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Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Updike

When John Updike died a few days ago, it occurred to me that I've read quite a bit of his work. He has written about sixty volumes of novels, criticism, essays and poetry, so it would take some dedication to have read them all, but I have read nine of his novels, his autobiography, and no telling how many of his short stories and book reviews. As far as that goes, after Philip Roth, he is the literary novelist I've read the most.

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

Slap Shot


Following The Sting, Paul Newman went into something of a down period in his career. He was still a huge star, but no doubt was pursuing other interests, such as car racing and salad dressing. Newman is only one of three men who have been nominated for Oscars in five different decades (Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson are the others) but he did it by skipping a decade--the 1970s.

His most significant film of the late 70s is Slap Shot, directed again by George Roy Hill. It's become something of a cult classic, especially with hockey fans, but it's really a bit of a mess, a sloppy comedy that's beneath Newman. If that sounds harsh, maybe it's because as a hockey fan myself, I've never liked the fighting aspect of the game. If you want to see that, watch Ultimate Fighting.

Newman is the player-coach of a minor-league hockey team. He's near the end of his career, and the team is in danger of folding once the town's mill closes. He tries to get interest in someone buying the team, but to do that the team has to win. With the addition of three goons, the Hanson Brothers, the team becomes extremely physical and manages to work their way up to the top of the standings. It's something of a Bad News Bears on ice.

Though I know hockey, I don't profess to being an expert on minor-league hockey of the 1970s. I'm used to the NHL and women's hockey (where there is no checking at all). Fighting is still an element of the NHL, but it's mostly for show, and brutality is met with swift and harsh punishment. The amount of bloodshed in Slap Shot seemed over the top, but in a DVD extra one of the actors who played the Hansons (who were real hockey players) comment that they taught the actors how to "stick fight," that is use their sticks like sabers, which today would draw not only long suspensions but criminal charges. Apparently it was tolerated back then.

I think much of the film's cult success is due to the Hansons, who were gawky guys wearing thick glasses and creating mayhem every time they took the ice. Not too long ago they had action figures made in their likeness. Call me an old sourpuss, but I like old-time hockey, which is passing and shooting, not throwing right crosses. At least in the film, Newman's character, in the last game, wants to go out playing that way. Of course it doesn't last.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Sting

Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and George Roy Hill reteamed for 1973's The Sting, which was a smash hit and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Ironically, Redford was now the big star, while Newman, though still very famous, wasn't quite the draw he used to be. He found out about the movie accidentally, when Hill asked if he could rent Newman's Beverly Hills home. Newman asked Hill what he was up to and Hill responded, "I'm making a movie with Redford." Newman responded, "Anything in it for me?" Hill no doubt saw dollar signs floating around his head, and told Newman there was something for him, but it was the second lead. Newman asked to see the script anyway.

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

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


Paul Newman was at the height of his stardom when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969. The film was a mammoth hit, won some Oscars, and established itself as a perennial favorite of many movie fans. The script, by William Goldman, has many catch-phrase lines, such as "Who are those guys?", "Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?," and "The fall will probably kill you."

Directed by George Roy Hill, the film is an interesting concoction--a Western set in the last days of the Old West, but with a strong contemporary vibe. Though none of the dialogue is anachronistic, it has the snap of modern pictures, and the music is distinctly pop. In fact, the music plays a huge role in the movie, as there are three montage sequences set to the music of Burt Bacharach, the most notable being Newman and Katherine Ross playing around on a bicycle to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head."

Newman stars as Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford as his outlaw partner, the Sundance Kid. Newman was the big star then, while Redford was still on the up and come. He was not the first choice to play the role--Steve McQueen eventually dropped out over disagreements about billing, and Newman offered the role to Jack Lemmon, who passed because he didn't like riding horses. Imagining Lemmon in the role of the taciturn fastest gun in the West makes the head spin a little.

The plot concerns the last days of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Cassidy and Sundance were among the last celebrated outlaws of the Old West, and modern life pushes them to the margins. When they hit the Union Pacific one too many times, special lawmen were hired to track them down, and the boys realize they'll always be hunted, so along with Ross, Sundance's gal, they decamp to Bolivia to rob banks. They are finally cornered after a robbery, and shoot it out with the Bolivian army, the film ending in a freeze-frame as the two bandits rush forward, guns blazing, into legend.

I've seen this film many times, and it's charm rarely ebbs. It's the kind of movie you can see over and over again, because with familiarity comes pleasure, whether it's the lines--"Rules? In a knife fight?" or the comic timing between Redford and Newman. Hill worried that the film would be too funny--he wasn't out to make a comedy, though that's the film's greatest selling point. Some of the film doesn't work anymore--a role-played rape between Redford and Ross early in the picture, before we know they're a couple, is profoundly distasteful.

As with Cool Hand Luke, the photography is by Conrad Hall, and it's dazzling. I think the freeze-frame ending is one of the most ingenious strokes. Some say that Butch survived and returned to America, and though that's highly unlikely it's nice to contemplate. By Hill not showing the actual outcome, only an implied one, it keeps the characters perpetually alive.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Martin McDonagh may be the most exciting playwright of his generation. I have had read some of this plays (The Leenane Trilogy) but hadn't had the opportunity to see one until this past weekend, when I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan, under the direction of Garry Hynes, at the Atlantic Theater Company.

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

Cool Hand Luke


Perhaps Paul Newman's most iconic performance was as the title character in Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967, and directed by Stuart Rosenberg. This is one of those films that perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the moment, representing a rebellious prisoner as an avatar of a distressed generation.

Newman's Luke is a lost soul. A war hero, he is drunkenly decapitating parking meters, a particularly pointless crime because he isn't even stealing the coins. He is sentenced to two years on a prison road crew, presumably in the deep and dusty South. The place is run by the somewhat dandyish Captain (Strother Martin) and some sinister guards, particularly one who never speaks, wears dark glasses, and shoots with deadly accuracy. The prisoners all have colorful nicknames and follow the bear-like Dragline (George Kennedy), who is illiterate but wise to how to survive. Initially he resists Newman, and pummels him senseless in a boxing match. Newman is told repeatedly to stay down after each punch, but he will never give up, and that earns the large man's respect.

Prison movies have a long history in films, especially at Warner Brothers, which made this film. In many cases, the prisoners, despite their crimes, are depicted as free spirits who are being clamped by the establishment, which is represented by the unyielding authority of the guards. Each time period has its own take on this, from I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which though made into a movie in 1975 was written in the early sixties). Newman's Luke is no hippie, but you can almost smell the patchouli and feel the flower power in his steadfast refusal to allow the Captain or the guards to "make his mind right" and conform to the system. Was there any line from a film more accurate about the sixties than Martin's declaration, "What we have here is failure to communicate."

This film is still a pleasure to watch, from the comedy of the egg-eating challenge to the tender way Newman sings a song and strums a banjo after learning of this mother's death. This was Rosenberg's first film, having come from TV, and he's quite good, especially since he had Conrad Hall to work with as cinematographer. Hall is claimed by some to be the best cinematographer in film history, and this film is a good example. The music is by Lalo Shifrin, and you may recognize one passage that scores a scene in which the prisoners lay sand over asphalt--it was used as the theme to Eyewitness News.

The cast is excellent, too. Kennedy won an Oscar, and there are plenty of faces that would become familiar--Ralph Waite (later Pa Walton), Wayne Rogers (Trapper John on M*A*S*H*), Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Joe Don Baker.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler tells a familiar tale. Throughout film history we've seen the story of a performer of some sort--whether it be professional athlete, rock star, what have you--who was once riding high but has been brought low due to various circumstances (usually of their own making) and seeks redemption. Most of the time these stories drown in their lachrymose excesses, but I was impressed that The Wrestler, written by Robert Siegel and directed by Darren Aronofsky, makes the material seem fresh.

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

Mrs. Warren's Profession


The McCarter Theater's season continues with George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, which was scandalous enough in 1902 that it was banned from the stage in England (and then in America in 1905). This is not because his title character was a prostitute, it was because she was a prostitute and defended her line of work.

Of course, the play isn't so much about prostitution as it is about the "new" woman of the time. There are two main characters in the play--Mrs. Warren, who escaped poverty by becoming a courtesan and then managing a number of brothels throughout continental Europe, and her daughter, Vivie, with whom she's had little contact over the years. Vivie is newly graduated from Cambridge, lives independently, smokes cigars and shakes hands vigorously. She is a proto-feminist, but looks askance at her mother's trade. But then, in the conclusion to Act II, Mrs. Warren tells her daughter how she came to be what she is, explaining that for a woman born in poverty it was her only option, other than going to work in a white-lead factory and dying a miserable, early death.

Vivie buys that explanation, but when she learns that her mother is still in the business and has no intention of retiring, she priggishly breaks off with her, and the play ends with a heartrending scene of a daughter denying her mother.

The production at the McCarter is top-notch, with excellent acting and impeccable direction. I can't think of a thing I would do differently. All of the comic elements are handled perfectly, especially by Edward Hibbert as Mrs. Warren's friend Mr. Praed. Hibbert, known to many as Gil Chesterton from the TV series Fraser, effortlessly handles his character's brio, and occupies a certain moral center, as he pointedly expresses that he knows nothing of "that side" of Mrs. Warren's life. Not so Sir George Crofts, played with effective menace by Rocco Sisto. He at first thinks he may be Vivie's father, and satisfied he isn't, means to make her his wife. He certainly represents a backward-looking attitude toward women.

As the two lead characters, Suzanne Bertish is terrific as Mrs. Warren, all hats and grand entrances, while Madeleine Hutchins is also solid as the unforgiving Vivie. As Vivie's suitor, and possibly much more, Michael Izquierdo is suitably squirrely.

I should note though, that if this production is impressively mounted, I found myself detached from it. Shaw's work, I've felt since I was introduced to it in college, leans much more to the intellectual. He did, after all, in an epilogue to Pygmalion, tell us that Eliza ends up with Freddy, not Professor Higgins. Mrs. Warren's Profession ends with a teary, soap-opera-ish ending, but instead of being moved I regarded it more with a clinical eye. I don't think this is the fault of the performances or the direction, but rather the text itself.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Beautiful Children

I had been keen on reading Charles Bock's novel Beautiful Children ever since I first knew about it for a couple of reasons. For one, it is set in Las Vegas, a city that endlessly fascinates me, and Bock grew up there. To hear the insights of a person who actually lives in that place is interesting to me, because I am also writing a book set in Sin City.

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

Holy Snub, Batman!

Every year, it seems, the big news resulting from the revelation of the Oscar nominations is who didn’t get nominated, not who did. This year the lack of a nomination for The Dark Knight in the Best Picture race has created a firestorm in the blogosphere, with fanboys beating their breasts and wringing their hands. That the movie that “replaced” the Dark Knight is deemed to be The Reader only adds fuel to the conflagration, as it’s yet another example of Holocaust-themed cinema being exalted beyond what it probably should. In Oscar prognostication, ignore the “final solution” at your peril.

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

Oscar Nomination Predictions

The Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow morning, so for my own amusement here is my take on what will happen.

Best Picture

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

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.

Best Director

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?

Best Actor

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).

Best Actress

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
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Screenplay

Happy-Go-Lucky
Milk
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
WALL-E
The Wrestler

Best Animated Feature

Kung Fu Panda
WALL-E
Waltz With Bashir

Best Art Direction

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Costume Design

Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Cinematography

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Sound Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E

Best Sound Mixing

The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E

Best Score

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E

Best Visual Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

Best Makeup

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Wrestler

Best Song

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

President Barack Obama

There may be no other ritual in American government that echo the values that founded this country than a presidential inauguration, especially when one president cedes power to his successor, and even more so when they are men of different parties. The orderly transition of power is one of the greatest attributes that our democracy offers. I can't help but get chills when I see one president peacefully and graciously handing over the keys to the government amidst pomp and pageantry. The aide who carries the "football," the suitcase that contains the codes for the nuclear arsenal, starts off his day answering to one president, but at the conclusion of the swearing in, answers to a different man. This is a result of a constitution that has operated like a sophisticated timepiece for two hundred years. Note that when a president takes the oath of office, he or she swears to defend the Constitution of the United States, which is paramount above all.

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

Hombre

The opening shot of Hombre is risky, because some could find it highly amusing, and this is not a comedy. We open on a closeup of Paul Newman's face, highlighted by those legendary blue eyes. He is also wearing a wig and Indian garb, making him look like Tonto. This film was released in 1967--was it another example of casting Anglo actors to play Native Americans?

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

Valkyrie


Sometimes there's very little to say about a movie. I can't come up with anything that was wrong with Valkyrie, but then it didn't really register with me, either. By the time I started the car driving away from the theater, it had completely left my system. It is a competent, if uninspired, thriller.

Directed by Bryan Singer, Valkyrie tells the true story of an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by men in his inner circle. Much of the film is told in a crisp, informative style, so it had me interested as if I were watching a show about it on the History Channel.

Tom Cruise plays the colonel who assumes the role of ringleader, and we get the benefits and distractions that come with casting a megastar in the part. Cruise does command attention--it's hard not to cast your eyes on him when he's in the frame, but he doesn't quite live down the fact that it's Tom Cruise. I've never found him a convincing figure when it comes to historical figures (such as in The Last Samurai), he's got too contemporary a vibe about him. During a scene when his character interacts with his small children, I was thinking about Suri.

Singer has assembled a first rank ensemble of supporting actors, a squadron of guys who will give you "a-ha, I know that guy!" moments. Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Eddie Izzard all pop up at various times, looking good in their pressed Nazi uniforms.

I think the main reason why I couldn't get too involved in the story is that I, as well as any culturally literate person, knows the outcome. This certainly isn't Singer or his screenwriters' fault, it's just that they chose to tell this story and went into it with this drawback. If we hadn't known how Hitler came to his demise, this might have provoked a far more visceral response, but we can't unlearn what he already know.

Valkyrie is a good enough film that it had me interested in just what the facts are. I have no idea where the filmmakers took liberty, but from a quick review of a Wikipedia article on the assassination plot, it seems pretty close. Initially Germany objected to the filming, and would not let them use German locations. It turns out this was because they objected to Cruise, because Scientology is classified as an illegal cult there.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Pity the poor suburbanite, especially those who aspire to greatness. Trapped in suffocating neighborhoods, commuting to soulless offices to do uninteresting work, or stay home and wile away hours in drudgery, this pitiful class has been examined in countless films, but perhaps none so pointed as Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and based on a novel by Richard Yates.

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

Harper

In 1966 Paul Newman made Harper, his first private eye flick, and the results are mixed. Based on a Ross McDonald novel, Moving Target, Newman agreed to do it but asked that the name of McDonald's private eye, Lew Archer, be changed to something beginning with an H, and that the film be titled after that name. Because Newman had had success with The Hustler and Hud, he thought of H as his lucky letter.

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

Hud


Hud is definitely not for everyone, but I thought it was a fascinating, powerful character study, as well as a snapshot of the dying of the American West. Granted, that has been the subject matter of many, many films (including The Last Picture Show, which was also based on a Larry McMurtry novel, as was Hud) but it may not have been done better here. Director Martin Ritt took the material and crafted a small masterpiece.

Paul Newman is the title character, and he puts his innate charm to the test, as Hud is a character without any redeeming qualities. He drinks, runs around with married woman, and seems to have hit all of the seven deadly sins. What makes it worse is that he doesn't care about much of anything but himself. He is responsible for his older brother's death many years before, which gives him a few twinges of guilt, but that's about the only sympathetic trait he has.

He lives on a ranch with his father, Melvyn Douglas, who his pretty much the exact opposite, a man of decency, integrity and loyalty. When their cattle come down with hoof-and-mouth disease, Hud tells the old man to sell them to some poor sucker, which horrifies the old man. Douglas has long ago given up on Hud, and does his best to tolerate him. Instead, he focuses most of his love and attention on Lon (Brandon de Wilde) the son of Hud's dead brother, who both idolizes his wayward uncle and his afraid of him.

Also living in the household is a housekeeper, played by Patricia Neal. Both Hud and Lon have feelings for her, but Hud's is entirely carnal, while Lon, who is only seventeen, feels the first stirrings of love for the woman, who in the place of his deceased mother, provides nurturing him for him. She is a cynical, wise-cracking divorced woman, who rebuffs Hud's overtures by telling him, "I've had one cold-blooded bastard, I'm not looking for another."

As the main thread of the plot concerning the cattle plays out, the characters bounce off each other. Douglas will not lease his land to oil companies, as he would rather die out with the old ways, while Hud waits him out, carousing and alienating everyone he knows. At first Lon wants to get closer to his uncle, but after Hud drunkenly attacks Neal, he realizes Hud is beyond redemption. The film ends with Lon leaving, telling Hud, he won't be back, but this doesn't move Hud in the least. He resolutely resists salvation.

If this film isn't a feel-good film, it is nonetheless enthralling, with four excellent characterizations and performances. Neal and Douglas both won Oscars (Neal won for Best Actress, which was somewhat controversial because she has a relatively small part. She suffered a stroke before the ceremony which may have garnered some sympathy votes, but she's very good anyway). Ritt has also given us a textbook case in how to compose a frame. Every now and then I noticed how magnificently the actors were arranged in the shot. The photography, in black and white, was by James Wong Howe, and I don't know if it could be any better.

For all this, Hud is still Newman's picture, and he carries it brilliantly. It may be jarring for some to see the mild-mannered salad dressing salesman and race-car driver play such a cad, but it proves how effective his range was.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sweet Bird of Youth

Four years after Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Brooks and Paul Newman reteamed to bring another Tennessee Williams play to the screen, Sweet Bird of Youth. As with the earlier adaptation, Sweet Bird is full of inflamed Southern passions and sexual innuendo, but it's a pale copy. I consider the play second-tier Williams, in which he recycles many of the themes from his early, better plays, and given the production code, the film couldn't fairly represent all the nastiness from the play.

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

The Hustler


When all is said and done, Paul Newman's greatest role was probably Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler (25 years later he would reprise the role in The Color of Money and cop his first competitive Oscar, perhaps that was guilt for passing him over in 1961 for the first film). Directed by Robert Rossen, The Hustler is a certified classic, a film that will long be admired and dissected.

The tale of a small-time pool shark who wants to hit the big-time, the film takes the structure of the classic hero's journey. After a pre-credit sequence that shows how Newman and his partner hustle unsuspecting suckers in small-town pool rooms, the film settles in for a long scene in which Newman goes to New York City and the home base of Minnesota Fats, the preeminent pool shooter in the country. Memorably played by Jackie Gleason, Fats is a big man but a dandy, wearing a carnation and shooting in a three-piece suit. After he powders his hand with chalk Newman tells him, "Fats, you look just like a baby--clean and pink and powdered."

Newman is beating Fats, but his hubris gets the best of him, and he ends up defeated and humiliated. He skips out on his partner, and must make the long journey to find the character to beat Gleason in a rematch. He does this by bottoming out and finding love with a cynical woman of questionable morals, Piper Laurie. Two broken people, their love affair is like a flower poking through asphalt, but it's imperiled when George C. Scott, as a ruthless gambler, takes over Newman's career by putting up the money for him to take on opponents. Scott is memorably slimy as a man with no soul, his only consideration the avarice that festers inside him.

The best scenes in this film are in the Ames pool room, which was an actual location in New York's Times Square. The cinematographer, Eugene Shufton, makes brilliant use of the light in this and other pool room locations in the film (he won an Oscar for his efforts). Rossen, as director, doesn't make a wrong shot, especially in these scenes. The middle section, with Newman and Laurie, drags a little bit, as we want to see Newman back shooting pool, especially in a rematch with Gleason. It's well worth the wait.

Newman, according to the backstory, had never held a cue stick before this film. He was coached by Willie Mosconi, who made the difficult shots as a stunt shooter (Rossen would shoot Newman in closeup, then cut to the hands of Mosconi, all very seamlessly). Gleason was a good enough player not to need a stand-in. Newman, Scott, Gleason and Laurie were all nominated for Oscars (in a harbinger of things to come, Scott asked that his name be removed. It was not).

Even if you've never been in a pool room before, after watching this film you'll feel like you have, as Rossen and his team create an authentic world, and spin a yarn that is eternal.

Monday, January 12, 2009

From the Terrace

Paul Newman had a great long career, but an actor can't work diligently for that many years without making some clunkers, and Newman made his share. One of them was From the Terrace, an adaptation of a long John O'Hara novel, directed by Mark Robson and written by Ernest Lehman. Robson was trying to duplicate his success with Peyton Place, so he made another film in CinemaScope, lit with autumnal hues and dealing with the sordid underbelly of respectable citizens. As with Peyton Place, From the Terrace is heavy on the melodrama and light on nimbleness.

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

Teagan Presley

In their latest issue, the Penthouse Pet of the Month was adult-film star Teagan Presley. The photos were very good, reminding me of how much I admire her work (as well as how she looks). I have done some careful research the last few weeks, taking a look at some of her films that I have in my collection (she's made over 100, so I have to be selective).

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

Doubt


I did not grow up a Catholic, but the figure of the scary nun is one that has bled into the psyches of almost all Americans. Last night I was discussing Doubt with a friend of mine, who went to Catholic school and saw the play upon which the film was based. She went to a progressive high school, but quickly added, "But grammar school was just like that." Her school had a nun that floated around the school like a marauder, seeking out breaches of discipline and correcting them with fierce alacrity.

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

Frost/Nixon


Richard Nixon has long been fascinating to both historians and dramatists. His public life, from his first election campaign to the day of his resignation, has been fodder for many tomes and a few films. Now his post-presidential life has provided the material for a fine, old-fashioned drama that is one of the best films of 2008.

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

The Left Handed Gun

1958 was a big year for Paul Newman--in addition to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (which garnered his first Oscar nomination) and The Long, Hot Summer, a curious Western called The Left Handed Gun was released. The directorial debut of Arthur Penn, and based on a play by Gore Vidal (!) this film gave Billy the Kid the kind of psychological examination that was just starting to get popular in the late fifties.

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

The Long, Hot Summer


Watching Paul Newman's early films it's easy to see that he was the natural inheritor of the first round of naturalist, "method" actors such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. Newman replaced Dean, whose death prevented him from taking the role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Brando was considered for the role of Ben Quick in The Long, Hot Summer, an adaptation of William Faulkner stories, directed by Martin Ritt.

Newman would outlast all of those other actors, both in longevity and legacy--after all, Brando only died four years ago, but Newman's career remained at a high level for close to fifty years, while Brando made some bizarre turns. And while Brando's politics bordered on the idiosyncratic (sending a woman dressed as an Indian to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather) Newman channeled his leftism (he was named to Nixon's enemies list) into a charitable concern that helped millions of children.

In The Long, Hot Summer one can sort of see Brando in the role, but it's a good thing he didn't take it, because seeing him play against Orson Welles may have just been too much. Newman is a drifter who has a reputation of burning barns. He finds himself in a Mississippi town where most everything is run by Welles. He gets a job with Welles, who finds similar traits in the young man. Welles has an ineffectual son (Anthony Franciosa), who is married to a flighty young woman (Lee Remick). He also has a daughter, Joanne Woodward, who at 23 is single and already considered an old maid. She is courted by a fragile momma's boy (Richard Anderson) and takes an immediate dislike to the vulgar Newman, but of course we know better. All of this mixes into a Southern Gothic that has its moments and skirts close to violating the production code (Welles has a relationship with the town madam, Angela Lansbury, and Anderson's sexuality is suspect, especially when Welles calls him a sissy).

Newman and Woodward were an item off-screen, and would marry shortly after filming. Welles, who pre-dated the method, found himself at odds with the other actors and the director. He kind of combined his role as the corrupt sheriff in the previous year's Touch of Evil with Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For some reason his makeup gave him a nutty-brown complexion, and I couldn't help but think he bears a striking resemblance to the current governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Down River


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.
My father.
My stepmother."

Or:

"Not now.
Not ever.
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 Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Before heading out to see David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I pulled my copy of The Complete Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald off the bookshelf to read the source material. It is about twenty-five pages, and I wondered how it could possibly be turned into a film over two and a half hours long. What I learned was how a simple idea can be turned into something approaching a monstrosity.

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.