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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Let the Right One In

As I wrote in my review of Twilight, movies about vampires are almost always about something else. In Let the Right One In, a Swedish film directed by Tomas Alfredson, we get a new angle--the vampire representing the despair of the adolescent outcast.

The film is about Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy who is constantly bullied in school. Outwardly he accepts his torment, but inside violence is festering, as if he were a prospective member of a Trenchcoat Mafia (the first words we hear him say are "Squeal like a pig!") He has new neighbors: a middle-age man who is first seen killing someone in the woods and stringing him up to drain his blood, and what appears to be his daughter, Eli, who is Oskar's age but doesn't go to school (nor is she ever seen in the daylight).

The two kids become friends. Eli's father is not very good at gathering blood for her, so she's forced to get it herself, with gruesome results. She and Oskar look out for each other, but when Oskar suggests they become blood-siblings he figures things out.

Eli becomes for Oskar a manifestation of his rage, and the films ends in a way that satisfies blood-lust, but I found it to be a bit of a cop-out (Alfredson, on the supplemental material, refers to it as a happy ending, perhaps the first time this has been the label for a film that ends in the mass slaughter of children). To me it seems that Oskar will fulfill the role that Eli's father did at the beginning of the film (and given Eli's uncertain age, maybe he wasn't her father).

The film also makes use of a couple of vampire "rules" (not being able to be exposed to sunlight, and having to be invited it into a home) but not necessarily others (like not being seen in mirrors). It seems to me that these rules don't belong in a film like this, which isn't really a horror film but instead a psychological drama about the travails of childhood.

I should add that the performances by the children, Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, and Lina Leandersson as Eli, are quite good, and more importantly, free of preciousness.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Control

Although I was a fairly cognizant music fan in the late seventies, I was completely unaware of the band Joy Division. They are a band, like The Velvet Underground or The Pixies, that didn't sell a lot of records but made an impact on the music scene for the influence they had on future musicians. They also, sadly, have entered into the realm of myth due to the suicide of their lead singer, Ian Curtis.

The story of Curtis has been the subject of two films--first as a subplot of 24 Hour Party People, a film that was about Tony Wilson, who owned the record company that first signed them (he signed the contract in his blood), and Control, a 2007 film directed by Anton Corbijn that is a straight bio of Curtis. It's somewhat reassuring to know that no matter the art form, the showbiz bio is handled in pretty much the same way, even when it deals with punk rock.

Curtis was a typical teen in a suburb of Manchester in the 1970s. He liked David Bowie and could quote Wordsworth. He married early, to Deborah (played endearingly by Samantha Morton) and had a job in an employment agency. He attended a concert by the Sex Pistols in Manchester (an event also covered in 24 Hour Party People) and joined a band that needed a lead singer. His lyrics, which plumbed the depths of despair and confusion, quickly made the band a local hit. They made some appearances on British TV, toured Europe, and were about to travel to the U.S. when Curtis, who was battling depression and epilepsy, committed suicide. He was 23.

Corbijn, known as a photographer of the rock and roll scene and a video director (the distinctive video for Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" was his) makes an effective debut. He shot it in a crisp black and white, both to suggest the grayness of the north of England and his recollection of the band, who were mostly photographed in black and white. The story is linear, beginning with Curtis as a moony teen and ending with his suicide, discreetly off-screen, and then the smoke from the crematorium.

The film is also unsentimental, and doesn't treat Curtis as some sort of rock and roll god. He's a pretty average bloke, with a gift for phrase and a hypnotic stage presence. His wife is firmly of his bleak hometown, while he has an affair with a Belgian journalist (Alexandra Maria Lara), who promises a more worldly outlook (although both women are passive and docile).

The best thing about the film is the mesmerizing performance by Sam Riley as Curtis. He resembles the man, and also does his own singing, capturing Curtis' somewhat spooky drone, which recalls both Jim Morrison and Bryan Ferry. This is one of the better films I've ever seen about a rock musician.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac has been on my radar lately. Last weekend there was a withering review of a concert of theirs in the New York Times and this weekend a huge newspaper ad ran for some Stevie Nicks projects (and her first ever in-store signing!). I thus have to come to grips with something that isn't exactly the hippest thing I've ever said: I really like Fleetwood Mac. Specifically, I am a big fan of Stevie Nicks. Gosh, that confession took a lot out of me.

Many know that Fleetwood Mac has had several incarnations over forty years. The only constant has been Mick Fleetwood on drums, although bassist John McVie and his one-time wife, Christine, have been on a good percentage of the albums. Early on they were a British blues band, fronted by Peter Green, and then for a time Bob Welch was the lead singer, with limited success. It wasn't until 1975, after Welch left, that the band took off into the stratosphere, when they added California guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks.

An album called Fleetwood Mac was successful, with Nicks' first hit songs, "Landslide" and "Rhiannon." Then, in 1977, lightning struck when the album Rumours was released. It has since become one of the biggest selling albums of all-time, selling 30 million units worldwide and spawning several hit singles that are instantly recognizable today, such as "Don't Stop," "Go Your Own Way," "Dreams," and "Gold Dust Woman." The backstory behind the music (and Fleetwood Mac's episode of VH1's Behind the Music is one of the more entertaining of the series) is that all of the members were going through break-ups: the McVie's, Buckingham and Nicks, and Fleetwood and his wife. The album is full of songs about the snarls of love, none more than "Go Your Own Way," in which Buckingham tells Nicks to hit the bricks. What's strange is that the two were able to perform it on stage repeatedly, knowing what it was about.

I was in high school when Rumours came out, and I liked it fine, but my real infatuation grew over time. After a few years they followed up with Tusk, a double album that featured a lot of experimentation. In comparison with Rumours it was a disappointment, but has some good stuff on it, most notably from Nicks: "Sara," "Storms," "Sisters of the Moon," and "Angel" are good tracks. Then Nicks released her first solo album, Bella Donna, and that really cemented her image as the wispy, witchy sprite twirling in lace and chiffon and singing about subjects found in fantasy novels. I would imagine that she appealed largely to a kind of female nerd, the distaff version of guys who play Dungeons and Dragons. I am the only guy I know who admits to liking her.

During the eighties I continued to get Nicks' solo albums, but they declined in quality. I picked up a couple of Fleetwood Macs records (I still have them in vinyl): Mirage and Tango in the Night. I've always liked Mirage, which I think has Nicks' best song, "Gypsy." I also have one of Buckingham's solo records, Go Insane, which I think is very strong. I've never seen Nicks in concert, but some years ago I did see Buckingham, who put on a good show that had an interesting sound: there were five guitarists.

Fleetwood Mac is from an interesting chapter in the history of rock. The Buckingham-Nicks incarnation came at the tail end of the period that is now referred to as "classic rock," a period in which most of the giant bands of the British invasion had broken up, and when disco was in vogue. They, and groups like the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, kept the tradition alive, but eventually punk and new wave would coalesce into what became known as "alternative." They're still very listenable to today--I drove around today listening to Rumours, and it sounds amazingly fresh. I really don't have any interest in what they're doing today, though. Fleetwood looks like he should be playing chess in the park, and Stevie Nicks is sixty! God I feel old.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I Love You, Man


Here's a film that is better than its trailer, remarkably so. And, despite several indications, Judd Apatow has nothing to do with it. In fact, it's somewhat of a mirror image of films that come out of the Apatow factory. His films deal with man-children who reluctantly are civilized by women. In I Love You, Man, a man who is perfectly comfortable with women is indoctrinated into the world of man-children.

Paul Rudd plays Peter, a real-estate agent who has popped the question to Zooey (Rashida Jones). He's the kind of guy who enjoys eating summer salad with his girlfriend while watching the movie Chocolat, or making root beer floats for her girlfriends (topped with chocolate straws from Pepperidge Farms). When wedding plans are underway, he realizes he has no real male friends (he has a much younger gay brother, played by Andy Samberg). Extrapolating on the classic Seinfeld episode co-starring Keith Hernandez, he confronts the absurd situation of how adult men go about making new friends.

Peter in encouraged by Zooey to make guy friends, but the efforts are comically disastrous. Then, at an open house (he is selling the home of Lou Ferrigno), he meets Sidney (Jason Segel). Sidney and Peter share some similarities, most notably a love for the band Rush, but click more because Sidney complements Peter. Sidney is completely comfortable in his own skin, so much so that he willingly shares his masturbation habits and has no qualms about wearing Uggs in public (even on the beach). Peter becomes enlightened through the relationship, and things start to get strained with Zooey. In a switch on rom-com cliches, it's Peter and Sidney who go through the break-up and reconciliation.

There is a lot credit to throw around with this film, which I found to be completely charming and frequently funny. The director and co-writer is John Hamburg, best known for being involved with several films with Ben Stiller, none of which I've seen (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Zoolander, and Along Came Polly). Thank god Stiller did not play Peter, which is the kind of role he usually plays and mercilessly overacts. Instead, Paul Rudd is a pleasure. I've always liked Rudd, and think that Forgetting Sarah Marshall could have been much better had he played the lead, instead of Segel. In this film, Segel's strengths are much better served, and he's marvelous as the in-your-face Sidney. The role is a tricky one--he has to be somewhat abrasive, but he has to sell that Peter would like him, and it works.

In a somewhat thankless role, Jones is also a delight. Mostly she's called on to be supportive, and at times seems like the fiancee of fantasy and myth, but her performance is canny enough to keep it real. Jaime Pressly and Jon Favreau have some amusing moments as a battling couple, and the always steady J.K. Simmons livens up his scenes as Rudd's dad.

The film isn't perfect--I was resistant to it at the beginning, because I found Rudd to be a bit too much like Steve Carell's character on The Office, what with his mangling street slang and inability to do accents. But the film gradually picked up steam and really started working for me when Segel makes his entrance. And I give props to any film that makes such good use of Lou Ferrigno.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Max Payne


This is more like it--a movie based on a video game that is an honest to goodness crapfest. Max Payne is sort of a rip-off of The Punisher, about a cop whose family has been killed and he doggedly searches for the killer, getting involved with some Russian mobsters and a super-soldier serum that makes the users see large black-winged angels. And yes, Olga Kurylenko is in it, but she's killed off before the twenty-minute mark.

Nothing works about this movie. It's ugly and unpleasant, with all the actors wearing grimaces. Some of them are pretty big names, like Beau Bridges and Chris O'Donnell, who must be wondering what happened to his career. The star is Mark Wahlberg, who gets no good bounces from his Oscar-nomination in The Departed. He's grim and stoic and completely uncharismatic. Mila Kunis looks damn good as a Russian assassin, but her role seems like an afterthought.

The film is directed by John Moore. I hope that's a pseudonym.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hitman

It's Olga Kurylenko week here at Go-Go-Rama, and since she's only made three English-language films (her European stuff doesn't seem to be available on DVD) the week will be rather short. Her first U.S. film, the one that brought her to the attention of Mr. Skin subscribers, was Hitman.

There's no surer way of identifying a film as awful than it being based on a video game. Therefore I was surprised that not only did I find Hitman tolerable, I actually enjoyed some of it. Now, the more I think about it the more silly it seems, but it surpassed my expectations. It also passed a certain test of mine--I didn't check to see how much time had elapsed on the DVD until it was more than half over.

Timothy Olyphant plays the title character, who has no name, just a number (47). He was raised as an orphan in some sort of training school for assassins. They even tattooed a bar code on the back of his head. If this seems a rip-off of the TV series Dark Angel, well, some of this footage was actually from that series. My question is: if your one identifying physical characteristic is a bar code tattoo, why would you keep your head shaved so you can instantly be spotted? Or is this the assassin squad from the Hair Club for Men?

Of course 47 is the world's greatest assassin. He's being tracked by an intrepid Interpol agent (Dougray Scott) who likens him to a "ghost." This is also a term used to describe Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, but comparing the two films in any way is not going to do Hitman any favors. Any way, 47 assassinates who he thinks is the Russian president, but he gets double-crossed and goes rogue, teaming up with Miss Kurylenko, who is something of a slave to the bad Russians.

I found the action in this film fun. There was even a Mexican stand-off involving not three but four men. Of course, I wasn't sure who they all were or what their motives were, which is a problem. But for mindless entertainment it served its purpose. I also thought the film had a very interesting change from most films like it: 47 was completely uninterested in sex. Kurylenko throws herself at him, with minimal clothing, but he is not interested. It makes sense--the perfect agent would be a eunuch, so as not to be distracted by sex. It was an interesting choice and not the typical one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Alexander the Last


I guess I’m a little behind the curve, because there’s a new genre out there that I hadn’t heard about (although I have seen a few of the films within it). It’s called “mumblecore,” and is characterized as extremely low-budget films, shot on camcorders, on sets that are practical locations (mostly apartments) and are largely improvisational. The stories, where not a lot happens, concern twentysomethings in the void following college graduation, usually those with a somewhat artistic or academic bent.

One of the major directors of this form is Andrew Bujalski, and I’ve seen and liked immensely his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. I hadn’t seen anything by Joe Swanberg, another director of this ilk, until I watched Alexander the Last. It premiered at the recent SXSW festival, and is also available on Comcast’s On Demand, where I saw it.

The film is very much in the spirit of mumblecore. It’s about a young actress, played by Jess Weixler, who is married to a musician (Justin Rice, who was the lead in Mutual Appreciation). He goes on tour, and she gets a part in a play. She develops a crush on her leading man (Barlow Jacobs), which is further complicated by the fact that she has set him up with her sister (Amy Seimetz) and they’re sleeping together. Jacobs is also crashing at Weixler’s apartment, and the play that they are in requires them to engage in amorous clinches.

The topic of an infatuation with someone who is not your spouse was the plot of Mutual Appreciation as well, and as with that film there is no adultery, just a crisis of conscience when you realize that you can be attracted to someone who is not your significant other. When Rice returns from tour and picks up on Weixler’s crush, he has a mild flirtation with another musician, which plays out only as the two of them making music together (literally). The action of this film, as with Bujalski’s work, is between the lines, requiring the viewer to be thoughtful. It’s the anti-Iron Man.

Swanberg is the credited screenwriter, but also gives “additional material by” credit to his entire cast, which suggests that there’s a lot of improvisation is going on. Whatever the circumstance, the film is a pleasure to experience. Weixler, who was also very good in Teeth, could be a star in the making (she looks like a young Helen Hunt–hopefully she avoids her career path). The movie is also pretty damn sexy, with some steamy love scenes (including a cleverly edited sequence when Jacobs has sex with Seimetz, which is intercut with a rehearsal of lovemaking with Weixler).

I should add that the trend of indie films being released simultaneously on cable systems is a good one. The days of art houses may be numbered. I live in a major college town on the East Coast, so I have two nearby, but there are some films that never make it here. If you are a cineaste and live in the hinterlands, where you have to drive half an hour even to see Paul Blart, Mall Cop, and don’t like to to wait for the DVD, this system is ideal. My system has IFC films, (I hope to watch Hunger next, and surely Tokyo Sonata is sure to come) and they lately added Magnolia (the Great Buck Howard is also available). It’s a great lifeline for movies that might otherwise be shown in only a handful of theaters across the country. For a movie like Alexander the Last, there’s not a lot lost by watching it on a small screen, it’s not Lawrence of Arabia. And I can

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure

There's been a spate of documentary films about Iraq and the U.S. military involvement there, but Standard Operating Procedure focuses on a sliver of the controversy: the photographs that surfaced detailing the abuse of prisoners by military police at Abu Ghraib. The topic of torture of detainees by the military has been covered elsewhere, most notably Taxi to the Dark Side, which won an Oscar. Erroll Morris, though, the director of this film, isn't really tackling the big picture, instead he's interested in what those photos, now famous, tell us.

Morris, one of the premiere documentarians working today, changed the style of non-fiction film with The Thin Blue Line, and Standard Operating Procedure is similar, with a mixture of talking head interviews, re-enactments, and a trippy melange of images and music that showcase the photos in question. The interview subjects are almost entirely those involved, with Morris getting Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, two of the women who were immortalized in some of the more ignominious photos (apparently they were paid for the interviews, which caused something of a controversy, though it is standard practice).

Some of those interviewed were convicted of crimes, and are not exactly contrite. They seem to be unaware of what it all means. A civilian interrogator (wonder how you get that job) is one of the voices of reason throughout the film. He says that at first he thought it was all the fault of "schmuck M.P.s who acted like idiots," but he changed his mind and realized they were "kids getting shammed." From this vantage point, they're both. The prosecutor in the case talks about how in his career it's stupid mistakes by criminals that usually do them in. In this instance, it was that they took pictures of the whole thing.

The interviews are the most fascinating part of the film. One M.P., who's father and grandfather both received bronze stars, rues how his involvement dragged his family's name through the mud. England is the most interesting, a woman who basically admits to her actions with the excuse that she was in love with the ringleader, Chuck Graner (who is serving ten years and was not interviewed). Graner ended up marrying another woman who was also in the unit, so what we have is a second-rate love triangle which fueled an international incident. Harman, explaining why she is showing a "thumbs up" sign next to the corpse of a detainee, says that she did that because she never knows what to do with her hands in photos. You believe her, while shaking your head at her cluelessness.

The deeper questions raised here involve the top brass. All of those convicted say they were acting on orders, but no one with a rank higher than staff sergeant was charged with any crime. In fact, it would have been difficult for some of them to walk away from the crimes without directly violating orders. As Harman says, if she had it to do over she would have had to never have joined the army.

Then there is the definition of "standard operating procedure." Beatings of prisoners, or sexual humiliation (they would stack the prisoners in pyramids, naked, or make them masturbate) were considered crimes. But handcuffing them to bed frames with underwear on their head was S.O.P. Perhaps the most iconic photograph--a man standing on a box, wearing a hood and a blanket, with wires attached to his fingers--was not a crime, because the wires were not really connected to anything electric. But he didn't know that.

When the military paints what could be very bad guys in a sympathetic light, something is wrong.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Brother Is an Only Child


This film takes a look at one family in Italy through the 1960s, mostly through the eyes of the younger brother, nicknamed "Accio" (which I'm guessing means "bully"). Directed by Daniele Luccheti, it's a lively if ultimately conventional slice of life, albeit one in which the characters exhibit some extreme behavior (or maybe not--maybe that's the way all Italians are).

Accio, first played as an adolescent by Vittorio Emmanuele Propizio, then as an adult by Elio Germano, is a lad looking for something to believe in. We first see him being shipped off to study at a seminary. Only his brother, Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) sees him off. When Accio discovers the joys of masturbation his career as a priest is nipped in the bud, and back home he resumes his tumultuous relationship with family members, which earns him smacks in the head from his parents and constant wrestling matches with his brother.

A neighborhood salesman gets him interested in Fascism. In 1962, when the film begins, Mussolini was still a vivid memory to Italians, and apparently many still worshiped him. Accio joins up, much to the consternation of his brother, who is a communist. They will lock horns on this throughout the film, at least until Manrico's girlfriend, the winsome Francesca (Diane Fleri) starts to get Accio to see things the other way.

Much of this film is geared toward Italians, as I have little understanding of how things were in the 1960s, particularly the politics. A subplot involving corruption in a housing assignment bureau also I'm sure has much more resonance to those who lived through it. Still, it's a lively film, not dull in any way, and has a vigorous performance by Germano.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Duplicity


I am a big admirer of Michael Clayton (my favorite film of '07) so I was more than ready for Tony Gilroy's second film as a director. While Duplicity isn't as good (or serious) as Michael Clayton, I found it to be an enjoying bit of meringue, full of humor and twists that kept me fully engaged.

In addition to Michael Clayton, Gilroy wrote the scripts for all of the Bourne films, and like those films, Duplicity involves a certain level of paranoia. Though the plot concerns corporate espionage, the spine of the piece is a romantic comedy about two people who can't trust each other.

Another consistency here is that Gilroy is working with a superduperstar, as he did with George Clooney in Michael Clayton. Here he directs Julia Roberts, who is less an actress than a force of nature. It's hard to evaluate a Roberts performance, because she's mostly called upon to provide the starpower she always does. I would suspect this would be the case even if she was asked to play Medea. Here she plays a CIA agent who, in the film's opening moments, makes a monkey out of an MI6 agent, who is played by Clive Owen, who isn't in Clooney/Roberts territory, but should be soon. We then flash forward five years, when both are working for a corporation looking to steal a new product from a rival company. As the story progresses, we get periodic flashbacks that reveal everything we are seeing may not be the truth.

Because this is corporate espionage, the principals are not in any physical danger. Law enforcement makes only one intrusion, to no appreciable effect. Instead it's all about money, like a high-stakes game of tag. And because the characters never trust each other, the audience can never be sure what they are watching. This makes for a lot of fun, although some critics have reported confusion. There are some plot holes, and bits that are never explained (at least to my satisfaction) but if you pay attention and have seen enough of these caper films, you should be able to figure everything out. The first twist comes when Roberts and Owen repeat a conversation, word for word, without acknowledging so. There is really only one explanation for this, and sure enough, we learn this at the end of the film.

In addition to Roberts and Owen, the cast consists of Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as the rival CEOs. Giamatti is given license to mug to high heaven, while Wilkinson seems more like a real corporate bigwig. They are introduced in a highly stylized scene in the opening credits, a super slow-motion fistfight on an airport tarmac.

Those looking for more soul-searching angst that existed in Michael Clayton, or cliffhanging derring-do from the Bourne films, will be disappointed, but Duplicity is a pleasurable afternoon at the movies nonetheless.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Boy A

Boy A, a British film directed by John Crowley, is a better-than-average drama that does a clever thing: it seduces us into becoming empathetic with a person who turns out to be someone that most of us despise, and then lets us wrestle with our feelings. I admired how the film did this, but it kept from being an excellent film by the conventionality of its structure.

At the outset we meet Jack, who we understand is being released from prison. He has chosen the name Jack because he is changing identities. He has a case worker, played by Peter Mullan, who takes care of him. Jack has a place to live and a job, and very quickly makes friends and finds a girlfriend.

Through flashbacks, we see into Jack's past. He makes friends with a charismatic sociopath named Phillip, who is now dead. Eventually the magnitude of Jack's crime is revealed to the audience, and the question remains--will Jack's friends find out, and if so, what will happen?

The problem with Boy A is the answer to those questions are apparent to anyone paying attention, especially when a subplot involving Mullan's layabout son is set in motion. That's too bad, because the greater questions raised by the film--is a person who commits a monstrous act always a monster--are overshadowed by melodrama.

Andrew Garfield's performance as Jack is problematic. He's so likable and good-natured that our response is manipulated--of course we would forgive him, because we've seen the film from his eyes. Aside from a few images of tabloid newspapers, we don't know the viewpoint of those who take the opposite side.

The film would seem to modeled after the James Bulger murder case of 1993. I've just read that the killers of that little boy were released, and have never been the victim of vigilantism.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Woman on the Beach


Woman on the Beach is a South Korean dramedy, written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, that starts out promising but devolves into a rambling session of navel-gazing. Focused on only four characters, the film is structured as two different romantic triangles, although two of the three sides are the same two people.

One of them is a film director, played by Kim Seung-Woo. He is under pressure to finish a script, so enlists Kim Tae-Woo to drive him to a beach resort on the country's west coast (it's not clear what their relationship is--at first I thought Tae-Woo was his assistant, but he may just have been a friend). Tae-Woo asks to bring his girlfriend, a composer played by Go Hyun-Jung. We quickly learn that is not all as it seems: Tae-Woo is married, and Go does not consider herself his girlfriend, anyway (they haven't had sex). The film director takes a shine to her, and steals her away from his friend.

All of this happens in one night. We then flash forward a few days. The director is still in the beach town, but the other two are gone. He misses his new conquest, so much so that he seduces a woman whom he think looks like her (Song Seon-Mi). But then Go shows up, and they end up back together for a time, until Go realizes that he must have cheated on her.

The beginning of this film seems like a French comedy, and we get some sharp characterizations. None of the three are particularly likable, especially the director, who is a pill (he screams at a waiter in a restaurant when he perceives a slight). But his act wears thin, and when the film shifts into its second act, and he's not really changing, I felt an ennui envelop me. Go's character, who is sort of the Korean equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (the cute perky girl who saves the misunderstood hero and only exists in the imagination of screenwriters) instead becomes a shrill harpie. This film is over two hours long, and I felt every minute of it.

What Hong is after, I think, is how our fears cripple us. Each character has an identifiable fear (a few of the characters speak it loud when they are asked what is). The director is a mess of them--he's even afraid of dogs. But I didn't find that any of the characters grew, and the situations weren't funny or dramatic, just tedious.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bringing Up Baby


Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 film directed by Howard Hawks, is today regarded as one of the quintessential films in the genre of "screwball comedy," right up there with My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred, and The Lady Eve. It is a marvel of perpetual motion, a film that proceeds like a ball rolling down a hill, without stop, picking up speed along the way. However, when it was released, it was a huge flop, and perpetuated Katharine Hepburn's status as "box office poison."

The story is pure zaniness, the kind that would appear to have been written in crayon. A scientist, played by Cary Grant, is assembling the skeleton of a brontosaurus, and the last bone he needs has just been found at a dig in Utah (the "intercostal clavicle," to be specific). He's about to be married to his prim colleague, Virginia Walker. He's going to play golf with a lawyer who represents a philanthropist who's looking to give away a million dollars, and Grant's museum is one of the candidates.

While on the golf course, though, he meets Hepburn, who is the kind of dizzy debutante that was her specialty. Hepburn shows off a bit of her golfing skill (she sinks a long putt--but with Grant's ball) and once Grant has met her his life goes on a dizzying whirl that will see his beloved dinosaur bone snatched by Hepburn's dog and buried somewhere on her Connecticut estate (it's the same dog, an Airedale, that played Asta in The Thin Man) and more importantly, Grant finds himself looking for Baby, Hepburn's pet, who is also missing. Baby, it turns out, is a leopard.

Screwball comedies have been written about extensively. They've been called "sex comedies without the sex," by Andrew Sarris, and sure enough, there is no physical passion going on here, but Hepburn has decided that she will marry Grant, even though he wants nothing to do with her (at first, of course). Hawks, in interviews he gave years later, talks about how his comedies (he also made the screwball comedies Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday) have characters moving while they are talking, and there was a lot of overlapping dialogue, years before Robert Altman was on the scene. In Bringing Up Baby, all of the characters are a bit askew--there is no real voice of sanity amidst the hurlyburly. One can see how audiences who liked their comedies to have some moments to catch their breaths may have been put off, but for purists like me this film is undiluted brilliance.

The performers are all a delight. Hepburn, as stated, was in a bad time in her career, and wouldn't come out of it until 1940, when she made The Philadelphia Story and her initial team-up with Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year. She's a flittering moth in this film (interestingly Walker, when breaking it off with Grant at the end of the film, calls him a butterfly) and many of her familiar tics are there, but they're all charming. She's especially good in a scene when all the principles are locked up in jail, and she's quizzed by the constable, Walter Catlett. Their duet is like a priceless vaudeville routine, particularly when she decides to have him on and pretends to be a gun moll, affecting a streetwise accent and taking credit for a series of bank robberies.

There's a few interesting subtexts. One is the replacement of children by other things--the leopard is called Baby, and Walker, telling Grant she doesn't want to have children, refers to the brontosaurus skeleton as their "baby" (this skeleton, introduced in the opening scenes, isn't seen again until the close--it's a house of cards waiting throughout the whole film for its eventual toppling by Hepburn). And in a tidbit of cultural history, this film may have the first use of the word "gay" to refer to homosexuality in mainstream entertainment, although audiences didn't know it at the time. Homosexuals had referred to themselves as gay as early as the 1920s, but only within their community (the rest of society didn't hear about the meaning of that word until the Stonewall riot of 1969). There's a scene in Bringing Up Baby in which Grant, wearing Hepburn's marabou-trimmed robe, is asked by her aunt why he's wearing such a ridiculous outfit. He responds (in an ad-lib), "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" Audiences would have thought he was referring to the use of the word as it meant to them--excessively happy and carefree, but homosexual audiences knew better.

Hawks is one of the unsung giants of American film. As Leonard Maltin said, he's probably the greatest director who isn't a household name. He had an astonishing breadth of genres throughout his career--not only did he make these great comedies, but he also directed Scarface, The Big Sleep, and Red River, all among the handful of best films in each of those genres.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Still Life


Jia Zhang-Ke's Still Life is a quietly powerful film of lost love set against the backdrop of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and as such, it has the effect of an elegy. The dam required the relocation of over a million people and flooded towns that were 2,000 years old. Zhang-Ke asks us to focus on just two stories that play out while buildings are being demolished.

In one story, a man from the north of China comes to the town of Fengjie to find his wife and daughter, who left sixteen years before. He gets a rude awakening, when the only address he had for them is now under water. He stays on and gets a job on a demolition crew, waiting for his wife to return on a barge she works on.

Meanwhile, a young woman comes to town to find her wayward husband. She gets help from her husband's friend to find him, but he proves to be elusive. When she does find him she can only say that she wants a divorce.

Not a lot happens in Still Life, and the pace is leisurely, to put it kindly, but I thought it was interesting. As the city around them is marked for destruction and flooding, these people seem resigned to allow their lives to slip away from them. There's also a lot unspoken. When the man finally finds his wife, they have a quite but nonetheless gripping exchange. She finally asks him why he waited sixteen years to come find her. He has no answer, and that speaks volumes.

Zhang-Ke also inserts a few scenes of whimsy into his otherwise realistic film. At one point what looks like a flying saucer zooms by, and another more obvious reference to science fiction a large, unfinished concrete structure blasts off like a rocketship (Zhang-Ke, in an interview on the DVD, points out that cities that have been evacuated for destruction resemble those that have undergone alien attacks in sci-fi films), and the last scene of the film shows a wirewalker balancing over the rubble of the city.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New York, New York


The topic of Martin Scorsese's films came up on Gone Elsewhere the other day and it occurred to me that I've seen all of his features (at least those he's made since Who's That Knocking on My Door?) except for one: his 1977 film New York, New York. I do own a copy of it, though, since I got a Scorsese boxed set a few years ago as a gift, so I pulled it out and gave it a look.

The film was a failure both critically and financially, and it's easily apparent why. Scorsese, who had been known for his gritty, realistic movies, wanted to try something different. He made a film that was intentionally artificial in appearance, harkening back to the musicals of his youth. Scorsese's immediate film before this one was Taxi Driver, and it's hard to believe New York, New York was made by the same man in the space of two years. A film with this kind of artifice was antithetical to the trend of American movies in the '7os.

Scorsese's experiment was successful as far as look of the film is considered. It's quite gorgeous in its theatricality, especially those scenes that are shot on soundstages, such as one set in a snowy forest with trees that are obviously fake, or process shots in moving vehicles. There's a very lovely scene of a character in a train station, with the snow falling an obvious special effect. The problem is that Scorsese forgot to give us an interesting story and sympathetic characters.

The film details the relationship between Robert DeNiro, as a saxophone player, and Liza Minelli, as a singer, in the years following World War II. DeNiro's performance is not one of his best, although it's hard to blame him, because his character is such a roaring asshole. A lot of the mannerisms that he's come to be associated with are on display here, and by the end of this very long film you just want him to go away. Minelli fares a little better, but the problem at the heart of this is that the two have no chemistry (has DeNiro ever been in a good film in which he had a romantic relationship with a woman?)At the beginning of the film, there's a long scene in a ballroom on V-J day, when DeNiro tries to pick up Minelli. She puts him off repeatedly, and yet after a while they end up sharing a cab. The next thing you know they're hot and heavy, but we have no clue why. DeNiro is hardly anything but awful to her, and she just takes it, so the whole experience is unpleasant from start to finish.

The most well-known aspect of the film is it's theme song, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which became a big hit after it was recorded by Frank Sinatra. It's played after the end of every game at Yankee Stadium, but you have to wonder how many people remember the movie from whence it originated.

Monday, March 16, 2009

That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play

It's been nearly twenty-four hours since I saw Sheila Callaghan's play, That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play, produced by Rattlestick Playwright's Theater, and I'm still not fully sure what I thought of it. It certainly wasn't boring, that's for sure, but I'm not sure it was very good, either. Though it is not Callaghan's first play, it has a kind of collegiate preciousness that overwhelms any point the playwright was trying to make, if indeed there was one.

The play defies synopsis, but here's what I can tell you: two ex-strippers, possibly sisters, have gone on a murder spree, traveling across the country to kill pro-lifers because another sister was killed when an abortion clinic was bombed. They chronicle all this on their blog. Later, a screenwriter incorporates their story into his screenplay. All the while Jane Fonda, from her exercise-video phase, pops in. In between, there is a surrealistic dinner party, which ends in a Jell-O wrestling match between the two sisters.

Much of this plays like early Sam Shepard filtered through the absurdism of Christopher Durang. I suspect that Callaghan is interested in exploring sexism, gender roles (a male character, at one point, puts on a dress and makeup), misogyny (especially violence against women), abortion rights, and the semiotics of Fonda, who of course has represented many things over her long career. What exactly she thinks I'm still confused about, because she employs a shotgun method of theater--shooting both barrels full of pellets, with all sorts of provocative language and visuals, but without any of it adding up to anything meaningful.

The play lasts a little over an hour-and-a-half with no intermission, but it's only in the last third that things settle down and start to make sense. It's then that the screenwriter, played by Greg Keller, with his vulgar friend Rodney (Joseph Gomez) explain what we've seen before, as he is writing a screenplay about the fiercely pro-choice strippers, while Jane Fonda's exercise video plays in the background. I think that this section could have played as a very good one-act, and the hour or so that came before was largely unnecessary. Keller explains his screenplay and then we see some of the film (acted out live, but with the effective lighting of Matt Frey we get that we're supposed to watching a film) and then, in a nice bit of acting, Keller takes the stage as if he were at one of those Q&As in front of film students. We don't hear the questions, but we hear Keller's pretentious answers.

Callaghan has a somewhat juvenile interest in shocking her audience. Two characters urinate on stage, there are a variety of murders, with weapons such as machetes and sledgehammers, Mametesque foul language, and beyond that, the word rape is used casually, perhaps Callaghan's strongest point (but I don't think she's one of those "sex is rape" feminists). At other times characters roll around on the floor for no particular interest, and food is smeared on one actress's face, without comment. There was many an occurrence I felt embarrassed for the cast, but they certainly didn't show it, performing with a "let's put on a show" zeal.

In addition to Keller, I liked Lisa Joyce, as one of the murderous strippers. She has the expressive features of a silent-film star, and was something of a scene-stealer. Since she's the one who: A) pees on a bed, B) gets food smeared on her face, and C) is hacked with a machete, I think she deserves special commendation.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rendition


After reading The Dark Side, which dealt in part with the U.S.'s extraordinary rendition program, I was interested to see the 2007 film Rendition, which came out in 2007 with little attention.

The film, directed by Gavin Hood after his Oscar-winning film Tsotsi, is credited to one screenwriter (Kelley Sane) but seems to have been a victim of group-think, with studio fingerprints all over it. It tells the story of an Egyptian citizen, married to an American, who is pulled off a plane by the CIA, who suspect him of having terrorist ties. He is then sent, without due process, to a secret prison, a "black site," where he is interrogated to the point of torture. This, of course, is no fiction, and his case seems to have been modeled after that Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was nabbed in Macedonia and kidnapped to Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured for several months, even though most who were close to the situation thought he was innocent. He continued to be held because of a woman in the CIA (unnamed due to security issues) had a hunch that he was dangerous, a hunch that was ultimately shown to be wrong.

The woman with a hunch in Rendition is played by none other than Meryl Streep, who has three our four crisply-acted scenes. She is among a handful of big stars that populate Rendition, but none of them have much to do. Reese Witherspoon is the suspect's wife, and nothing against Witherspoon, but her casting is a kind of extreme storytelling. It's not enough that the man is innocent, but he also has to be married to America's sweetheart (and she is extremely pregnant to boot). Jake Gyllenhaal gives a sleepy performance as a green CIA analyst who watches the torture, and decides to defy orders and help the man, another bit of Hollywood fairy dust. Alan Arkin makes a small appearance as a U.S. senator, and Peter Sarsgaard does a nice turn as Arkin's assistant and Witherspoon's friend, who does all he can to help before he hits an impenetrable wall.

The film is earnest and takes the unambiguous stance that programs like extraordinary rendition are antithetical to America's laws and values, but there's something unseemly about it being handled like any typical Hollywood film. The scenes of torture don't approach the horrors of what actually happened, and the relatively quick rescue of the man, without mention of those who were incarcerated for years, or still are, is an insult. Also, a subplot involving the daughter of the head interrogator getting involved with a terrorist cell is underdeveloped and ultimately adds nothing to the film.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Edge of Heaven


Based on the two films I've seen by Fatih Akin, I can say with some certainty that he is in the top tier of directors in cinema today. I saw his film Head-On some years ago and admired it, and The Edge of Heaven, his follow-up, is even better.

Both films deal with Turkish emigres in Germany, but this film is less political than Head-On, and doesn't deal with discrimination, instead with a sense of dislocation. Akin, in the supplemental materials, calls his film "humanistic." And how! The Edge of Heaven is one of the better examples of how love and forgiveness ultimately are better emotions to carry around than hate and guilt.

Akin also must be just a bit fatalistic, for he begins two of the three "chapters" of the film (which is very novelistic in tone) with titles that indicate a particular character is going to die. This lessens the shock value of two violent deaths that without the titles would come as severe turns in the story, but by giving us warning Akin allows us to prepare for their deaths, as if he wanted to ease our grief.

The story concerns six characters, and begins with an old Turkish man living in Bremen becoming enamored with a prostitute, who is also a Turk. After her death (I'm not giving anything away, we know she's going to die from the first seconds of the film) the old man's son goes to Turkey to locate her daughter, not realizing that the daughter is actually in Germany, on the run as a fugitive (she is a member of a radical political organization). The daughter meets a German student, and they begin an affair, much to the consternation of the German girl's mother (played with quiet dignity by Hanna Schygulla, one-time star of many Rainer Fassbinder films).

I'll stop there, because this movie has the rare pleasure of being unable to predict, even with the death-announcing title cards. The film is set equally in Germany and Turkey, using both of those languages (plus a little English), but is more heavily influenced by the Turkish, a natural given Akin's nationality. The son, played in a low-key fashion by Baki Davrak, teaches German literature, and then goes back to Turkey and buys a shop that sells German books, indicating how divided he is culturally. Others in cast are Tuncel Kurtiz, a big star in Turkey, as the old man, and Nurgül Yeşilçay, a sex symbol in Turkey, is the prostitute's daughter.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pictures at a Revolution


Serious film buffs should run, not walk, to their local bookstore or library to get their mitts on a copy of Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris' fascinating examination the five films that were nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards (Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night). The book is almost impossible to put down, and offers more information than you could have thought you would have wanted.
Harris is such a good writer and researcher that I think he could have picked the nominees from any year, but 1967 is chosen because it was a tipping point between the Hollywood's Golden Era and the influx of young, iconoclastic filmmakers into the forefront. As he puts it in the introduction, "The Best Picture lineup was more than diverse; it was almost self-contradictory. Half of the nominees seemed to be sneering at the other half: The father-knows-best values of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was wittily trashed by The Graduate;the hands-joined-in-brotherhoood hopes expressed by In the Heat of the Night had little in common with the middle finger of insurrection extended by Bonnie and Clyde."

Harris starts with the conception of each film, and takes us by the hand through development, casting, production, post-production, and then ends at the Oscar ceremony, all the while giving us the bigger picture of the status of American films during the sixties (this was the time when Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA and set about dismantling the Production Code) and the country in general (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just before the awards were set to be held, and were ultimately postponed a few days). There's much to savor, for instance in the discussion of Bonnie and Clyde, we learn that the film was written by two Esquire staffers, Robert Benton and David Newman, as an homage to the French New Wave, and hoped to have Francois Truffaut direct. He almost did, and so did Jean-Luc Godard, who wanted to shoot it in New Jersey in the winter, but was told that the weather wouldn't cooperate. He replied, "I'm talking cinema and you're talking meteorology," and left the project.

Of course Warren Beatty would end up producing and starring, and he is one of the major characters who loom over the book. Early on we get the fascinating nugget that on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated Beatty was in the apartment of Stanley Kubrick, trying to talk the director into helming Beatty's project What's New, Pussycat? Kubrick declined, and of course Beatty would also end up leaving the project, which became the film debut of Woody Allen. Beatty's idea, of a Lothario as a sympathetic character, would end up gestating for another decade and become Shampoo.

Another major character is Mike Nichols, who begins the book as a celebrated improvisational comedian, becomes a wunderkind on Broadway (he wins three Tony Awards for Best Director in a row and has as many as four shows on Broadway at once) and then moves on to film. The Graduate was for a time to be his first film, but he ended up making Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first, and we learn all about how he tamed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Much of The Graduate is familiar, such as how Nichols plucked Dustin Hoffman from obscurity to play the lead role (he turned down Robert Redford, who matched the description of Benjamin Braddock in the book, but Nichols told Redford he couldn't play a loser). The film also got a lot of bad reviews, but was an incredible box-office hit, and usually the line of demarcation of those who liked and didn't was their age.

The third major character is Sidney Poitier, who at the beginning of the book is the first black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, and by the time the book ends is the biggest movie star in America, no easy feat considering that many Southern theaters wouldn't play some of his films. Poitier was in two of the profiled films, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and was almost in Doctor Dolittle (his part was eventually written out). Poitier was a lightning rod for almost everyone's attitude about race--he invariably played characters who were exemplary figures, as it wasn't felt that movies about fully dimensional black people, warts and all, could sell. Poitier realized the bind he was in--he was criticized by many liberals and more radical blacks for being a "negro in white-face" but there was little he could do about it, especially when Stanley Kramer, the director of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, purposely made sure that Poitier's character had no flaws. Of course, Poitier's turn as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night had more bite, particularly the scene in which Tibbs is slapped by a white bigot and slaps the man right back. The scene was a pivotal turning point in the history of Hollywood and race.

The most fun, schadenfreude-wise, is the discussion of Doctor Dolittle, which was a critical and box-office flop, but nonetheless got a Best Picture nod. Through this film Harris discusses the insular thinking of Hollywood studios that unfortunately still exists today, namely, that originality is shunned in favor of trying to duplicate the success of what has already come. After the phenomenal success of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music (which became the hightest grossing film ever at the time) studios fell in line, all generating huge, lumbering road-show musicals. Dolittle, based on a series of children's books, was a nightmare from start to finish. Alan Lerner, lyricist for My Fair Lady, was supposed to write the script, but dithered for several years before he was fired. There were huge cost overruns, problems with the menagerie of animals (memorably, a giraffe is sidelined because "he stepped on his cock") and the star, Rex Harrison, is a holy terror of difficult behavior. The film is released to complete indifference by the public and brickbats from the critics, but it's the only film from Fox had that could conceivably get Oscar nominations, so they mounted a campaign. Amazingly, it pays off. The explanation is that this was still the era of studio fidelity by voters. It was natural for those who worked for Fox to vote for a Fox film, as it helped their company earn money.

The segment on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner ties in old Hollywood, as it starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in what would turn out to be his last film (he died just a few days after completion of photography). Tracy scoffed at method acting (he was attributed as saying the key to good acting was to "remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture") and dominated Hepburn, who was famous for being a flinty, independent woman ahead of her time, but allowed Tracy to walk all over her.

I could go on and on with juicy details, (there's a long interesting discussion of how Bosley Crowther, the lead critic for the New York Times, wrote himself out of a job because of his vituperative hatred of Bonnie and Clyde) but you're better off reading the book yourself. Oh, and the winner of the Oscar? It was In the Heat of the Night (Nichols would win Best Director). Harris summarizes the reason for this thusly: "In the Heat of the Night'sfive Oscars represented a temporary compromise between the generationally divisive Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate and the dug-in fustiness that young moviegoers were mocking in their response to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Interestingly, it's those two more irreverent films that are remembered today as classics. Part of that is due to the undeniable fact that Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduatewere the two best of those five, but perhaps also because the young people of 1967 are the people who set the tone for the next few decades of Hollywood product.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two-Lane Blacktop


I watched a somewhat fascinating artifact from the sixties counterculture era last night, a 1971 B-picture about street racers called Two-Lane Blacktop. It was directed by Monte Hellman, who was mentored by Roger Corman, and stars rock musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as drifters who sustain themselves by winning car races for money.

This film is like a time capsule in that it represents a period long-gone but with a lot of appeal. The main characters (none of the characters are named--Taylor is known as "The Driver" and Wilson as "The Mechanic") ride around in a souped-up '55 Chevy, taking on all comers and cruising around the country. They are somewhat Zen in behavior, as they rarely speak and appear to have no interior lives. They pick up a young girl as a hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) who first sleeps with Wilson but then becomes attracted to Taylor, who starts to show emotion by betraying feelings for her.

Meanwhile, they keep running into Warren Oates, who drives a brand-new (1970) Pontiac GTO. Oates is sort of a representation of the bourgeoisie, wearing sweater vests and believing in the power of new technology over the boys' relic. Oates is also a liar, as he tells a different tall-tale to every hitchhiker he picks up (which is in itself a bit of time gone-by, as in those days it was conceivable to travel reliably by hitching). When Oates tries to tell Taylor his real story, Taylor tells him to stop, saying "It's not my problem."

Oates challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race to Washington, D.C., with the winner getting the title to the loser's car. Times being what they were, it's not very competitive, as frequently the lead car stops to let the lagger catch up, and Wilson even fixes Oates' car. In fact, the race is something of a McGuffin, as neither side completes it and the movie loses interest in who will win, instead ending with the frame melting against the projector bulb.

I liked a lot of this film, but you have to be in the spirit of it to enjoy it, as it's really a shaggy dog story with not a lot going on. Taylor and Wilson are not really actors, of course, but they aren't asked to do much. Viewed today, it's a wistful reminder of how life used to be in America, when the Interstates weren't the main routes (much of this film was shot on Route 66), people could safely hitchhike, and the car culture was in full bloom. Gearheads and grease monkeys will really dig this movie, as there's plenty of jargon about engines and horsepower that may have well as been in Urdu as much as I understood it. But even a guy like me, who would like nothing more than to never have to own a car again, can appreciate the look of a vintage GTO.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. It is a deliriously funny comedy that is infused with melancholy. It is a giddy waltz of lovers, but also contains one of the most vicious practical jokes in all of literature. It is a debate between hedonism and Puritanism, but in the end both sides are cast out of the play.

Last night I saw the McCarter Theater's production of the play, directed by Rebecca Taichman. On the whole, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I have definite ideas about how this play should be mounted so have some idiosyncratic differences with her approach. As with many productions that I've seen, Taichman hits the melancholy a little too hard. I agree with Harold Bloom, who writes in his book that the play should be as fast-paced as possible. In some ways it's a Marx Brothers movie before there was a Marx Brother. Yes, death is a constant topic throughout the text, but it should play second fiddle to the play's wacky love matches.

The plot concerns twins who are washed up on shore in the country of Illyria, each believing the other has drowned. Viola masquerades as a man (don't ask) and gains employment with Duke Orsino, who pines for the Countess Olivia, who won't see him because she is in mourning for her brother. In Olivia's household is her bluenosed steward, Malvolio, who is constantly at odds with her drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and his foppish friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who is also courting Olivia). When Viola, in the guise of Cesario, the Duke's courtier, entreats Olivia to love her master, Olivia instead falls for Cesario, not realizing she's in love with a woman. Meawhile Sebastian is alive, and his eventual arrival creates mistaken identity hijinks that Shakespeare previously used in The Comedy of Errors.

Shakespeare has created a world unto itself, peopled by characters who are flirting with madness. Characters are so gripped by love that it makes them loopy, and Taichman hits on this quite well. The motif for this production is rose petals, which flutter to the stage whenever a character succumbs to love. She also uses color quite effectively, as Veanne Cox, as Olivia, goes from wearing mourning black to an ever-changing series of bright-hued gowns in the second act. The only character who is sane is of course the fool, Feste, who after characters have been either matched together or banished, closes the evening with his wistful song, The Wind and the Rain. This is one of the examples where the evening is too lugubrious, as the music written for this song by Martin Desjardins makes the song sound like a dirge.

The actors are all a joy. Rebecca Brooksher makes a spirited Viola/Cesario, and she even goes the extra mile by proving to the Duke that she is a woman (and to the audience as well) which is not a new interpretation but certainly a surprising one. Stephen DeRosa is a terrific Feste (with a wonderful singing voice) and Ted van Griethuysen steals the show as Malvolio (the play has at times been retitled Malvolio). The scene in which he is tricked into thinking Olivia loves him is a tour de force, and was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

As the comic relief, the performers are all fine, especially Tom Story as Aguecheek, but some of the action rubbed me a little wrong. I've seen dozens of Shakespearean productions, and many of them take the opportunity to overemphasize the bawdiness of the text, which I find to be a way of trying to allow the audience to understand the language. Yes, there's a lot of coarse behavior in Shakespeare, which was written for the groundlings, but today I find this to be a crutch used by a director who doesn't trust the audience. In much of the byplay between Toby and Aguecheek, we get the characters miming urination, masturbation and cunnilingus. It's overkill.

Very often the lovers in Twelfth Night, other than Viola, suffer from comparison to the clowns, but Cox is an exception. She is probably too old for the part, but makes a wonderful transition from debilitating grief to goofy infatuation. I will forever remember her role on a Seinfeld episode where she plays a woman who heckles Jerry and her pinky toe is severed in a car accident, and flashing back to Seinfeld during Twelfth Night is not a bad thing. Christopher Innvar is properly moony as Orsino (he opens the play with the memorable line, "If music be the food of love, play on") and Kevin Isola is fine as Sebastian, even if he doesn't look like Brooksher (the implication of them being identical twins and wearing the same costumes is enough).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire


When I was in college I wrote a play about about some college theater students (following the dictum that you should write about what you know) and a few of the characters were involved in a production of A Streetcar Name Desire. This was a joke of sorts on my part, because I had a hard time imagining any group of college-age amateurs taking on the play by Tennessee Williams. Consider the difficulty of tackling the two main characters. One of them is a faded Southern belle on the edge of madness. She's only about thirty, so age isn't a huge issue, but the depths of her spiraling insanity and the way she is crushed during the course of the play require depths that few twenty-year-old girls could fathom. And the other, though technically not difficult to play--a blue-collar ruffian who is almost entirely libido--will forever be identified with one actor. In fact, is there any other character in all of drama history who is linked to one performer more than Stanley Kowalski is with Marlon Brando? How does an actor today approach the scene in which he is called upon to yell "Stella!" at the top of his lungs without flashing back to Brando? His performance is in the DNA of all living actors today.

So I was surprised to see a flier for a production of Williams' great play to be put on by students at Princeton University, and I had to see it (I had never seen it before). I was additionally surprised to find that the actors admirably made the characters their own.

The production was directed by a professional, Tracy Bersley, and for the most part the core of the text is served well. The set, designed by Jeffrey Van Velsor, is terrific, with a great eye to detail as he has constructed the two rooms of the Kowalski flat in New Orleans. The only expressionistic touch is the panoply of naked light bulbs that hang above the action--of course Blanche DuBois hates a naked light bulb, as much as she hates a rude remark. But Van Velsor also includes the bathroom on stage, which makes this production go beyond kitchen-sink realism--it's toilet realism. I believe it's the first time I've ever seen a stage production that has a toilet on view (and the seat is frequently up, as Stanley is a typical man) and characters that use it. Beyond the novelty of the situation, I don't see how this was necessary, but it is sure focused on--during scene changes the brightest light is on the upstage bathroom, as characters slip in and out of costume.

Shannon Lee Clair was the student called on to play Blanche DuBois, and she was sensational. Occasionally she would get lost in some of her longer speeches, but she managed to create a fully realized character (she also resembles Vivien Leigh, but in her role as Scarlett O'Hara). Tyler Crosby played Stanley, and he carefully avoided a Brando impersonation. He was properly cocky and pugnacious, and also found the humor in some of the lines, particularly the sequence on the Napoleonic Code. In the supporting roles, Veronic Siverd was properly domestic as Stella, though she struggled with the accent, while Shawn Fennell struggled gamely with Mitch. Fennell is a very tall fellow, and Clair is petite, so their scenes had an unintentional Mutt and Jeff comedy.

In the spirit of the occasion, I reread the play and then watched the film version from 1951, both of which were pleasures to me because I consider Williams to be America's greatest playwright. When Blanche says "I don't want realism, I want magic!" we can consider this to be Williams speaking through his character (many have mentioned that there's more than a little of Williams in Blanche). His plays were both realistic and magical, and are as heartbreaking as anything that have ever been written. I personally favor The Glass Menagerie, but Streetcar is right behind it, as the power of a woman representing the genteel era of Southern society being crushed by the brutality of the new, post-war American ethnicity is undeniable.

I have the two-disc edition of Streetcar that has some interesting extras, especially a look at the problems of censorship. At first, even though Streetcar won a Pulitzer Prize, it solicited no interest from movie studios because it had plot points that would never pass the Production Code (Blanche's nymphomania, the fact that her husband killed himself because he was a homosexual, and of course her rape by Stanley that pushes over the edge). It's interesting to see how Williams and director Elia Kazan got around these things, which of course seem extraordinarily tame today. In 1993 about four minutes of trimmed scenes were found and put back into the movie, which is now readily available. But one of my favorite exchanges from the play remains absent. Blanche asks Stanley what sign he was born under, and she is told Capricorn. In the play, he then asks her what sign she is. She answers, "Virgo, the Virgin," to which he responds with a derisive "Ha!"

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Mercy

Book three in my reading of the New York Times Best Books of 2008 brings me to A Mercy, a short novel by Toni Morrison. The only other book I've read by Morrison is Beloved, which I found inscrutable, and has made me feel like a dope to see it consistently praised as one of the great American novels ever written. Thankfully, A Mercy is much easier to understand, and is a poignant and lyrical meditation on slavery in all of its forms.

The book centers on a farm somewhere in a northern colony (probably New York) around 1690. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, (his surname is the Dutch word for "pig," poor fellow) has a distaste for participating in the flesh trade, but has a number of unpaid servants on his property: Lina, an Indian who as a girl was orphaned after her tribe was wiped out by small pox; two males, Willard and Scully, who are indentured servants working off their servitude; Sorrow, an odd child discovered in the wreckage of a ship; and Florens, an African-American whom Jacob takes for non-payment of a debt from a slaveholder in Maryland. Actually, Jacob is initially interested in Florens mother, but this mother urges him to take her daughter, which she describes as an act of mercy, since she is sure she will be treated better by this owner than her own.

This echoes a choice made by a mother in Beloved, who killed her child rather than see her live in slavery, and can almost be seen as Morrison as something of an atonement, much like Shakespeare wrote A Winter's Tale and allowed Hermione to live, after killing Desdemona in Othello. Or is it an act of mercy, as Florens' situation isn't as rosy as it seems.

The novel's structure is to alternate short, lovely chapters narrated by Florens with chapters having an omniscient narrator focus on each of the main characters, many of whom is suffering a certain kind of slavery. We learn about Lina's time with Indians, and how she was taken in by Jacob, who was then joined by his wife Rebekka from England, where she was a child in a restrictively religious household, and she is packed off to her husband in the new world like a commodity. Sorrow, the frequently mute child who imagines that she has a twin sister, is viewed with suspicion by the household, especially since she keeps getting pregnant. Then there is the free black man, an iron worker who creates a magnificent gate for Jacob, and whom Florens pines for. He, however, refuses Florens attentions for a powerful reason.

The prose is frequently stunning, especially the similes used by Florens to describe some aspect of nature, such as referring to icicles as "knives," or a moose moving away "like a chieftain," or a "sheet of sparrows." There's also some droll passages, such as sachem from Lina's tribe prophesying about the coming of the Europeans: "They would come with languages that sounded like dog bark; with a childish hunger for animal fur. They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god." I'd say he nailed it.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Gomorra


Gomorra is a critically lauded and prize-winning film directed by Matteo Garrone, based on a book by Roberto Saviano, about the Camorra, a crime syndicate that has a choke-hold on a section of Italy around Naples. Despite the accolades this film has received, I found myself mostly baffled and bored. It's a real stem-winder--about two and a half hours, punctuated by scenes of raw violence, but mostly dealing in the tedium of daily life in a crime-ridden city.

The film begins with some men being killed in a tanning salon. We never learn who they or their killers are. Then we follow roughly five different stories as they touch upon the activities of the Camorra. I spent much of the first two-thirds of the movie trying to keep everyone straight and wondering how they connected with each other, mostly unsuccessfully. In the last half hour or so the bigger picture emerges, but it took real fortitude to wait that out, and in fact a little voice inside my head urged me to walk out about half-way through, as the couple behind me did.

The most compelling of the five stories involved the young: a pair of teens, who want to emulate Tony Montana of Scarface, steal some weapons from the mob and defy the warnings from the local boss, and a grocery-delivery boy is initiated into his local gang (this involved being shot in the chest while wearing a bulletproof vest) and is asked to betray the mother of his friend. If the film had been pared down to deal with these two stories, it would have made a better show, I think. The cycle of violence, which is common to many big cities around the world, is vividly etched here.

The other stories are more quotidian. A dress maker takes on a dangerous, second job of training Chinese garment workers, a waste disposal manager illegally dumps toxic waste on land leased to him by a local godfather hard up for money, and a meek middleman who pays off relatives of imprisoned gangsters gets caught up in an internecine war. These stories at times crawl by and are rarely engaging.

Gomorra is largely nonjudgmental. Only in the closing credits are we even made aware of what we have been watching (I may be wrong, but the word Camorra is never mentioned in the action of the film, nor do we know for sure where it's taking place until then) and these end titles express an outrage over the violence perpetrated that the film itself lacks. The film has a docudrama feel, with hand-held cameras, very tight closeups, and naturalistic acting (much of it is very good). I just never got a sense of why I was watching this, and what it all meant.

Incidentally, most of us non-Italians think of that country as a home to some beautiful buildings, but the architecture on display here is downright depressing, worthy of an Eastern bloc nation in the bitterest cold of the cold war. If I lived in an apartment building that ugly I might want to shoot the architect.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watchmen

When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's comic book series Watchmen was published in the mid-eighties, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the graphic novel world, and rightly so. A deconstruction of the superhero mythos, plus a commentary on the nature of vigilantism and evil itself, it was even the only graphic novel on Time Magazine's 2005 list of the top 100 works of literature from 1923 to the present.

The film version has been kicking around since then, and in the twenty plus years the material has become horribly dated. Watchmen is set in 1985, during the last stages of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation was on the minds of many. Today this seems somewhat quaint, sort of like the snort of laughter you might hear if someone were to stand on a soapbox and blast someone as being a communist.

But even if Watchmen is a period piece, it is a turgid, unpleasant one, largely due to a director, Zack Snyder, who is reverential to the source material to the point of seeming to lack an original idea. Let me lay this argument out to start by mentioning the soundtrack, which is laced with songs that are so obvious as to defy understanding. A credit sequence, which gives us a montage to explain the history of costumed superheroes, is set to Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'". A funeral is accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" (what--they couldn't get the rights to "Funeral For a Friend"?) and perhaps most criminal is a scene of the war in Vietnam set to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Mr. Snyder, I saw Apocalypse Now in its original release at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, and you are no Francis Ford Coppola. Finally there's a sex scene accompanied by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Any director who would shoot this scene, look at it, and pronounce it fit for general consumption isn't a director fit to helm a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel, let alone a film using as complex a source as Watchmen.

The novel and film are set in 1985, in a world where there are costumed superheroes. Well, there are costumed vigilantes--they don't really have super-powers, just neat get-ups and some good fighting moves. The only character with any power is Dr. Manhattan, who was once a physicist but after an accident became a shimmering blue figure with powers approaching god-like status (and is endowed to match). He can manipulate matter, see the past, present and future all at the same time, and teleport anywhere (he likes to get away from it all on Mars). With him on America's side, the Vietnam War ends in victory in a week, and enables Nixon to stay in office (Nixon is portrayed in the film by an actor wearing one of the worst make-up jobs in recent memory).

Despite Dr. Manhattan's help to Nixon, masked vigilantes have been banned, so those who were still in operation have retired, except for one, a right-wing sociopath called Rorschach, who wears a mask that has an ever-changing pattern of inkblots. Rorschach doesn't coddle criminals, he's more likely to bury cleavers in their skulls. When another former superhero, a bloodthirsty psycho who calls himself The Comedian, gets thrown out of his penthouse apartment, Rorschach suspects someone is after them all, so he goes to his former mates, who include a dweebish Batman-like type who calls himself Nite Owl, a sexy girl (and Dr. Manhattan's gal pal) the Silk Spectre, and "the smartest man in the world," who goes by the code-name Ozymandias, and has a research facility in Antarctica.

Because the Watchmen comics were so labyrinthian, the resulting screenplay is faithful but bare-boned. Missing are two subplots, a Pirate comic-book called Tales of the Black Freighter and a history of early superheroes called Under the Hood, both of which are being released separately on DVD (and will be included in an extended version of Watchmen). The bare bones, though, are still almost three hours long, but didn't need to be. Snyder can not be called an economical fillmmaker. He is in love with slow-motion, and hammering home points so that even a simpleton could understand. Some scenes intercut with the Comedian's funeral are an example. How many times do we need to see rain pelting the gloomy funeral-goers? And the film's coda, which was accomplished in the comic book in one panel, Snyder manages to drag out to about three minutes of film.

There are problems that would vex the finest of directors, though. As stated, the world is a different place than in 1985, so the Soviet stuff comes across like old people telling us about the days when there was no TV. Also, there's just something inherently silly about seeing superheroes off of the comic book page and in live action. Can we really believe that no one knew the secret identities of these people, even though some of them barely wore masks? Would anyone take seriously a superhero called Nite Owl, who flew an airship called Archimedes? Some of this material doesn't transcend the realm of greasy kid stuff. And what to do as an actor when you're called on to say lines like, "It's tough all over, cupcake, it rains on the just and the unjust," or "What happened to the American dream?"

As for the actors, some hold their own and avoid embarrassment. Patrick Wilson, as the Owlish one, seems almost embarrassed from the start. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, made up to look like J. Johan Jameson, has a lot of fun with the Comedian, and Jackie Earle Haley is quite good as Rorschach (although he's stolen Christian Bale's Batman whisper). Not fairing so well are Malin Akerman, horribly wooden as Silk Spectre and Matthew Goode, too smarmy by far as Ozymandias. As for Billy Crudup, well, he has to play the part of a being who has lost most of his humanity, so his flat line readings are perfectly appropriate, I suppose.

I read Watchmen back in '88, and I'd forgotten most of the details, but seeing the film brought many of the vivid images back, such as dogs fighting over the bones of a murdered child. I'm tempted to pull it off the shelf and read it again--it may take less time than sitting through the movie.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Newsbabes


Another by-product of unemployment is being home to watch TV all day, and what I usually tune in is cable news. My station of choice is MSNBC, as I only watch Fox News when I'm a captive audience and suffer accordingly, and I find CNN to be arid and corporate. MSNBC, of course, is home to several commentators of a liberal bent, like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews, but during the day it's a fairly standard news outfit, staffed mostly by attractive young women.

From the times I have watched Fox News and CNN, they have the same staffing requirements. The newscasters are all pretty in a certain kind of dignified, country club way, the kind of women you see in pictures on the wedding announcement pages of the New York Times. Since my tastes in women are very catholic, from goth to hippies, the blow-dried newscaster is also a category that appeals to me.

MSNBC has a basic staff during the day that consists of Contessa Brewer, Tamron Hall, Monica Novotny, and Norah O'Donnell (pictured). The token man is David Shuster, and during the afternoon Andrea Mitchell also appears. No disrespect to Mitchell, but she earned her place by reporting skills, not her looks, and I have to wonder what she thinks being surrounded by what looks like refugees from a beauty pageant. Even the correspondents, like White House reporter Savannah Guthrie, Florida correspondent (we hear from her on all Casey Anthony reports) Michelle Kosinski, and entertainment report Courtney Hazlett are lookers. The male reporters are not exceptionally handsome, so there appears to be something of a double standard going on. If I were a woman getting into TV journalism, and were plain or overweight, I would have to think about a different career, maybe radio.

I'm not complaining. The women on MSNBC are all approaching competent. Hall is the weakest, as she usually interrupts her interview subjects with mindless asides. Brewer can also be annoying, as she approaches an issue with one slice of information and hangs onto it like a dog with a bone, but she is also charming in a goofy way and I'm afraid I've developed quite a crush on her. O'Donnell is the glamour queen of the group, probably because of the sexy photo shoot she did for GQ some years ago.

When I get back to work (hopefully soon) and I'm back to waking up early to watch Good Morning, America, I can once again moon over their cute financial reporter, Bianna Golodryga. Sigh!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Confessions of a Magazine Junkie


Since I've been unemployed I've had a lot of free time on my hands, and I've been doing a lot of reading. Not only of books, but I've rediscovered a love of magazines like the New Yorker. I find a tangible pleasure in kicking back at night, maybe with some music on, and leafing through a good magazine, disappearing in the world that the periodical creates. This is probably a pleasure that is on borrowed time.

There's a lot of talk about the dying of the daily newspaper, but magazines are also on the critical list. Shrinking ad revenues and the usurping Internet are tolling the death knell for weeklies and monthlies. When I was employed, I spent a lot of time web surfing on my downtime, and it's easy to read magazines on the 'Net, but now, since I have dial-up, I don't go on online more than two or three times a day, and usually just check my main sites and then get off. How nice it is to actually look at a magazine in paper form!

I worked for years for magazines, most prominently Penthouse Variations, and while there I took great pride in being a magazine editor. Me and my boss used to look at other magazines and go over how successful or not they were. I've subscribed to dozens of different magazines over the years, sometimes just for the design--I actually subscribed to Elle for a while. When I'm at my mother's I like leafing through her issues of Country Living, not because I have a Jones for making a cozy rustic homestead, but because I think the magazine is successful in look and tone, and it takes me to a world apart from my own.

Sometimes I'll subscribe to a magazine and read it cover to cover for a while, but then burn out on it after a while, when some of the themes just get recycled. I found this with Vanity Fair and also a magazine called Wild West, which was a history magazine devoted to, well, you can guess. I've also subscribed to magazines that have either folded or have hit hard times, like Premiere, Movieline, Esquire and GQ. I also got the lad magazines like Maxim, Stuff and FHM (only Maxim still exists on paper).

Today, I stick with a few magazines that I've gotten for years, like Playboy, which I've gotten for thirty years (and I think it will be online only within five years or so--certainly after Hefner dies). I also enjoy Entertainment Weekly, though it's focus has skewed horribly toward teenyboppers lately--there have been four covers recently on the Twilight film--but it's the best consumer magazine on the film industry still being printed. For politics I get The Nation, which is a weekly on newsprint that has been published for over 150 years and is rabidly leftist. I also enjoy Conde Nast Travel, and a quarterly called Poets and Writers, which is handsomely put together and well written (as one would hope it would be).

Now that I'm back with The New Yorker again I went ahead and filled out the subscription card. When I do have a job, it will be harder to keep up with it, since it's a weekly. I also sent in a card for New York, which isn't as sophisticated, but has it's fun aspects. It's also a weekly, but a subscription can be had for a year at less than twenty dollars. That's too good a deal to resist.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Mountain

Sometimes I learn about new bands by reading about them, and take a flyer and buy their album without hearing any of their songs. I did that with the Heartless Bastards, but by the time I got the album in the mail (ordered for Amazon, natch) I had heard them on the David Letterman Show. I've listened to the album several times now, and each time I like it a little bit more.

The bit I read about them compared the lead singer and songwriter, Erika Wennerstrom, to Chrissie Hynde, and there is that aura of the hard-edged rock chick in her appearance and vocals. She also reminds me some of Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her voice is deep and penetrating, and she really knows how to enunciate the "ou" diphthong.

The songs on The Mountain have the sound of darkness and desperation, though the lyrics have the outgrowth of hope. I like this quatrain from "Could Be So Happy:" "I could be so happy if I just quit being sad/I could be so funny if I just quit being a drag/I could be so sweet if I just quit being sour/I could do all these things oh I have the power." Or this, from "Hold Your Head High:" "I made a lot of choice most have not been wise/But I have s really good friends I've been fortunate to find/They get me through the lonely days when I want to stay inside myself/They get me out of my shell out into the world." Most of the titles of the songs are prosaic and are simply part of the lyrics, except for the intriguingly titled "Witchypoo."

Musically, the Heartless Bastards have a bluesy rock sound with a hint of Appalachia, especially in a couple of late tracks, which utilize mandolin and violin. The aforementioned "Could Be So Happy" has only a strumming guitar backing Wennestrom's vocals. But most of the songs are straight-forward rock and roll numbers. The best song, I think, is the one they wisely performed on Letterman, called "Out to Sea."