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Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Season Ends in Tears


The 2008-2009 Princeton women's hockey season came to an end today, as the Tigers were eliminated in the ECAC quarterfinals by Renssalaer, two games to none. It was an unexpected and a bitter end to what was otherwise a pleasantly surprising season.

The quarterfinals are best two-out-of-three, and Princeton was the number three seed, so were able to host the series against the number six seeded RPI Engineers. Princeton, after a slow start, had cruised through the second half of the season, going 11-1-1 in their last 13 games. But a seed of doubt was planted in my mind when one of the parents told me that several of the players were battling flu-like symptoms. Sure enough, many of the players seemed to be off a bit. Still, though, they hung in there, due to some great goaltending by Kristen Young, and the score at the end of regulation was knotted at one.

Normally in women's college hockey, a five-minute overtime is played, and if no one scores it ends in a tie (some conferences added shootouts this year, but not the ECAC). But since this was a playoff game, it would go on until someone scored. So one overtime period of twenty minutes was played, with no one scoring. Then another, and at sixteen minutes, or the ninety-sixth minute of hockey, RPI scored to win the game. It was the sixth longest game in the history of Division I women's hockey, and by far the longest game in Princeton history.

It had to be tough to rebound from a loss like that, but the Tigers were still alive, mathematically speaking. However a long game like that takes its toll. Of course both teams played the same amount of time, but given that some of the Princeton players were already sick, it was brutal. Two key defensemen, Katherine Dineen and Sasha Sherry, had to receive IVs all night to replenish lost fluid. But there they were, ready to battle in game two.

Alas, there was no heroic ending. RPI got a power-play goal in the first, and Princeton, though outshooting the Engineers 32-12, couldn't capitalize. There were several chances, with wide-open nets missed, but the sand slowly drained out of the hourglass, and the season came to an end with a 1-0 loss.

It had to be tough on the players, particularly the seniors, like Young, who only allowed three goals all weekend. Also graduating this year are Annie Greenwood, who charged forward all game, almost trying to will a goal, Dineen, Monica Brennan, Christine Foster, and Megan Murray.

When the season began, I thought it would be a rough one. There were seven freshmen, and at one point in early December the team was below .500. Playoff-talk seemed fanciful at the time. But the freshmen started to gel, and seniors like Dineen, Greenwood and Foster put it together and the team took off, getting the third seed, and outdoing the '07 and '08 teams. If you would have told me they'd get home ice in the playoffs this year back in December, I would have scoffed. So the players have nothing to be ashamed of.

The image I will remember from this weekend is Sherry, a dynamic player who can rip a one-timer like nobody's business, on one knee as the RPI team celebrated their victory. After an evening spent in a student health center, she was clearly both mentally and physically drained. Murray, who was the third goaltender, crouched nearby, no doubt offering words of consolation. But Sherry was inconsolable, convulsed in sobs as she had to helped to her feet and off the ice by Murray the team's trainer. She's an eighteen-year-old kid, and this loss will sting all summer. The good news is that she'll be back next year, when the seasons starts anew.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Choke


Choke is a film written and directed by Clark Gregg, adapted from one of Chuck Palahniuk's testosterone-fueled novels. It concerns Victor (Sam Rockwell), who has three bizarre problems: he is a sex addict, he has a mother in a mental hospital, and he raises extra money by choking on food in restaurants, hoping that the person who rescues him will give him money. If that weren't enough, he works in one of those colonial America theme parks where he is supposed to stay in character. Without much regard to his employment, he does not, instead mocking the guy who does take his job seriously.

The largest part of the film is the mother-son relationship, with Anjelica Huston giving her all as a woman who never had all of her marbles now in full-blown dementia. Though she seriously screwed Victor up by dragging him all over the country on weird missions, he dutifully visits her, and becomes attracted to her doctor (Kelly MacDonald). When MacDonald translates Huston's diary, which is in Italian, she tells Victor that he may have been cloned from the foreskin of Jesus Christ. I wouldn't be surprised if many viewers of this film checked out at this point.

Another subplot is the ageless cliche of a guy ending up dating a stripper. Of course strippers date, but they don't date customers, except in the feverish imagination of guys like Palahniuk. There's also the obligatory scene in which the stripper reveals that she has hidden depths, this time discussing the New Testament.

Somewhere in here there may have been a good movie, but it's hopelessly scattered over too many concepts. The most interesting is the sex addiction part--I've always wondered if people attend those meetings to hook up--but it's only one part of the film. The choking bit is woefully underdeveloped, and I just didn't get it--why would people give money to someone they perform the Heimlich maneuver on? Or if we had learned more about what a job at a history theme park was like. Instead we get shreds and patches that don't add up to much.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Class (Entre les Murs)


Perhaps the biggest surprise at this year's Oscars was the win by the Japanese film, Departures, in the Foreign Language category. These things always seem like surprises when all of the films haven't had a theatrical release in the U.S. Some have wrung their hands that Waltz With Bashir didn't win, but I doubt those who are crying about that have seen Departures, and should hold their disgust in abeyance. Of course, the voters for Foreign Language Film are notoriously out of step, being limited usually to older voters (Departures is about a person who works in a mortuary--maybe that strikes a chord with older people). In any event, Departures would have to be awfully good to beat the other film, besides Waltz, that has had a U.S. release--The Class, from France.

Directed by Laurent Cantet, The Class (or Entre Les Murs, Between the Walls, in the original French) is a stunning piece of a narrative version of Cinéma vérité. Based on a novel by a teacher, François Bégaudeau, The Class takes a microscopic look at life at an inner-city Paris middle school. Bégaudeau, in a stunning example of verisimilitude, plays the role of the teacher himself, and it's a remarkable performance for a non-actor. Almost equally remarkable is the performance by the various kids who make up his class. I suspect that some are professional actors, but I believe I read somewhere that many of them are not, but Cantet has coaxed out of them some of the most naturalistic performances by teens I've seen in a long time.

Film history is full of examples of teacher movies that are of a similar theme, such as Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and television shows such as Lucas Tanner. All feature dedicated teachers who refuse to give up on recalcitrant students. The Class is in that vein, but far less sentimental. To start with, Bégaudeau's teacher is not entirely noble. He loses his patience and in one key scene, makes a bad mistake by addressing two girls as "skanks." Secondly, not every student ends as a success story, even though some students offer surprises and hidden depths.

A friend of mine, a teacher, asked me if I wouldn't consider that profession, since I am out of work. I told him I didn't think I was cut out for it, and seeing this film only reinforced it. Despite the flaws of Bégaudeau's character, he comes across as dedicated and truly caring about his charges, even defending a student who creates a violent disruption in his classroom. Teachers have to put up with far more than I'd be able to handle. Even though this film is specifically French, and deals with a particular set of problems (I think many would be surprised to realize how racially diverse Paris is), this film should be shown to anyone who wants to be a teacher.

I'd also like to add kudos to whoever did the English subtitles. The class focused on the film is French, which of course is the equivalent to English class in English-speaking countries. There are sections where word definitions are discussed, as well as clauses of grammar, such as the imperfect subjunctive. That couldn't have been easy to translate.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar's Intimate Gathering

Another Oscar ceremony over, and this year had few surprises for the historians, but the show itself had a distinctly different feel from the long line of overblown extravaganzas. Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, who produced this year's show for the first time, took a different approach to the whole thing, making it more intimate, as if we were peeking in on a private club. I think it was successful, for the most part, and hope that even if these two aren't back next year (and they might be, since ratings were up) that some of the innovations stick.

The stage, though sporting a massive curtain made of crystal, seemed like a nightclub. The stars were very close to the action, as if they were watching a magician doing card tricks. The Kodak Theater is huge inside, but none of its expanse was evident during the telecast. The show also had something of a theme, arranging the awards in the order of how a film is put together, with screenwriting first, then design, post-production, etc. Some presenters gave as many as four awards, cutting down the number of stars needed.

But then, on the other hand, the acting awards picked up the slack, by having five previous winners of the award come out and stand in a semi-circle, like inquisitors. Though the look was intimidating, the effect was much warmer, as each previous winner lauded one of the five nominees in that category. I thought this was crackerjack, creating a further intimacy as presenter and nominee bonded. I expect Anne Hathaway doesn't even care that she didn't win, as she was blown away by Shirley Maclaine taking two minutes to tell her how great she was. I did miss the usual clips of the performances--we had to rely solely on the spoken word of the presenter.

I also found intriguing the handling of the clips for the Best Picture nominees. Instead of one scene, or even a montage, the clips were interspersed with scenes from other Best Picture nominees through history, following on the themes of this year's. Thus when we got a scene from Frost/Nixon, we then saw a scene from All the President's Men, and clips from The Reader were mingled with some from other Holocaust-themed films such as Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful. It was a fascinating reminder that not only is there nothing new under the sun, but the art of film builds on all that has come before it.

As for the host, Hugh Jackman, I thought he was refreshing. He was the first non-comedian to host since the 1970's, and signaled a shift away from quipsters making cracks about Hollywood toward a song-and-dance man who is unashamedly in love with Tinseltown. The first musical number, a twist on the old Billy Crystal numbers incorporating the Best Picture nominees into song, was terrific (and they didn't limit it to the five nominees, also including The Dark Knight and The Wrestler). The second one, a tribute to movie musicals, wasn't as successful. The selection of musicals seemed random, and including youngsters like Zach Efron and Amanda Seyfried, who aren't exactly household names (at least not in this house) left me wanting.

As for the winners, I wasn't surprised by the eight major awards, getting all of them correct. There was a stunning surprise in Foreign Language Film, which is always ripe for shock because the voters have to see all five nominees, meaning that it's a small voting group. A Japanese film, Departures, beat the critically ballyhooed Waltz With Bashir and The Class. This is the first time a Japanese film has won the award in competition (they won a few in the fifties when it was a special award).

Another surprise was the brief and dignified speech Jerry Lewis made as he accepted a well-deserved Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. I am not a fan of Lewis' comedy, but you can't argue with his impact on helping sick children, raising two billion dollars over the year. Lewis, who for years came across like an oily lounge lizard who seems to be in love with his own image, was perhaps too infirm to deliver the self-aggrandizing speech he might have given ten years ago. Or maybe he recognized the magnitude of the moment and dialed it down out of respect for the occasion.

Most of the speeches were good. There was some politics--Bill Maher dissed all deities as silly in his presentation, and Sean Penn blasted every Californian who voted against gay marriage rights, but mostly we saw raw emotion and humility. Penelope Cruz made a nice statement about art as a unifying thing, and Kate Winslet may have given the Academy a marketing idea--shampoo bottles shaped like Oscar. The moment when Heath Ledger's family accepted his Oscar caught the audience tear-stricken in a display that seemed sincere and moving.

What will linger from this year's awards is the showing of Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars, and was a coming out for Indian cinema (even though the film was produced, written, directed, edited and photographed by Brits). There were plenty of Indians who did win, such as musician A.R. Rahman who won two, and the gathering of the cast on stage for the last award was a pleasant moment, especially when I learned on the news tonight that some of those kids still live in poverty in Mumbai (but have trust funds waiting for them).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Animated Shorts

I found myself in New Haven today with some time to kill, so I went to the Bow Tie Criterion, which was featuring a program of all of the short subject films that are nominated for Oscars this year (I wanted to see Waltz With Bashir, but the times didn't work out). They split the bill in twain, with animated in one program and live action in the other; it worked out that I saw the animated films.

They all had their charms, and I'm hard pressed to say which one I would vote for. The only one I had seen before was Pixar's Presto, directed by Doug Sweetland. It played before WALL-E this summer, so it's certainly the most viewed film of the quintet, by a factor of millions. It is typical Pixar, if not highly derivative of Bugs Bunny, especially a cartoon like "Long-Haired Hare," where Bugs took on the opera singer. This cartoon, though, is dialogue-free (which all five of the films are). A bunny who works for a magician is famished, and all he wants is his carrot. The magician goes on stage without feeding him, though, and the bunny gets his revenge, through use of a magic hat.

Another cartoon reminiscent of standard gag-based animation is Oktapodi, from France and directed by Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand. It is just about two minutes long, and concerns an octopus who chases after his beloved after he (or she?) is taken away to the sushi bar. It's bright and colorful and packs a lot of action into two minutes, but it's not very substantial.

This Way Up is also gag-heavy, though in a very macabre sense. From England, and directed by Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, it concerns two determined undertakers transporting a casket to a graveyard. They even end up defying Satan. The grim humor is amusing, and the overall look of the picture is appropriate, but again, nothing that will linger in the memory for a lifetime.

Lavatory Love Story is a Russian film, directed by Konstantin Bronzit . Done in line drawings, it's about a lonely woman who is an attendant in a men's room. A secret admirer starts leaving her flowers, and she tries to find out who it is. There are splashes of slapstick and it's very sweet. Not sure it's a winner, though.

The only film that is not a comedy might get my vote (if I had one). Though it's title, Le Maison en Petites Cubes, is French, it's director is Japanese, Kunio Kato. It's the most lovely to look at, a story about a world where the water level keeps rising (the polar ice caps melting, maybe?) and people keep building higher and higher levels on their domiciles to keep above water. We focus on one old man in particular, who wakes one morning to find his room is ankle-deep in water. He builds another level on top, and moves all his stuff up. While doing so, he drops his pipe, so he dons some scuba gear to retrieve it. While he descends into the depths, he goes back to all the levels he has built on the house over the years, each one now covered in water. Each level contains memories, of a wife, a daughter, and young love. The film has a lovely poignancy, and is visually stunning, with a kind of washed watercolor look. I think it will stick with me longer than the others.

Since those five films only took forty minutes total, the program added some other shorts that were "Highly Commended," including a Bill Plympton cartoon and a droll British cartoon about a troubled romance between a polar bear and a penguin. None of them were as good as the five nominees, though.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Best Director, Picture (and the rest)

I've gone through a learning curve during this year's Oscar season. Back in the fall, when bloggers like David Poland declared that Slumdog Millionaire was the favorite for Best Picture, I scoffed. Once again, I thought, we have an independent film, like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, that enthusiastic Oscar chatterers are getting behind, when the chances of them winning fly in the face of Oscar reason. After all, Slumdog is an independent film that was at one point headed straight for DVD. I figured it would get it's share of nominations, maybe pick up a Screenplay win, and that would be it.

But time has proven me wrong. As fall became winter, challengers to Slumdog stepped up and swung and missed. All of the precursors lauded it: the Golden Globes, the PGA, the SAG, the WGA, and most importantly, the DGA (the DGA winner wins the Oscar for Director over 90 percent of the time, and the Best Director winner matches the Best Picture winner over 80 percent of the time). Now, three days before the ceremony, there is no earthly reason to believe that Slumdog Millionaire, despite having no stars and stemming from a non-Western culture, won't win Best Picture, as well as Best Director, plus three or four other awards.

The film I was sure would come up and smite it was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which has all of the stuff Oscar usually loves: it's big, it's self-important, it's long, it has big stars, and it's a technical masterpiece. It's also pretty boring, and I didn't like it myself, so I can't knock the voters if they turn away from it. But I'm a bit confused how it got all the love of 13 nominations, only one off the record. It must have a rabid core group that is in a minority.

If Slumdog doesn't win, a real shocker, I suppose it will be Button that does, although there's some who think The Reader stands a chance, given that Harvey Weinstein is behind it. But I think Weinstein's Oscar voodoo is a thing of the past, and this drab depressing picture, even if it does have a Holocaust theme, won't win. Frost/Nixon, which in other years might have been the favorite, seems likely to be the film that doesn't get anything.

My vote in this category would go to Milk, which moved and thrilled me more than any of the others. It will be interesting to see if and when a gay-themed film ever wins Best Picture. Frankly, I think this should have been the year. I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a nice entertainment, but didn't approach the majesty of Milk.

For the Academy's first seventy years, it was taken for granted that whoever directed the Best Picture winner would win Best Director. You could count on one hand the number of times they didn't match. But in the last eleven years, there has been a split four times, which makes the Best Director race a little more interesting. There's no reason to think, though, that Danny Boyle won't get this one for Slumdog Millionaire. He has an art-house cache that makes him appealing, and now he's directed an improbable hit. David Fincher is in a similar position, having directed many films that are loved by cultists but never getting Oscar recognition until this year, for Benjamin Button. If anyone could upset, it would be him. Gus Van Sant deserves consideration, but won't win for Milk, and Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon and Stephen Daldry for The Reader are also-rans. It should be noted that Daldry has directed three films and been nominated for every one of them. The guy has a knack for selecting Oscar bait, surely he'll win some day.

Hear are my predictions for the all of the awards. Those who are watching the telecast alone may want to match mine with their own:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director: Danny Boyle
Best Actor: Sean Penn
Best Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz
Best Original Screenplay: Milk
Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Foreign Language Film: The Class
Best Animated Film: WALL-E
Best Cinematography: Benjamin Button
Best Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Art Direction: Benjamin Button
Best Costume Design: The Duchess
Best Song: Down to Earth
Best Musical Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire (though watch out for Trouble the Water)
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Witness--From the Balcony of Room 306
Best Makeup: Benjamin Button
Best Animated Short Subject: Presto
Best Live Action Short Subject: Spielzugland (Toyland)
Best Sound Editing: Dark Knight
Best Sound Mixing: Dark Knight
Best Visual Effects: Benjamin Button

Thursday, February 19, 2009

It's Not Me, It's You

There's something about Lily Allen that intrigues me, beyond that she's as cute as a button. In all the articles I read about her there's something very emotionally vulnerable about an otherwise ripe paparazzi target. She's very young but has an honesty that is reflected in her music.

Her second album, "It's Not Me, It's You," has more of her sassy songs that come from the point of view of a young woman who takes no bull and has a complicated view of the opposite sex. The songs, all co-written by Allen, are less ska-influenced than her first album, and sound pretty much like any synth-pop song you'd hear on the radio. Her voice, thin and girlish, wouldn't impress the American Idol judges. It's the lyrics that set her apart.

While her lyrics are distinct, they're not exactly Dylanesque. They sound like the jottings of a moderately literate high-school girl, equal parts earnestness and score-settling. Some of the rhymes are tortured, such as a line that goes: "Cause it's people like you/that need to get slew." She also gleefully tosses out swear words, as if she had just learned them and likes the effect she gets while saying them.

As with her first album, there's lots of songs about how horrible boys are. "Not Fair" complains about an otherwise upstanding young man who is bad in bed: "Oh, you're supposed to care, but you never make me scream." "Never Gonna Happen" is a frank declaration that an admirer is never going to get anywhere in his seduction attempt, while "Fuck You" takes on a guy who doesn't like gay people.

Surprisingly though, there are a few songs that celebrate love, like "Who'd Have Known," and the most sophisticated song on the album, "Chinese," which rhapsodizes about the simple aspects of a relationship, such as ordering Chinese food and watching the telly. On the other hand, there's a song about God ("Him") which recalls Joan Osborne's "One of Us," but without the sense of irony. Allen's observations about the deity seem entirely random, such as "his favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival."

After one spin of the album I liked it, but after the second I was tired of it. It remains to be seen whether Allen can rise above tabloid darling and advance as a songwriter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Towelhead

Towelhead is an ambitious and well-meaning film, which chooses to tackle not one but two meaty subjects: racism and the burgeoning sexuality of a young girl. Unfortunately, it is handled so clumsily that I was annoyed through almost all of it.

Summer Bashil plays the role of Jasira, a thirteen-year-old girl who is of mixed race. At the beginning she lives with her mother, but when the live-in boyfriend gets a little too intimate with the girl (he shaves her legs) the mother packs her off to her Lebanese father, who works with NASA. Once there she encounters racism from her schoolmates, and deals with inappropriate attention from an adult neighbor.

The film was written and directed by Alan Ball, who also wrote American Beauty, and he seems to be fascinated with lifting the rock off of suburbia. This film focuses mostly on one cul-de-sac in Houston, which has a lot of bad behavior going on. Herein lies the problem with Towelhead--Ball has so stacked the deck with his characters that the film becomes implausible and grating. Case in point: Bashil's parents are so awful that my teeth were on edge immediately. The mother, played by Maria Bello, takes her boyfriend's side when he dallies with Bashil (she pointedly tells her daughter that it's "all your fault"). The father, Peter Macdissi, is even worse, an insufferable mixture of old-world values and yuppie narcissism. Now, I'm positive that their are horrible parents like this everywhere, but in dramatic construction terms these characters are woefully underwritten.

It doesn't stop there. Bashil's character is so passive you just want to shake her. At one point her father punishes her for using a tampon, which he has outlawed. All I could think was why didn't she tell him that a woman at school gave it to her when she was bleeding?

Then there's Aaron Eckhart as the pedophile next door. His character is very difficult to get a grip on. He seems to exist only as a plot device and to make everyone who watches this film squirm (I am happy to learn that Bashil was actually over-age when she made this film, otherwise it really would have been creepy). The script doesn't have anything insightful to say about such a criminal, so it's hard to understand what the point of it all is.

The only character who makes any sense is a neighbor played by Toni Collette who looks out for Bashil. She seems to have wandered in from the rational part of one's brain, but by the end of the film is obviously set up as the voice of the author's message. That's a hard thing to play, but Collette is up to the challenge.

The sexuality of the film diminishes the more interesting part of the equation--the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against Arab-Americans. The title, of course, is an offensive word to Arabs, and the use of the title created some controversy. The film is set during the first Gulf War, and Macdissi's character is very anti-Saddam, although Eckhart assumes he's pro-Saddam. That kind of theme would have made a stronger spine for the picture, rather than the salacious and queasily titillating child-molesting angle.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Best Actress, Actor


The Best Actress race has a solid favorite, with the ripe possibility of a modest upset. The favorite has to be Kate Winslet, who seems to be riding some momentum for a win for her role as the Nazi prison guard in The Reader. This is complicated though, as two of the awards she has won this season for the role have been in the supporting actress category. The Academy positioned her in the lead actress category (which knocked her stronger performance in Revolutionary Road out of the running). This is Winslet's sixth performance, and she has never won before, and this is well-known, so even if this performance isn't as dynamic as her turns in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Little Children, well, that's the way it goes.

If Winslet doesn't win, and I will be surprised if she doesn't, it may be because voters have realized that Meryl Streep hasn't won an Oscar in 26 years. Streep, the most-nominated performer in Oscar history, has already won twice, but the last time she won is a distant memory. Her role as the forceful nun in Doubt is the kind that registers with voters, given all of its juicy lines. I think Streep will one day add a third Oscar to her mantle, but not before Winslet wins one.

The other three actresses in the category don't stand much choice. Anne Hathaway probably gave the most emotionally naked performance in Rachel Getting Married, and could have won in a year of weaker competition. Melissa Leo was something of a surprise for her role as a mother in distress in the indie Frozen River, but will certainly have to be content with the added name recognition the nomination will give her. And Angelina Jolie, as another mother in distress in Changeling, has already won before (and I for one didn't find it to be a great performance).



The Best Actor race figures to be the most exciting of this year's awards, and it's a two-man race with the possibility of a spoiler. I've been going back and forth over who I think will win, and when I started typing this entry I still didn't have my mind made up. In one corner is Sean Penn, who gave a brilliant performance as the slain gay-rights advocate in Milk. Penn, who for my money is the best actor working in films today, dominates the picture, and the added subtext of California recently going through a bitter campaign that failed to hold on to gay-marriage rights may figure in the voting. However, Penn won five years ago--had he never won before, I would count him a shoo-in.

In the other corner is Mickey Rourke, a once-promising actor who disappeared into the miasma of bad behavior, now resurrected in the title role of The Wrestler. Rourke's story is catnip to entertainment journalists, but will it be with Academy voters, who may find him just too weird for their tastes? When all is said and done, I think the vote will carry in Penn's favor.

If voters can't decide between these two, Frank Langella could be poised to be the compromise choice for his performance as the disgraced former president in Frost/Nixon. Langella is a well-respect thespian who has dutifully done the promotion rounds, and he (as does Penn) plays a real person, something Academy voters have a fetish for. Brad Pitt, in the title role of the man who ages backward in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is a big star, but his role is a passive one, and there's a lot of makeup and visual effects that go with it. If he wins, how many other actors, who supplied the body for him, will go up on stage with him? Finally, Richard Jenkins, a largely unknown character actor who has been in many films over the years, finally got a starring role as an emotionally deadened economics professor who gets caught up with the plight of an illegal immigrant in The Visitor, and he made the most of it. If I had a vote I'd give it to Jenkins, who I'm sure isn't expecting a win but will enjoy the hoopla.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Loew's Jersey

On Saturday some friends and I had the treat of attending a special screening of Charlie Chaplin's classic film City Lights at the Loew's Jersey, one of the few movie palaces from the early days of film left in the country. I wrote about City Lights some months ago, so for this entry I'll write about the theater.

Located in Jersey City, just across the street from transportation hub Journal Square, the Loew's Jersey opened for business in 1929, one of several "movie palaces" that existed all across the country. With over 3,000 seats, a 35 x 82 foot screen, and a built-in pipe organ, the theater was a grand example of ornate architecture, with brass railings, velvet tapestries, and more filigree than one can imagine (there are even couches in the restrooms). During those days, live shows accompanied films, so their was room for an orchestra pit and dressing rooms.

Eventually the live shows stopped. In the fifties, movie palaces began to disappear, especially after the anti-trust lawsuit that prevented movie studios from owning their own theaters. The Loew's Jersey managed to live on, though, all the way to 1986, when it showed it's last first-run film, an installment of the Friday the Thirteenth series. It was then purchased by the Hartz Mountain Corporation, which intended it for the wrecking ball.

A groundswell in the community, though, stood up to prevent this. Over several years they persuaded the city to buy the theater, and through many hiccups an organization of volunteers has renovated the theater, slowly but surely. The first time I went, in the mid-nineties, they showed movies in the lobby (which is larger than most multiplex theaters). Shortly thereafter I moved away from Jersey City (a shame, since I lived within walking distance of the theater) but I've been back twice now to see films. The orchestra level of the theater, some 1,500 seats, are fully open, and on Saturday they were largely filled by moviegoers.

Before the film there was a short concert with the Morton Wonder Organ (that's not a dirty joke). There were only five of them built, and the one that the Loews has was originally in the Bronx. It was pieced together over some long hours, but the pipes in the theater were still there.

Of course City Lights was just as great as ever, but even more so because of it was accompanied by the laughter of several hundred people, some who had clearly never seen it before. And as the scenes led up to the heart-rending final shot, I got choked up just thinking about. A great movie-going experience.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wanted

Wanted, an action film from Timur Bekmambetov, received two Oscar nominations in the sound categories. This is par for the course, as those categories are usually dominated by films with a high number of bullets fired, cars crashed, and bombs exploded. Wanted has those in great abundance, and gleefully goes about defying the laws of physics.

James McAvoy plays an office drone with a horrible girlfriend and a worse boss. He takes pills for stress, but soon finds himself being recruited by Angelina Jolie, who tells him that he is the son of a legendary assassin, a member of a thousand-year-old organization called "The Fraternity", which has been correcting the balance of power in the world over the centuries. She tells him all of his after whisking him through the city in a sports car, being chased by another assassin, with a fusillade of bullets and flipped vehicles. If you couldn't tell, this film is based on a comic book (unknown to me).

Eventually McAvoy accepts his destiny and is trained in a way that makes Marine boot camp seem easy. The greatest trick these killers employ is giving their wrist a twist when they shoot a gun, which makes bullets curve around obstacles. Surely Isaac Newton is spinning in his grave.

For all of its cheerful stupidity, Wanted is decent entertainment. Bekmambetov directs as if a gun is being held to his head, as the excess is piled miles high. At times this brought a smile to my face, as when McAvoy smacks someone in the face with a computer keyboard and the keys fly apart, spelling out the words "Fuck You" (actually, the last U is made up of a bicuspid of the guy getting hit). Jolie looks great, even if she isn't asked to say much, and this role must have appealed to her because she didn't need to cover her tattoos. Also on hand is Morgan Freeman, dignified as ever, as the leader of The Fraternity. There's even a nice plot twist that I didn't see coming.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oscar Picks: Supporting Actor, Actress

Over the next few days I'll discuss my predictions for the upcoming Oscar ceremony, with a detailed look at the major nominations. I'll start with Supporting Actor, which is perhaps the easiest award to call. If the late Heath Ledger, who memorably inhabited the mysterious, evil Joker in The Dark Knight doesn't win, it will prove to an upset of major proportions.

If Ledger had not died just over a year ago, I think he still would have been the favorite, but that added sorrow only cements the selection. His work transcended the comic book-film genre, and will surely stand the test of time as one of the great villainous performances of all time. He would join Peter Finch as the only posthumous performer ever to win the award. It should be noted that posthumous nominations do not always lead to a win--Jeanne Eagels, Ralph Richardson, Massimo Troisi, and James Dean (twice) were all so honored with nominations, but did not win.

As for the rest of the field, it's hard to even contemplate who would win if Ledger didn't. I suppose second place could go to Josh Brolin for his turn as Dan White, murderer of Harvey Milk in the film Milk. Brolin gives a fine, shaded performance as a seemingly normal man beset by demons. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the priest suspected of sexual abuse in Doubt, also gave a great performance, but he won only a few years ago. Robert Downey Jr. surprised some by getting a nomination for a broadly comic performance in Tropic Thunder, so it would be a seismic shock if he were to win. Performances like his rarely cop the gold, in fact the only one I can think of like it was Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda twenty years ago, and Kline had no one like Ledger to compete with.

Finally, Michael Shannon, who was memorable for a small part in Revolutionary Road, will have to be content with getting an invitation to the dance. He's a largely unknown actor in a film that didn't receive a lot of love from the Academy.


As for Supporting Actress, that race is more interesting, basically limited to two women. It's tough to predict this year because of category disorientation by some of the precursors. The Golden Globe and SAG awards went to Kate Winslet for The Reader, but she is not to be found in this category--she was properly included in the lead category by the Academy. However, Penelope Cruz, who played the mentally unstable ex-wife of Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, just picked up the BAFTA award, which I think gives her a slight edge in this category. Her role allowed for some extravagant scenery-chewing, and there's ample precedent of women winning Oscars for Woody Allen films (four so far: Diane Keaton, Mira Sorvino, and Dianne Wiest twice).

However, Cruz's nomination for Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the only one for the film, indicating it was not well loved by the Academy. That's not in itself a disqualifier (just two years ago Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland's only nomination) but a caution. If Cruz doesn't win, I think it will be Viola Davis, as the mother of a boy who has perhaps been abused by a priest in Doubt. Davis' role is very short, limited to one extended scene of the picture, but it packs a wallop. She would have the edge over her co-star, Amy Adams, who plays a conflicted nun. Adams' performance, while good, is in a kind of role that exists mainly as a plot device, and none of her scenes is up to Davis' for emotional nakedness.

Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin Button's surrogate mother in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also lacks the kind of emotionally heavy scene to win. And finally Marisa Tomei, as a stripper who forms a bond with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, probably needn't rehearse a speech, as she has already won an Oscar, and the role may be a bit seamy for Oscar tastes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sunrise


The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has presented eighty films with the award of Best Picture, but only one to a category they called "Unique and Artistic Picture," and that was in the first year of the awards. Wings won Best Picture, and has thus always been remembered for that, while Sunrise won the latter, and has fallen by the wayside.

Sunrise was made by F.W. Murnau, a giant of German Expressionism. He had made Nosferatu, the very first Dracula film, and The Last Laugh, and on the strength of those pictures was brought to Hollywood to make Sunrise. The result was stunning. A simple story of a man and his wife reconciling, the techniques employed were ahead of their time and still remarkable even today, as the film was chosen as one of the American Film Institute's Top 100.

The story is set in a small rural town that also hosts vacationers. A woman from the city (the characters have no names, just generic titles) has seduced a simple farmer, played by George O'Brien. The woman is represented as venal and sophisticated, wiling him with her sexual charms (the actress, Margaret Livingston, bears a striking resemblance to Diablo Cody). She persuades O'Brien to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor) by taking her out on the lake in a boat and drowning her. In a powerful scene, O'Brien does row his unsuspecting wife out into deep water, but he can't go through with it.

Gaynor, understandably, flees in terror. She hops a trolley but O'Brien catches up with her, begging forgiveness. They go into the city, which is presented as almost a fantasy of what big-city life is like. They stumble into a church, where a wedding ceremony is taking place, and reconcile. They then have a fun day, going to a barbershop, getting their picture taken, and attending a carnival. This section of the film, following the pathos in the church, takes on a comic tone, as their are many humorous aspects, such as O'Brien chasing down a pig that has got into some wine.

On the trip back, a storm blows up and well, I'll leave the rest a mystery. Murnau meant this story to be universal, which is why the characters have no names and the subtitle is "A Song of Two Humans." The film is really a fable of sorts, suggesting that the sophistication of big city people is like poison to the good simple values of country-folk.

What makes this film a landmark today is the visual style. Murnau and his cinematographers (Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who won the first Oscars for Cinematography) use many special effects, such as multiple exposures, montage, and long tracking shots. All of this was done in-camera, as there were no optical printers yet. Cinematographers of today still study this film for this reason. All of this cinematic eye candy makes up for the acting, which to be fair was in a style that has long become obsolete, but for its day was considered good (Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar, for this film and two others).

Anyone who is interested in cinema history would do well to seek out and view this film.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Flight of the Red Balloon


I wanted to see Hsiao Hsien Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon because it appeared on many critics' best ten lists for 2008; it was named best film overall by many of them. Inspired by the 1956 classic The Red Balloon, it tells the story of a young boy, his harried mother, and his Chinese nanny while a mysterious red balloon occasionally hovers around them.

I must admit that the charms of this film eluded me. When I see a film that is almost universally acclaimed by "serious" critics I wonder if my palate has been irreparably damaged by too much white bread at the multiplex, which prevents me from appreciating the multi-grain. But I've never been one that needed explosions or machine gun fire to enjoy a film. No, this film just struck me as incredibly dull.

At the beginning, young Simon, the son of a puppet theater manager (Juliette Binoche) is introduced to his new nanny, a Chinese film student, Song Fang. She is a great admirer of The Red Balloon, and his making her own film about such a balloon. She and Simon go about their business, and Binoche deals with trying to evict her downstairs tenant who hasn't paid in months--she hopes that her teenage daughter will come to Paris to study and occupy the apartment. That's basically it. There are many scenes of quiet domestic contemplation, such as movers installing a piano, Song making pancakes, or a train ride with a Chinese puppet master. I'm all for quiet contemplation, but at some point I need a reason why I'm watching the film. It's not particularly visually interesting, and aside from Binoche the acting isn't worth mentioning.

After this film was over I was induced into a long afternoon nap, so if you have insomnia try plopping this DVD into your player.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Coraline

Though Henry Selick's three features have used the stories of other people, whether they be by Tim Burton, Roald Dahl, or now Neil Gaiman, he has an instantly identifiable look. His characters are grotesquely elongated or compacted (or both), and his landscapes are full of curlicues and both menacing and inviting at the same time. I had though Nightmare Before Christmas was all Tim Burton, but after seeing Coraline it's easy to see how much Selick influenced the final look of the film.

Coraline, based on a novella by Gaiman, touches on common themes in children's literature, from Lewis Carroll to L. Frank Baum, but with the overlay of Poe macabre. Coraline is a girl who has just moved to a new town. She lives with her parents in a large Queen Anne house, painted pink. Her parents write about gardening, but are too busy to either garden or pay much attention to her. She has some eccentric neighbors--a Russian circus performer, who lives upstairs, and a pair of dotty old English actresses, who live downstairs with their trio of Scottish terriers. Bored out of her mind, the girl, with the aid of some mice, finds a secret door that leads to a parallel world, where her parents are solicitous, the garden is wonderful, and the annoying neighborhood kid doesn't talk.

Of course appearances can be deceiving. Coraline's first clue is that her "other" mother and father have buttons sewn over their eyes. Eventually she discovers this seeming paradise is not quite it's all cracked up to be, and with some unlikely confederates she endeavors to escape this world.

I enjoyed this film a great deal, though the first third drags a bit. About halfway through it really picks up steam and turns into a grand adventure. The best thing about it is all the imagination on display, and the detail in the animation, which is stop-motion. The fur on the back of a feral cat is distinct, for example, and I marveled at a scene set in a theater in which the audience was entirely made up of Scottish terriers. I did not see the 3D version, as that technology doesn't interest me, and at times I could tell where the 3D stuff was supposed to be, but most of the time I didn't think about it.

This is of course a film primarily for children, but adults interested in both the techniques of animation and spooky stories will also enjoy it. Very young children might get the bejeesus scared out of them.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Man on Wire

Another of the nominees for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature is Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh. It chronicles wire-walker Philippe Petit's 1974 "performance" of rigging a cable between the towers of the World Trade Center and walking across them.

The film's greatest success is combining both the step-by-step process of Petit and his confederates pulling off such a stunt (which was completely illegal). Petit, who is still impish close to sixty years old, tells the story in his delightfully French-accented English, and it's clear he is still excited by the whole thing. At several points he likens to it a bank robbery, and the film is often like a caper film such as Rififi, with his friends being given code names: "The Insider," or "The Australian." Moments such as hiding under tarpaulins from guards are told in a suspenseful manner. The explanation of how logistical problems are solved, such as how a secure cable could have possibly been strung 200 feet across, 1,360 feet in the air is told succinctly and competently.

The film also wraps the event in a poetical gauze. Petit was driven by something almost unworldly. He first saw a diagram of the yet unbuilt towers in a dentist's waiting room when he was a teenager, and knew he had to walk between them even then. His passion, as well as those of his friends, comes across quite vividly in Marsh's telling. Petit had no fear of falling--he said that if he did die, it would be a beautiful death, dying while we has following his passion.

However, there are a few things that bother me. For one, it is never explained just how Petit financed this. He's taking planes all over the world and all we know is that he was a street-performer in Paris. It's only in the supplemental materials that we learn that Petit basically passed the hat and relied on donations. Also, there is absolutely no mention that the towers no longer exist. I understand Marsh was not making a movie about their destruction, but I would have liked to hear what Petit's reaction was when he heard the news on September 11, 2001.

Apart from the quality of the film, I'm torn about my reaction to Petit generally. Yes, he is a passionate man, a true artist. But he's also quite selfish in a way. The authorities, including police, are presented in a somewhat buffoonish manner. Petit tied up the law enforcement of a city for almost an hour, and I sympathize with any authority who felt they were made a fool of. On the other hand, he wasn't treated very harshly after his arrest, and the charges were dropped after he gave a free show for kids in Central Park. He was also given a lifetime free pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Center, and some credit him for giving the buildings, which had up to then been seen as gray and ugly monoliths, some character.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Dangerous Laughter


For the third year in a row, I am embarking on reading the ten books selected by the New York Times as best of the year. I start off the 2008 decalogue with Dangerous Laughter, a collection of thirteen short stories by Steven Millhauser.

The stories are grouped into three themes, with one story serving as an "opening cartoon." That is "Cat 'n Mouse," an existential look at the eternal struggle between a Tom and Jerry-like pair. Anyone who has ever seen one of these cartoons (and who could not have?) will smile knowingly at a sentence like this: "The mouse crashes through, leaving a mouse-shaped hole. The cat crashes through, replacing the mouse-shaped hole with a larger, cat-shaped hole." The story takes up the questions raised by Who Framed Roger Rabbit and takes them to their philosophical conclusion: "The cat snatches him up in a fist. The cat's red tongue slides over glistening teeth sharp as ice picks. Here and there, over a tooth, a bright star expands and contracts. The cat opens his jaws wider, closes his eyes, and hesitates. The death of the mouse is desirable in every way, but will life without him really be pleasurable? Will the mouse's absence satisfy him entirely? Is it conceivable that he may miss the mouse, from time to time? Is it possible that he needs the mouse, in some disturbing way?"

The first part of the collection is called "Vanishing Acts," and contains a story called "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman," about a woman who seemingly vanishes into thin air, and the title story, about a fad among teenagers who gather for extended periods of laughter. The best story of the book, and one of the better stories I've read in a long time, is "The Room in the Attic," about a teenage boy who strikes up a friendship with a girl who will only receive him in her darkened room, so he is unable to see her.

The section called "Impossible Architectures" recalls Millhauser's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Martin Dressler, which concerned a department store magnate who creates a simulcram of the world inside one of his stores. In this section, the stories are really faux histories of extreme habitation, such as "The Dome," in which slowly but surely all of America is enclosed underneath a plexiglass dome, or "The Other Town," in which a town has built an exact but empty replica next door, or "The Tower," in which a society builds a tower to heaven, that is so tall that it can not be climbed in one lifetime.

These stories, as do those in the final section, "Heretical Histories," have a whiff of Rod Serling about them, as they seem perfectly reasonable but then veer into the supernatural. In the latter section, we read about a town's historical society ("Here at the Historical Society") which examines what exactly is historically significant. It's true that if you stick a commonplace object into the ground, it will become valuable over great periods of time, but why not immediately? The story "A Precursor to the Cinema" recalls Millhauser's book Eisenheim the Illusionist (made into the film The Illusionist), which is about a painter who seems to have been able to capture movement in his still-lifes. The book ends with a story about an inventor like Thomas Edison, "The Wizard of West Orange," who is working on a haptograph, a machine that can record and replay the sensations of touch. This story is not quite satisfying, as it's never really expressed just what is so wrong with that idea.

In addition to being stories about ideas, these pieces are also excellently rendered. The prose in "The Room in the Attic" flows effortlessly. I read this story on a train ride back from New York City and it made the time pass by quickly. It's the kind of story that can make lesser writers either inspired to do better or want to give it up entirely, as it's hard to imagine doing any better.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World


One of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature is Encounters at the End of the World, which is notable for being the first nomination for Werner Herzog, one of the more celebrated geniuses in cinema today. Herzog's work has heretofore probably been too "out there" for Academy tastes. His recent documentary Grizzly Man got snubbed, which caused a bit of a fuss, and his narrative films starring Klaus Kinski, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo would seem to clearly be the work of a madman.

Therefore it's somehow appropriate that Herzog would get his first Academy recognition for a documentary that outwardly appears to be completely routine; the kind of thing you could see almost any night on the Discovery Channel (which indeed produced it). But appearances lie. This film, about the men and women who work in Antarctica, is full of Herzogian weirdness. Who else would ask an expert on penguins the following: are there gay penguins, and do penguins go insane?

Almost at the outset, Herzog (who narrates) makes pains to state he is not interested in making another cuddly movie about penguins (referring to the big hit March of the Penguins). Instead he's interested in just who is drawn to this desolate place. He interviews laborers and scientists, including a linguist (who points out that Antarctica has no indigenous languages) and divers, who see a beautiful world of brilliantly colorful sea life beneath the ice. They are a diverse and odd bunch, most of them adventurers who would go mad in the humdrum work-a-day world the rest of us live in. One women had several stories to tell, including crossing Africa in a garbage truck and traveling from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe.

Herzog is interested in the contrasts of the place. Where the workers live looks as drab as the ugliest mining town, but underneath the ice there are creatures that look as if they were created by Ray Bradbury. When accompanied by the music by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley the effect is quite stunning.

Oh, and there are no homosexual penguins, but there are penguin menage a trois. And penguins do get disoriented, a kind of insanity. Herzog films one, who heads off away from his group towards the mountains, where he will meet a certain death.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Kung Fu Panda

When the Oscar nominations were announced I found that I had seen almost all of the nominated films. There are a few I haven't seen, and a few of them are on DVD, so I can catch up over the next few days. I start with one of the nominated animated films, Kung Fu Panda.

I'm not quite sure what to think of this. It's impressive animation, but frankly I've gotten to be blase about technological advances in computer animation. You want to see an animated film that's impressive? Try Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which every cel was hand-painted. Does being a computer whiz make one an artist? I'm not sure. Besides, the action in Kung Fu Panda is so fast that it's hard to appreciate all the hard work that went into it. In the DVD extras it's easy to see how difficult it is to create one of these films, and they refer to a fight scene on a rope-bridge that was very time-consuming. But in the movie it's over in a minute or two, and it goes by in a blur. Sometimes I think animators are making movies for other animators.

But ostensibly Kung Fu Panda is a children's film. It's about Po, a sad-sack panda whose father runs a noodle shop (in a bizarre joke, Po's father is a...duck). He worships the kung fu warriors who live in the Jade Palace, and are known as the Furious Five. There is a prophecy that one day a fighter will be chosen as the Dragon Warrior, who will get to read a scroll giving him or her unlimited power. A bad guy, a snow leopard, wants the scroll, and he escapes from prison to get it. A wise and ancient turtle ends up choosing Po as the Dragon Warrior, even though he is fat and clumsy, and this angers the Furious Five and their master, Shifu.

Po is voiced by Jack Black, who provides the comedy, while Dustin Hoffman is Shifu and Ian McShane the evil snow leopard. Also in the voice cast are Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan. Once upon a time the voices in animated features were almost anonymous, but somewhere along the line it was decided that celebrity voice talent was advantageous. I'm not sure why, is there really any reason to employ Jackie Chan strictly for his voice?

The message in this film is that people should believe in themselves, even if they are fat and clumsy (the movie had a lot of fat jokes, which I'm sure obese children didn't appreciate). That's a noble sentiment, but no matter how much I believe in myself I'd never be able to win a kung fu match against the world's greatest. There's also a lot of warmed over fortune-cookie-type Chinese philosophy. Do the Chinese like to be considered to be so wise?

The most impressive thing on the DVD is one of the extras, in which a chef from Mr. Chow's in Beverly Hills takes a lump of dough and turns into noodles, without using anything but his hands.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Color of Money


I end my discussion of Paul Newman films with 1986's The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, in which Newman reprised the role of Fast Eddie Felson twenty-five years after The Hustler. It earned Newman an elusive Oscar (though the year before he was bestowed an honorary statuette from the Academy).

The film is about aging and passing the torch to the young, and that theme resonates in the plot as well as the back-story. Newman of course was a big star, but now in his sixties his days as a heart-throb were over. Co-starring with Newman in this film was Tom Cruise (looking incredibly baby-faced) as a young hot-shot pool player whom Newman takes under his wing. Cruise would of course go on to become one of the biggest stars on the planet, and if he hasn't yet equalled Newman's status as an artist, he's certainly a recognizable figure.

In The Color of Money, Fast Eddie is now a successful liquor salesman. He backs pool players much the way George C. Scott did in The Hustler. He circumspectly refers back to the old days, saying he was "retired." One wonders whether a few minutes after the end of the The Hustler was when the "retirement" by Scott's goons took place. Newman spots Cruise's talent when the young man takes apart Newman's boy, John Turturro. Just by hearing the sound of Cruise's break Newman knows he's got the talent. However, Cruise is a flake, doesn't understand that sometimes it's better to lose than win, and let's his ego get in the way of a hustle. Newman appeals to Cruise's girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, who he can see has a more fiduciary eye. They all go on the road to win some money in pool halls before a competition in Atlantic City.

What's interesting about this picture is that is in a completely different tone and style than The Hustler. Scorsese, a man well known for being reverent to the past, is smart not to attempt to reproduce Robert Rossen's work in The Hustler. After all, it is twenty-five years later. This film is in color, for starters, and also deals with a different game: nine-ball instead of straight pool. As Newman says, nine-ball appeals to the younger generation, because it's shorter, better suited for TV, and relies heavily on luck (you can win by sinking the nine-ball on the break). Newman likens the differences between nine-ball and straight pool to checkers and chess.

Though Scorsese makes this picture his own, that's not all good news. At times his camera is a bit too enthusiastic. He frequently uses one his favorite tactics--360 movement, and often has the camera right on the felt of the table, employing close-ups of the balls. I suspect there were some special effects involved, and I just didn't find it necessary. I did like a very subtle and well-acted scene in which Newman, the old pro, gets hustled by a kid played by Forest Whitaker.

There are a lot of good performances in the film. Mastroantonio, who got an Oscar nomination, gives a very canny read on the girlfriend, who understands what Newman wants, and realizes that Newman sees her as a kindred soul. It doesn't hurt that she's also sexy as hell, especially during a sequence in which she tries to establish power over Newman by flirting with him. Cruise has a lot of his youthful exuberance, like the roles he played in Top Gun and Cocktail, but holds his own playing against Newman. And as for Newman, this may not have been his greatest performance (I'd go with The Verdict) but when it comes to Oscars these things don't always work out that way. But it's a terrific performance, mostly reactive and subtle. And what cinemaphile didn't get a rush back in '86 when, about half-way through the film, Newman picks up a cue and shoots the break?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Defiance

Edward Zwick is a director who has come, over twenty years, to be easily identified by his work, but that's not necessarily a good thing. His films tend to be sweeping human stories set against a historic back-drop, with noble characters resisting or rebelling against an evil, monolithic authority. Starting with Glory, which is his best film, through Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond, Zwick's work is the kind that pegs him as a well-intentioned liberal with a simple-minded approach to story. Defiance, his latest, falls squarely in this milieu.

The film tells the story of the Bielski brothers, who lived in Belarus during World War II. As Jews were being rounded up and shipped off to death camps, the brothers, who were ne'er-do-wells, headed off into the woods to hide from the Nazis, as well as local police who were collaborating. Eventually they took on more and more followers, and a small society grew in the woods, but always under the threat that the enemy would find them.

It's a good story in the tradition of Schindler's List, but at least this time the Jews are relying on themselves, not a saintly Christian. They are also tough sons of bitches, aware that Jews aren't commonly thought of as fighters (the eventual track record of the Israeli Army would permanently put that myth to bed). Liev Schreiber is the middle brother, who has no compunction about retaliating and killing the enemy. The youngest brother, Jamie Bell, is more unseasoned. The oldest brother, Daniel Craig, is willing to kill, but sees surviving as the best revenge.

As the Bieskis and their partisans set up a community in the forest, certain problems arise, some of them predictable. Schreiber decides he wants action, and leaves to join the Russian army. Romantic situations arise, as biology dictates, and the group becomes a microcosm of larger societies and there are turf wars. Some of this is handled well, other times it's in an obvious, tone-deaf manner. One bad scene has Craig addressing his charges on a white horse, and I flashed back to Mel Gibson in Braveheart. But his relationship with the woman who would become his wife, the lovely Alexa Davalos, is handled with admirable restraint.

One thing you can count on in a Zwick picture--it looks great. Twice cinematographers from Zwick films have won Oscars (Glory and Legends of the Fall), and the photography in Defiance, by Eduardo Serra, is stunning. It is mostly in shades of washed out blues--though the film takes place almost entirely in a forest there's very little verdant about it.

Ultimately Zwick falls prey to his usual pattern and the film is let down. The film climaxes with a march through a bog, but one wonders where exactly they expect they are going--won't the Nazis find them on the other side of the bog (they have planes, after all)? It's not like the von Trapps going from Austria to Switzerland. And then there is an attack by a German tank that reminds one of an old Western, with cavalry coming to the rescue. Zwick appears to never have met a cliche he didn't like.

Overall Defiance is passable entertainment. I imagine little of it is historically accurate, but it tugs at the heartstrings frequently. In the category of recent World War II movies, I liked it more than I did Valkyrie.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Absence of Malice


The early to mid-eighties saw a bit of a renaissance for Paul Newman, as he became an eminence grise and was making prestigious pictures again. After a fourteen-year absence from Oscar nominations, he would receive three in six years in the eighties. The first of these came for Absence of Malice, a solid drama from Sydney Pollack.

Newman stars as the son of a deceased organized crime figure who is living a straight life as a legitimate businessman, but when a union leader goes missing a government investigator decides that Newman must be involved. He uses a newspaper reporter, Sally Field, to leak the story to, and Newman's reputation is ruined. Things turn tragic when Newman's friend, Melinda Dillon, has a terrible secret revealed in print.

Written by an ex-newspaperman, Kurt Luedtke, the film takes a cynical look at the press, and how the single-minded pursuit of the truth can destroy lives. It's a meaty subject, and handled delicately, though it's not a particularly exciting film. Part of the problem is that Field is woefully miscast. Field can be a fine actress, but she is unconvincing as a hard-nosed reporter, and their is no chemistry between her and Newman in an ill-conceived romantic subplot.

Better are Bob Balaban as the weasely investigator, and Wilford Brimley has a memorable turn as his boss, who comes to town to clean up the mess. This is the kind of role that got Brimley those Quaker Oats commercials, as who can't listen to this guy and believe that he knows exactly what he's talking about? He memorably says in the film, during an inquiry, "I've leaving with somebody's ass in my briefcase."

It's also interesting, with the rapid changes in technology, how quickly a picture can be dated by the equipment it uses. This film has it's reporters using primitive word processors, but newspapers in those days were still cut and pasted with the use of compositors and that glue that gives me a Proustian rush back to my days on the college newspaper.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fort Apache, The Bronx

In 1981 Paul Newman made Fort Apache, The Bronx, a standard cop drama that was in the tradition of much better films about the seamy side of police work, such as Serpico. Newman starred as Murphy, a long-tenured patrolman, who manages to be both cynical about the crime-infested precinct where he works, yet still has a shred of humanity.

The film, directed by Daniel Petrie, is episodic in nature, with a couple of plot threads. One deals with Ed Asner as the new captain who wants to clean up the precinct with his by the book ways, even though he's told by those who know the area that his ideas won't work. The other has Pam Grier as a hooker who is killing people, though his thread is not well developed and wrapped up unsatisfactorily.

Newman is engaging, as always, but the film has a made-for-TV quality, and is further dragged down by some wooden acting by Ken Wahl, as Newman's clothes-horse partner, and Rachel Ticotin, as a nurse who becomes Newman's girlfriend.

The title of the film suggests that the precinct house is like a fortress surrounded by enemy territory, and the filmmakers took some heat from community leaders from the Bronx. The producers responded by inserting a title card at the beginning stating they were not suggesting that everyone who lived in the South Bronx was a criminal.