Saturday, January 31, 2009
Updike is known for his finely crafted studies of suburbia, particularly the sexual wanderings of said class. The first book of his I read was A Month of Sundays, which touched upon one of his favorite themes--the philandering or cuckolded clergyman. I read the book as a teenager, and just what I was doing reading this will tell you I wasn't a typical teen. I've also read his two re-tellings of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, an epistolary novel S., and Roger's Version.
I've also read his two Pulitzer-Prize winners, the third and fourth installments of his tetralogy about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Rabbit Is Rich and and Rabbit at Rest. I read Rabbit Is Rich just after college, and it's one of the better novels I've ever read. Updike created the character in 1960, an ex-college athlete who goes on to ride the waves of American success and decline. Every ten years or so Updike revisited him to take a look at just where the American dream was residing, and along the way Rabbit had ups and downs, affairs, and dealt with his growing children. In Rabbit at Rest, as the title suggests, Updike buried his hero, killing him off with a massive heart attack while playing a pickup basketball game. There may be no greater saga in American literature.
Though Updike will be best remembered as the chronicler of suburban adultery, he ventured into other avenues. The novel that probably earned him the most money was The Witches of Eastwick, a novel that flirted with the supernatural and was made into a big Hollywood movie. He also wrote novels about a Jewish novelist (Updike was most decidedly not Jewish) named Bech, and a retelling of Tristan and Isolde set in Brazil (called Brazil). One of his last books was The Terrorist, a response to the current political climate and a point of view tale about a Muslim boy who turns to terrorism. Some of these books were tin-eared, and signaled that he really shouldn't have varied from his classic milieu.
I had the chance to meet Updike about ten or so years ago. When my mother lived in Newburyport, Massachusetts, the library was holding fund-raising efforts to remodel. Updike, who lived in a nearby town, donated his time to do a book-signing. I bought a copy of all four Rabbit novels in one volume and he signed it. During our brief face time I asked him about the Red Sox, because Updike is well known to literate baseball fans for writing one of the best pieces about the game ever written: "Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu," about Ted Williams' last game. Roger Clemens had just signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and I asked Updike about that and he said it was time for him to go. He was unfailingly gracious to everyone who spoke with him. After that trip I returned home to read his autobiography, Self-Consciousness, which is one of the better memoirs I've ever read.
So now John Updike is also at rest, along with Rabbit and the rest of his characters. He was a true giant of letters.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
As written, the role of Henry Gondorff might have seemed wrong for Newman. Initially he was heavyset, not a matinee idol, and a washed up grifter living in a whorehouse. But Newman made it his own, and I find it to be an underrated performance. Redford got the Oscar nomination, but I'm not sure if Newman didn't steal the picture.
The Sting is the cinematic equivalent of light verse, a bit of cotton candy consumed on a holiday. From the opening credits, which introduce the music--Scott Joplin rags--and the title cards, which are made to suggest Saturday Evening Post covers, the viewer is immediately taken to a distinct time and place. Interestingly, the writer of the picture, David S. Ward, was against the use of Joplin music, as the film was set in the thirties and Joplin's ragtime was from around the turn of the century. Hill won out, though, telling Ward nobody would know that, and the music is probably one of the key elements that sells the picture so winningly. There's also masterful photography by Robert Surtees, production design by Henry Bumstead, and costumes by Edith Head.
The story involves con men and their games. Redford is a small-time hustler from Joliet who teams with an older black man (played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones). When they unwittingly con a bagman for a big-time hoodlum (Robert Shaw) they incur the wrath of his organization, and Jones is killed. Redford wants revenge, and goes to Chicago to look up Gondorff, master of the big con. They find Shaw's weakness, betting on the ponies, and construct an elaborate ruse to rid him of half a million dollars. Meanwhile, a bunco cop from Joliet (Charles Durning) is on Redford's tail.
We are told during the DVD extras that were no movies about con men until this one. I find that hard to believe, but if true there certainly have been a lot since then, such as House of Games, The Grifters, and Matchstick Men. The Sting is lighter in tone than those that follow, especially since their cause is righteous, and though they are crooks they are depicted in a manner befitting Robin Hood (though they certainly don't give the money to the poor). Because con men are essentially actors, there mechanisms work well on film. And toward the end of the film we discover that we the audience are also being conned, as characters may not be who we think they are. I remember the first time I saw this film, with my grandmother, and she had no idea what happened in the end.
When I was in college I went to hear a man talk about how to get jobs in the film industry. He mostly knew about the less glamorous world of industrial films, and kind of pooh-poohed his listeners' interest in directing features. But he did mention that The Sting was a first-class piece of work. It was perfectly shot, he said, without a wrong move in the entire film. Watching it again I'd have to agree. While the subject and tone are flimsy, the craftsmanship is unmistakable.
What's curious is that though are often thought of as a team, Newman and Redford would never make another film together.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
McDonagh has already made it to the movies--he wrote and directed In Bruges, but however big he makes it in Hollywood there probably never be the immediate thrill of seeing one of his plays. The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is part of another trilogy, each one set on one of the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, used the Hollywood mystique as one of its themes. Set in 1934, it concerns the period of time when documentarian Robert Flaherty films his famous film Man of Aran on nearby Inishmore.
This arrival means different things for the characters in the play. The main focus is on Billy, or Cripple Billy as he is known, a young man with an affliction that appears to be cerebral palsy. Billy is raised by two "aunties," because his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances shortly after his birth. Billy is loved sort of like a pet, as he isn't afforded too much respect. The aunties, who run a general store, feel sorry for him, and decide that even the town slut, who would kiss a bald donkey, would draw the line at Billy.
Other characters in the play are the island's gossip, JohnnyPateenMike, who brings news to the cloistered people in exchange for foodstuffs. Craftily played by David Pearce, JohnnyPateenMike is a scabrous fellow, always eavesdropping and meddling. He has an ancient mother who has been drinking herself to death for 65 years. Then there's Helen (Kerry Condon), the pretty but mean girl who works for the eggman. She wants to go watch the filming so she can be discovered and taken to Hollywood. She rarely has a kind word for anyone, and delights in throwing eggs at any perceived insult, but Billy has a crush on her.
Billy decides he wants to go to the filming too, and before the end of Act I we learn, whether we can believe it or not, that the film crew has taken him with to Hollywood to screen test for the part of a cripple. This sets off a chain of events back on the island. There are some twists and misleading information, and by the end of the play it could make one dizzy just trying to figure out what exactly the truth is.
McDonagh's work always mixes intensely funny dialogue with sporadic bursts of violence--stage blood makes its presence known a few times during the course of this play. He also maintains a gimlet eye on the Irish, or at least his Irish, who are both twinkly and casually cruel. In some ways he treats them like eternal children, refusing to grow up even in advanced age. There's no slight, no matter how trivial, that doesn't create remarkable pettiness and grudges that can last a lifetime. But his characters are funny. There's an inspired bit involving a young man choosing a piece of candy from a tray, and a running gag about how Ireland must be a nice place if certain groups of people (and fish) want to come there.
The acting is all first-rate. Dearbhla Molloy and Marie Mullen are the two old aunties, one of whom has a tendency to talk to stones when she's stressed. Condon is sexy and vicious. Aaron Monaghan plays Billy, and you've got to wince when you realize he's walking on a turned ankle throughout the play. I did have occasional trouble understanding what he was saying though, particularly during a monologue set in a Los Angeles hotel room.
There's a note in the program that Flaherty's "documentary" really wasn't anything of the sort, that it was largely staged. McDonagh seems to have a burr in his saddle about this subtle exploitation of a people. He has his revenge, though, during a scene in which the characters of the play watch the film. They are profoundly unimpressed.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Sunday, January 25, 2009
The title character is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, memorably played by Mickey Rourke. In the Reagan eighties of hair bands, he was at the top of the professional wrestling circuit (I've heard it expressed that pro wrestling is most popular when conservatives control the government). But twenty years later, wearing a hearing aid and with a face smothered in scar tissue, the Ram toils on a low-rent circuit in dingy industrial towns, playing before small crowds in high school auditoriums. He maintains the trappings of his profession, through steroids, artificial suntans and a carefully maintained mane of hair, but also lives in a trailer and has to work in a grocery store to sustain himself.
Over the course of the film, the Ram will court a stripper (Marisa Tomei) who is something of a broken soul herself, and attempt to reconcile with a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). These relationships are probably the most familiar aspects of the story--a stripper with a heart of gold, no matter how well-played by Tomei, is a rampant cliche--but are touching in their simplicity. What is most interesting about the film is how Aronofsky and Siegel take us into a world that I dare say most of us know nothing about. I followed wrestling when I was a kid in Detroit--the Ram reminds me of Killer Brooks, though the latter was a bad guy, and the Ram is a hero--but some of the scenes have a "you-are-there" immediacy that is fascinating. Watching the wrestlers go over their moves beforehand, like teenage girls coordinating their outfits, was funny. But even if the matches are choreographed and the outcomes preordained, it is still a brutal exercise. During one excruciating match the Ram has with a bearded hillbilly wrestler, barbed-wire, broken glass, and staple guns are utilized. I would imagine Hulk Hogan never had a staple shot into his forehead.
What really makes this film sing is Rourke. I've seen all of the Best Actor Oscar nominees, and if he wins it would not be a mistake. First of all it's a physically demanding part, as it appears he's doing most of the moves in the ring himself. But the humanity of this character is crystallized in Rourke's slight movements, the look in his eyes, his struggle for dignity as he stands behind a deli counter in a hair net and deals with a customer recognizing him, or reliving his glory days by playing his avatar in a Nintendo game with a neighborhood kid (who humors him, but also describes state of the art games like Call of Duty 4). Above all, the Ram is an essentially decent man, who treats all his fans with respect (there's a tender scene at an autograph signing show, where the aged warriors gather with the indicators of their age, such as canes and colostomy bags).
Aronofsky, who has made some fancy films like The Fountain, keeps it low-tech here, with a grainy look perfectly matching the grimy New Jersey locations. The wrestling matches are well-staged, and the film ends thrillingly with a perfect shot. This is one of the better films of the year, and Rourke gives perhaps the best performance of '08. To think back and remember him as Boogie in Diner is a bit mind-boggling, because it just doesn't seem like the same person.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
Secondly, his book is largely about what goes in the shadows of the city, the demimonde prowled by strippers, the porn industry, and street hustlers. The result is a curious hybrid, a lyrical novel full of the retches of humanity, a kind of vicarious look at a world that most people would run from, screaming.
The spine of the book is the night that a twelve-year old boy, Newell Ewing (I don't know where he got that name) goes out on the town with a slightly older friend, Kenny, a comic-book nerd, and disappears. Interspersed in this time frame and flash forwards and flashbacks concerning Newell and his parents, particularly their reaction to his disappearance. His mother, Lorraine, a former showgirl, channels her desperation into working for runaway child organizations, while his father, a former minor league ballplayer, struggles to keep his marriage together.
The ancillary characters provide Beautiful Children with much of its texture. There is Cheri Blossom, a stripper, and her boyfriend Ponyboy (certainly these names are references to S.E. Hinton's classic, The Outsiders), who works for a porno video distribution company. Ponyboy, who is one of these characters who is fully tattooed and pierced, has encouraged Cheri to get breast implants, and now pushes her to try the adult entertainment world, and her "audition" is a nightmarish scenario. However, from my understanding of how the adult film world works, I'm not sure it's very accurate. Also, this book came out in 2008, but all of the references to video cassettes are instantly obsolete.
Another character is Bing Beiderbixxe, a writer of underground comics. He's basically a loser, but to Kenny and Newell he's important because he writes comics. As we follow Bing through his lonely-guy visit to the strip club to get a private dance from Cheri, or his outings with fellows with whom he engages in Internet chats, there is a lot of sharp and funny descriptions of life with this type of guy.
Then there's Lestat and Daphney, two kids who live on the street. Daphney is pregnant, and Lestat left home to try to meet Ann Rice. There's a harrowing passage late in the book that documents the logistics of how Lestat manages on the street, and it's the kind of thing that any kid contemplating running away should read as a "scared straight" lesson.
The writing in this book is frequently soaring, but I'm not sure it all held together. There is no resolution to what happened to Newell, so it doesn't qualify as a mystery in the strictest sense. At times the prose also gets quite dense, and struggles to delineate a clear line. But Bock does create some vivid tapestries. I liked the areas where he clearly does have expertise, such as a pawnshop. He's also made a bold choice by making Newell, the missing child, as thoroughly obnoxious as any child I've come across in recent fiction.
As someone writing about Las Vegas, I need to read these books so I don't inadvertently copy any metaphors. There are two common things that come up in any books about Vegas--the heat: "A hundred and five outside for the ninety-ninth straight day. That dry desert heat, a wall that hit the moment you stepped outside, then pounded relentlessly;" and the lights: "The neon. The halogen. The viscous liquid light. Thousands of millions of watts, flowing through the letters of looping cursive and semi-cursive, filling then emptying, then starting over again. Waves of electricity, emanating from pop art facades, actually transforming the nature of the atmosphere, creating a mutation of night, a night that is not night--daytime at night. The twenty-four-hour bacchanal. The party without limits. The crown jewel of a country that has institutionalized indulgence. Vegas on Saturday night."
Thursday, January 22, 2009
After doubting it since the movie’s opening this summer, I finally came around to thinking The Dark Knight would get nominated, especially since it picked up nods from the Producer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild, and the Writer’s Guild (and let’s face it, the screenplay wasn’t its strongest suit). But I think finally the voters couldn’t see themselves casting a ballot for a movie about a man who dresses like a bat. Perhaps the camp stigma of the sixties’ TV show still lingers, or maybe it’s just history: in the 81 years of the Oscars, only four movies from the large genre known as “speculative fiction” have gotten nominations for the big prize: Star Wars and the three Lord of the Rings pictures. The latter three had the aura of literature, while Star Wars holds a singular place in movie history. Or maybe, just maybe, the voters didn’t think The Dark Knight was all that good.
The Dark Knight wasn’t totally snubbed: it received eight nominations, but the only one in a “major” category was for Heath Ledger, an absolute solid lock to win. In a morbid coincidence, his nomination came on the first anniversary of his untimely death, which surely must be bittersweet for his family.
The other interesting aspect of the nominations is the surprise that Kate Winslet, when the dust settled, had one nomination, and it was for The Reader, not Revolutionary Road. I think one or both of two things happened: she received votes for her role in The Reader in two different categories, lead and supporting, and since the rules prevent an acting nominee from being nominated for the same performance in two categories (which did happen with Barry Fitzgerald from Going My Way in 1944); and that her performance in Revolutionary Road did make the top five, but a performer can not be nominated twice in the same category, and since she obviously received more votes for The Reader, that’s the nomination she got (this may have paved the way for Melissa Leo, who may have actually finished sixth). Only PriceWaterhouseCoopers knows for sure.
A few other interesting tidbits: Werner Herzog received his first-ever nomination after a long peripatetic career. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received 13 nominations, one off the all-time record. If it wins the top awards, it could garner quite a bushel full, since it’s technical proficiency bodes well for it winning some tech and design awards. Stephen Daldry, nominated for directing The Reader, has helmed three movies, and he has won a directing nomination for all three. Surely that is unprecedented. Not nominated: Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, or Clint Eastwood, who could have been nominated for all sorts of categories (including score and song). The Israeli film Waltz With Bashir was nominated in the Best Foreign Language category, which usually turns its nose at edgy films (Bashir is an animated documentary) but did not get nominated in Animated Feature, which is more likely to honor films of the type (Bolt was deemed better). Go figure.
I’ll have articles on my predictions in the coming weeks, but right now it’s a race between Benjamin Button, which is the conventional Oscar bait (mawkish, bland entertainment) and Slumdog Millionaire, a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but with a largely non-Caucasian cast (which would make it a first). The biggest clue will be the result of the Director’s Guild. The winner of the DGA almost always the winner of the Oscar, and the winner of the Director Oscar is almost always the director of the Best Picture winner (although in the past ten years or so that statistic is running at about fifty percent).
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The most suspense tomorrow morning is whether Batman gets a best picture nod. I think it will--these five are the PGA nominees and the DGA nominees. If Batman falters, it could be Doubt or Revolutionary Road.
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Not much imagination here--these are the five DGA nominees. The director nominations almost never match up five-for-five with picture, but I'm not drawn to any other directors here. Sam Mendes? Clint?
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Four are solid, and I'll go with Clint, an Oscar favorite, with the fifth, ahead of Richard Jenkins (who I would love to see nominated).
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
I smell a Jolie snub here, even though many have dropped Thomas in their estimations.
Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
I'm going with Shannon over the kid from Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel, but that may be wishful thinking.
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Winslet is really a lead performer, but who am I to buck the trend?
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Original Screenplay
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Animated Feature
Kung Fu Panda
Waltz With Bashir
Best Art Direction
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Best Costume Design
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Best Sound Editing
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Best Sound Mixing
The Dark Knight
Quantum of Solace
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Best Visual Effects
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Down to Earth (WALL-E)
Gran Torino (Gran Torino)
I Thought I Lost You (Bolt)
Once in a Lifetime (Cadillac Records)
The Wrestler (The Wrestler)
Best Foreign Film
France, The Class
Germany, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Israel, Waltz With Bashir
Sweden, Everlasting Moments
Turkey, 3 Monkeys
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I haven't watched every inauguration. I avoided the last two Bush inaugurations out of pique, I kind of feel bad about that (it's hard to blame me for the one in 2001) because all Americans should come together and wish the new president well. But of course today I was deliriously happy, and due to unemployment I was afforded the opportunity to lounge and watch every moment. I've loved everything about it.
As for Obama's speech, I thought it was terrific and tough, with an air of a strict teacher laying down a rigorous syllabus. He didn't stint on mentioning how difficult the times are, and how hard it's going to be to overcome them. But he framed this in terms of "we," not "I" (he only used the first-person pronoun three times in his speech). He laid the blame of these situations at all of our feet, referring to the verse in Corinthians I: "I will put aside childish things," implying that over the last period of time Americans have been acting childishly. He also didn't hold back, after thanking George Bush for his service, in talking about a renewal, a not-so-subtle back of the hand to the policies of the last eight years. For example, his statement that we need not abandon our ideals in times of war--which certainly must have been referring to the attempted rollbacks in civil rights and the ugly specter of torture.
I also liked the poem by Elizabeth Alexander, which painted in words scenes of every day America, and the benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery, which ended in playful rhymes. The only misstep, which was inconsequential in the long run, was that Chief Justice John Roberts flopped a few words in the oath, throwing Obama for a bit of a loop. During the mingling before the luncheon in the Capitol, Roberts had a chance to take full responsibility for the gaffe. He was more nervous, apparently, than the new president.
Of course the most historic part of this day is the race of Mr. Obama. There are ironies everywhere, perhaps not the least of which is that he took the oath in front of spectators who stood on the ground of what was once a place where slaves were sold. He took the oath of office almost 200 years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and 100 years after the founding of the N.A.A.C.P. Also 100 years ago, William Howard Taft, in his inaugural address, had to make the statement that "Negroes are American." Changes in the United States can come incrementally, in awfully small steps, but most of the time we are heading in the right direction.
Monday, January 19, 2009
No, not really. It turns out that Newman is playing John Russell, a man who as a child was kidnapped and raised by Apaches. For a time he was taken in by a white man who gave him the name, but he preferred the Indian ways and went back to live and identify with them. But he learns, at the beginning of the film, that his foster father has died and left him a boardinghouse, so he cuts his hair and makes a stab at living among the whites.
He ends up on stagecoach with a group of travellers who treat him indignantly (one woman insists he ride on top with the driver) but when this group is beset by bandits they rely on his skills to get them out of trouble.
Hombre, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, is one of a string of films in the sixties and seventies that were revisionist histories of the Indian conflicts of the Old West. Casting a matinee idol like Newman in the role of an Apache was a not so subtle way of calling attention to their plight. The noble savage depicted in earlier Hollywood films was not acceptable anymore, which of course was a good thing, but at times we got lectured in a patronizing fashion. Hombre, though, doesn't lecture, and tells a strong story with some good characters.
Also in the cast were Richard Boone as a ne'er-do-well, Martin Balsam as the Mexican stagecoach driver (interesting that this film was so sensitive to racial identity but didn't use a Hispanic actor for the part) and Fredric March as a professor and Indian Agent. The director was Martin Ritt, Newman's director on Hud. This was the last of six films that Ritt and Newman collaborated on.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are one such couple. They live in a bedroom community outside New York City, circa 1955. He works for a company like IBM, going to work each day and sitting in a cubicle, surrounded by other men just like him, who would rather read the paper or escape to martini lunches. She appears to be something of an artistic type, who wanted to be an actress, but now spends her days keeping house, bemoaning how she has come to be like everyone else in her neighborhood.
DiCaprio has always talked of how much he loved Paris, how "people are alive there, not like here," so Winslet comes up with the notion that they move there. She would get a secretarial job while DiCaprio finds himself. The neighbors and co-workers find this a fanciful notion, as if they had decided to go to the moon, but the Wheelers are rejuvenated by the plan, until nature interferes.
An admirable work, full of fine acting, I was underwhelmed by Revolutionary Road. Much of it had to do with the pacing and structure. The film begins with a fleeting scene of the two meeting at a party, and we learn that Winslet wants to be an actress. That is the last bit of backstory we are to hear about her. We don't know where she's from, or who her family is. The next thing we know the couple is married and she's in a community play. It doesn't go well, and DiCaprio patronizingly tries to console her. They end up in a screaming match by the side of the highway, and as it unspooled the thought crossed my mind that the projectionist had started with the wrong reel (all of this happens before any credits roll). For a scene this big in emotion, there needed to be more understanding of who these characters were.
I also had some trouble with some of the technical aspects of the film, especially the use of focus. When two characters are in the frame, one in foreground and one in background, there's two ways to handle it--you can switch focus from one to the other, depending on who the director wants the audience watching, or you can use deep focus, which has all characters in the frame in sharp focus. Mendes, in several scenes, uses the former, but often has characters who are speaking in the background out of focus. Now I suppose his intention was that we be registering the faces of those in the foreground who are listening to what his being said, but I think it's a natural inclination to be looking at a character who is speaking, so I ended up watching a character who was fuzzy, which made me question my eyesight.
The piece is well-acted, though. DiCaprio is still doing his damnedest to shake that baby face. He is thirty years old in this film, and that's actually younger than he really is, but he still looks like he's playing dress-up in his fedora and thin tie. He really score points in the emotional scenes, though, particularly a scene where he has to react to Winslet telling him she loathes the sight of him. As for Winslet, she is superb, although I pondered her choice for vocal inflections. Of course she is doing an American accent, but she's done those many times before. For April she's given her character a kind of breathy prep-girl voice, as if she had gone to a fancy women's college, that was effective in making her out of place in the boring suburbs. It would seem Winslet knew more about her character than the director or screenwriter (Justin Haythe).
Perhaps the sharpest performance was by Michael Shannon. He plays the son of Kathy Bates (also very good), who is the Wheeler's neighbor and real estate agent. Shannon's character has been institutionalized and given electric shock treatments. Therefore he has a tendency to speak his mind, and on two memorable visits he sizes up the Wheelers with precision. The first time the Wheelers react with good humor, not so much the second time. Shannon ends up giving the film some electric shock treatment, kickstarting the film into a higher gear.
I've seen almost all the relevant releases from 2008 (I still need to see The Wrestler, which I will do this week), and Revolutionary Road is not one of the top films I've seen. I'm still waiting for a movie to absolutely blow my doors off. So far my favorites have been The Visitor and WALL-E. In a few weeks I'll announce my favorites of the year.
Friday, January 16, 2009
He got his wish, and played a very familiar type. In the opening credits we see Newman as Harper waking up in his small apartment, which turns out to be connected to his office. The test-pattern is on the TV and he has to drink used coffee grounds. He drives a beat up Porsche, and heads out to a mansion somewhere a few hours from L.A. There he meets a very rich woman, played by Lauren Bacall (to connect viewers to the glory days of film noir, no doubt), who tells him her husband is missing.
Soon Harper interacts with a variety of characters, including the missing man's pretty-boy pilot (Robert Wagner), his sexpot daughter (Pamela Tiffin), a washed-up film star (Shelley Winters), a junkie jazz singer (Julie Harris) and a crackpot religious cult leader (Strother Martin). The mystery is only slightly engaging, as the primary interest is on Newman's characterization. His Harper is tough and honest, but also something of a jokester, given to calling his soon-to-be ex-wife (Janet Leigh) pretending to be different people. Over the course of the film we hear Newman do Southern, New York, and British accents.
Newman is good, but he's not good enough to save this material. The overall look of the film, directed by Jack Smight, has a TV quality, like every Quinn Martin production you've ever seen. It's also one of those mysteries in which the detective never comes across a dead end. He locates Winters simply by finding her picture in the missing man's hotel room, or pulls a matchbook out of the pocket of a corpse, and it leads him to a bar where he learns everything about him. There is also, of course, the requisite beatings that the hero receives, a staple in these things.
Harper is diverting entertainment, and a must for Newman fanatics, and would fit the bill for a late late show on a night of insomnia, but it's not a great example of private eye film.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Newman plays Chance Wayne, a wannabe actor who is really a gigolo. While working working as a cabana boy in Palm Beach he has latched onto a fading film star, played by Geraldine Page. She is an alcohol and drug addict, and he got her to sign a contract that stipulates she will produce a film starring him. He piles her comatose form into a convertible and heads to his hometown on the Gulf of Mexico (presumably Mississippi) to win back the sweetheart of his youth, who he was separated from through the machinations of her father, who is the political boss of the state.
The boss is played by Ed Begley, who won an Oscar for it. He's something of a caricature, though, a Huey Long type with absolutely no scruples. His son, who is dumb and vicious, is played by Rip Torn, and his daughter, Newman's girl, is played by Shirley Knight. She is still in love with him, but reluctant to go against the will of her father.
Over the course of the action Newman will but heads with Begley and family to get at Knight. He learns that the last time he was there he got her pregnant, which led to an illegal abortion. This is a change from the play, where the Newman character gave the girl a venereal disease which led to a hysterectomy. It's interesting that abortion was more palatable to the censor than V.D. This information is used against Begley by his political opponents. When Torn and his henchmen catch up with Newman, Torn breaks his nose, suggesting that he will no longer be good looking and his career as a gigolo is over. This is a by-far kinder punishment than what is in the play--castration.
The second story running through the film is that of Page's. She is on the lam from what she perceives as a failed comeback. She is a very good actress, but the faded film diva is a character that is so familiar that it's hard to focus one's interest on her. When she sobers up she's a more interesting character, but it rings hollow. In the DVD extras, we're told that Williams based her character on himself.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Monday, January 12, 2009
Newman stars as a young man back from World War II. He returns to his parents in a Philadelphia suburb. Dad is a horrible autocrat, Mom is a lush and philanderer. Newman spurns his father's wishes that he go into business with him in their steel mill, and instead heads to New York to start an aircraft business with his college buddy. At a party he is dazzled by a society deb, Joanne Woodward, and overcomes her initial distaste in him (shades of The Long, Hot Summer) and marrying her. Through some serendipity he ends up working on Wall Street and long absences from his marital bed send Woodward into the arms of her ex-fiance, played with sleazy charm by Patrick O'Neal. When Newman, on a business trip to a Pennsylvania coal town, meets a young woman (Ina Balin) with simple, small-town values, he falls in love with her, but divorce is out of the question.
This film came out in 1960, and there were a lot of books and films in those days about the disillusion suffered by men who thought they were supposed to do everything they could do to get ahead, especially The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and, interestingly enough, Revolutionary Road, which was made into a movie now in theaters. The underlying core of this film is that all that glitters is not gold, but it takes Newman's character a long time to figure that out. The last five minutes of the film, where Newman takes actions to ensure his integrity, are pretty satisfying, but it's a two-hour and twenty-four minute film, so there's a lot of mush to wade through to get there.
Newman is solid, but seems at a loss much of the time is to what this guy is all about. Early in the film the family's servants talk about how wonderful he is, but there's nothing he does through most of the film to show him as such a wonderful guy. Woodward and Balin are really playing female stereotypes--Woodward as the scheming society woman, Balin as the down-home innocent, and there's not much else there. Myrna Loy has a nice turn as Newman's mother, but she disappears from the film after the first twenty minutes.
There are couple of future TV stars on hand--Blossom Rock, who was Grandmama on The Addams Family, is a maid, and American's favorite genie, Barbara Eden, has one scene as a promiscuous young woman. Oh, Jeannie!
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Though she is a wee lass, five-feet tall and 100 pounds, Teagan has a dancer's build, with long, coltish legs. Her background is as a dancer and gymnast. She grew up in the suburbs of Houston and moved to San Diego as a teenager, and to exact revenge against an ex-boyfriend, embarked on a career in porn. She has been in the business since 2004, but seems to me as if she's been a mainstay a lot longer than that.
I first saw her in my duties as a reviewer in a video called "Cum Drippers 6," and I was immediately hooked. She was nineteen then, and had that fresh-off-the-bus look that is very appealing. The director, Vince Vouyer, talks with her before the scene, and there is the sense that if he says the wrong thing she may bolt out the door.
Since then she has become a big star, and is a contract girl for a company called Digital Playground. This means that she works exclusively for that company, and instead of being paid by the scene, she earns a (considerable) salary and makes a certain number of films over the course of the year. Digital Playground has used her primarily in two ways--in their "Jack's Teen America" series, which normally has girls in faux schoolgirl outfits, competing for a mythical beauty pageant title, or their line of tony prestige pictures. Most of these have lots of slow-motion footage, ersatz classical music soundtracks, and soft-focus photography. The best example of this line is "Island Fever 4," which sent Teagan, among other performers, to the island of Bali to have sex on the beach. Mostly these scenes looked uncomfortable to me, what with the sand, the girls perching on rocks, or the woman standing on one foot, having coitus as if she were a flamingo.
Teagan has transformed herself over her career. She has, by visual evidence, undergone some surgical procedures, most notably a breast job that turned acceptable but relatively small mammaries into full, round and seemingly rock-hard appendages. They look like two pounds of sand in a one-pound bag, and while a lot of aficionados find these changes appalling, they apparently add to a performer's appeal in the larger sense, since these girls keeping having them. But beyond the boob-job, Teagan just seems to have a harder edge than her early days. One of my favorite scenes of hers is in "Surfer Girls," where she has a wonderful, sweet, college-girl appeal. But when I met her at the erotic convention last September there was nothing fresh about her--she looked like a girl who had wandered out of a strip club. She's still an amazingly beautiful woman, but the business she's in has taken a certain toll.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
In Doubt, the central character is just such a nun, Sister Aloysius, memorably played by Meryl Streep. I have no inside knowledge, but I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that the writer and director of the film (as well as the playwright) John Patrick Shanley knew just such a nun when he was in school. He probably wondered what made such a scary person tick, and in this film he does an admirable job of making a stereotype live and breathe.
Set in the Bronx in 1964, the Sister is the principal of a school and runs it as if she were a warden. She is decidedly old-fashioned, condemning secular Christmas songs like Frosty the Snowman as pagan magical rites, and blaming the ballpoint pen for ruining society's penmanship (she may be right about that one). In addition to the children, she holds court over the other nuns, tinkling a bell to announce she's going to say something at dinner. A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) is somewhat in awe of her, but also resistant to her doctrinaire ways, preferring to see the good in people first.
The parish priest is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Streep is somewhat suspicious of him at the outset, for he is a reformer. When Adams brings to Streep's attention that Hoffman has had a private meeting in the rectory with one of the altar boys, the school's only black student, the old nun raises her hackles. It's not spoken aloud, but it's inferred that through her long experience she recognizes a pedophile when she sees one. She endeavors to get to the truth.
I enjoyed this film a great deal, even for its obviousness. The title, of course, works on two levels. There is the doubt over Hoffman's guilt, as well as the larger meaning of the word, which is one's doubt of one's faith. Streep's character, through most of the picture, has no doubt about either. Hoffman represents the new social order coming in--he defends himself almost in legal and sociological terms, while Streep has the attitude of a grand inquisitor. What makes her character work is that at no time does one sense that she does not have the best intentions of the children in mind, and embodies the Christian values that her heavy cross hanging around her neck represent.
There's some very good acting here, starting with Streep. I think she's kind of taken for granted these days, the preeminent actress in cinema today. This role will earn her her fifteenth Oscar nomination in only 31 years of making movies. She is well known for being a chameleon and burying herself in her performances--in Doubt she adds a Bronx accent to her palette--but I think that's noteworthy. Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis both had stylistic flourishes that immediately identified them. I don't see a Las Vegas drag queen ever incorporating Streep into their acts, for there's nothing to parody. I've never seen her give a bad performance, even in nonsense like Death Becomes Her of She-Devil (of course I haven't seen Mamma Mia!)
The supporting cast is also very strong. I liked Amy Adams a great deal, and it's a tricky part. The tendency would be to play her as Pollyanna, a naif. But Adams clearly grows over the course of the film, both wanting to become more like Streep and dreading it. There's a nice moment when she snaps at a student, who is shocked by her vehemence, and Adams is shocked too, and even apologizes to the student, something that Streep that would never do. Hoffman is also very good in a very rich part. He must make the choice, before filming has even started, whether the man is guilty or not, and offers clues but does not reveal all. It's a canny performance.
The fourth terrific performance is by Viola Davis, as the boy's mother. She is in only one scene, but it's a doozy. Streep calls her in to share her suspicions, but Davis' reaction suprises her, and Davis reveals some information that changes our perception of the incident. Davis knocks it out of the park in a segment that lasts less than ten minutes.
If it's fun to watch all this good acting, it's less pleasurable to hear the machinery creaking in Shanley's direction. For starters there is an overemphasis on meteorology--lots of talk about winds--and in Streep and Hoffman's showdown climax scene, which is otherwise brilliant, Shanley has added a thunderstorm in the background, as if it were a Universal horror picture. He also frequently employs a skewed camera angle, surely to suggest that something is amiss, but reminding me of the scenes in villain's lairs in the old Batman TV series. I did like Roger Deakins' photography, which perfectly captures the cold grays of an inner-city December.
So go see Doubt for the great acting, and be charitable and forgive the obviousness of the writing and direction. And maybe say a few rosaries while you're at it.
Friday, January 09, 2009
When I heard Ron Howard was going to direct Frost/Nixon, I was dubious. Howard is certainly no auteur, his talent seems to be mostly as a traffic cop (I'll never forget his appearance, thirty some years ago, on the Mike Douglas Show, when he was directing his first feature, Eat My Dust, and showed Mike his directing chops by using Matchbox cars to show how he choreographed a car chase. Surely Orson Welles didn't think that way). Well, Howard turned out to be a perfect choice for this material, because he stays out of the way and lets his actors tell the story.
Following his resignation, Nixon retired to California and was eager to refurbish his legacy. David Frost was a comedian and talk-show host who was dying to make a mark in American television. He hit upon the idea of doing an in-depth interview with the disgraced ex-president, and Nixon agreed to do it, as Nixon was very interested in the bottom line--to the tune of $600,000. Both sides in this interrogation then prepare for battle--Nixon to try to get back the respect of the American people, Frost to get a confession.
All of this is a lot of fun. The structure is that of a boxing film, as we follow both sides training for combat , and we see the intellectual equivalent of rope-jumping and pummeling sides of beef. Frost has his producer (Matthew Macfadyen) and two researchers, (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell), while Nixon engaged a couple of names that may seem recognizable--Diane Sawyer and Frank Gannon (Sawyer needs no introduction, while Gannon was a producer for David Letterman in his NBC days). Nixon's primary assistant is a true-believer played by Kevin Bacon, who negotiates the terms. The Nixon team knows that the Watergate scandal will be picked over closely, and they do their best to minimize the damage.
The two lead performances are excellent. Michael Sheen is Frost, and not only does he have the voice down solid, he also captures the flashes of callowness and ego. Frost was a playboy of sorts, and we see him pick up a woman (Rebecca Hall) on an airplane. He is also insecure, putting up his own money to get the interview and then struggling to hold on as the networks and then advertisers turn him down.
As good as Sheen is, it's Frank Langella that steals this show as Nixon. He doesn't precisely imitate him, but he has the stoop and jowly mannerisms down. He also does quite a bit with his eyes, saying things with them that don't pass his lips. He has a number of great moments, including getting ambushed by Frost in the Watergate portion of the interview (you could swear that you can see beads of sweat pop up on his upper lip), and a bravura monologue when he makes a drunken, late-night call to Frost and tries to form a bond over their similar, common roots. Nixon was always bedeviled by his loss to John Kennedy, who he saw as being of a privileged class, while Nixon grew up the son of a grocer. Transcending his humble upbringing was one of the driving forces of his life.
A few things don't work. The actors occasionally speak to the camera as if this was a documentary, but it is not, and seems like a cheat to give information that should have been in the narrative (other films, like Reds, have done this, but they used the real people). Also, the interviews themselves weren't as epochal as the film would suggest, but that argument is best left for cable news shows. Taken in context, Frost/Nixon is a thrilling entertainment.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Billy the Kid is one of those figures who belongs more to mythology then history. He was unknown in his lifetime, and his legacy was created by the man who killed him, Sheriff Pat Garrett, who wrote about him after the Kid's death. This film has just enough of the history correct to settle the nerves of a Western purist, but of course the actual truth is far less interesting. As it was said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--"Print the Legend."
Newman makes for an Actor's Studio Billy, brooding and angry. There are stories about how at eleven he killed a man who insulted his mother. He is found by a kindly English cattle driver and given a job, but when his boss is killed, Billy gets involved in the Lincoln County War. He guns down the Englishman's killers, and then escapes capture, killing two of his guards. Finally Garrett, who had been his friend, tracks him down.
Interestingly, the one thing the film gets wrong is the title. Many thought Billy was left handed because the one known photo of him shows a holster on his left side. Turns out, though, that the picture was reversed. But left-handedness serves the theme of this film, after all, for centuries those who favored their left were looked at suspiciously. The word "sinister" comes from the Latin meaning left-handed, and it's clear in this film that Billy is in a world where he doesn't belong.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Down River, by John Hart, won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel, and in one way it's easy to see why. The book is well-written, the characters are vivid, and the story is well-constructed, with the solution not readily apparent. But in some ways this book was a real chore, and I only finished out of a sense of duty.
The first-person narration is by Adam Chase, a young man who left his North Carolina town after being acquitted of murder charges. Everyone thought he was guilty, including his stepmother, who testified against him. This created a wedge between himself and his father, so he went to New York and had not been back until a call from an old man compelled him to return. Once there he found a lot of the old resentment, but hooked up with an old girlfriend, a police officer. But then the daughter of a family friend, now a ripe teenager, is viciously beaten, and the friend that called Adam turns out dead, and the local sheriff looks at Adam suspiciously. Meanwhile locals are pressuring Adam's father to sell his considerable acreage to nuclear power plant, and just who was that mysterious woman in the canoe?
The big problem I had with this book was Adam himself. He is, to put it bluntly, a prick. He's supposed to be, mind you, but he was not a pleasure to spend time with, and there were times I looked at this book and just couldn't pick it up again. Adam is almost angry, because of the estrangement from his father, and the suicide of his mother when he was a child, and as such he's constantly telling people what to do and riling in no time flat. Many times while reading this I wanted to slap him silly. I've never cottoned to characters in mysteries who find evidence but then conceal it from the police even though it doesn't make much sense. In the movies it's called the "idiot plot."
The other problem is that the book leans to the literary style, and at times veers close to self-parody. There are loads of instances where we get terse, one-sentence paragraphs like this:
"They showed up two hours later.
Smoke hung in the room. Grace cried out.
And my father wept for the fourth time in his life."
It takes a lot of moxie to actually type something like that and turn it in. And Adam is making all sorts of discoveries about himself that seem painfully obvious to the rest of us.
Books with obnoxious narrators can be successful, and I'm not quite sure why this one wasn't. It would have been a much better read in the third-person.
Monday, January 05, 2009
The film most comparable to Benjamin Button is Forrest Gump, and I'm sure that's because both were written by Eric Roth, who is one of those guys who collects awards but I find to be a hack. He took Fitzgerald's little story, which was a trifle really, and injected it with Hallmark-card steroids, pumping it into a lumbering romance that tries so hard to be profound that at times it's downright pathetic. He even replaces the white feather of Gump with a hummingbird here.
The title character, he tells us in his diary, was born "under unusual circumstances." The story is set in New Orleans, which appears to be ground zero for magic realism in American films. At birth, he exhibits all the frailties of a very old man, and as he grows older chronologically, the ravages of age reverse. In Fitzgerald's story, Benjamin is born fully-grown, with the ability of speech, an obstetric impossibility but a more amusing idea. The film has Benjamin as a baby with a normal infant intelligence but the body of a little old man. Another departure from the story has Benjamin's father, horrified, immediately abandon him on the steps of an old-age home, where he is taken in by one of the workers, a black woman played by Taraji P. Henson (I kept hearing Steve Martin's opening line from The Jerk--"I was porn a poor black child.")
Benjamin grows up sharing ailments with the old folks he lives with, ever so gaining vigor. When he is about ten he meets Daisy, who will be the love of his life and grow up to played by Cate Blanchett. It is on her deathbed that her daughter, in a bedside vigil, reads Benjamin's diary (to ladle on the melodrama, it's during the impending landfall of Hurricane Katrina). She ages while Benjamin gets younger. He goes off to have adventures on the sea, while she becomes a dancer. Eventually they meet in age and share a blissful period, but he realizes that eventually he will grow "young" and become a baby, and we get a bittersweet ending.
This is the kind of big-event film that impresses people who haven't seen many movies. Frankly I'm shocked that it's won some critic awards. The screenplay chugs along, providing Benjamin with picaresque adventures and colorful people come and go (such as a sea captain played by Jared Harris, an African bushmen, and a British woman with whom he has an affair, well-played by Tilda Swinton). None of them are very sharply drawn, and seem like window-dressing. While Benjamin is on the crew of a tugboat we are briefly introduced to the other crew, but to what purpose I'm not sure, since they don't really figure in the story and aren't around long enough to matter (was it really important that the gunner was a Cherokee Indian?)
Also, the film has literary pretensions that fall flat, such as clunky framing device involving a blind man that builds a clock that runs backwards. There's also a sequence demonstrating how the "butterfly effect" can dictate the events of our lives--but that's hardly new. And early in the film a character recites Shakespeare, but instead of a piece of King Henry VI, Part III (!) why not the Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, which sums up the theme of the film quite nicely?
The acting is all serviceable without being transcendent. So many actors play Benjamin it's hard to know when Brad Pitt starts. I believe his face is CGIed onto the bodies of small boys early on. He's fine, and since Benjamin glides through life passively, he isn't called on to do much other than look beatific. Harris provides life while he is on screen, though I had trouble understanding what he was saying.
The best part of this film was the lush photography by Claudio Miranda that makes excellent use of the different locations, whether it be sunrise on Lake Ponchartrain, a snowy street in Russia, or a Broadway stage. I just wished he had something more substantial to film.