overcome. Look at this way: Obama is ahead by at least five points in every state John Kerry won in 2004. He is also significantly ahead in Iowa and New Mexico, which both went for Bush. That puts him at 267 electoral votes, four shy of putting him over the top. He would only need to one win from the "battleground" states: Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri or Colorado, and he is ahead or tied in all of them. There are only two ways he can lose this election: a blunder of momentous proportions, such as a photo of him shaking hands with Osama bin Laden, or a rigorous application of the "Bradley effect," which means people who say they will vote for Obama out of some kind of racial guilt but then in the seclusion of the voting booth do the opposite. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I don't think either of those things are going to happen.

As for the debate, it wasn't a rout by either side, but Obama is playing prevent defense. He's not making petty attacks against McCain, and doing his best to be reassuringly presidential, and I think he has succeeded in both debates. Last night he was certainly the clearer one, spelling out his tax proposal and health care plans, while McCain, wandering the stage like an old man hunting for his keys, could only offer cheery bromides about how America's future is bright. The morning news was dominated by his referring to Obama at one point as "that one," and while I doubt McCain meant any disrespect or Obama took any, it can't be good for McCain that that moment is the one everyone is remembering.

Coupling this with the first debate and the VP debate, which I thought Biden won easily over an obviously out-of-her-depth Sarah Palin (who seemed to be doing an impersonation of Tina Fey impersonating herself, with a touch of Marge Gunderson thrown in), the American people seem more and more at ease with the concept of an Obama presidency. The financial crisis turned out to be the late-September surprise, but in this case it helps the Democratic party. There is also a good chance that the Democrats could win sixty seats in the Senate, which would be filibuster-proof.

The McCain-Palin campaign, clearly reading the polls, has resorted to nastiness in spades. Trying to make the acquaintanceship between Obama and former Weatherman Bill Ayers is a desperate gambit that doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps Palin can go around the country and suggest Obama is a Muslim, which an absurd number of Americans still believe. McCain, for some reason, didn't make any personal attacks in the debate last night. Perhaps the decent, honorable man that he claims he is was too ashamed to resort to such mudslinging. We can only hope.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a sweet but ultimately flimsy film that relies too heavily on glib emotions and coincidental meetings. It does, however, have a sterling lead performance by Kat Dennings.

The film is set in one night in the New York City indie-rock club scene. Nick, played by Michael Cera, is pining after an ex-girlfriend (Alexis Dziena). He creates mix CDs for her, which she promptly gives to her friend, Norah (Dennings). Norah really doesn't like Dziena, but loves the mixes from Nick, who she has never met.

Cera is the bassist in a rock trio, and also the only straight guy in the band. He and his associates have a gig, in which Dziena is attendance, along with Dennings and her friend, Ari Graynor, who quickly becomes drunk. Dennings, trying to convince Dziena that she does have a love life, spots Cera and asks him to pretend to be her girlfriend for five minutes. Meanwhile, all of those involved are keen on finding out where a secret concert will be played by their favorite band, Where's Fluffy. Graynor is so drunk that Cera's bandmates promise to take her home, but they lose her, and she wanders the streets in a drunken haze.

Since it's been a long time since I was a teenager, I don't whether it's so ridiculously easy for high school kids to get alcohol in New York clubs. Perhaps it is. But I didn't find the comedy involving Graynor's character to be very funny. There have been too many horrible crimes involving bridge-and-tunnel girls who are drunk out of their minds. Her character is pathetic, not amusing.

There are also way too many coincidences for this story to bear. People keep running into each other with shocking regularity. Also, as someone who has driven a car into New York, the ease of finding parking spaces was in the realm of science fiction. A picayune matter, but it gnawed at me nonetheless.

And the love story between Nick and Norah was far too predictable. They meet cute, have adventures in the city, and of course he spurns his shallow and materialistic ex for the more down-to-earth girl. The only good wrinkle in this is that Dennings makes her character far more interesting than the usual woman who plays this kind of role. She is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but a character with insecurities and recognizable behavior patterns.

Cera is also good, but I would imagine about now he's itching to play something else. In Superbad, Juno, and now this film he's played essentially the same thing--a sensitive teen. If I were him I'd ask my agent to get me a role as a hit man, a cattle rustler, or a Musketeer--anything but another moony suburban teenager. Cera's main prop in the film is a distressed Yugo that is almost like a character--kudos to the prop department for finding that.

The names Nick and Norah are a tip of the hat to the detectives created by Dashiell Hammett and played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series of films. They were sophisticated and clever, and I don't know if this Nick and Norah are meant to be the 2008 equivalent. For one thing, they don't solve crimes, and for another, they're not particularly witty. Naming your characters those names sets some high expectations, and they are not met in this film. It just never clicked with me, right from the beginning, and I never was able to find my way in and get involved in more than a superficial way. The direction, by Peter Sollett, is serviceable, but nothing special, and the screenplay (an adaptation of a novel) aims to be the kind of wordy teenage angst stuff that made Juno a success, but falls short here.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Oscar, Best Actor: A Surprise Guest



As with Best Actress, there are a lot of familiar names in the Best Actor hunt this year, but there's also a few names that are eye-poppingly surprising, as if someone had done a random search through the IMDB. As I type this, I'm still amazed that the words Mickey Rourke are going hand in hand with Oscar nominee, but by all accounts of those who have seen it, Rourke's work as the title character in The Wrestler is a slam-dunk for a nomination. Of course, Rourke was once a respected actor, back in the day, but over the years has turned into a bizarre parody of an actor. Apparently director Darren Aronofsky hit on the perfect use for Rourke--as a washed-up professional wrestler.

I think it's too soon to proclaim Rourke the eventual winner, as it could be that the nomination will be a victory all too itself. Thus it is time to bring in the heavy hitters, actors who have several nominations or have won before. We can start with Sean Penn, who is the title character in Milk, the martyred San Francisco city councilman. There's also Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road, which appears to be the prestige release this Christmas. And you can't count out Clint Eastwood, who's back in one of two films he's directing this year, Gran Torino.

Other possibilities are Viggo Mortensen in The Road, Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist (Downey has had such a great year that it seems like the Academy may want to honor him, and his role in this Shine retread seems more likely than Iron Man or as a Supporting Actor for Tropic Thunder), or Will Smith in Seven Pounds. Then there's Benicio Del Toro for Che, but if it's released as two films it will be problematic, as he's very likely to split votes.

From the never-nominated-before category a very strong possibility is Frank Langella as the disgraced president in Frost/Nixon (he would be the second actor nominated for that role, after Anthony Hopkins), and sticking with presidents, Josh Brolin as the current occupant in W. It's hard to know how that picture will be regarded, either by audiences or Academy members, and I tend to doubt it will get any nominations, but it's certainly a possibility. My personal favorite this year is Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, but I'm not holding my breath.

If I were to name a favorite to win it all at this early date, I would go with Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He's only been nominated once before, for Twelve Monkeys. Since then he's become a super-duper star, at least in terms of press coverage, and because this a role that requires some strenuous activity (aging, but in reverse) I get the feeling it's the kind of part that the Academy would honor, especially given the actor's pretty-boy status.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Gentleman's Agreement

The 1947 Best Picture Oscar went to Gentleman's Agreement, which was directed by Elia Kazan, but was really the baby of Twentieth-Century Fox's Darryl Zanuck, who was determined to do a picture about anti-Semitism. When all is said and done, this movie is a lot better than it has any right to be, since it is foremost a polemic, and frequently high-handed and preachy. But I've seen it about three times, and get absorbed it in every time.

The source novel was by Laura Z. Hobson, and when Zanuck read it he snapped up the rights. Interestingly enough, Zanuck was one of the few studio moguls who was not Jewish, but those that were, like Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, and others, implored him not to do the picture, fearing that it would stir up more trouble than it was worth.

Gregory Peck plays a magazine writer who is hired by an editor of a liberal-minded weekly to write a piece on anti-Semitism. He struggles to come up with an interesting angle, and is ready to give up when he decides he will masquerade as a Jew to find out what it's really like. Now, this plot point wouldn't work today, as anyone can reasonably ask, why not hire a Jewish writer (there were certainly plenty of great Jewish writers back then, as now). Of course, back in 1947 it would have been difficult to get away with having the lead character be Jewish. It also allows Peck to suffer the slights and insults in a concentrated form. He's told by his Jewish buddy, played by John Garfield, that it must be interesting to experience years of prejudice in just a few short weeks.

Meanwhile, Peck is romancing the editor's niece, played by Dorothy McGuire, and it is her character's development that forms the spine of the film. She's no anti-Semite, but over the course of the story she learns about herself that just "going along" is equally repellent to overt bigotry. It recalls the quote by Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." At the beginning of the film, when Peck tells her about his scheme, a look of incomprehension flashes across her face--is Peck really Jewish? It's a marvelous piece of acting by her.

Though this film's heart is in the right place, and it was a huge hit, there are some nagging concerns. The Jews who are depicted in the film--Garfield, and a secretary played by June Havoc, are assimilated. There is no sign of Hasidim or any other orthodox sect. There is Sam Jaffee, playing a scientist who is obviously modeled on Albert Einstein, but other than him there is no representation of the many different types of Judaism in America. It's almost as if the film were saying that as long as you can't physically tell the difference between Jews and Christians, then everything is all right.

In addition to the film, Kazan won an Oscar for directing and Celeste Holm won Best Supporting Actress for playing the magazine's fashion editor, who is in love with Peck and has a big speech at the end about the hypocrisy of limousine liberalism.

I'm also pretty sure that many people saw this film and probably nodded in agreement, thinking that if Gregory Peck showed up at their dinner party they'd welcome him, even if he was a Jew. But these same people probably went the next day to their restricted country clubs without giving it another thought. Fortunately, time has withered away the concept of "restricted" facilities.