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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Constantine

I was pleasantly surprised by Constantine, a 2005 film based on a comic book (unread by me) that involves a man who battles demons from Hell. Though it is directed without subtlety by Francis Lawrence, the film succeeds in establishing a mood and even has a measured and shrewd performance by Keanu Reeves.

Reeves is John Constantine, a kind of man for hire who deals with the occult. We open with him exorcising a teenage girl, and he's surprised that a demon is trying to break into the human world. We learn that a balance between good and evil is upheld--neither angels nor demons are permitted into the human plane. But as more and more demons start showing up, Constantine learns that the devil's son is planning to emerge into Earth, with the help of a holy relic.

At Reeves side is Rachel Weisz, as a cop whose twin sister committed suicide, and Shia LeBeouf as his apprentice. As long as the film focuses on character and atmosphere I was right there with it, but the action scenes are loud and busy, with lots of broken glass and smashed walls. Also, the special effects showing Hell and the demons breaks no ground.

There a couple of notable cameos: Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel, and Peter Stormare as Lucifer himself.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In the Red and Brown Water

The McCarter Theater of Princeton has always done well to represent African-American voices in theater, and this season they are presenting three new plays, in repertory, by a young black playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney. I saw one of the plays last night, and next month will see the other two (which are one-acts).

The feature-length play is In the Red and Brown Water, and it almost hurts me to say that I was profoundly unmoved. It hurts because the cast and direction were top-notch, and there is a lot of effort on view. But as the play moved along, I was almost completely uninterested in what was unfolding. The trappings of the play overwhelmed the story, which was weak.

Set in the Bayou country of Louisiana, In the Red and Brown Water focuses on Oya, a young woman who has a run of bad luck. In the first few minutes her mother dies, after she has turned down a scholarship to the State University (she's a track star). Then she has a troublesome relationship with a macho guy, who ultimately leaves her to join the Army, and she settles into a comfortable but passionless affair with a nice guy who stutters (but he stops when he talks to her). Through all of this Oya can not conceive a child, which seems to trouble the whole community.

There may be more that I missed--the Creole accents are pretty strong and I didn't hear everything. Aside from that, though, the cast is energetic and appealing, particularly Kianne Muschett as Oya. The play has a lot of musicality, and has clear connections to the traditions of the black church.

McCraney, as a playwright, shows promise, as his prose is very lyrical, but he has to shake some beginner's clumsiness. For one thing, he has his characters stating their stage directions, which at times gets some laughs, but more often seems an indulgent affectation. And I just couldn't get into the story. When, at the climax, Oya pulls a stunt worthy of Van Gogh, it seems to come out of nowhere.

Look back here next month to see how I like the second half of this repertory program.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13


I've never seen the original version of Assault on Precinct 13, directed by John Carpenter, or the movie that it was based on, Rio Bravo, by Howard Hawks. I did see the third incarnation, released in 2005 and directed by Jean-Francois Richet, and apparently there are diminishing returns, because this film is routine and frequently muddled.

It's New Year's Eve in Detroit, and a snowstorm is blowing. Ethan Hawke plays the desk sergeant in a precinct house that is being shut down, so it's short-staffed and without a lot of equipment. He's damaged goods--he was an undercover cop who was involved in an incident where two of his partners were killed, so he hides in a desk job. On the evening in question, he's joined by a cop on the eve of retirement (Brian Dennehy) and a secretary who's attracted to bad boys (Drea DeMatteo).

Meanwhile, the city's biggest druglord, Laurence Fishburne, is arrested and because of the snow he and three other garden-variety criminals are brought to the old precinct. Everyone settles in for a quiet New Year's, until masked men show up trying to shoot their way in.

The difference with this film from Carpenter's is that the assault is led by bad cops, which means they have superior firepower and are even able to jam cell-phone signals. Fishburne tells Hawke that it's the squad led by Gabriel Byrne, because they were on the take, and know Fishburne will testify against them. The skeleton crew, including the prisoners, arm themselves and try to last until dawn.

There are a lot of good actors in this piece. Including those mentioned, John Leguizamo is a junkie, and Maria Bello is Hawke's police department psychologist (turns out she's neurotic--surprise!) There are a few surprises, as one character dies that I didn't expect to and the cliche about a cop who's about to retire is turned on its ear. Otherwise, though, it's a standard-issue action film. Some of the action sequences are well-handled, but others are murky, and I'm not quite sure what happened.

Also, a movie set in Detroit is sure to feature a squalid, crime-ridden face. But is the city so forlorn that a massive strategic strike against a police station, complete with rocket-launchers and a helicopter, would go unnoticed? And if Byrne were successful, how exactly would he explain a bunch of dead bodies shot by police weapons? There's a plot hole in this film a mile wide.

The best part of this film is Fishburne's performance. He plays a bad-ass who is always calm under pressure, and forms alliances for his own self-preservation, but also has the shred of a moral code. It's a shame he didn't have a better script.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Silverado

Silverado is a richly entertaining film, the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. This is the meat loaf of Westerns. I saw it first in one of those film classes in NYC back in '85, and Brian Dennehy, who gives a charmingly malevolent performance, was the guest star at our class. I think I saw it once again before my latest screening yesterday.

Directed and co-written by Laurence Kasdan, it is an affectionate homage to old-fashioned Westerns. The genre began to change in the Vietnam-era, when attitudes about Indians and manifest destiny changed, and revisionist Westerns were the norm. But Silverado hearkens back to the days when Westerns were about bravery, loyalty, and the black and white-hatted sense of moral justice.

The opening scene, in which Scott Glenn is ambushed in a shack, recalls John Ford's The Searchers. That film ended with a door shutting while John Wayne stands outside. In Silverado, the door opens, and we see a beautiful vista of frontier America. Glenn survives the scrape, and comes across Kevin Kline, who has been robbed and left for dead in the desert. Glenn helps him out, and the two form a fast friendship. Kline's character is consistently entertaining, a gunfighter with a sentimental streak. I would have loved to see more films featuring this character.

The group of heroes doubles with Glenn's irrepressible brother, Kevin Costner (in an early role for him), and Danny Glover as tough guy with an unerring aim with his rifle who finds that his family's homestead in the title town has been burned out by the local cattle king. It turns out that Glenn and his family are also at odds with the cattlemen, and Kline's old partner in crime, Dennehy, is the town's sheriff and firmly in the pocket of these same cattlemen. Push comes to shove and there's a big battle between the forces of good on one side against the forces of evil. If it isn't clear who is who, when Kline faces down Dennehy in an old-fashioned quick-draw, the church is right behind his shoulder.

This is all a lot of fun, even if it parts of it ring a little hollow. Silverado is a copy, not an original, but it's a good copy. There are bit too many characters--when Jeff Goldblum shows up halfway through as a gambler called Slick there could be some eye-rolling--but Kasdan does a pretty nice job of keeping all the balls in the air. I enjoyed a brief appearance by John Cleese as a sheriff, who reprises the Monty Python line, "What's all this, then?" Each of the four heroes has his particular nemesis to face down at the end, so there isn't just one ending but four. Depending on your taste, this is either way too many endings or an abundance of riches.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nightmare Alley


Nightmare Alley (which is a great title) is a film noir from Fox, released in 1947, and directed by Edmund Goulding. It's an uneven but often searing look at carnie life, as well a character who travels a fascinating arc.

The film opens at a carnival somewhere in the middle of the country. Tyrone Power is a barker who works with a mentalist act, played by Joan Blondell. Her partner, Ian Keith, is a broken-down alcoholic. Power urges her to teach him a code that she used in vaudeville which could get them out of the carnival circuit. He achieves this when he accidentally gives Keith pure alcohol to drink, poisoning him to death.

Power eventually marries a pretty young acrobat, Coleen Gray, and they become a successful nightclub act using Blondell's code. Power has a never-ending ambition, though, and when he meets an unscrupulous psychoanalyst (Helen Walker) they team up in a phony spiritualist act to bilk some rich people out of a lot of money. Since this is noir, though, Walker is not on the up and up, and Power ends up on a path that leads him back to the carnival.

This a very bleak picture, with a softened ending of partial redemption that was demanded by the studio. Despite that, the plot harshly punishes Power for his ambition, especially when it dares cross over into a quasi-religious area. Growing up in an orphanage, religion was pounded into Power, and he knows how to use his gift for gab to finagle others. In many ways, he's a forerunner to the Jimmy Swaggart-style preacher of more modern times.

The film's visual style is very noir--lots of dark shadows. The acting is also very good, especially Power, who wanted to make this film (it was based on a hit novel) to change his image. Blondell is excellent as a performer who has seen her better days, and Gray is also good as the only innocent character in the film. Walker practically simmers as the femme fatale who hoodwinks Power. It is interesting that the film seems to equate psychoanalysis with humbuggery like mind-reading and Tarot cards.

What keeps the film from being a classic is the inconsistency of tone and the tendency for the script to go off on tangents, especially regarding religion. It's hard to know whether the intention is to warn those who would dare to take God name's in vain (Power mentions this specifically) or if the film is taking a cynical view of religion in general. I suspect the former, but the film would have better served to cover this in a tighter manner.

There are some brilliant scenes, though. When Power, knocked off his high horse, is with a camp of hobos and repeats a speech made to him by Keith, I got chills. This film is well worth seeing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Forty Guns

Forty Guns is an odd Western from Samuel Fuller, a hero to many directors of today. According to one source, the film was panned in America but praised in Europe, and that makes sense.

Shot in CinemaScope, yet in black and white, the film is a chance for Fuller to show off his technical virtuosity, but since he is also the screenwriter he must share the blame for a pretty dreadful script that is by turns no better than a B-picture and a psychosexual drama.

Forty Guns stars Barbara Stanwyck as a ranch owner and power of Cochise County, Arizona. In am impressive opening shot, she and her men, whom she calls the "dragoons" and give the title its name, ride along a trail, passing a small wagon containing three men. They are the Bonell brothers, the oldest of whom, Barry Sullivan, is a legendary gunfighter. The next oldest is Gene Barry, another top gun but a much more laconic fellow, and the youngest is Robert Dix, whom the older brothers are putting on a stage to join their father in California. Dix wants to be a gunman, but Sullivan wants him to be a farmer.

The Bonells are in town to bring in one of Stanwyck's men on a federal warrant. She controls all of the political power in town, including a weak-willed sheriff, Dean Jagger (in a role very similar to the one he played in Bad Day at Black Rock). Stanwyck's brother, John Ericson, is a no-good type who constantly shoots up the town and instantly becomes Sullivan's enemy. Things get complicated when Stanwyck and Sullivan become attracted to each other, sharing a special moment holed up in a shack together while a tornado rages across the plains.

The film was released in 1958, when Westerns were ubiquitous in movie houses and television. This one doesn't offer much new. Sullivan makes a good steely-eyed gunslinger who is proud to say he hasn't killed anyone in ten years. Barry is amusing as a Dean Martin-type who fancies the daughter of the local gun shop owner (Eve Brent). When they share a clinch Barry says, "I've never kissed a gunsmith before." Fuller also lets us see Brent from Barry's point of view when he stares at her through the barrel of a gun.

There's a lot of weirdness going on. Jagger is revealed to be in love with Stanwyck, but is constantly emasculated. During one scene that is full of Freudian implication, Stanwyck asks to hold Sullivan's gun. "It might go off in your face," he tells her. Hmmm.

I don't know too much about Fuller, other than that directors from Scorsese to Tarantino worship him. This spring I saw one of his films, Pickup on South Street, that is a minor classic. Forty Guns misses the mark.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The NFL Draft


Baseball season is underway, and the playoffs in the NBA and NHL have begun. So what has dominated the cable sports news programs for the last week? The NFL draft, of course, an event in which the athletes' most strenuous move is to stand up, hug their families, and don the cap of the team that is going to make them millionaires.

This event is now holy in many homes where football is a religion. Before ESPN came along, it wasn't even televised, but now it's going to be pushed into prime time and gets absurd ratings. It proves a couple of things: football is king of sports in America, and if you put some things on television, no matter how boring, people will watch them.

I will admit some years parking myself in front of the set and watching this thing, hour after hour. Some years I realize life can be more fulfilling, and will watch the first couple of picks and then move on. This year I will certainly tune in to see who the Lions pick number one (I guess it will be Matthew Stafford, which I think is a mistake) and then turn the set off and try to enjoy a glorious spring day.

The draft is an essential part of football, as it is the easiest way for bad teams to get good. But it's way overblown. I was watching ESPN when one of the many reporters discussing it (and how many guys are needed to examine every detail of this? The economy clearly hasn't hurt the sports bloviating industry) said that the draft was more exciting than the Super Bowl. Now that blew my mind. When the business of the sport becomes more appealing than the on-field game, there's something seriously askew. I think he's nuts--watching Chris Berman talk about a left tackle from Utah State is only a little more thrilling than watching grass grow, and certainly can't compare with a last minute touchdown pass. But that's just me.

The growth of the NFL draft as entertainment has done one interesting thing--it made Mel Kiper rich and famous. Kiper is an interesting figure, mocked by many, but you have to give him his due. He started examining college football players and their draft potential when he was a teenager, before ESPN was on the air. He published a newsletter and eventually was hired as a TV analyst, arguing football skills with established commentators, coaches, and players. Somehow he turned this into a year-round affair, and has done quite well for himself, considering when he started there was no such thing as a draft expert. He is a wonk on the subject, and when he starts tossing off facts about players from schools that no one in the audience has seen play you have to be impressed. I don't know that there's anyone on television who appears to know more about his subject than Kiper.

Some consider draft day to be a new sports holiday, a day for men to put on their favorite teams' jersey, get well stocked in beer and salty snacks, and settle into the Barcalounger for hours of football arcana. This has had a ripple effect, where now the combine is covered closely, and the results of players' Wonderlich tests are scrutinized along with their time in the forty and the amount of weight they can bench. I say it's goofy, and I'll pay attention to football again when the season starts in September.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Great Buck Howard


This film is a lightweight but pleasant film that is bursting with affection. Write and director Sean McGinly briefly served as a road manager for the Amazing Kreskin, a "mentalist" who was a ubiquitous talk-show guest in the 1970s, and it's clear that McGinly both loved and hated him, but mostly loved.

For anyone old enough to remember Kreskin, the similarities are apparent. The crippling hand-shake, the precise enunciation of the patter, and the signature trick of letting the audience hide his performance fee--if he can't find it, he forfeits it. There's a title card at the end of the picture thanking Kreskin for the inspiration--maybe it's also to hold off a lawsuit.

I say that because McGinly's Buck Howard is not a cuddly figure. John Malkovich plays him with magnificent verve, and is a joy to behold. Howard is reduced to performing in small cities to half-filled auditoriums, but he never fails to give a good show, and somehow manages to be both a glad-hander and a man who suffers no fools.

Colin Hanks is the stand in for McGinly, a bland character who has dropped out of law school, much to the disappointment of his father (Colin's real dad, a sometime actor named Tom). Looking for adventure, he takes a job with Howard as his road manager, and rides the rollercoaster of Howard's rage and his praise, which can sometimes happen within the same minute. Hanks rolls with it, and carries a respect for his employer, and can never figure out how he does the hidden pay trick. He is also repeatedly asked about Howard's sexual orientation, another mystery. Nothing is said about Howard's hairstyle.

Things get complicated at a big gig in Cincinnati, when Howard hopes to revive his flagging career by performing a big stunt. He hires a publicist (Emily Blunt), but she constantly lets him down, as well as entering into an obligatory relationship with Hanks. Things go horribly wrong, but Howard ends up getting an extra fifteen minutes of fame, which gets him back on TV and a deal with a Vegas casino, but it's clear that Howard just wasn't made for these times.

This is not a hard-hitting film, it's a relaxing and occasionally amusing hour and a half that is a tip of the derby to a byegone era of entertainment. The screenplay is over earnest, with way too much voice-over narration by Hanks (including the dreaded "it was then that I realized" ). The film is also packed with celebrity cameos, from Martha Stewart to Gary Coleman. So many real-life talk-show hosts show up that I'm baffled as to how Larry King avoided being in this. This is more distracting than anything else, although I did smile at the eventual appearance of Jay Leno, who Howard refers to as "Satan."

If you have a nostalgia for the old days of TV in the Mike Douglas Show era, or want to see a finely-etched performance by Malkovich, this could be worth your while. Like the main character, it's a film that is hard to hate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Rocker


I was pleasantly surprised by The Rocker, an amiable film that has a decent amount of laughs and manages to avoid cringing cliches. Directed by Peter Cattaneo, who helmed The Full Monty, both films share a measure of heart without resorting to rank sentimentality.

Rainn Wilson stars as someone with a real hard-luck story: he's a drummer in an 80s heavy metal band who is jettisoned just as his mates are signed to a label. They go on to be big stars, while he spends the next twenty years in menial jobs, stewing in bitterness. If the comparison to Pete Best, who suffered the same fate when he was fired from The Beatles, isn't apparent enough, Best makes a cameo in the film.

Wilson loses his job and his girlfriend (and therefore his domicile) in short order and moves in with his sister and her family. His nephew, a chubby nerd well played by Josh Gad, has a band that is going to play the prom, but their drummer gets grounded. Desperate, they turn to Wilson, who hasn't pounded the skins in twenty years but can't resist the chance to be on stage again. Eventually, after some false starts (and skeptical parents) the band hits the big time, sparked by an accidental YouTube video of Wilson playing the drums naked. But when they get the chance to open for the band that fired him, Wilson refuses. Will the show go on?

The film never quites reaches the promise of the set-up, in which Wilson makes a beguiling sad sack who never manages to lose his flair for rock-star life. In many ways it's similar to Jack Black's performance in School of Rock, but Wilson, with his bizarrely-shaped head and complete lack of shame, makes the part distinctive, and I laughed at the turns of slapstick, which were as simple as him banging his head on a rafter or throwing a drumstick into a crowd and smacking someone in the face. Sometimes that's all it takes.

The supporting characters are also well crafted. In addition to Gad, Teddy Geiger is the singer and songwriter, who has a Cobain-like angst, and Emma Stone has the spunky bass-player, who harbors a crush on Geiger. Also in the cast is Christina Applegate as Geiger's mother and eventually Wilson's love interest, which is a bit far-fetched. In yet another reminder that I'm getting old, it's jarring to see the actress who played Kelly Bundy now playing a MILF.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Observe and Report


A lot of the chatter about Observe and Report has centered on the fact that it is the second movie in a few months about a mall security guard, following the hit Paul Blart, Mall Cop. I haven't seen that film, but I feel like I have after seeing the commercial. The film that Observe and Report is really like, believe it or not, is Taxi Driver. The sad thing, though, is that Taxi Driver had more laughs.

Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a simmering cauldron of rage who is employed at a generic mall. The idea that a shopping mall is a simulacrum of American society is pretty old by now, and has been addressed by directors as diverse as Paul Mazursky, Kevin Smith, and George Romero. The writer/director of this picture is Jody Hill, who was the director of The Foot Fist Way (unseen by me). After watching Observe and Report, I would think twice about meeting this guy.

The film begins with a pervert flashing women at the mall. He's even wearing a trench coat, like in old Playboy cartoons (do guys do this anymore?). Rogen is obsessed with catching him, particularly after his fantasy girl, an obnoxious cosmetic-counter girl played charmlessly by Anna Faris, is flashed. Rogen resents the police presence, in the person of a detective played by Ray Liotta.

Right away I felt like slinking out of the theater. First of all, it's not clear why the mall manager wouldn't have fired Rogen a long time ago, especially after he interferes with a police investigation. Secondly, Rogen's character is like nails on a blackboard, you just want him to go away. I think we're supposed to root for him, but I spent the film wanting him to be locked away and violated, repeatedly.

Rogen tries to join the police academy, fails the psychological exam, and manages to get a date with Faris, proving his love by kissing her after vomiting. The section of the film that deals with their date is particularly shrill, and doesn't do Faris any favors. Things continue to get worse for him to the point where he is hauled out of the mall by an entire squadron of cops who beat him senseless. But by the film's end, just like Travis Bickle, he acquits himself as a hero.

I didn't find this film funny at all. Most of it is deadpan obnoxiousness, as if Hill is trying to tell us he's above it all. He hates his characters, so why should we like them? The only characters I liked are Liotta, who seems to be on loan from a better movie, an actress named Collette Wolfe, who plays a coffee vendor )and "born-again virgin") who inexplicably likes Rogen, though he's too stupid to realize it, and Celia Weston, who has the film's few funny lines as his perpetually drunk mom (she makes a big life decision by deciding to stick only to beer).

The definitive scene in this film is when Rogen and his partner, Michael Pena, go medieval on some kids skateboarding in the mall parking lot. I was slack-jawed while watching this--I guess it was supposed to be funny, and if so I despair. Do people really think it's funny for kids to be bashed in the head by skateboards? I don't get it.

Are mall-cop movies the genre of the moment? A few weeks ago I was in a mall and saw a guard riding on a Segway. I couldn't help but inwardly snicker. I'm afraid it's going to be difficult for these poor slobs to do that anymore without being figures of mockery.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The House Bunny


The House Bunny is a bland, formulaic entertainment that falls in the vast wasteland of films that earn "two stars." What fascinated me about it was its subtext, which could fuel a spirited discussion in a women's studies course.

Anna Faris stars as a "bunny" (as a Playboy aficionado since I was thirteen years old, this is an immediate misnomer--bunnies are waitresses at the Playboy Clubs. What Faris is can be more accurately termed a Playboy model) who lives in the Playboy Mansion and waits to be upgraded to Centerfold. She loves the lifestyle, and wears the standard uniform of bippie shirts, short-shorts, and platform sandals. She is also completely vapid, so much so that when's called vapid she thinks it's a compliment.

After her 27th birthday, she receives a letter from Hef (who plays himself and apparently has no problem letting himself and his empire be mocked) that she has to leave. Forlorn, and apparently without savings, she lives in her car and stumbles upon a college campus. She learns about the job of sorority housemother, and ends up getting a job at the worst sorority on campus, where there are only seven pledges, all social misfits, who are in danger of losing their charter. Of course Faris uses her knowledge of style and sexy behavior to transform these sad sacks into popular girls.

That's roughly the first half of the film. The film does not rest on this, because that would be so overwhelmingly anti-feminist that it wouldn't bear scrutiny. The girls realize that there's more to being popular than just being hot, and Faris learns that getting a little book learning will help her land the guy of her dreams.

The film was written by Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz, who also wrote Legally Blonde, which I think is interesting. Both films depict a heroine who is outwardly a bimbo (although Legally Blonde's Elle Woods was smart enough to get into Harvard law) who defies expectations. In some ways, both Woods and Faris' Shelley Darlington are some kind of role models.

I'm sure one of the reasons House Bunny got made was the popularity of The Girls Next Door, a reality show about Hugh Hefner's three "girlfriends." With the decline of Playboy's magazine division, which has seen advertising pages plummet (and this year will publish only eleven issues rather than twelve, which means one month may be missing a "Miss") the brand has relied on this sort of exposure. From what I've read, The Girls Next Door was most popular with young women and teen-age girls. Playboy merchandise now consists mostly of apparel for young women with the ubiquitous rabbit logo on it. What exactly appeals to girls about the Playboy brand? That they too can one day pretend to be the paramour of an octogenarian and use him and his company to become stars?

As I said, I've been reading Playboy for over thirty years. I understand all objections to it (although it is not pornography--those who call it pornography probably haven't seen much real pornography). It appeals to a certain reptilian part of the male brain that hasn't progressed much from puberty. Once upon a time it was a great magazine, with fiction by great writers, but today it's pretty much a relic for middle-aged men like me to use to fuel our pathetic fantasies.

So what are we to make of a film that has a vapid Playboy model as a role model for young women? I'm not sure, but even a guy like me finds it unsettling.

As for the qualities of the film, as stated, it's a formulaic bit of frippery. Faris is receiving a lot of attention as some sort of great comedienne, and she's okay. The character is really nothing more than something you might see in a sketch on SNL. I saw Faris today in Observe and Report, and I'll write more about her tomorrow, but I don't find her as talented as Amy Poehler or even Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. She has a nice way of making her eyes big and projecting a lack of brainpower, but let's not starting elevating her to Carole Lombard status, not yet.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Netherland


Book five in The New York Times Best Ten Books of 2008 is Netherland, a novel by the Irish-born, Holland-raised, and current U.S. resident Joseph O'Neill. The diverse geography of his background is important to note because his narrator is a Dutch man who lives much of his adult life in London, but most of the events of this book concern his stay of a few years in New York City.

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, calls this a "post-colonial Great Gatsby," and I'd have to agree. He also warns against terming this book a 9/11 novel, and again I agree. Any book about America during the year 2001 and immediately after will be hard-pressed not to touch on the subject, much as any book about the 1930's deals with the Great Depression and the 1940's with World War II. But it doesn't mean the book is fundamentally about those topics. So it is with Netherland, which begins with Hans, an analyst of oil and gas stocks, who grew up in The Hague, went to England where he met his wife, Rachel, and then moved to take a job in New York. The couple and their baby son live in a loft near the World Trade Center, and after the attacks move into a room in the legendary Hotel Chelsea. Soon, though, Rachel returns to England with her son out of fear, and Hans is left to wander the city.

By serendipity, he finds himself drawn to the game of his childhood, cricket. He joins a team that plays in a softball field on Staten Island, and gets to know an umpire, with the vivid name of Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidanian. An unlikely friendship forms, and soon Hans is drawn into Chuck's far-flung world. He is an entrepreneur, a numbers-runner, an autodidact, and likely a gangster, but Hans is fascinated, especially with Chuck's dream of opening a full-scale New York cricket club, hoping it will catch on and become a popular American sport.

This is a lovely book, and my god can O'Neill write. His sentences are masterful constructions, with some eye-catching passages: "He stood by the window looking out at the dripping sleet, a little guy in a clean white shirt. His skinny, hairy hands were in the pockets of his pants, gripping and gripping something. Not knowing what to say, I got up and stood next to him, and for a while we surveyed, twenty-two floors down, the roving black blooms of four-dollar umbrellas."

Or consider this passage, when Hans attends a road-safety class (his visit to the DMV is described as a harrowing bureaucratic nightmare): "Our lecturer, a destroyed-looking man in his sixties, appeared apologetically before us, and I am certain that a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin." If I had written this sentence I would celebrate for a day or two.

Mostly this is a book about New York City, truly capturing how it is a mosaic of neighborhoods and ethnic groups, each one containing a world that the rest of the city knows nothing about (it's frequently said that New York is not among the top tier of sports towns in the U.S. because no matter how big the game, there are millions of people who don't care about the outcome). I like this sequence best: "I became familiar with the topical sights: the chiming, ceaselessly peregrinating ice-cream truck, driven by a Turk; the Muslim funeral home on Albemarle Road out of which watchful African American men spilled in sunglasses and black suits; the Hispanic gardeners working on the malls; the firehouse on Cortelyu that slowly gorged on reversing fire trucks; the devout Jewish boulevardiers on Ocean Parkway; the sticks of light that collected in the trees as though part of the general increase. Lush Flatbush..."

I also admired O'Neill's restraint. Imagine a novelist with a character living in the Hotel Chelsea without mention of Sid Vicious or Nancy Spungen--well done. I also must congratulate him on writing a novel that features cricket prominently, yet I, who know nothing about the game (other than bats and balls are involved) wasn't slowed down in the least. I imagine it would be like a European reading Bernard Malamud's The Natural.

My only quibble with the book is O'Neill doesn't keep good control of time. The story is narrated in non-linear fashion, with flashbacks within flashbacks. Frequently I lost my sense of when things were happening, even though he occasionally stated the month and year. At one time an error slipped by he and his editor, as he tells us that his mother dies in May, yet when he goes to Holland for the funeral he talks about walking around in a cold April.

But that's small potatoes. This is a terrific novel what it means to be an immigrant in America, as well as how to handle the loss of love, and even perhaps recapture it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Spirit


The Spirit was one of the first landmark comic book characters in history. Created by Will Eisner, it was a Sunday supplement in newspapers and then its own comic book. Many comic book artists and writers today venerate it as a forerunner of the golden age of comic books. One of them is Frank Miller, creator of The Dark Knight, Sin City and 300. Miller directed the film version of Eisner's character, and as the saying goes, he shouldn't quit his day job.

The Spirit is at the same time visually spectacular and relentlessly stupid. As with the film versions of Sin City and 300, it seems that the creators assumed the look was everything, and to hell with a story. Or perhaps there was too much reverence shown to Eisner's stories in the 40s. After all, old-time comic books have a lot of charm, but they weren't known for being literary classics.

The Spirit is Denny Colt, a cop who was killed and then revived by a serum that makes him impervious to damage (he's something like Wolverine from Marvel Comics). He makes a dashing appearance with an all black ensemble, complete with fedora and eye-mask, except for a vivid red tie. He patrols his city, Central City, and protects it as if it were a woman, referring to it in the feminine with voice-overs like, "She screams. My city needs me."

The Spirit's arch-enemy is The Octopus, so named for his fashion of having eight of everything. He is played with octane by Samuel L. Jackson, and Miller seems to have let him do anything he wanted. The Octopus is after a vase full of blood from the Greek god Heracles, which would give him immortality. He is assisted by Silken Floss (Scarlet Johannson, still wooden) and a series of cloned henchmen that look like Curly Joe from the Three Stooges. The third element of this rather feeble story is Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), Colt's childhood sweetheart who is now an international jewel thief.

It seems harsh to say, but you can't just lift things from pulp comic books from sixty years ago and making them seem fresh today. I mean, names like Silken Floss, Sand Saref, and Plaster of Paris (a belly-dancer with swords, played by Paz Vega) may have seemed clever back then but today they are groaners. And before I forget, Gabriel Macht brought zero charisma to the title role.

I did love the visual style, though. It's very similar to Sin City, largely monochromatic, except for the Spirit's tie. There's a lot of negative imagery, with dark areas rendered in white, and light areas in dark. However, there are many images that are completely wasted, such as the Spirit and the Octopus having a cartoonish fight in a swamp. One of the weapons used, no lie, is a toilet. I think that's an apt metaphor for this film, because it's completely disposable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Americanization of Emily

I come to the end of the "Controversial Classics" with 1964's The Americanization of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Paddy Chayefsky. It's a strange hybrid of genres--romantic comedy and a black war comedy. It's as if Catch-22 were combined with Brief Encounter.

Set in London immediately before D-Day, the film stars James Garner as a "dog-robber," an aide to an admiral who is responsible for getting him everything he needs, whether it is liquor, chocolate, or women. Garner is good at his job, but most importantly he is out of combat situations, for he is an unapologetic coward. Julie Andrews is a war widow who works as a driver, and after initially being shocked by Garner's roguish manner, eventually falls in love with him.

Things get complicated when the admiral (Melvyn Douglas) gets squirrelly and tells one of his other aides (James Coburn) that they are to make a movie about the demolition engineers that will land on Omaha Beach. This means the filmmakers will be the first men on the beach. When Coburn can't find cameraman, he tells Garner that they will do it themselves, which is not what Garner wants to hear.

What makes this film worthwhile is Chayefsky's dialogue. It's full of long speeches about the attitude taken about war. Should bravery and valor be exalted, or should it be discouraged, so war won't be venerated. There are a lot of similarities to novels like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, which detail the inanity and insanity of military regulations.

What drags the film down is the rather conventional romance between Garner and Andrews. I didn't feel they had much chemistry (for as talented as Andrews is, she's never struck me as sexy) and it was difficult to understand her about-face on Garner's character. Garner is quite good though, especially in his scenes with Coburn, who is a fascinating character--he sees Garner's side of things, and agrees with them most of the time, but is also an Annapolis graduate who can't resist feelings of Navy pride that make him behave in strange ways.

It's hard to know exactly what was controversial about this film. I suppose that it was only 20 years after D-Day and those involved were shown honestly (cowardice and drunkenness and all) wouldn't have made this film a big hit in VFW halls. Today, after the way the U.S. has viewed war after the last forty-five years, it seems rather tame.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Farewell to the Bird


I was shocked and enormously saddened today to hear of the death of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. He was only 54, and was an integral part of my teenage years of baseball fandom.

In 1976, when I was 15, the Detroit Tigers, my favorite team, were terrible. The season had no promise, other than the start of leadoff hitter Ron LeFlore, who had a thirty-game hitting streak. The 25th man on the roster was Fidrych, who no one seemed to know anything about. He didn't get his first start until May.

By mid-summer he was a nationwide phenomenon. He was good--he ended the season with a 19-9 win-loss record, with an ERA of 2.35 (I know these figures off the top of my head, while I would have a hard time telling you who was in last year's playoffs). But what made him famous was his behavior on the mound. A tall, lanky kid of 22 with a mop of hair, Fidrych was a one-man zysygy. He talked to himself, his hands fluttered as if he was conducting an orchestra, and he did his own groundskeeping, smoothing out the dirt on the mound as if he were puttering in his own garden.

In that year's All-Star game, Fidrych started (so did LeFlore and fellow Tiger Rusty Staub, quite a coup for a last-place team). He was named Rookie of the Year, and the future looked bright. But of course an injury took it's toll. He only started a few more games after that season, and was done by the age of 25. It wasn't long before he was back in his native Massachusetts, working at a gas station. Looking back, it seems that his career would have to be comet-like, due to its magical nature.

I get very nostalgic thinking about him. In those days I used to listen to Tiger night games on the radio while laying in bed, especially the games he pitched (attendance skyrocketed at his games, on the road as well as home). What's more, in those days pitchers lasted the whole game. I distinctly remember games where Fidrych lasted past nine innings (a particularly vivid memory is his victory over Oakland in which he pitched 13 innings--unheard of today). There's nothing more boring that somebody saying how those were the good old days, but when I think of old Tigers it makes me think of my grandparents and everything else that was good about my teen years (and there was a lot that was bad). Unfortunately, I never got to see him pitch him in person.

So rest in peace, Bird. There will never be another like you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Pluto Files


Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist by profession, but a stand-up comedian at heart. He's a frequent guest on late-night talk shows, and I recently caught him on C-SPAN giving a talk about his recent book, The Pluto Files, in which he appeared to be a combination of Carl Sagan and Henny Youngman.

Tyson's book is decidedly for general audiences, and that's fine by me, as I have an interest in astronomy but not in math. It's a breezy account of how the celestial object previously considered the solar system's ninth planet was "demoted" to the category of "dwarf planet," in which Tyson was seen by many as a villain.

Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and when they opened an exhibit on the solar system they grouped objects by categories other than the normal nine planets--terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), asteroids, gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune), and those in the Kuiper Belt, which include Pluto. A few people noticed this ("Where's Pluto?") but it wasn't until the New York Times published a front-page article titled "Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York" that Tyson's world was turned upside-down.

There was a huge uproar in the scientific community as well as the general public. Tyson breaks down the reasons why: Pluto was discovered in 1930 by an American astronomer (Clyde Tombaugh), the only planet with that designation, and the same year Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse's dog Pluto, significantly lightening the real derivation of the name, which was the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto, over the years, had become American's favorite planet for sentimental reasons. Also, surprisingly for scientists, there was a "don't change it" attitude. For seventy plus years schoolchildren have been taught that there are nine planets, and many learned their names via a mnemonic (the one I learned was "My Very Educated Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Pins"). For astrophysicists to suddenly declare that the mnemonic is now wrong rubbed people the wrong way.

Tyson lays out the reasoning why the evidence is for a change in Pluto's category. By volume, it's more than half ice. It's orbit is elliptical rather than circular, and it's seventeen degrees off the plane of orbit of the other planets. Other planets have been demoted--when objects between Mars and Jupiter were discovered (most notably Ceres) they were initially called planets, and in the early 1800s there were up to 29 of them. These were reclassified as asteroids. Finally, in the last few years object in Pluto's orbit have been discovered, including a body called Eris that is actually larger than Pluto. Either planets had to be added or the whole definition of planet had to changed.

And that's what happened. A planet, which hadn't been defined since ancient Greece, is now defined as a body that orbits the sun (and not another planet, which is a moon), is round due to its gravitational pull, and bad news for Pluto, dominated it's own orbit. Since Pluto is one of several objects in it's orbit (which is collectively known as the Kuiper Belt), it got demoted to a new category: dwarf planet.

There are still those who disagree, but as time has gone on Tyson has gotten less hate mail. He seems to have eternal good humor about it, and glories in the letters he has received from kids, either pro or con. He also takes amusing digressions, such as in the Disney universe, how is it possible for a mouse to have a pet dog, and why can Goofy talk but Pluto can't?

This is a pleasure to read for non-experts (and for those who are experts it still is probably good for some yuks). I read it in two days, as it's full of cartoons and song lyrics (several singers penned songs about the issue) and other graphics. It's a must for amateur astronomers.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jailbait

Anyone who knows me well wouldn't be surprised that I would jump at the chance to go see a play called Jailbait. After all, for about three months I was the managing editor of a stroke-book called Finally Legal. But of course this play, presented by the Cherry Lane Theater at their new theater, The Cherry Pit, isn't about titillation, but is instead a humane, funny, heartbreaking and expertly-written tale about a culture that rushes young girls into adulthood, and the men who take advantage of them.

Written by Deirdre O'Connor, Jailbait is a four-character play. In the first scene we meet Claire (Natalia Payne) and her friend Emmy (Wrenn Schmidt). They are both fifteen, but haven't been hanging out together much anymore. Claire is dealing with her father's death, and Emmy is fifteen going on twenty-five (it's well-known that she's already had sex). Claire's mother is going out for the evening (but not on a date, she insists) and Emmy convinces her to tag along to a club, where they will get in with fake IDs and meet older men. Emmy has one guy in mind, a man she met the previous week, and he's bringing along a friend for Claire. They will pose as college students, and Emmy has already told her older beau that Claire goes to Harvard. Claire wonders why she couldn't have picked Emerson instead.

At the club, we meet the guys, both thirtysomethings. Mark (Peter O'Connor) is a player, a guy who has no interest in commitment. "My first wife hasn't been born yet," he tells Bobby (Kelly AuCoin), a guy getting over the end of a long-term relationship, who doesn't go to clubs (and is mocked by Mark for his khaki Dockers outfit). But Bobby is willing to go along with the fix-up, hoping the girl is at least intelligent. When he meets Claire he finds her sweet, and they both get along famously. Meanwhile, Emmy gets shit-faced and realizes that Mark expects her to go home with him.

O'Connor creates magic in these characters. All of the scenes involve only two characters on stage at a time, and the dialogue is full of polished gems. Mark has most of the best lines, such as when he describes married life as "evenings of Netflix and matching Banana Republic outfits." Also, the characters all are fully realized, and though we are set up to believe that they are one thing, turn out to have hidden depths, so that the action in the play is completely unpredictable. One engaged woman sitting behind me gasped several times at turns in the plot.

The direction, by Suzanne Agins, is unobtrusive and spotless. The stage is very small and mostly bare, and has to serve as a girl's bedroom, a club (and it's men's and women's room) and a man's apartment. I was a bit put off by the cerulean wall in the back of the stage (which was designed by Kina Park)--other than being a vivid bright blue, there was no apparent reason for that color choice.

I save for the last the acting, which was terrific, particularly by Payne. The two young women playing the girls were of course not fifteen. I suppose it could be played by real teens, but given the subject matter it might be too unsettling to see girls that young kissing grown men. Payne and Schmidt reveal in their bios that they are college graduates, so they are probably in their mid-twenties, so they are playing fifteen-year-olds who are trying to pass as twenty-one. It's a tricky assignment, and they both pull it off with aplomb. Schmidt's Emmy is the girl who fancies herself far more mature than she really is, while Payne still has a toe in little-girlhood but is more mature than she knows, but she's still not an adult. In the dialogue she has with AuCoin, where he is treating her like a Harvard student, the complexities of what is going through Claire's mind are easily seen on Payne's face, and in her body movements.

This is to take nothing away from AuCoin, who plays a man who allows himself to live again after ending a six-year relationship that almost led to marriage, yet finds himself in perilous waters with a girl far younger than he thinks. There is a glitch in that it could be difficult to understand how he and Mark could still be friends (they met in high school) when they have such fundamental differences in their approaches to relationships, but I think we all have friends we should have ditched years ago. It isn't a stretch to believe that after the end of this play the two men will no longer be bosom buddies.

Jailbait is a terrific evening of theater. I have no idea what it's future will be, and it's probably too small to move to Broadway, although the talent involved is good enough to make the transition.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sugar


From the same duo that gave us the fine film Half Nelson, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, comes Sugar, an earnest if not exactly compelling story about a young man from the Dominican Republic who dreams of becoming a Major League pitcher in the United States.

Sugar (he is so-called because, variously, he is sweet with the ladies, he loves desserts, or he has a sweet knuckle-curveball) is played by Algenis Perez Soto, an amateur actor but apparently a good ballplayer. At the start of the film he is in a baseball academy on his home island, which is run by a big-league team (although many real teams, most notably the Yankees, are mentioned, Sugar's organization is referred to as the Kansas City Knights, though they use the same logo as the real Kansas City Royals). The kids in this academy are being trained in the U.S. way of doing things. In their English-language classes they learn important phrases like, "I got it," "fly ball," and "home run," in addition to knowing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." These young men grew up in near poverty, and a trip to the States and pro ball is their ticket to prosperity. For Sugar, his entire family is waiting for him to make it.

In this respect, the film closely resembles Hoop Dreams, the stunningly brilliant documentary from 1994 about high-school kids who aspire to basketball greatness. I'm sure in all parts of the world, wherever there are well-paid professional athletes, there are hundreds of kids whose futures bank on their making it against long odds. For those of the Dominican Republic, this dream is in baseball, as they make up a disproportionate number of Major Leaguers from such a small island.

Sugar does make it to spring training, in Phoenix. Immediately language problems beset him--he only knows how to order French toast, for example. Then he is assigned to a Single-A level minor league team in a small town in Iowa, which might as well be the moon for him. He lives with a host family, who would seem to have sprung full-blown from Grant Wood's American Gothic painting. I would like to think these people are caricatures, but I haven't spent enough time around Iowans to be sure. Sugar struggles to fit in, befriending a Stanford grad on his team (who introduces him to the story of Roberto Clemente) and developing a crush on his host family's teenage granddaughter, who belongs to a proselytizing Bible group.

After getting to a strong start in the season, Sugar endures some set-backs, mostly stemming from an ankle injury, and eventually the story takes a turn that lands him in New York. It is here that I really lost a lot of respect for the film. I understand why the filmmakers did this, but to me it was completely out of character for Sugar to do it. It was as if Boden and Fleck made their character conform to their plot, rather than letting their character dictate the story. In any event, Sugar finds life in New York much easier to navigate (he is overjoyed when the subway card machine has a Spanish-language option) and things settle to a measured resolution.

Sugar is told with a lot of restraint. This is not an exposé, there are no villains, there is no ax to grind. Watching this film is a lot like watching a game in late August between two teams who are out of the pennant race--it can be enjoyed for its simple pleasures, but it has no bearing on the standings. To overwork the metaphor, Sugar is a clean single up the middle, but not a home run.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Advise and Consent

Advise and Consent, directed by Otto Preminger and released by Columbia in 1962, was based on a novel by Allen Drury. The plot centered around the U.S. Senate debating the nomination of a Secretary of State and all the wheeling, dealing and backstabbing that took place. In some ways it's fascinating, but ultimately is an antiquated bit of sensationalism that is more bark than bite.

Henry Fonda plays the nominee, a man who is interested in negotiating with the communists. The President (Franchot Tone) is ill, and believes strongly in Fonda. The majority leader of the Senate (Walter Pidgeon) backs his president, but another member of the party, a seersucker-wearing Southerner (Charles Laughton) is strongly opposed. The various senators line up and take sides, while a young senator from Utah (Don Murray), who is named chairman of the committee that will hold the hearings, is objective.

Laughton digs up a man from Fonda's past (Burgess Meredith) who swears that Fonda was a communist, but his testimony is ripped to shreds. Then, a firebrand senator (George Grizzard) tries to blackmail Murray, who has a homosexual affair in his past. The vote comes down to a tie, and the Vice-President has to cast a tie-breaking vote. There's much, much more, but I don't want to spoil it for those who are interested.

The first thing you have to do when watching this film is get over the logistical problems. For one thing, we don't see any of the senator's staffs. As I understand how things work in Washington, everything is done by aides, and that we don't see nary a one (except for secretaries) is a huge fantasy. Of course, this had to be done for expediency, as did the scenes of the hearings themselves, when the Senators ask just a couple of questions, and Fonda doesn't even make an opening statement. A real hearing on a controversial nominee (think Clarence Thomas) can take days. Then there's Laughton, who when he asks questions, gets up and strolls around the hearing room like a country lawyer. Finally there's the amazing scene in which the Vice-President flies commercial, with no Secret Service protection!

So, if this film isn't realistic, it does have its fun moments. Because the Senators are never identified as Republicans or Democrats, or even liberals and conservatives, there's a parallel universe sort of feeling. Peter Lawford plays a Kennedy-esque senator (an interesting choice, since he was a Kennedy by marriage), and Murray, from Utah and with the first name of "Brigham" is clearly supposed to be a Mormon. Laughton is like Strom Thurmond and Sam Ervin and Foghorn Leghorn rolled into one, and he's very entertaining.

I think this film may be of far more interest to historians, though. The two bugaboos are communism and homosexuality, and the film would seem to be saying that of the two, homosexuality is the far more egregious sin. There's a scene in a New York City gay bar which makes gay men look as if they come from another planet--a scary one, at that. It must have been one of the first Hollywood films to depict gay life, and it wasn't a good start.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Blackboard Jungle


Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955 from MGM, was something of a watershed film. It was the first to use rock and roll music on the soundtrack, with Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock blasting as the opening credits unspooled. At the time, this was pretty incendiary stuff, and eventually they had to remove it from the film, because kids started dancing in the aisles when it played in theaters. To contemplate that is pretty amazing, since the song ended up being the theme for Happy Days, an innocuous slice of nostalgia, and to today's kids Rock Around the Clock might as well be White Christmas.

As I mentioned in my post about The Ten-Cent Plague, juvenile delinquency was a big issue in the forties and fifties, and Blackboard Jungle addresses it. Before the film begins we are treated to some sociology that though the film is fiction, the problem is real. Then we are introduced to Glenn Ford as an idealistic teacher. He's new at North Manual High School, a boys' trade school. The place has a reputation for disciplinary problems, though the principal refuses to acknowledge it. He meets some of the teachers, like Louis Calhern, who views the school as a "garbage can" and warns Ford never to turn his back on his students. True enough, at the opening assembly the boys are unruly, and seem to be led by Vic Morrow.

Ford does his best, and takes an interest in Sidney Poitier, who is another thug but is obviously more intelligent that the rest. He has a diverse class, with a Puerto Rican kid, a Jew, and an Italian. They are completely uninterested in learning, and one night they catch him and a colleague (Richard Kiley) in an alley and beat them up. Ford keeps coming back, though, passing up an offer to teach at a prep school with obedient students.

It's only when the kids interfere with Ford's home life, sending threatening letters to his wife (Anne Francis) that he strikes back, and the film ends with the bad apples being punished and a peace with those kids who he has seemed to reach, including Poitier.

Directed by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Evan Hunter, Blackboard Jungle was sensational in its day but can't help but feel dated now, in an age where inner-city schools have metal detectors. I don't doubt that juvenile delinquency was a problem back then, but it seems candy-coated compared to the Crips and the Bloods. It isn't helped that the story creaks along with some ham-fisted foreshadowing. When Kiley mentions he's bringing his rare record collection to class (some of his records "could never be replaced") we know what will happen. Also, the subplot involving Francis, who is pregnant and has her doubts about Ford's fidelity, is mawkishly soap-opera-ish.

The film is an interesting time capsule of another era. There are also some interesting faces in the cast: look for a young Paul Mazursky and Jamie Farr (then billed as Jameel Farah). Poitier, who was already in his early thirties but could still pass for a high-school kid, would of course go on to play an idealistic teacher twelve years later, in To Sir, With Love.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock is a 1955 film from MGM, directed by John Sturges. It is a film about xenophobia and racism, specifically against Japanese-Americans, yet there are no Japanese actors in the cast. And though it's set in 1945, it follows the traditions of Westerns. It is also something of a masterpiece.

The beginning of the film shows a train hurtling through the Southwest. It makes a stop at the very small town of Black Rock, and the few citizens are stunned--it's the first time the train has stopped in four years. Disembarking is a one-armed man in a black suit, Spencer Tracy. He is looking for someone, but he is treated with the direct opposite of hospitably, and the men in town (there is only one woman in the cast) behave suspiciously.

As the film goes on (it takes place over a twenty-four period, hence the title) Tracy realizes something is up, and that the people are hiding something. He is looking for a man named Komoko, who was a Japanese-American farmer. He is told by the local land-owner, Robert Ryan, that Komoko was shipped off to an internment camp, but after Tracy checks out the missing man's burned-out homestead and what looks like an unmarked grave, he has his doubts. By now the threatening townsmen won't let him leave, nor will they place his phone calls or send his telegrams, but he is assured by the town's doctor (and mortician), Walter Brennan, that he probably won't be killed before dark.

That this film came during the height of xenophobic 1950's isn't a surprise. It's extremely unsettling, like something you might see in a Twilight Zone episode, when Tracy encounters one unfriendly face after another. In addition to Ryan, the heavies in the cast include Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, so there's some major muscle on display. Ryan, who calls the shots in town, is a metaphor for intolerance, especially in his speech about how he wished people would leave the West alone. "Alone to do what?" Tracy pointedly asks him.

The film was directed by John Sturges in CinemaScope. Sturges was well-known for Westerns, such as The Magnificent Seven, and there's some beautiful composition here. In one scene there were thirteen individuals in a tableau (I had time to count them) and it's beautiful to behold. Sturges, Tracy and screenwriter Millard Kaufman were nominated for Oscars.

If that's not enough, there's a marvelous scene in a diner where Tracy, using only one arm, knocks the stuffing out of Ernest Borgnine.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Fury


Fury, a 1936 film from MGM, was director Fritz Lang's first American film. He is probably best known today for M, about a child murderer brought to vigilante justice, and Fury has a lot of the power that his earlier film had. It's a crackerjack entertainment, and it's also a fairly incendiary message film.

As Peter Bogdonavich points in his DVD commentary, MGM was not the studio you would expect this from. They were known for lavish musicals and Andy Hardy, not for gritty stories about lynching. But it was made nonetheless, and though it stacks the deck as Hollywood is wont to do, it's a powerful statement even seventy some years later.

Spencer Tracy plays a young man who is engaged to Sylvia Sidney, and they have a few scenes of syrupy romance before she takes a train out west for a better job (they look through a furniture window at a newlywed ensemble--twin beds, natch). He will join her when he has enough money for them to be married. Tracy is a straight-shooter, a man who lives honorably, which he tries to drum home to his more wayward younger brothers.

He and his brothers open a gas station, and he finally has enough money to drive west. Along the way he is stopped by a sheriff's deputy. He matches the description of a kidnapper, and because there is some circumstantial evidence he is held in the town's jail. The sheriff, wonderfully played by Edward Ellis (who was also good in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang as a wise old con) does things by the book, and tells Tracy as soon as the district attorney examines the evidence he will likely be set free. However, the news gets out that they have one of the kidnappers in custody, and the gossip spreads (Lang has a marvelous cut from women gossiping to a coop full of hens). Soon many of the citizens, led by a ne'er-do-well (Bruce Cabot) lead a mob to the jailhouse, demanding to get Tracy. The sheriff tries to stop them, but they burn down the jailhouse as Sidney watches. Presumably, Tracy is dead. This is only the halfway mark of the film.

The second half of the movie is a courtroom drama, and one of the better I've seen. For one thing, it seems to follow actual rules of law (I've seen dramatizations of trials that are so inaccurate, like the defense presenting the case first, that it ruins it for me). The district attorney, Walter Abel, is trying 22 townspeople for first-degree murder. While presenting his case, he points out how many lynchings have taken place in the previous 50 years--one every three minutes (in the you-learn-something-new-every-day category, lynching is not necessarily hanging, but any execution by vigilantism). Of course, lynchings were carried out almost exclusively against blacks and Jews. Tracy plays a white man who is above-board and completely innocent, but considering the time period this is entirely excusable--no studio would have made a film about a black man being lynched.

As with I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Fury is only about ninety minutes and is as lean as a whippet, with no fat. Every shot serves a purpose, and I marveled at how clever a few throwaway details in the beginning of the film--a torn raincoat, Tracy's habit of mispronouncing the word "memento"--had deep meaning at the end of the film. This is an excellent film, and has as much meaning now as it did then.

Monday, April 06, 2009

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


Over the next week or so I'll be discussing DVDs that are included in a boxed set called "Controversial Classics." They come from different studios and over a great deal of time, but are supposedly linked by some sort of social significance.

I start with the earliest film, 1932's I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, from Warner Brothers, directed by Mervyn Leroy. The film starred Paul Muni as a World War I vet who left home to find a job as a civil engineer. He ends up unwittingly involved in a robbery, and is sentenced to ten years of hard labor on a chain gang. He and his fellow prisoners undergo all sorts of brutality, but he escapes and makes his way to Chicago.

The years pass and he becomes a respected citizen, but a woman he does not love learns his secret and blackmails him into marrying her. When he falls in love with another woman he calls her bluff, and she turns him in. Since he is in a different state, he doesn't have to go back, but the state he was imprisoned in (which is left purposely vague) promises him he'll only serve 90 days in a clerical role and then be pardoned. He goes back, but of course is double-crossed.

This is a pre-code film, and there are little nuggets that would have been gone in a later film (one soldier says, "SOL," a reference to "shit out of luck" that made me do a double-take). Muni has an encounter with a prostitute that while discreet, is a lot more salacious than anything under the Code. However, the filmmakers eased up on describing conditions on the chain gang. They didn't include, for example, scenes involving the sweat-box (which would be memorably used thirty-five years later in Cool Hand Luke).

The film was based on the book by Robert Burns, who wrote I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. Warner Brothers judiciously dropped references to Georgia, but it caused a stink anyway, as the state threatened to sue, and some said that Leroy and Jack Warner would get "southern hospitality" if they ever happened to visit the Peach State. Burns lived in New Jersey, which refused to honor Georgia's request for extradition. He was never pardoned.

The film itself still holds up pretty well, though there are some creaking reminders of old-time film days. Muni does well when he isn't hammy, but some of the characters, like his sainted old mother and his sanctimonious older brother (who is a pastor) are cliches. What's great about these old movies are how economical they are. This film tells a complex story in only ninety-three minutes. Not a shot is wasted. If they remade it today it would be about two and a half hours, and not nearly as good.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Ten-Cent Plague

If you need any more evidence that the 1950's in America was a lousy time to be alive, take a gander at The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hadju, which tells the story of how comic books became front-page news and came under the thumb of blue-nosed authorities. It's a horror story that is worthy of any of the horror comics that were banned.

Hadju, who wrote a fine book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez during the sixties (Positively Fourth Street), starts with a detailed history of the form, beginning with newspaper strips like The Yellow Kid and Krazy Kat and then the creation of the funnies in book form in the 1930's. It's interesting to read how interests changed: before and during World War II, superhero comics were all the rage, but they practically died out in favor of crime comics in the mid to late forties. Then came romance comics, and finally, in the early fifties, horror comics. Comic books were huge sellers, and there was a great monkey-see monkey-do attitude among the companies that produced them. Consider these titles of romance books: My Story, My Love Story, My Love Life, My Love Affair, My Love Secret, My Secret Affair, My Secret Life, My Private Life, and My Life. And these were all published by the same company.

Those that wrote and drew comics took them seriously, and some of them could certainly be considered art, such as the work of Will Eisner, who created The Spirit. But their popularity was mostly attributable to their appeal to children. Adults didn't read comic books in those days, so children had something that was entirely theirs. It was only when some adults started paying attention that things got bad.

Throughout the forties there were campaigns to censor comic books, including having them burned in pyres (often these were sponsored by otherwise wholesome organizations like the Girl Scouts). Some who participated, looking back, are regretful and recognize the similarities to Nazi book burnings. Dubious experts wrote tracts condemning comic books as influencing juvenile delinquency, even though there was no hard and fast evidence.

The furor really built in the early fifties, about the same time as the McCarthy era. A physician, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a long-time opponent of comic books, published a book called The Seduction of the Innocent, which had shoddy research methodology but was a sensation nonetheless. A congressional hearing was held, and William Gaines, the publisher of EC comics, which produced some of the more grisly horror comics, volunteered to testify. Gaines was the most obstinate of comics publishers, and inserted ads into his books claiming that those who favored censorship were Communist dupes. This didn't endear him to the committee.

Gaines, taking Dexedrine to stay awake, was grilled by the committee. Senator Estes Kefauver held up a blow-up of a cover that depicted a woman's severed head. Kefauver asked Gaines, "This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"

"Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic," Gaines said. "A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."

These niceties didn't go over well with the committee or the American public. Gaines tried to form a committee of his own of comic book publishers, but unwittingly this led to a comic books authority that would self-censor books so that they would be distributed and sold at newsstands (sort of like what would happen with films and the MPAA). Gaines refused to comply. The committee was so Draconian and arbitrary that comics lost whatever spice they had that made them popular, and sales plummeted. Self-censorship wasn't even good enough, and several states banned comic books that depicted certain behavior (and even any that had the words "horror" or "terror" in the titles. An era was over.

Comic books would rebound in the early sixties as the superhero re-emerged, but Hadju ends his story in the mid-fifties (I saw him give a talk on the book and he mentioned he had never read a Spider-Man comic). He is more interested in how American society, with a puritanical streak that can never be rubbed out, ended up stifling a creative enterprise and led to hundreds of people losing their jobs, all because people had a vague fear that reading these books would turn their children into monsters. The book is as sorrowful as it is informative.

Gaines, incidentally, was also the publisher of Mad Magazine, which he kept putting out (and is still published today). He got around the laws with that one by publishing it as a magazine (it's also interesting to note that at the height of this brouhaha was when Playboy magazine debuted). You can't keep Americans from getting their hands on stuff they want, no matter how some other people try to stop them.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Adventureland


Greg Mottola was the director of Superbad, the Citizen Kane of teen comedies, but his latest film, Adventureland, is much closer in feeling to The Daytrippers, his modest art-house film from 1996. Essentially, Adventureland is a mumblecore film in teen-comedy clothing. This may make for a more intelligent experience, but it doesn't bode well for the box-office receipts. At the Saturday matinee I attended, I was one of three patrons in the theater.

Set in 1987 (I really feel old when a year I clearly remember is depicted as being a much more innocent time), the film centers on Jesse Eisenberg as a college graduate who hopes to spend the summer in Europe before heading to Columbia journalism school. His father, though, gets a downgrade in pay, so he scraps the trip and is forced to take a summer job. As a comparative lit major, he's not qualified for much (accept restoring a fresco, he jokes) but is immediately hired manning the game booths at a second-rate amusement park.

He is schooled in how the games are rigged, and warned never to allow anyone to win a "giant-assed panda." He befriends Martin Starr, who is a Russian lit student who fancies Gogol and smokes a briar-wood pipe, and is captivated by Kristen Stewart, a fetching lass of enigmatic beauty. However, she is secretly sleeping with Ryan Reynolds, who is the older maintenance man who has a demi-god status because he supposedly once jammed with Lou Reed.

There's a lot to like in Adventureland, but it took a while to shed my preconceptions based on the television ads. For one thing, the characters played by SNL cast-members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, as the bosses at the park, are very minor and are hardly worth mentioning (except perhaps for Hader's porn-star mustache). And as I wrote above, the film is not a raucous comedy. There's a lot of pot smoked and alcohol imbibed, but there is no semen in beer (aside from vomit, there are no bodily fluids on prominent display) and only a couple of boner jokes. Instead the mood is almost melancholy, especially from someone with my point of view, who is watching as the dreams of young people are crushed by circumstances beyond their control.

Eisenberg, who played similar characters in Rodger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, is very good as an intellectual kid trapped in degrading circumstances, as is Starr, who is even more pathetic. Stewart is another story. In some ways she's playing an idealized character, the kind of girl that every young man would pant over, but fortunately Mottola gives her some depth. But Stewart, who was as wooden as oak in Twilight, isn't much more animated here. If in Twilight she ran the gamut of emotions from A to B, in Adventureland she gets up to D or E.

And this leads to a problem I had with the film that tampered my enjoyment of it a great deal--I had trouble hearing everybody. The entire cast of young people (with one exception) seems to have been directed to act with extreme lethargy. Maybe it's all the pot they smoked, but instead I think it's supposed to be some kind of not-give-a-shit cool that may be true to the age but makes for a hard movie to understand. The only kid with any spirit is played by Matt Bush, that kid from the cell phone commercials, who is so wound up he's supposed to be thoroughly obnoxious. That may be true, but at least I could understand what he was saying.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Forever War


Book four of The New York Times ten best of 2008 is The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, a war correspondent for that newspaper (and before that the L.A. Times) about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I've read a lot of books lately about the U.S. military misadventures in Iraq, so I wasn't exactly keen on opening this one. Filkins opens with a few chapters on being in Afghanistan in 1998, and memorably invokes how far away it is from American life by detailing a public amputation and execution in a soccer stadium. But it wasn't until mid-way through the book that he metaphorically grabbed hold of me and made me pay attention.

One of the chapters was a surreal one about suicide bombers that was some of the best writing in the book. Filkins sees the humor in the situation, somehow. He writes about how there are Web sites devoted to instructing would-be martyrs about how to do it: "Take a bus to the Iraqi border, 'wear jeans and eat donuts and use a Walkman which has a tape of any singer. Do this for Allah's sake; war is tricks.' Once you are across, the manual said, do anything your bosses tell you. 'Never say that you do not do suicide work.'" Filkins goes on to mention that very often the heads of suicide bombers remain intact: "The craziest thing about the suicide bombers were the heads--how the head of the bomber often remained intact after the explosion. It was the result of some weird law that only a physicist could explain: the force of the blast would detach the bomber's head and throw it up and away, too fast for the blast to destroy it. So there it would be, the head, sitting on a pile of bricks or underneath a telephone pole."

Filkins ends the chapter by visiting an Iraqi (they are nothing if not hospitable to a fault) who shows Filkins a video of an American being beheaded, while his host was beside himself with laughter, rocking back and forth, running his finger across his throat.

The next chapter Filkins is embedded with a company of Marines during their invasion of Fallujah. He supplies many stories of Marines and where they're from, and it all ends heartbreakingly when Filkins and his photographer want to climb a tower to get a good picture. A couple of Marines escort them, and one of them ends up getting killed. Filkins lives with this every day. His prose in this chapter is crisp and to the point, which seems to amplify the horror: "Jake played mostly Johnny Cash, 'Ring of Fire' his favorite. Jake even sort of looked like Johnny Cash, big, square jaw. Which was blown off by the grenade."

After reading this book you learn several things, and one of them may be that Filkins is either very brave or very crazy. He spent nine years in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and put himself in dangerous situations often, only to be saved by an interpreter or driver. The threat of kidnapping or murder for Westerners was palpable, and Filkins describes several narrow escapes, such as when he interviews a local leader who is having a discussion in Arabic with the interpreter. Filkins later learns that the man wanted to kidnap him and split the ransom with the interpreter. Or the time he has to outrace a BMW full of insurgents, or the time he is arrested and deported by the Taliban. During his long stint in Baghdad he continues to jog every morning, despite the danger and the 120 degree heat.

Filkins also happens to be in New York immediately following 9/11, and writes about a hallucinatory night spent sleeping in a men's clothing store near Ground Zero.

This book is as much as about Filkins, a man who has his humanity chipped away slowly but surely, as it is about American soldiers in Iraq. He is clearly enamored with much of what the Iraqi people offer, though he also recognizes their brutality: "Electric drills where a Shiite obsession. When you found a guy with drill marks in his legs, he was almost certainly a Sunni, and he was almost certainly killed by a Shiite. The Sunnis preferred to behead, or to kill themselves while killing others. By and large, the Shiites didn't behead, didn't blow themselves up. The derangements were mutually exclusive."

At the end of the book, Filkins is back in the States and you almost exhale in relief, as I'm sure his family did. But he is forever changed: "My friend George, an American reporter I'd gotten to know in Iraq, told me he couldn't have a conversation with anyone who hadn't been there. I told him I couldn't have a conversation with anyone who hadn't been there about anything at all."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Middle Cyclone


Neko Case is interested in the elemental on her new album, Middle Cyclone. Let's start with the title song--it's not the only song that refers to tornadoes. The album kicks off with "This Tornado Loves You," in which she sings from the point of the view of the storm: "My love I am the speed of sound/I left them motherless, fatherless/their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths/but it's never enough--I want you." This is the opening track, which sets the stage for a wondrous experience, albeit a dark one.

Then comes "People Got a Lotta Nerve," which is about man-eating fish: "You know they call them killer whales?/But you seem surprised when it pinned you down/To the bottom of of the tank/where you you can't turn around/It took half your leg and both your lungs." If we haven't gotten the point, she sums it up in "I'm An Animal."

Nature is both a threat to man and also a nurturer, as Case includes a cover of the song "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." The last song on the record, "Red Tide," ends things rather ambiguously: "The clouds say hush/but the chainsaws mush on/Through the cluster and Columbia/Salty tentacles shrink in the sun/But the red tide is over/The mollusks they have won."

The other theme on this record is the midwest. Case did live in Chicago for a while, but she's not really a native. It is therefore somewhat remarkable that she nails the plains sound. After all, the swath from Michigan to Texas is also known as tornado alley, and this record is like a tornado--strangely and terrifyingly beautiful. This is the midwest of John Dillinger, In Cold Blood, and Virgil Starkweather, not Grant Wood. Consider the opening of "The Pharaohs:" "We were married in the mirrored hall when I was sixteen/You spoke the words 'I love girls in white leather jackets'/That was good enough for me." Or the masterpiece of this record, "Prison Girls," which is like a Cormac McCarthy novel set to music: "Who am I tonight?/My hotel room won't remember me/From darkness enter prison girls/Pushing mops and kicking pails/Now's my chance, I clasp my chest/And declare unto my audience/'I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes.'" These lyrics are accompanied by a sinister guitar riff by Paul Rigby. Brilliant.

Musically, Case continues to break away from her alt-country tag. Frankly, I can't think of what to call her style, it's somewhat unto itself. Her voice is singular. She likens it to a siren; I'm reminded of the sound those tubes that are swung in arcs make. She would make a great Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.

Neko Case is a wonderful original, and this album has grown on me and won't leave. And that's a good thing. I do however, question her putting a thirty-minute plus track at the end that is only the sound of crickets chirping. I'm not sure if this is to mess up those who would play it on a shuffle mode, or maybe it's for those who are listening to the record before they go to sleep, and the track serves as white noise to help them nod off. And how fucking cool is that album cover?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Drew Carey Show

In this fallow period of unemployment (which will come to an end, at least temporary, week after next) I've found myself watching TV at unusual hours of the day. I've discovered that a network called Ion plays back to back episodes of The Drew Carey Show at four, and I've become a regular viewer. While shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons can be seen several times on different stations, this is one that I haven't seen on the syndicated dial before.

The show, starring the stand-up comedian (and now an improbable host of The Price is Right) ran for nine years on ABC and was a modest hit for a time. But it was never a show that attained "watercooler" status, instead getting steady ratings for a while until it finally petered out. I would imagine few would name it as their favorite show, but it's an amiable half-hour with occasionally good jokes that attempted to represent a certain demographic.

In a way, it's the Bizarro Seinfeld. Seinfeld's show focused on a core cast of four: three men and one woman, all trying to find happiness with the opposite sex. But while Seinfeld dealt with a kind of upper-middle-class sensibility, Drew Carey was aggressively lower middle-class. Also, Seinfeld's character, with the exception of Kramer, were riddled with neuroses, while those on Carey were far less deep, and weren't exceptionally self-reflective.

For most of the show's run, Carey was a human resources manager at a Cleveland department store (the show embraced Carey's Cleveland roots). With his crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses and pear shape, he was decidedly not the leading man type. He was a white-collar worker, but with a blue-collar outlook, constantly being put upon by his employer and unlucky in love, but with a perpetually optimistic outlook. The show seemed to say that no matter how shitty life can get, as long as you have friends to drink beer with things will be okay.

Those friends were Louis (Ryan Stiles), a lanky janitor and weirdo (a Cleveland version of Kramer). He was frequently teamed with Oswald (Diedrich Bader) who was the show's dimbulb. Kate (Christa Miller), was the pretty girl who preferred to hang out with the guys (Elaine, if she hadn't gone to college). Over the course of the series Kate was engaged to Oswald and then dated Drew, but Miller left the show before it ended the run.

The show also had a workplace cast, with Kathy Kinney as Mimi, who was Drew's foil, a rotund and rude woman who wore garish makeup and circus-like costumes, and Craig Ferguson as Mr. Wick, Drew's boss, an Englishman with slippery morals.

If the show wasn't brilliant comedy, it was ambitious, with several gimmicks over the years, such as breaking into musical numbers, having a live show that included improvisation, and over the last two seasons it rebooted, with some of the actors playing different characters, or the same characters but in different jobs. You get the idea that meetings in the writers' room were spirited affairs, with lots of brainstorming and an anything goes approach.

As funny as the show it could be, it was also hamstrung by some of the conventions of the sit-com. The laugh track at times was notoriously cheesy, with sentimental moments accompanied by a treacly "aawww" sound. Also, Carey wasn't much of an actor, delivering most of his lines similarly. The rest of the cast, made up of more accomplished thespians, did their best to distract from Carey's weaknesses (of course, this is another similarity to Seinfeld).