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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eden's Outcasts


The Pulitzer Prize for Biography went this year to Eden's Outcasts, John Matteson's dual biography of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and her father, Bronson, who was a teacher, philosopher, and friend to the New England literary set. I have never read Little Women (I once went to a theatrical production of one of her stories, The Night Governess, and during the post-play discussion an expert on Alcott asked who had read Little Women--the hands that were raised were almost exclusively female) but her life is interesting, particularly as it relates to the transcendentalism movement.

Bronson was, to put it kindly, eccentric. For most of his life he tried to put his views on education to work by teaching and founding various schools, but they inevitably failed. For a time he co-founded a Utopian community that had strict rules about the non-use of animal products, even to the point of not using wool (cotton was out as well, due to the slave labor involved in picking it). He and his wife and four daughters lived in poverty much of the time, as he wasn't much of a farmer and refused to work in the accepted construct of the times. He was, though, a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and well known to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who viewed him suspiciously.

Louisa grew up in a fecund literary environment. She once, as a young girl, went to Emerson and asked for reading recommendations, and he showed her his volumes of Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe. She got her start writing potboilers for the magazines of the day, but it wasn't until a publisher pestered her to write a book for young girls did she achieve literary immortality. Almost against her will, she penned the story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. At first her publisher found it dull, until he showed it to his niece, who enjoyed it thoroughly.

Little Women was a publishing phenomenon, and at the same time Bronson finally achieved national renown with publication of educational tomes he had written much earlier, as well as touring the country having public conversations on philosophy and religion. In one of those eerie twists of fate, Louisa, who never married, died a mere forty hours after her father did (she contracted typhus while working as a nurse during the Civil War, and a cure of mercury slowly poisoned her to death over the last twenty-five years of her life). She and her parents and sisters are buried in a section of Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, that I have had a chance to visit. It's quite a thing to stand in one spot and be a mere few paces from their graves, as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Matteson has written a sterling biography. Drawing on well-kept journals by the principles, he creates the family's world expertly, and pinpoints the relationship between father and daughter quite well. Louisa was always seeking her father's approval, and when she finally earned it almost meant more to her than riches and fame. Riches, not quite, because as a girl she had known poverty. Fame, on the other hand, she didn't want. Matteson tells some amusing stories about how Louisa spurned the attention of many of her fans. I liked this one the best: "At one public appearance, an energetic matron worked her arm like a pump handle and exclaimed, 'If you ever come to Oshkosh, your feet will not be allowed to touch the ground: you will be borne in the arms of the people.' Louisa vowed never to visit Oshkosh."

Matteson also does a fine job of putting things in perspective, as he does here: "Now, more than a century later, Little Women remain available everywhere; Tablets (Bronson Alcott's book), by contrast, is out of print and long forgotten. To those with access to the latter volume, however, it is a rare treat to read the two works side by side, as two complementary glimpses into the past, and into the heart of the Alcott family."

Finally, I enjoy reading a good biography because if the author is successful, especially in dealing with a deceased person, you are able to live with that person for a short time, from birth to death, and at the end there is a certain emotional response. I admit getting a little misty-eyed reading this passage: "Something deeper can be learned from looking at the children who never stop coming to Bronson's and Louisa's house. They are eager, hushed and wide-eyed. They come to see something they cannot describe but must certainly feel, something that comes neither precisely from the Marches nor the Alcotts, but is perhaps an idea of how life and families ought to be."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Christmas Tale


This film is playing in a couple of art houses near me, but now that I have plenty of time at home I was looking what was available on On Demand, and lo and behold this one is, as part of IFC. It costs about the same to watch it on TV as go to the movie theater, but I'd rather stay at home and watch it in my pajamas.
It is co-written and directed by Arnaud Desplechins, and I have seen his immediately preceding film, Kings and a Queen. As with that film, A Christmas Tale is about families, especially parents and children. There are also several holdover actors from his earlier film, most notably Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric.

What Desplechins does well, thankfully, is let us know immediately who everyone is. In a prologue, he outlines the family dynamics. Deneuve and her husband, Jean-Paul Roussilon, have four children, but the eldest died of cancer at age six. The comes a daughter, who has grown up to be a morose playwright (Ann Consigny), a ne'er-do-well son (Amalric), and a happy-go-lucky sort (Melvil Poupaud) is the youngest son. Consigny has a teenage son who is mentally troubled. Deneuve learns she has cancer, and needs a bone marrow transplant. Her grandson persuades Amalric, who has not been around in years, to return and be tested as a donor.

The theme of suitability as a donor is strong throughout the film. Amalric was conceived as a possible donor for his elder brother, but was not compatible. He then creates havoc in all of the family's lives, especially his sister, who agrees to pay debts to keep him out of prison, but on the condition that she never has to see him again. The father is a soft-touch who will not disown no matter what, so when Amalric shows up for Christmas with a new girlfriend (Emannuelle Devos, who was the Queen in Kings and a Queen) all may not be forgiven, but he is tolerated.

Desplechins can be remarkably sanguine about family relationships. Deneuve is quite frank about which children she favors (Amalric is not one of them), and when one of the kids proves to be a compatible donor, she accepts this by saying that they came from her womb, and now she wants some of them back. There are many secrets revealed and heart-to-heart conversations, but unlike cloying American films of this type (such as Home for the Holidays and The Family Stone) the lack of sentimentality is refreshing.

The star of this film is Amalric, who is becoming quite the international presence, what with his work in this film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and American films like Munich and The Quantum of Solace. He is impish and though a complete rascal, his charm is undeniable. Consigny is also very good as a woman with fragile beauty who seems to struggle to make it through each day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beaufort

I've now seen three of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language film for last year's Oscar (Katyn and 12 are not yet available on DVD). As with The Counterfeiters (the winner) and Mongol, Beaufort is a mediocre film that aspires to more than it delivers.

An Israeli film directed by Joseph Cedar, Beaufort refers to a castle in southern Lebanon that goes back to the days of the Crusades. It changed hands many times over a thousand years, and was seized by Israel in 1982. In 2000 they evacuated it for good, and this story concerns the last group of Israeli soldiers who manned it.

The early parts of the film are very evocative. The atmosphere almost suggests a horror film, as a bomb expert arrives so he can disarm a device that blocks the road (Hezbollah are in the hills, pestering the Israeli soldiers). He is almost instantly confused by the meandering tunnels (that have the look of a spaceship, which gives it that "Alien" feeling). But his confusion is also the viewers, at least this one. Throughout the film I never really got a good sense of who was who or what the military strategy was. The soldiers wanted to leave, but continued to have obstacles, but then top brass seemed to come and go without difficulty. The only character I got a good sense of was the commander, played by Oshri Cohen, a by-the-book young man who ultimately fails his men.

This film is far too moody and talky to succeed as a war film, and perhaps it's because I'm unfamiliar with the politics and culture it didn't resonate with me as a drama. There were a few things that I found interesting: it's an interesting by-product of the technology of the era that the men could watch on television what was going on around them (I remember feeling the same thing while watching Three Kings, when Mark Wahlberg was able to call home on a cell phone--certainly the Gulf War was the first conflict where that could happen). Also, an early scene showing dummies set up on the parapets to draw enemy fire reminded me of a similar situated in the similarly titled Beau Geste.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Taxi to the Dark Side


I've now seen all five of the films nominated for the Best Documentary Feature for the 2007 Oscars, the last one being the film that won, Taxi to the Dark Side. It's director, Alex Gibney, was also the executive producer of another nominee, No End in Sight (which I reviewed previously). Taken together, Gibney has pretty much defined the Bush misadventure in Iraq, with Taxi to the Dark Side focused on the use of torture.

Starting with the singular case of an Afghan tax driver, Dilawar, who was arrested by Afghan militia and sent to Bagram prison, and then died three days later after horrible mistreatment, Gibney then expands the focus to the overall use of torture throughout the U.S. military, at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. As with No End in Sight, the film is heavy on use of talking heads, but instead of getting people from Amnesty International or the like tut-tutting, he has remarkably gathered the men who served as the guards in the Dilawar case, many of whom served time for their crimes. He also interviews some government officials, notably Navy attorney Alberto Mora, a Bush appointee, who were vocally opposed to the outright violation of the Geneva convention.

It's hard to know what the largest stain the Bush administration will leave behind, but this may be it. It's clear that the approval for the use of torture, and other mistreatment of prisoners (such as forced masturbation) came from the top down. The captain in charge of Bagram was assigned to Abu Ghraib, and as of the filming was not removed, instead she was teaching at the interrogation school. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika should be tried as war criminals, but legislation signed by Bush will prevent that. It makes one hope that there is justice meted out in the next life.

As I said, I've seen all five nominees, and I have no problem with this film winning. But it begs the question, what makes a good documentary? Sicko, the offering from Michael Moore, was clearly the most entertaining. Operation Homecoming and War Dance were far more emotionally engaging, while No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side were polemics with abundant information and effective editing. Frankly, any of them would have been a deserving winner.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Twilight


I'm the first to admit that I'm not the target audience for Twilight, and as I sat in a theater surrounded by teenage girls, it was even more apparent. I haven't read the books by Stephenie Meyer that have been such a sensation, and I don't festoon my bedroom walls with pictures of hunky Byronic actors. That being said, it isn't impossible to take a property that has a narrow demographic and make a film that transcends the fan-base appeal and is enjoyable for all audiences, such as some of the Harry Potter films or the better comic-book adaptations. Twilight does not do that.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who specializes in films about teens (Thirteen and The Lords of Dogtown) has made a film that would appear to be faithful to the source material (judging by the plot summary of the book that I read on Wikipedia) and pleased the audience I saw it with (it's not often a gaggle of teenage girls will sit in the theater through the credits). To the discerning cineaste, though, the response should be a stifled yawn.

This is, if you have been living in a cave, a movie about vampires. Movies about vampires are always really about something else. Lately they've been metaphors about outcasts in society, whether they are Jews or gays or some other misunderstood group. Meyer has gone back to the metaphor used by Bram Stoker in the seminal vampire story, Dracula--the bite of a vampire as metaphor for sexual initiation.

The heroine of the tale is Bella Swan, played by Kristen Stewart. She is a brooding loner who moves from sunny Phoenix to overcast Washington State to live with her distant father. She makes friends at her new high school, but is intrigued by a quintet of weird students, the Cullens, who are all foster children of the town's doctor (why a family of vampires wouldn't take advantage of home-schooling isn't revealed, other than that it would stop the plot dead in its tracks). One of these kids, Edward, is another pale and brooding figure, and Bella is intrigued, even though he is initially rude to her. Turns out he is also attracted, but for slightly different reasons--Bella makes him hungry.

Instead of the eternal dance of young people deciding on whether to consummate their love, Bella and Edward dicker about whether he should make her a vampire or not. These kids don't seem interested in anybody parts below the waste, it's all about fangs and throats.

The Cullens are good vampires--they don't attack humans, and instead feast on the blood of woodland creatures (which would only anger PETA). Edward overcomes his bloodlust and he and Bella begin dating, and she is welcomed into their family. This leads to one of the most ludicrous scenes I've come across in recent memory--the Cullens playing a game of pickup baseball, vampire style. But then they encounter the bad vampires, who have no problem killing humans, and Bella is endangered. Will she be rescued by Edward? Well, there are three more books in the series.

None of this is interesting to anyone who isn't female and under sixteen. When Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, makes his initial appearance, the crowd of girls I was with audibly gasped, so in some way his casting was successful. But he and Stewart, who is appropriately pale and ethereal for a girl who would fall for a vampire, don't really act as much as strike attitudes. Stewart, in particular, is pretty bad, but I'm wondering if she wasn't a prisoner to the character and the material. All she does is act sullen, rarely changing facial expression and reciting her lines in a monotone. No one in the cast does much better. The Cullen father, Peter Facinelli, is saddled with a bizarre hair and makeup job.

I'm sure the rest of the books will be filmed, as this one ends with a teaser as to what will happen next. I probably won't be back.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Requiem for a Grandmother



There's a scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which Annie tells him her tie was a gift from her Grammy. He is bemused and asks her if she didn't grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting. Well, I had a Grammy, too (I had two of them--as Paul McCartney says of grandfathers in A Hard Day's Night, "Everyone is entitled to two"), but I lost one of them this week, and she in many ways seemed to have come to life from a Norman Rockwell painting.

She was born in 1914 in Addyston, Ohio (pictured above), a very small town just down river from Cincinnati. It was a town full of oddballs, sort of like Mayberry, with a particular habit of assigning nonsensical nicknames to everyone. My grandmother was known to her family as "Tood," though her real name was Evelyn, and no one knows the derivation of that nickname.

Her father worked for the pipe foundry, which was the main employer of the area. In 1940 she married my grandfather, who was from another small town across the river called Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. These were real country people, and I grew up knowing what country cuisine tasted like. For years when I visited she made me my favorite--navy beans with cottage ham, with cornbread. These people didn't know about fancy things like Chinese food, and they tended to boil the food until it was an unrecognizable mush (soft green beans I especially remember) but they sure did know how to fry chicken, and make biscuits that made your mouth water just to look at them.

My grandparents relocated a few miles to Cincinnati, where my father was born (he was childhood friends with a famous Cincinnati native, Pete Rose), but in 1951 they moved up to the Detroit area, and for the rest of her life she was a resident of Dearborn, Michigan. My grandfather worked for GM, and he died in 1977. After that, my grandmother lived with her spinster sister, and for over twenty-five years they formed what could only be termed a special kind of comedy act. With the timing of vaudevillians, they could tell a story or engage in misunderstandings of technology that would become family lore, such as when they kept returning electric toothbrushes to the appliance store until the salesclerk asked if they were turning the on/off switch (they just thought you had to plug it in), or somehow turning on the mute button on their TV and having to enlist the aid of family members to discover why the thing had suddenly lost sound.

A few things characterized my grandmother. For one thing, she was a rabid baseball fan. Growing up her team was the Reds, and she remembered the players from their 1940 championship team well. But her allegiance changed to the Tigers, and no one was a bigger fan. She would watch or listen to every game (she liked to watch the TV broadcast but listen to the radio call, because Ernie Harwell was the radio broadcaster). She would hold the transistor radio tight to her ear and eventually this would make her wrist sore. She knew all the players, all the strategy, and lived and died with each pitch. I went to many games with her during the seventies, when the Tigers had great players like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, and Mickey Lolich.

She was also very politically aware, and a lifelong Democrat. She was no crazy-eyed liberal, in fact her social values were pretty conservative. But she believed in the Democratic party, and always voted (for many years she was one of the those little old ladies who worked at the polls). She hated Nixon, revered the Kennedys, and sized up the current president with disdain. Even at the end she was disgusted by the misadventures in Iraq, summing it up as "another Vietnam."

Her tastes were pretty standard middle-American fare, like the Lawrence Welk, Andy Griffith, Andy Williams, and the Statler Brothers. However she also liked edgier fare. As the family were sitting around talking my father speculated that her favorite show may have been All in the Family. She also, while she was able, loved to go the movies. She took me to many, including her favorite, Gone With the Wind. I remember her saying to me afterward how terrible the Union had been to the people of the South.

That brings up some unpleasant tendencies that she did have. Though Ohio was technically a Northern state, the white people of the southern part of the state were not particularly enlightened when it came to race relations. I heard some appallingly racist comments from the elders of my family for many years. I remember when a black television repairman came to fix the TV and they reacted as if it were a home evasion, huddling back in the kitchen while he worked. However over the years she softened, and when she actually met black people she was as warm and friendly to them as she was to anyone. At the end her lucidity would come and go, but she was aware of the candidacy of Barack Obama. She was all for him, claiming it didn't matter what color he was, because he was smart and he gave a good speech. But old habits die hard, and my father told me that during a visit the Sunday before the election she walked he and my stepmother to the door of her apartment in the senior citizens' home and said, "That n*gger better win."

So long, Grammy. I'll miss you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Home Is the Sailor



This entry in the Hard Case Crime series is a republication of a novel written in the early fifties, by Day Keene. Home is the Sailor is a fine, gritty book firmly in the pulp/noir tradition, but it is perhaps too typical of the genre. Though the style is pleasurable the similarities to other books are a bit too striking.

The story concerns Swede Nelson, a merchant seaman who has saved his money and wants to head back to his Minnesota home town to buy a farm and settle down. He gets as far as the California coast before he meets a beautiful young woman who owns a travel court (the earlier equivalent of the motel). She rescues him from a bar fight, and he is smitten. Of course she is not all she seems to be, and soon enough he is committing murder on her behalf.

The jacket copy tells us that it is reminiscent of the work of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, and that is a plus and a minus. It is almost too reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice, right down to a dead body being placed in a car and pushed off a cliff. Since this book was written after the Cain book (and well-known film version) I'm kind of stunned Keene even tried it. Also, it's pretty clear what the femme fatale is up to early on, but there are a couple of nice twists along the way, and in this kind of book you can't be sure if the hero/narrator is going to get out of this without facing the gas chamber.

At times the writing is a bit much. Swede is a constant drinker, and we have to accept that twice he has blackouts and remembers nothing. But these kinds of entertainments do not hinge on realism, so it's best to just sit back and enjoy the rum-soaked sex and violence.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Around the World in 80 Days


In 1956, bigger was better. The winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Around the World in 80 Days, was a shade over three hours long, and it wasn't even the longest film of the five nominees, as The Ten Commandments and Giant were even longer. In retrospective, a great injustice was done as many critics would acknowledge that the best film of that year was John Ford's The Searchers, which wasn't even nominated.

Based on the novel by Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days was produced by Mike Todd, an entrepreneur and showman who was mounting his first film production. He made quite a splash, not only making a film that would require thousands of actors, on-location filming around the world, and winning the Oscar, but also marrying Elizabeth Taylor, who accompanied him at the awards weighed down with jewels (including a tiara). Sadly, it would be the only film Todd would ever produce, as just before the Academy Awards for the following year he would die in a plane crash.

The director was also a first-timer, Michael Anderson, but he seems to be playing traffic cop here more than anything else, as there are numerous second units. The film is really more of a travelogue, a chance to show off the new style of CinemaScope developed by Todd, called Todd AO.

The story, what there is of it, concerns Phileas Fogg, a London gentleman who makes a wager with the men at his club that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Fogg's upper-crust Britishness and fetishistic punctuality are the comic spirit of the piece (one of the screenwriters was absurdist S.J. Perelman). Once he has made the bet he and his new valet, Passepartout, embark on the journey. They travel by balloon across Europe, through the jungles of India (where they rescue an Indian princess from a funeral pyre) and across the Pacific. They encounter wild Indians on the American plains. All the while they are being dogged by a British detective, who suspects that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England. Frequently Fogg seems to have hit an obstacle that will prevent him from beating the deadline, but the conflict is usually resolved in just a few moments.

All of this could have told in under two hours, but the times being what they were, when film was competing with television, that wouldn't do. Instead we get long scenes of spectacle. There are numerous shots of scenery going by, either from the balloon, trains, or ships. There is a long bullfighting scene in Spain. Passepartout was played by the Mexican comedian Catinflas, who had bullfighting experience. This is also the film that gave us the term "cameo" performance, as Todd enlisted dozens of famous stars to appear for just a moment or two, and instead of being an insult, they lined up to do it. Here's just a sample: Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Colman, Red Skelton, Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, and Peter Lorre.

Fogg was played by David Niven, who is perfect as the time-conscious gentleman. Watching him go through difficult circumstances while always perfectly dressed and groomed is the main pleasure of this otherwise very dull film. Catinflas was a huge star in the Latin world (during the introduction TCM's Robert Osborne tells us that at the time he was the richest actor in the world) and displays Chaplinesque qualities. A very young Shirley MacLaine is the Indian princess who tags along after she is rescued, but she has little to do other than be very attractive window dressing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Synecdoche, New York


One thing can be said for Charlie Kaufman's films--they are completely unlike anyone else's, except for his own. Based on his work as a screenwriter on films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he's earned an "esque" prefix, as he creates worlds and situations that are ingenious. They do, however, has certain similarities to each other, and they are evident in Kaufman's directorial debut.

We start with the antagonist, who is usually a forlorn schmo. In Synecdoche, New York, it is Philip Seymour Hoffman, at his most lumpen, as a theater director who is obsessed with disease and death. We begin with him as he is putting the finishing touches on a production of Death of a Salesman in a regional theater in Schenectady. His wife (Catherine Keener) is an artist of postage-stamp sized paintings, and they have a four-year-old daughter. The marriage is not what one would call successful--in marriage counseling sessions Keener admits that she fantasizes about his death. Soon she is off to Berlin to become a famous artist, taking the child with her.

Hoffman then wins the McArthur "genius" grant and envisions a theater project on a massive scale. He leases a warehouse the size of a Boeing plant (in Manhattan's theater district!) and begins creating a simulacrum of his life, hiring actors to play all the people in it. As the years pass he has encounters with other women, such as Samantha Morton, as a box-office worker who takes a shine to him, and Michelle Williams, who was his leading lady in Death of a Salesman and then becomes the leading lady in his project as well his life. The theater piece and real life become less and less indistinguishable, and the film becomes like a set of Russian nesting dolls. An actor (Tom Noonan) who has been following Hoffman for twenty years is hired to play Hoffman in the piece. Eventually another actor is hired to play Noonan. The inevitability of death intercedes every so often (Hoffman tells his assembled actors at the beginning that we are all hurtling toward death is the theme of the play), and entropy sets in as well, as Hoffman's body and the play begin to come apart at the seams.

This is not easy stuff to digest. The film begins as comedy, although it is typically weird. Morton's house is always on fire (she is told by the real-estate agent that the sellers are motivated). There is a morbid fascination with bowel movements and pustules (the marriage counselor, Hope Davis, tends to have some kind of boils on her feet) and Hoffman is always at doctors, told he needs to see a never-ending cycle of specialists. The rules of time and space are not followed, as some characters age while others do not, and after his daughter goes to Berlin, Hoffman keeps tabs on her life by reading her childhood diary, which never leaves his possession.

The title is both a play on the city of Schenectady, New York and a nifty word that is a flexible figure of speech--it can mean both a whole representing a part, or a part representing a whole. Knowing that makes it simpler to understand, as Hoffman's theatrical piece comes to represent his life in a miniature (although it is still huge, it is still smaller than reality). What starts to become mind-bending are the shifts in identity, which he explored in Being John Malkovich. The characters start to forget who they are--Noonan becomes interested in Morton, but Hoffman tells him she doesn't exist for him, instead he should love the actress who plays her, Emily Watson. Eventually Hoffman trades places with another actress, Dianne Wiest. You definitely can't check your brain at the door for this one.

While this film isn't as thrilling as other Kaufman films, I think Synecdoche, New York is a beautiful work, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. In his review in Entertainment Weekly, in which he panned the film, Owen Glieberman made something of an Emperor's new clothes statement, saying that it was sure to be hailed as a masterpiece, presumably by critics who aren't as wise as he is. Roger Ebert took up the mantle, and declared that it was a masterpiece. I'm much more with Ebert. This film will stay with me for a long time, and that is a good thing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quantum of Solace


I had completely lost interest in the James Bond series during the Pierce Brosnan run, when all of the titles had the form of the word "die" and some reference to a day. Then I was pleasantly surprised by Casino Royale, when those responsible seemed interested in making Bond a real person, with a history and a psyche, and not just a smirking superman. Gone were supervillains with lairs underneath volcanos, bent on destroying the world with sattelite-lasers. I welcomed the change.

The second film in this reboot, Quantum of Solace, picks up right where Casino Royale left off, and while it isn't as good as that film it has its pleasures and I left the theater entertained. I find Daniel Craig to be a terrific Bond, who doesn't make puns and is close to the brutish character that Ian Fleming created. I also enjoyed Judi Dench in her continuing role as M, who probably has more dialogue than Bond does.

The film is burdened with a title that will have the curious running to the dictionary. The "Quantum" part is explained as the name of some super-secret organization that MI6 and the CIA don't even know about (I wonder if they have cross-over members with S.P.E.C.T.R.E). The chief baddie in this outing is outwardly an environmentalist (Al Gore may bristle at this) who really wants to create coups in nations and then secure the utility rights. This is kind of dry stuff for a spy thriller, but I appreciate that the evil plots actually have a foot in reality.

The action starts in Italy, and then Bond is off to Haiti, Austria, and finally Bolivia (I'd love to have his frequent flier miles). Along the way he crosses paths with the mysterious and beautiful Camille (Olga Kurylenko), and I'm also happy to say that this reboot is two-for-two with luscious Bond girls (I'd like to do an exhaustive comparison between Kurylenko and Eva Green, just so I can decide who is more ravishing). There are chases in various modes of transportation--cars, boats, and airplanes, and lots of derring-do.

Directed by Marc Forster, who also directed the decidedly non-action films Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace does not work best during its action sequences. It's been edited within an inch of its life by Matt Chesse and Rick Pearson. The cold opener, a chase on a winding seaside road in Italy, is done with close-ups and a blurring series of shots that last less than a second. A person could get disoriented. Forster also favors intercutting his action scenes with other events, such a horse race and, in homage to Coppola, an opera.

If the action stuff is derivatively frenetic of the Bourne series, I thought the rest of the film made up for it. As I said, I thought Dench was terrific, and loved her byplay with Bond. Kurylenko was hard to understand, but its hard to take your eyes off her. Mathieu Amalric is the villain, and if he isn't quite the megalomaniac that Bond has faced in other films, he's intriguing enough. Oh, and the "secondary" Bond girl has a classic Bond-film name: Strawberry Fields, and the song by Jack White is one of the better in the series.

The bottom line is that Quantum of Solace doesn't suck, and provides enough of what a viewer would expect at a Bond film. I'm all for the seeing the next one.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Angelica


I love a good ghost story, but they are hard to find. Most books that are marketed as ghost stories turn out to be something else, and that is the case with Angelica, by Arthur Phillips, which turns out to be a psychological study of womanhood in Victorian England.

A pastiche of a Gothic thriller, similar in vein to The Yellow Wallpaper, Angelica concerns a small family in London. The wife, Constance, was an orphaned salesgirl who is wed to Joseph, an imperious vivisectionist of Italian extraction. Constance has one child, a four-year-old girl named Angelica, but has had many miscarriages, and is told that she risks her life to have more children. A doctor plainly tells her that she should resist her husband's advances.

The action kicks off when Joseph decides that at four, Angelica is too old to sleep in her parents' room and she is dispatched to her own nursery. Constance accepts this (a wife in those days couldn't disagree with their husbands) but is jittery about anything that may happen to her daughter. A series of apparitions of floating phantoms in the child's room has her engaging the services of a spiritualist.

The story is told in four parts, each from a different point of view--Constance, the spiritualist, Anne Montague, Joseph and an adult Angelica, who narrates the entire book. We see the major events of the book from different angles, which can be both fascinating (for example, we learn that we can trust nothing as the truth) and irritating, as we rehash scenes. I enjoyed the passages concerning Anne the best, as her arrival kick-started the book's soggy opening. A former actress, Anne is the most interesting character in the book.
Phillips seems to be a fan of old-time psychological thrillers, though this book is heavier on psychology and shorter on thrills. He writes in the florid style of the nineteenth century, and at times this seems close to parody. I doubt that a four-year-old child in any time period would have used the word "solatudory." The ending is also frustratingly vague, and makes us doubt everything we've already read. Ghost story? Not really.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Marty

Marty is perhaps the film with the lowest relative budget to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, which it did in 1955. The cost was $383,000, and the studio spent 400 grand on it's Oscar campaign. Legend has it that the producers, Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, had made the movie with the expectation it would lose money and be a tax write-off. If that was the plan, it backfired.

Marty is also the only Best Picture winner to be based on a TV show. It was a teleplay, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann (who both moved over to the film version). Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, however, were replaced by Ernest Borgnine and Besty Blair, respectively. It is also the only film to win both the Palme D'Or at Cannes and the Oscar.

It's a simple tale of kitchen-sink realism about a kindhearted Bronx butcher, Borgnine, who is in his mid-thirties and just about given up on love. He tells his mother that he's a fat, ugly man and that he's tired of being hurt. Early in the film there's a heartbreaking scene where he calls a girl on the phone and gets the brush off. We don't hear what she's saying, but we know it from the way he closes his eyes and absorbs the pain. But he goes out with his buddy, Joe Mantell, to a dance hall. He witnesses a plain schoolteacher, Blair, getting dumped by a callow blind date. He asks her to dance, and a romance blossoms.

The next day, his mother and friends discourage him, saying she's not good-looking enough (his mother, who pushes him to get married, is suddenly worried she'll get the boot out of the house should a daughter-in-law move in). Borgnine eventually realizes he doesn't care, and at the end of the film calls her up.

Chayefsky's script is almost musical as it captures the dialects of the characters. A famous exchange comes when Mantell and Borgnine try to figure out what to do for the night--"What do you feel like doin' tonight?" "I don't know, what do you feel like doin'?" There's also a hysterical scene with Borgnine's friends discussing the fine literary style of Mickey Spillane. Occasionally this goes way over the top--when Marty's mother and his aunt have scenes together their thick accents make it seem like an Italian minstrel show. But the byplay between Borgnine and Blair (Mrs. Gene Kelly in real life) was brilliant, and perfectly captured the feelings of two lonelyhearts as they stumble toward what they thought was impossible.

Borgnine, Mann, and Chayefsky all won Oscars. Heretofore Borgnine had been known chiefly as a heavy in films like From Here to Eternity, but he would go on to a long and varied career, which is still going today.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the Waterfront


As I make my way through the Oscar Best Picture winners, I have seen some films for the first time, but some I have seen many times, and that includes On the Waterfront which, for my money, is the best film of the 1950s and features the best performance by an actor I've ever seen.

Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront is an almost perfect film. Based on a series of articles in the New York Sun about corruption in the longshoreman's union, the film was shot on location on the wharfs and rooftops of Hoboken, New Jersey, and you can practically taste and smell the coming winter in the coarse black and white photography.

Marlon Brando is Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He is used as a hired goon by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), head of the local and as corrupt as the day is long. Brando's older brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) is another union official, and Brando is allowed some perks and privileges because of this. In the film's opening scene, he unwittingly sets up a friend for murder because that friend was set to testify before the crime commission. As he gets to know that murdered friend's sister, Eva Marie Saint, and listens to the crusading parish priest, Karl Malden, Brando has a crisis of conscience and works to redeem himself.

This is really the first film to feature the modern-style of acting to win Best Picture. Kazan was one of the founders of the Actor's Studio, which espoused the "method" by Stanislavski. Brando was already a star (his nomination for On the Waterfront was his fourth straight), but the popularity of the film ensured that the "torn t-shirt" style of acting was now going to dominate American cinema. The epitome of this was the taxi scene, in which Steiger tries to convince his brother not to rat on the union. Brando, in turn, reveals long-held resentments, including the fact that his brother asked him to take a dive in a fight that could have made him a contender. It's one of the most famous scenes in American movie history, and rightly so, because it's a marvel of acting for both men. Brando gets a lot of the credit, particularly for the pathos and the way he tells Steiger that his older brother should have looked out for him, "just a little bit." But this time I focused on Steiger. When he pulls a gun on his brother and Brando looks at him not in anger but in sorrow, Steiger realizes he can't shoot him and leans back, knowing he's doomed. It's a powerful scene on many levels.

Then there's the ending, which even after many viewings still packs a wallop. It features one of the more savage fistfights in film history, as Brando takes on Cobb, and let's loose one my favorite lines, when Brando calls him "a cheap, dirty, lousy, stinking mug!" And then, when a bloodied Brando staggers into the warehouse, to Leonard Bernstein's score, which manages to be both mournful and hopeful, well, who wouldn't be moved by it?

There's interesting political subtext. The film essentially makes a hero out of someone who "names names," which of course Kazan (and Schulberg) did at the HUAC committee a few years earlier. Was this their way of justifying their actions? They say no, but a person can make up their own mind. It's also an anti-union film in the sense that it is suggesting that unions are corrupt, but of course that was just stating a fact. At a few points through the film Malden's character talks about what a union should be doing, so I'm not sure it's a blanket condemnation of all labor unions.

The film won eight Oscars, which tied a record at that time. In addition to Brando, Kazan, Schulberg and Saint won, while Cobb, Steiger and Malden were nominated. Kazan richly deserved the award, as his direction is both subtle yet has a tremendous style. Consider the scene where Brando confesses to Saint his involvement in her brother's death. Kazan shoots it from a variety of angles, but mostly in long shots, and we don't hear all of it, as the sounds of machinery and steam whistles drowns them out. Meanwhile Malden watches from far above. It's a masterly scene of direction, acting, writing, photography and editing.

Finally, keep a lookout for a tall actor playing one of the union stooges. Yes, that's Fred Gwynne, later to be famous for his tenure as Herman Munster.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From Here to Eternity

After the silliness of back-to-back Best Picture awards going to An American in Paris and The Greatest Show on Earth, Oscar remembered he's mostly awed by serious drama, and the 1953 award went to From Here to Eternity, directed by Fred Zinneman and adapted from the sprawling novel by James Jones.

The story of servicemen stationed in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's noteworthy today for its scene featuring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching while surrounded by crashing waves, but this film is much more than that. It's an honest, albeit sanitized, look at the life of career soldiers, and the often cruel mini-societies that exist within a company. It also has a very frank, albeit sanitized, view of the women who love them.

Jones' novel was pretty hot stuff for its time, and the script, a great one by Daniel Taradash, walks a tightrope in the days when the Production Code still existed. Adultery, promiscuity and prostitution are all there, but never spoken aloud and put in the kindest terms possible. Donna Reed, for example, plays what would today be called a prostitute, but in this film she's referred to as a "hostess" in a private club.

The story centers around two G.I.s--Lancaster as the no-nonsense top sergeant who runs the company efficiently while his captain spends most of the time cheating on his wife, and Montgomery Clift as a new transfer. Clift has two talents--bugling and boxing, but he has quit the latter due to blinding someone in the ring. The captain wants him to join his boxing team, but he refuses, and earns the enmity of the other boxers, all of them non-coms, who make his life a living hell. Lancaster, meanwhile, romances Kerr, the neglected wife of the captain, who is known around camp as what could be called "loose." Lancaster is warned about her by another soldier, played by TV's Superman, George Reeve.

But they fall in love anyway, and Clift falls for Reed. Clift's good friend is Frank Sinatra, who livens things up with his gregarious Italian charm. His only problem is picking a fight with Ernest Borgnine, the menacing sergeant of the guard at the stockade. A lot of this reads like soap opera, and some of it is pretty sudsy, but mostly it's sharp, well-written and acted drama.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of American history knows what's coming, and in one scene Lancaster stands next to a calendar clearly marked "December 6." Sure enough, the Japs arrive right on time the next morning, and with the use of new footage as well as stock, the attack on Pearl Harbor is the climax of the picture. Even as primitive as the effects were in those days, or how obvious the stock footage, it's still miles better than Michael Bay's interpretations of those events.

Sinatra won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Reed won the female equivalent. This was the role that infamously became fictionalized in The Godfather as the one that Sinatra got through Mafia ties. All involved denied that, but it is true that he begged for the part (it may have been his wife, Ava Gardner, who called in favors to get it for him). His career was in the Dumpster at that time, and he took a rock-bottom fee to play the part. It all paid off for him quite handsomely, though, as the film was a smash hit and he was back as one of the biggest stars in the world.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky


When one hears of a Mike Leigh film with the word "happy" in the title, one would understandably suspect that it is being used ironically, much like the word "sweet" in Life Is Sweet. I've seen many of Leigh's films, including Life Is Sweet, Naked, High Hopes and Secrets and Lies, all of which exposed the unhappy lives of the contemporary British middle-to-lower class (Topsy-Turvy was a noted exception to his filmography). But Happy-Go-Lucky is about a genuinely happy person, and while there are the occasional looks underneath the rock at contemporary life, Leigh has actually made a feel-good film.

I've long pondered just what happiness means, and where it fits in life. Are we, as human beings, supposed to pursue happiness? Many think so, but then there those who think that's a fool's errand--happiness is like trying to step on on one's shadow, it's perpetually out of reach. I once remarked to a college professor of mine that I wanted to be happy and she said, "Oh, you're like a character from Chekhov." Is happiness a condition of life, or is it self-made?

Poppy, played ebulliently by Sally Hawkins, is happy. She's over-the-top chipper. We first see her attempting to make small talk with a bookshop employee, who has no interest in her pleasant chirping. She takes no offense, though, and moves on. She is a perpetual ray of sunshine that pierces through the darkest of clouds, and if those around her aren't interested, she's fine with that, too.

The film then is basically an episodic look into Poppy's world. She's a primary school teacher, and deals with a bully in her classroom. She lives with a friend, the bemused Alexis Zegerman, and does things like trampolining and learning to Flamenco. The central plot surrounds her learning to drive from an instructor, Eddie Marsan, who is a tightly-would coil of anger. At first we perceive him as a comic foil, a frowny-face in contrast to Poppy's smiley, but over the course of the picture their relationship turns into something darker.

The amazing thing about this film is Hawkins' performance--she is not annoying. Normally you'd think a person who is always giggling and joking about everything and has a goofy smile for all circumstances would be unbearable, but Poppy is actually someone who I not only could tolerate, I'd actually enjoy being around. She's what could be called a flibberty-gibbet, but she's not without a center of gravity (she takes her teaching seriously) and radiates a warmth and kindness that are infectious. At a key moment in the film she is accosted by her sister, who is married and pregnant and serious, and warns Poppy that she should start thinking about having children and saving money. Poppy laughs her off, telling her that she is genuinely happy. The sister doesn't believe it, as clearly her definition of happiness is altogether different.

This is a film that grew on me as I watched it, and by the end I realized it was one of the better I've seen this year. There are some missteps, notably a bizarre scene in which Poppy wanders the streets and has an encounter with a homeless man. It's never explained exactly what she was up to--was she just looking for someone to cheer up? Seems pretty stupid to risk getting knifed just to bring a little joy to the mentally ill.

The film ends with a great scene in which Poppy and the driving instructor deal with their issues. Marsan is terrific as a fellow who seems to have been beaten down his entire life. He's racist and full of conspiracy theories. But he is a pretty good instructor--when I got in the car to leave the theater I found myself checking the rearview mirror intoning the same mantra he espouses.

At first blush this film appears to be precious, sort of like a British version of Amelie, but it is not, and as much as I liked Amelie it is more than that. Leigh has shown, I think, what makes people like Poppy tick, and how valuable they are to society, and frankly, how nice they are to have around.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth


The Greatest Show on Earth is generally regarded as the worst film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. I had never seen it before yesterday, and I can now verify that it deserves this dishonor. It is a bloated, mawkish, corny spectacle with some tin-eared dialogue, community-theater level acting, and stagnant direction. It's victory in 1952 is one of the great mysteries in Academy Award history.

There are clues, though. The Cecil B. DeMille circus epic was the highest grossing picture of '52. After the nominations were announced, the odds-on favorite was High Noon, which was a thinly-veiled allegory attacking the pall of McCarthyism in America. It's writer, Carl Foreman, was a hostile witness to the HUAC committee. DeMille, on the other hand, was a Hollywood institution and an ardent anti-Commie. Perhaps that was all there was to it.

The film takes a look at the behind-the-scenes drama of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus (John Ringling North has a cameo as himself). Charlton Heston is the manager of the circus, a "show must go on" type who has "sawdust in his veins." His sweetheart is Betty Hutton, the star trapeze artist, but she has to play second fiddle to new star, an Italian lothario, Cornel Wilde. There is also a subplot involving James Stewart as a clown who never removes his makeup because of a secret in this past.

To watch this movie today is to see something that is horribly dated. The circus doesn't have a place in American culture today, except for the many Cirque du Soleil shows that bear little resemblance to the three-ring show that was put on under the bigtop in small towns for generations. I would imagine that little children of today would find the wonders of the old-time circus to be very boring. In 1952, when movies were challenged by television, it paid off to make spectacles that couldn't be reproduced on the small screens of primitive television sets, and thus we get films like this, which had long scenes that were nothing more than gaudily costumed circus performers parading around a ring.

When the parades stop and there is story, it's hackneyed stuff. Any movie that has the hammy Heston saying things like, "You two crazy fools" is bound to be bad. He's not the only culprit--Hutton is awful, and Wilde is a caricature of Italians. Stewart is the only saving grace of this nonsense. He might have made a really good clown, and his story is poignant. If the movie had been about him it would have much more interesting.

The big set piece at the end of the film is a spectacular wreck of the circus train. With today's special effects, it looks like exactly what it was--a wreck of toy trains. Doing a little research I discovered that even back then there were critics that thought this scene looked cheesy. DeMille would top it a few years later with his parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

An American in Paris

The favorites for the 1951 Best Picture Oscar were A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Therefore the gathered at the ceremony were stunned when the winner was revealed as An American in Paris, a lavish technicolor MGM musical directed by Vincent Minelli, choreographed by and starring Gene Kelly. Earlier in the evening Kelly had been given an honorary award as a supposed consolation prize.

I am a hard sell on films like this. I'm fairly immune to the sparkle of the Hollywood musical (in a bit of heresy, I'm not terribly fond of Singin' in the Rain). Usually this is because the dialogue and acting seems so amateurish, and An American in Paris has that in spades. I had tried to watch it years ago on television but couldn't make it past the fifteen-minute mark, but last night I bit the bullet and watched the whole thing. While it didn't awe me, I must admit it kind of grabbed me by the end.

Kelly plays an ex-G.I. who has stayed in Paris after the war to pursue a career as a painter. He lives in a garret and is warmly loved by his neighbors. His best friend is an acerbically witty pianist, Oscar Levant. Kelly shows his paintings on a street-corner, and catches the eye of an American dilettante, Nina Foch. Though it isn't spoken as plainly as it would be today, Foch is interested in more than Kelly's paintings. She may be the original cougar. Kelly, though, falls for a young French girl, Leslie Caron, but she's engaged to Levant's friend, a music-hall performer who helped her survive during the war.

Most of this pretty frothy. Levant, who was not an actor (later he would be most famous as a guest on late-night talk shows) is the comic relief, but his mordant humor seems out of place. Kelly, of course, is a performer nonpareil, but his acting is that kind of gee whiz stuff of musicals that is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. All of the dialogue seems like set-ups to musical numbers, which of course they are. And of course this movie wasn't shot in Paris, it was done on Hollywood sound stages, which means that it represents the Paris of the imagination rather than anything realistic.

But there is much to like here. The colors are wonderful (it was the second color film to win Best Picture following Gone With the Wind) and the music of George Gershwin is bliss. Several of he and his brother Ira's songs are on hand, such as Embraceable You, Our Love Is Here to Stay, 'S Wonderful, and I Got Rhythm. The end of the picture features an 18-minute ballet set to the title music, a jazz-influenced orchestral piece. And of course there is Kelly's dancing. He was an athletic dancer, and it's easy to recall that his original dream was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So if all this is just so much fluff, it's terribly easy on the eyes and ears. While the magic of the Hollywood musical eludes me, I can see the appeal of An American in Paris.

Friday, November 07, 2008

What Next for the Republicans?


One of the joys of being a leftie these last few days is watching the Republican party sift through the rubble of a failed election, looking for scapegoats and turning on each other like members of the Donner party. Liberal commentators like Keith Olbermann are gleefully reporting anonymous reports that Sarah Palin was called a "Wasilla Hillbilly raiding Neiman-Marcus from coast to coast" and that she did not know that Africa was a continent. This, in turn, has inspired the real meat-eaters of the right, like those crazy kids at redstate.com and freerepublic.com, to impose fatwas on anyone who would dare besmirch the image of their beauty-contestant politician. Why they would hitch their wagons to a woman who couldn't even win on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? is suspect.

There is no off-time now in the presidential cycle. Reports are that Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, are hitting Iowa in the next few weeks. Obama could be a fantastically successful president but he will not run unopposed in 2012 (the last president to run unopposed was James Monroe in 1820, during the "Era of Good Feelings," something that wouldn't have been possible if cable news had existed back then). In addition to Huckabee, Palin, and Jindal, surely Mitt Romney will be a candidate. The scuttlebutt is that it is Romney's staff that is circulating the embarrassing info on Palin. Romney has the money and bland good looks to get the nomination, but a scuffle between a Mormon and an evangelical Christian, whether it is Palin or Huckabee, or an extreme Catholic like Jindal (who has apparently participated in exorcisms) could be vicious.

It has been said of Democrats that they hold firing squads in a circle, while Republicans live by the commandment of Ronald Reagan: "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of a Fellow Republican." Those days seem to be gone. The sniping over John McCain's doomed campaign is very loud and very deadly, but what does it tell us about the future of the G.O.P.? There are those who would not abandon the conservative principles the party espouses, but are they whistling past the graveyard? The demographics of the voters in this country have clearly changed--we are not a nation dominated by white men any more. Younger voters show a greater tolerance of cultural issues like reproductive rights, gay rights, and sensitivity to the environment. And when the economy is in the toilet these issues are put on the back burner, anyway. What Barack Obama was successful doing is uniting the young, black, Latino, women, college-educated people of this country into a new majority. When Karl Rove optimistically talked about a permanent Republican majority, he was 180 degrees off--it may be a permanent Democratic majority.

But that's optimistic. Obama may turn out to be a dud, another Jimmy Carter. I don't see that happening, but there's no telling what problems may lie ahead. The Republicans will head for the hills and regroup, and they will have to decide how to approach the 2012 election. Do they stick to the right-wing philosophy dictated by religious principles, or do they let go of that and reform into a party more in line with Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Michael Bloomberg, or Ron Paul? To do so would risk alienating the religious right, but it may be a gamble worth taking if they ever hope to see the inside of the White House again for the coming future.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

More Election Stuff

As liberals, progressives, African-Americans, and anyone else who celebrated the Obama victory Tuesday night continue to bask in the glow of that event (I still get misty whenever TV shows interview black people and they can't get over how thrilled they are) there are some other items to pick over from the returns. The Democratic party had a good night, no doubt about that. They picked up several house seats, won seven of the eleven contested governor's races, and have picked at least six senate seats (early today the Oregonian has called Oregon's senate seat for the Democrat, Jeff Merkley, defeating the incumbent Gordon Smith).

But there are a few question marks. In Georgia, it's nip and tuck as to whether incumbent Saxby Chambliss got fifty percent of the vote. If he didn't that means there will be a run-off on December 2 between him and his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin. Both are preparing for a run-off. The problem is another election is not likely to get the huge turnout, particularly from the African-American community. I would bet that Barack Obama will make several appearances on behalf of Martin.

In Minnesota, there will be a recount. The incumbent Republican, Norm Coleman, has a razor-thin lead against Democrat Al Franken--fewer than a thousand votes out of over three million cast. Minnesota law automatically calls for a recount in that event, but Coleman is suggesting that it's a waste of taxpayer money. This is why I hate most Republican politicians--would he be cheerfully ceding the election to Franken if the shoe was on the other foot? How about getting it right?

It would be so great for Franken to win. It seems like he's been around for years, and I guess that's because he has. It's hard to believe that his bit, the "Me, Al Franken decade" goes back to 1980. Beyond his skills as a comedian (and the Senate could probably use some levity), he's a very knowledgeable man who can run rings around most politicians when it comes to policy. He's the Wonk/Comic. And his election would engender apoplexy among right-wing troglodytes like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh.

Then there's Alaska. Perhaps Todd Palin had it right--they should be their own country. Do we want a state where a convicted felon can be re-elected to office? What is wrong with them up there--the cold has frozen their brains? It's not official for Stevens, a lot of votes still need to be counted, but if he does win it will make Alaska the new embarrassing state, when Louisiana used to hold that position. Stevens may go back to Washington, but the Senate may boot him (it takes 67 votes to do that, but a lot of Republicans are justifiably ticked that he didn't resign). in that event, there would be a special election to replace him. Talk about wasting taxpayer money. And would Sarah Palin run? If she does, here's hoping she cracks open an atlas and learns that Africa is not a country.

Finally, there's the disturbing news that ballot initiatives to outlaw same-sex marriages passed in California and Florida. I will never understand the opposition to gay marriage except as some deep-rooted hatred of homosexuals (perhaps not of them as people, but their "lifestyle"). Constitutions should be about preserving rights, not denying them based on hostility that grows from fundamentalist religious dogma. I just don't get how gay marriage hurts anything. After all, if two men live together as a couple, they are legally entitled to have sex with each other, and that's nobody's business but their own. Why not be able to celebrate their love for each other as heterosexual couples do? Using dictionary definitions is not a sound way of making laws. My only comfort is the feeling that this is a battle that is not over, and that eventually gays will have all the rights they should have, much as blacks do. Remember, interracial marriage was once illegal, too.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Awesome!


Leave it to our lame duck president, the well-known wordsmith George W. Bush, to come up with the perfect description of Barack Obama's victory last night: Awesome! It is indeed, and as I watched the returns come in last night I was frequently wrung out emotionally.

The evening wasn't all fun, though. I was getting a little worried as it was well past nine o'clock before a red state from 2004 flipped blue. NBC's Chuck Todd was sounding grim about Virginia, although Florida looked good, but they wouldn't call it. Another good sign was that Indiana, which normally turns red at about five minutes past the poll close, was still too close to call.

But all of it didn't matter after Ohio turned blue at about 9:30. It was all over but the shouting then. For McCain to win, he would have to make up for it by stealing some blue states from 2004, and there just wasn't any place that was going to happen (the MSNBC crew, trying to postpone the inevitable, speculated, tongue firmly in cheek, that California or Hawaii could go McCain). I flew around the dial, seeing if other networks had called Ohio, and sure enough, they had (CNN seemed to take the longest, but when I saw a blue Ohio on Fox News' map, I knew it was over).

It wasn't official until 11:00, though, when the West Coast went blue instantly and Obama was declared the winner simultaneously by all networks. What an incredible rush! Then it was time for the momentousness of what had just happened sank in. As I flipped around the dial I saw that each network was allowing face-time to an African-American commentator, who could express the emotions of what they were seeing. Fox News' Juan Williams was eloquent and on the verge of tears. Congressman John Lewis, who was in the trenches during the Civil Rights era, seemed like he could hardly believe it. Jesse Jackson, the first black man to be a serious candidate for the office, was a face in the crowd at Chicago's Grant Park, tears streaming down his face. Many black people were no doubt thinking of those who came before them, of those who struggled to chip away at the prejudices of an evolving nation.

Even in my lifetime the advances are striking. When I was born there were large sections of this country where blacks had to use separate water fountains and couldn't share a swimming pool, where they were unseen on television and completely absent from the corridors of power. That Obama could overcome this obstacle in just this short time is mind-boggling. I would have thought that at the very least it would be a black vice-president first, in a slower progression to the White House, but this remarkable man, who two years ago was almost completely unknown, has accomplished the almost unthinkable.

I would like to compliment John McCain on a gracious and classy speech. Of course, there were the boorish contingent in the audience who for some reason feel compelled to boo, but McCain shushed them. If he had been more like this during the campaign he might have fared better. This is certainly it for him as a national candidate, one wonders whether he will run for re-election in 2010 for his Senate seat. It also may be the end for his generation--no one who was born during the lengthy FDR presidency has been elected president, and probably never will.

There are some lingering bad smells from last night, particularly a couple of senate races that are still in doubt, perhaps I'll get to them tomorrow.

The economy was the major issue, and I'm feeling that now as I prepare for a probably long stretch of unemployment. But to paraphrase Sam from Casablanca, "This takes the sting out of being unemployed."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bee Season

Bee Season is a somber, and at times somnambulant, adaptation of a novel of the same title that I read a few years ago. The central part of the plot is a young girl competing in a series of spelling bees, but of course the theme is much more than that.

The main characters are the Naumann family. The father, played by Richard Gere, is a college professor who specializes in Jewish mysticism. At one point he explains to his students Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew phrase for "repairing the world," and this is the overriding arc of the film, as his family falls apart and they attempt to put the shards back together again. His wife, Juliette Binoche, suffers from kleptomania, and the son, Max Minghella, is tired of being under his father's watch and rebels by joining a Hare Krishna temple.

But the impetus of the story is when Eliza, played by Flora Cross, wins her school spelling bee. When her father finds out he becomes so enthusiastic that he coaches her by use of some of his Kabbala training, which leads her to visualize the words. This works much easier on the page, but the directors, David Siegel and Scott McGehee, do employ a variety of special effects to illustrate that cinematically, such as having the vines on Eliza's floral-print blouse come to life to spell out a word.

As Eliza progresses to the Nationals, her family situation gets worse, and Gere tries to keep everything together. Some of this is compelling, but only occasionally, as the film has a deadly earnestness that could give a viewer the fidgets. Cross, who is certainly a capable young actress, plays the part with very little outward emotion. When she is at the bees she has the look of an assassin. I'm sure this is how she was asked to play the part, but it's difficult to empathize with a kid who seems to be just one step up from comatose. Binoche seems to have been cast to utilize her fragile beauty (the character in the book was not French, as I recall) and you can tell she's a little out there from the very beginning. Gere is pretty good, but I must admit I inwardly chuckled when this well-known Buddhist has a confrontational scene at the Krishna temple.

For those who are interested in movies about spelling bees, I recommend the documentary Spellbound instead. That film actually had much more drama.

Monday, November 03, 2008

All About Eve


The 1950 Best Picture Oscar went to All About Eve, a gloriously bitchy camp-fest that has been a gift to female impersonators everywhere. It has perhaps the wittiest screenplay ever written, and also has one of my favorite film characters of all time. It is an endlessly fascinating film, and at the time it set the record for most nominations for a single film (14), which was tied by Titanic 47 years later.

Based on a short story that was published in Cosmopolitan called "The Wisdom of Eve," the film concerns a young woman who at first blush appears to be a wide-eyed fan of a famous but aging Broadway actress. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) has seen every performance of the show starring Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and the playwright's wife, Celeste Holm, brings her in off the alley by the stage door to meet her heroine. She tells a sad story and appears to be so pathetic that everyone warms to her, and she's soon within the inner circle that includes playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). Soon, though, she has wormed her way deeply into Channing's life, and maneuvers to usurp her.

Watching all this from a respectable distance is critic and columnist Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). He is a brilliant character, one that was created not by the original story author, Mary Orr, but by writer-director Joseph Mankewiecz. A cynical effete, his every line of dialogue drips with a certain disdain.

While Sanders is great fun, Bette Davis is the heart of this picture. Her star had been fading, and after Claudette Colbert broke a vertebrae skiing Davis was the last-second replacement. She credits the film with resurrecting her career. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of this vain, self-absorbed creature of Broadway, as it's probably this role more than any of her others that has defined the Bette Davis persona. When, at a cocktail party, she turns to the assembled guests and says, "Fasten your seat belts, we're in for a bumpy night" who else could have spoken those words with her flair?

Also in the cast were Thelma Ritter (four of the women in the film received Oscar nominations, including Ritter, Davis, Baxter and Celeste Holm) and a very young Marilyn Monroe, as a would-be starlet who knows what she needs to do to get ahead (the sexuality is brimming under the surface, but never spoken aloud--there's all sorts of speculation that Eve was supposed to be a Lesbian). Life imitated art when Merrill and Davis wed after the picture was completed.

Mankewiecz won Oscars for writing and directing, and he is the only person to do that in back to back years (he did it in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives). His direction is very restrained in All About Eve, as the film is really an elaborately filmed play. There is little camera movement or spectacle (although it does utilize a freeze frame, which was a relatively novel conceit at the time). As his son points out in the documentary, that it would tie Titanic, a film that recreated the sinking of a luxury liner, with 14 Oscar nominations when it's greatest special effect is Bette Davis sashaying down a flight of stairs is kind of amazing.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Changeling


Changeling is a smashing-looking film, thoroughly competent in presentation, but has a serious flaw in the story structure. It basically asks its audience to maintain a level of outrage over two hours without let-up.

Angelina Jolie plays a single, working mother in 1928 Los Angeles. She comes home one day after leaving her nine-year-old boy alone to find him missing. She calls the police, and is told that they have to wait until someone is missing 24 hours before they can do anything (today this would not be the case, as minors are exempt from this buffer period, I'll take it that this was how it was then). This is Jolie's first hint that the police department will not be on her side.

Five months later the police say that the boy has been found, in Ilinois. When he steps off the train she immediately knows he is not her son (and so do we) but in a dazed state, she goes along with it. But when she realizes that this "changeling" is three inches shorter than her son, and is also circumcised, which her boy wasn't, she begins to make a stink. To avoid embarrassment, the corrupt police department has her committed to an asylum, and it's only through the aid of a muckraking pastor (John Malkovich) that justice is done.

That's a good story, and it's a true story (although I'm sure some details are different) but there's a problem: the entire arc of the story focuses on one question--where is her son? Since the audience knows that the police are in the wrong, and that Jolie is right, the film rests on that question, and it is answered relatively early in the going, perhaps at the half-way point in the film (when a close-up of an axe is shown, only the densest movie-goer won't put two and two together). We then are subject to an extremely long denouement. I thought the movie was over at one point but it still had a half-hour to go, and much of what transpires could have been covered in end titles. A more interesting film might have been if the identity of the boy was in question, and her sanity would have been an issue for the audience.

Jolie is the center of this film, and her performance is problematic. It's a very showy part, and she doesn't hold back on the emotions required. But her character remains something of a mystery. Aside from the first ten minutes, when we see her go through her day as a mother and telephone-operator supervisor, the rest of the film has her in a state of crisis, either dealing with a missing son or sparring with the police department. I hesitate to call it one-note, but it is one level. Toward the end, when she is discussing the upcoming Academy Awards (she has her money on It Happened One Night) the scene seems stilted and forced.

Also, Jolie is so glamorous it's a bit of a distraction. The film is photographed by Tom Stern in muted colors, but her famously plump lips, awash in crimson, stand out like a lighthouse beacon through thick fog. She does look great in the clothes, particulary the cloche hats she sports. I woudln't be surprised to see them influence today's fashions.

The supporting cast is mostly fine. Jeffrey Donovan is the corrupt captain who is behind the switch, and if he had a mustache he would twirl it. Jason Butler Harner gives a weird performance as a serial killer, putting the lie that those folks are indistinguishable from the rest of us. I was impressed with Eddie Alderson, a child actor who leads the police to the real killer.

Clint Eastwood is the director, but he directs without much imprint, except for his predictably austere music score, which he composed. I'm not sure what the through-line of this film was, other than "police bad, nice lady good." It's not enough to justify two-and-a-half hours of my life.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Years of Extermination



It took me a while, but I finally finished Saul Friedlander's massive study of the "Final Solution" of Nazi Germany, titled The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. It is an eminently readable book for the non-academic, but it can be slow going, as it has so many different names and particularly numbers, mostly totals of Jews that have been either deported to concentration camps or killed, or both.

Friendlander structures the book as a narrative in a chronology, from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the last days in Hitler's bunker. He writes that the first victims were the disabled, who were rounded up and shot. The Jews, initially, were to be resettled on Madagascar. Eventually, though, the attitude taken was that the extermination of every last Jew in Europe was necessary.

Friendlander does not write sentimentally. He can begin a chapter like a slap in face: "On September 29, 1941, the Germans shot 33,700 Kiev Jews in the Babi Yar ravine near the city." He also, and I think was the larger point of the book, doesn't hold back in his opinion that there are many culpable for this tragedy, not just Hitler and his minions. He makes it clear that the German citizens knew exactly what was happening to Jews, as Himmler practically said as much in his speeches. The increasingly byzantine and insane rules that Jews were subject to--they couldn't own radios, bicycles, binoculars. Couldn't go to school, use shops. They couldn't even have pets, and the pets they did have weren't just taken away, they were killed. Also, the Nazi fascination with breeding comes across as so bizarre, as those with a partial Jewish ancestry (mischlinge) were dealt with in strange and seemingly arbitrary ways.

Also coming under fire in this book is the Catholic hierarchy. The Pope and other cardinals throughout Europe are mentioned from time to time, but Friedlander sums it up in these devastating lines: "Although sporadic protests by some Catholic bishops or Protestant religious leaders did take place, the vast majority of Catholic and Protestant authorities remained publicly silent in the face of the deportation of the Jews and the growing knowledge of their extermination. Whatever the reasons for it may have been, the pope's silence contributed to the lack of open protest by Catholic prelates in various countries, including Germany."

Friedlander is also not interested in exploring the psychology of the event. There is no "how could this happen?" He writes: "There is no point in probing once more 'the mind of Adolf Hitler' or the twisted emotional sources of his murderous obsessions. It has been attempted many times without much success...the major question that challenges us all is not what personality traits allowed an 'unknown corporal' of the Great War to become the all-powerful leader Adolf Hitler, but rather why tens of millions of Germans blindly followed him to the end, why many still believed in him at the end, and not a few, after the end." This murderous anti-Semitism was not limited to Germany, either, as Friedlander points out that many other countries gleefully participated: Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, France. All were more than happy to seize the opportunity to rid their land of Jews.

The book has an immense cast of characters, many of who are well known from the voluminous number of books and films that have created around the Holocaust. We meet Anne Frank, Klaus Barbie, Josef Mengele, the brothers who aided Jews that are the basis of the upcoming film Defiance, Raoul Wallenberg, and Amon Goeth, the camp commandant in Schindler's List (no mention of Oskar Schindler, though). I think the most effective witnesses are the many diarists, like Anne Frank, that Friedlander makes use of. I think the most poignant passage in the entire book was written by a sixteen-year-old boy who would eventually die in a camp. His name was Moshe Flinker:

"It is like being in a great hall where many people are joyful and dancing and also where there are a few people who are not happy and who are not dancing. And from time to time a few people of this latter kind are taken away, led to another room and strangled. The happy dancing people in the hall do not feel this at all. Rather, it seems as if this adds to their joy and doubles their happiness."