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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Passengers

My brief look at some recent Anne Hathaway films ends with Passengers, which completely flew under my radar when it was released in 2008. It's a stylish paranoid thriller directed by Rodrigo Garcia that recalls better films in its structure and its twist ending.

Hathaway plays a grief counselor who is assigned to work with a handful of survivors of a plane crash. One of them is Patrick Wilson, who resists her therapy but is interested in her personally. They end up in a clinch, but there's something fishy going on, as an airline representative pressures her to ignore the passengers' claims that there was an explosion on board, and the passengers start going missing. And what's up with Hathaway's solicitous neighbor, played by Dianne Wiest?

The ending is Shamalyanesque, and after a few years of films like this many will figure it out. It gives the movie a much-needed boost, but it's lack of originality will cause seasoned moviegoers to roll some eyes. It also doesn't make up for the tedium of the first two-thirds of the movie.

There's a lot of good actors in the movie. Besides Hathaway (who again looks like she's lit from within) and Wiest are Andre Braugher, David Morse and Clea Duvall, but ultimately this film is a disappointment.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up


The amazing thing about Pixar films, and the main reason why their films are so consistently excellent, is that those responsible for the stories--and it's all about story--know how to be poignant without being mawkishly sentimental. And so it is with Up, directed by Pete Docter, a film that is so heart-wrenchingly poignant that even as the wee ones will have their funny bones tickled, the grandparents taking them to the theater will have tears streaming down their faces.

I was sold after the stunningly brilliant prologue, about five to ten minutes that could have been a short film of its own. We meet Carl, a young boy who dreams of adventure, and worships an explorer who disappears in South America. He meets a kindred soul, a spunky girl named Ellie, and they share their love of adventure. We see as they get married, move into a house, have the heartbreak of learning they can't have children, and grow old together. They both work at the zoo--he as a balloon salesman, she as a zookeeper in the South America exhibit, and they dream of visiting a mysterious place there called Paradise Falls, where the legendary explorer of their youths collected exotic specimens. But unexpected things happen, and they never get there, as Ellie dies and leaves Carl in their beloved house.

As the action of the film proper begins, Carl's house is surrounded by new construction. He's held out and won't sell and move into a rest home, but after an altercation with a construction worker he's court-ordered out. Not going quietly into that good night, he attaches his house to thousands of balloons, and drifts off into the heavens. Being a Disney film, there's a catch--he has a stowaway, an over-eager and lonely Wilderness Explorer named Russell (not a Boy Scout, interestingly) who needs one more badge to be promoted: the assisting the elderly badge.

Eventually Carl takes the boy in and they drift to South America, where they find some grand adventures, including a giant bird that Russell names Kevin, a maniacal villain, a blimp, and most amusingly, a pack of dogs that have been outfitted with collars that translate their thoughts into English. The collar for the Alpha dog, a Doberman, doesn't work right and he sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk.

Deciding what Pixar film is the best is a little like deciding what your favorite flavor of ice cream is, i.e., virtually impossible. Suffice it to say that Up is right there with both Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Wall-E. Up is both a fantastic adventure yarn (a better title might have been The Spirit of Adventure, rather than the prepositionally prosaic Up) and is a beautifully wrought poem of a life-long love affair. There's a scene at the end in which Carl looks through a picture album that is as touching as anything I've seen in a film in a long time, and reminds me of the scene in The Grapes of Wrath when Ma Joad looks over the valuables she's forced to dispose of.

All that remains for Pixar, a complaint that Manohla Dargis made a few weeks ago in the Times, is to have a female protagonist (after Ellie dies, there is no female presence in this film). The only one I can think of is Elastigirl in The Incredibles, and she's really second-fiddle to Mr. Incredible. I'm confident that when they get around to this it will be well worth the wait.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Ella Enchanted


In 2004 Anne Hathaway starred in the title role of Ella Enchanted, which though based on a book, seems highly derivative of other "meta" fairy-tale films like The Princess Bride and Shrek, and is anemic in comparison.

Hathaway's character is bestowed with a gift upon birth by a well-meaning fairy (Vivica A. Fox): she is required to obey every command given her. Her mother and aunt are powerless to reverse the spell, so little Ella grows up without much of a free will. The spell is kept secret so know one can use it to manipulate her. However, her mother dies and her father, oblivious, marries a wicked stepmother (who of course has two horrible daughters). Throw in a handsome prince, whose uncle, who has obviously read Hamlet, plots all sort of evil things. He's played by Cary Elwes, another reminder that The Princess Bride was a better movie.

Despite Hathaway's engaging performance (the camera absolutely loves her) this film is really of interest only to tween girls. It has many contemporary references, particularly with hit songs (Hathaway sings Queen's "Somebody to Love" and the film ends with "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart") and there is a running subplot about how the Prince is regarded as some sort of teen idol.

This film also made me wonder what happened to Minnie Driver. She was once nominated for an Oscar, but here she has a completely colorless role as Ella's aunt that could have been played by any obscure performer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Easy Virtue


Easy Virtue, directed by Stephan Elliott and adapted from a play by Noel Coward, is one of those fizzy cinematic concoctions about the Brits between the wars that seem to crowd the art-houses every year. There are a lot of period songs and vintage cars, references to Picasso, Lady Chatterley's Lover, the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, lots of cigarette smoking, and an abundance of withering witticisms. There's also the obligatory huge manor home, which begs the question--do the owners of these English estates make most of their money by renting them out to film companies for movies like these? There sure does seem to be plenty of them.

I mostly liked Easy Virtue, which is about seventy-five percent delightful and twenty-five percent head-scratching. I think most of the pleasure comes from Coward's original script, which of course has some very droll dialogue. The plot concerns the Whitaker family on one of those baronial estates. The mother, Kristin Scott Thomas, is Gorgon-like, trying to maintain the prestige and dignity of her forebears, while her husband, Colin Firth, has never been the same since the Great War and takes to lounging about the house, unshaven, with sardonic witticisms at the ready. They have two daughters, one of whom gloomily awaits a beau who will never arrive, and the other a chipmunk type who eyes the young man from the neighboring estate.

There is also a son, Ben Barnes, who has been gallivanting in France. He turns everything upside-down by coming home arm in arm with a new bride, Jessica Biel. To Thomas' horror, she's not only American, she's a race-car driver. Firth likes her right away, but over the course of the film Thomas and Biel will lock horns over Barnes and the future of the family.

Elliott directs with manic energy, and the film is always bubbling with humor. I especially liked the business involving a jaded butler, Kris Marshall, particularly in a scene in which Biel accidentally kills Thomas' beloved chihuahua. But there are is also some keen weirdness. In a scene in which Barnes takes a spin on a new motorized tractor, the song on the soundtrack seems familiar. Yes, I'm hearing correctly, it's the 1970's hit Car Wash, albeit done with a twenties' jazz sound. Most of the soundtrack has songs from the period, a lot of them by Coward (Mad About the Boy, Mad Dogs and Englishmen) but the song over the closing credits is by Billy Ocean.

Biel looks great and is just about convincing as the brash heroine. We can only be glad that Scarlett Johansson didn't get the role, since she's been playing a lot of roles like this lately. Firth has the fun role with most of the good lines, and he knocks them out of the park.

An interesting historical note: Easy Virtue was made into a film before, a silent film in 1928 (an interesting choice for a play by Coward). It was directed by none other than a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor


As expected, President Obama named Appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I called this over a year ago, even before Obama was nominated for President, but that's not because I'm clairvoyant, it was a fairly obvious prediction, given Sotomayor's gender, ethnicity, and her sterling qualifications for the job. She was, to put it simply, the one to beat.

Therefore it's a little odd to hear all the rancor in some quarters that her nomination has stirred up. Most of it is from cable-TV mouthpieces like Pat Buchanan and the right-wing blogosphere, who were prepared to blast any Obama pick. One gentleman said, on MSNBC, that Sotomayor was an activist judge who rules on her feelings rather than the law. Asked why he thinks this way, he said it was because Obama picked her. I wonder what he would have done if Obama had tapped Robert Bork.

After sifting through the articles in today's paper, it seems to me that Sotomayor is fairly moderate, with a liberal tinge. The word that the right tosses around, "activist," is fairly meaningless, because one can be activist from the right or the left. Besides, there is no evidence from her rulings that she is an activist. Of 380 opinions she has written as an appeals court judge, only three have been overruled by the Supreme Court. Legal scholars seem to think that she applies the law strictly, and there is nothing terribly outlandish about her opinions (some think that there's nothing terribly brilliant about them, either). The one case she is likely to be grilled about is Ricci v. DiStefano, which ruled against white firefighters of New Haven who brought a case of discrimination concerning tests for promotion. This case is before the Supreme Court now, and those in the know think it will be overturned. But here's the rub--her ruling was not activist. She sided with the established law in the case, and ruled in favor of the city, which is what any good constructionist would do.

From my vantage point, my only concern is that she is not liberal enough. The Obama forces are straining to say that she's moderate, pointing out that she voted with Republican appointees ninety-five percent of the time. It's maddening that Obama couldn't stand up there and say what this country needs is a good firebrand liberal. He was elected comfortably, after all, which means that court appointments are a reflection of what voters chose last November. Conservatives can just suck it.

So what's next? It appears that she will be fairly easy confirmed, for many reasons. One is strictly mathematics. If Al Franked takes his Senate seat by the hearings the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority. Unless Sotomayor has some shocking skeleton in the closet (other than her being a Yankee fan, I see nothing troubling) it's outlandish to think that more than ten Democrats will vote against her. Beyond that, she is eminently qualified. She has more experience on the federal bench than any current Justice had before they were confirmed, indeed than any Justice in the last 100 years. When she was confirmed as an Appellate Judge in 1998, some Republicans voted against her because they feared she was Supreme Court timber, so for them to say they need time to "get to know her" seems a specious argument.

And then there's the Hispanic factor. This was a historic nomination, as she is the first Hispanic to be chosen for the court (Benjamin Cardozo had roots on the Iberian peninsula, but it's interesting to note that the definition of Hispanic does not include those from Spain--it's those people who are descended from people of the Americas of Spanish origin). Do Republican Senators really want to get nasty with a woman with such a heartwarming story? Does John Kyl of Arizona, or John Cornyn of Texas, want to risk angering their Hispanic constituents? Ultimately I think not. They'll express concern and seriousness, and may vote against her, but won't toss lightning bolts or put up obstacles. Instead, they'll let the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity and other ankle-biters stir up the waters, which will get some contributions from the rabid base.

I remember the first time I ever heard Sonia Sotomayor's name, and it's the same with a lot of sports fans. She ruled in 1995 against the Major League baseball owners, which had the immediate effect of ending the baseball strike. She was seen as a hero then to baseball fans, and it's somehow appropriate that 14 years later she is once again in the news.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Becoming Jane

In 2007 Anne Hathaway starred in the title role of Becoming Jane, a look at British author Jane Austen's romantic entanglements as a young woman. It is a natural subject for big-screen treatment, given the recent popularity of adaptations of Austen's novels, which feature strong female characters and keenly observed comedies of manners.

Austen never married, and this film tells us why. Marriage, in those days of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was primarily a business arrangement. Young women who were of modest means were expected to marry a man who could give them security. Austen is courted by the dull Mr. Wisley, who is the nephew of a local noblewoman. He proposes to her, but she is resolved to marry for affection. Her mother thinks she is a crazy, telling her she will surely end up in poverty.

Austen has an eye for Tom LeFroy, played by James McAvoy, a roguish lawyer who relies on his authoritarian uncle for his funds. He can not marry Austen without his uncle's blessing, and when he doesn't get it they contemplate elopement, which would scar the reputations of both of them.

Becoming Jane is in the tradition of the many costume dramas that pop up year after year, and includes a lot of references to Austen's novels, and Austen devotees could make a parlor game of recognizing them. However, her story (and the film makes a lot of suppositions not backed up by Austen's known biography) lacks the zest of her fiction. An interview with one of the producers on the supplemental material reveals that the filmmakers wanted to tell the story of Austen apart from her fiction. That's a noble intent, but it doesn't make for a very good movie. Instead, under Julian Jarrold's direction, this film tends to be solemn and too reverential. It's a museum piece more than an entertainment.

As for Hathaway, this isn't her best work. Her English accent is weak, and her beauty works against her, I think. I have no idea if Jane Austen was a looker (I rather doubt it) but Hathaway is such a luminous performer that she dominates any scene she is in, as if she arrived by time machine from the present day.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Get Smart


This next week I'll be viewing some Anne Hathaway films that somehow I've missed. Hathaway is not only one of the more physically appealing actresses in Hollywood today, but she's also very talented. She probably deserved the Oscar for Rachel Getting Married, but Kate Winslet was due.

I kick things off with Get Smart (by the way, I won't be watching Bridal Wars), the big-screen adaptation of the sixties spy spoof. Directed by Peter Segal, this film tries to do two things and ends up doing neither--it is not particularly funny, and isn't very good as an action thriller either.

Steve Carell takes the part of Maxwell Smart. In this reimagining, Smart is a officious analyst who has taken the field agent several times. He finally passes, but is told by the Chief (Alan Arkin) that he's too valuable as an analyst to be promoted. Then Control (the agency for which he works, and pointedly not the CIA) is attacked, and he and Agent 99 (Hathaway) team up to stop the villainous organization KAOS from buying nuclear bomb material.

I've read interviews with Carell in which he strenuously points out that Smart is not a boob or an incompetent, he's just a little clumsy. Fair enough, but this film jettisons a lot of what made Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's show funny, and instead ends up as a third-rate spy film. I counted only about three chuckles in the whole thing (one of them was a sight gag involving a beaded curtain that just hit my funny bone the right way) but most of the jokes fell flat. There's a long, pointless scene in which Smart dances with a plus-sized woman, and even a cameo by Bill Murray in a tree didn't earn any laughs.

It's as if the writers and director were determined not to be too funny, and instead we get a warmed over Cold War thriller. The story, involving a bomb planted in the Walt Disney Concert Hall while the president (James Caan, an inspired casting choice) attends hardly even matters. Dwayne Johnson is on hand as a dashing agent and adds nothing, and we get a big chase scene involving a train, a plane and an automobile that isn't anything we haven't seen before.

One wonders what this film could have been. I like Carell, and Hathaway is a pleasure as the coolly deadly 99. Arkin was also in the fun spirit of things as the Chief. We get remnants of the old show--a cameo by Bernie Kopell (the original Siegfried) and the catch-phrases: "Sorry about that, Chief," "Would you believe..." and "Missed it by that much," but upon hearing them one feels a tinge of regret. The original show wasn't genius, but it was a lot more fun than this.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Every Little Step

Having been a theater student in college and rubbing elbows with those who aspired to be on the stage, I watched Every Little Step with a great deal of fascination and emotion. The film is a documentary that attempts to do two things: relate the origins of the watershed Broadway musical A Chorus Line, and document the casting for a revival of the show in 2006. Both of these documentary styles are very familiar, as "making of" featurettes are common on DVDs, and the winnowing nature of auditions unfortunately recall all sorts of reality shows on television.

Unlike most reality shows, though, those auditioning for A Chorus Line are professionals at the top of the game (although there are a few newcomers). They're not talentless fame-whores chomping on insects for cash, they are devoted practitioners of the art of dance who, for the most part, toil in anonymity. What makes auditioning for this particular show different is that the action of A Chorus Line is an audition itself.

Michael Bennett conceived of A Chorus Line in the mid-seventies. He gathered a few dozen Broadway gypsies and tape-recorded a twelve-hour bull session of the dancers talking about their lives. He turned these stories into a show, which was produced by the legendary impresario Joe Papp. It was unusual for the time, as it was far removed from traditional book musicals, but it swept the Tony Awards, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and ran for fifteen years (at the time it was the longest-running musical in Broadway history--it's number four now). Essentially, A Chorus Line is a valentine to dancers who are the best in the country but still have to endure the brutal auditioning process. They don't do it for riches, as the show's ballad goes, they do it for love.

The history of the show, with ancient video clips of the original show, plus interviews with composer Marvin Hamlisch (always a good interview) and star Donna McKechnie, is interspersed with the story of the revival auditions. The director is Bob Avian, who was Bennett's co-choreographer from the original production. The revival's choreographer is Bayoork Lee, who was in the original cast. They start with an open call of 3,000, and the filmmakers follow a select number of dancers through the process, including a girl who rides into the city on the bus from New Jersey, and has never been in a Broadway show before. In this respect the film resembles documentaries like Spellbound, about spelling bee kids.

Every Little Step isn't as cut and dried as Spellbound is, though. Aside from Jessica, the Jersey Girl, many of the performers drift in and out of the action. We really see the process for only a few characters, and get to hear those particular numbers several times, while other songs are eluded to and never heard. The most focus is on the competition for Val, who sings "Dance 10, Looks 3," the cynical Sheila, who sings "At the Ballet," and the lead role of Cassie. Up for that role is Charlotte D'Amboise, something of a name on Broadway, but she still has to audition anyway.

The ups and downs of the auditioning are mesmerizing. The director and his cohorts watch with a mixture of empathy and steely-eyed criticism. One young man brings them to tears with his monologue, and another woman asks to hear whether she got the part or not immediately. The casting director is sent to give her the bad news, and someone whispers that he may come back with an ax in his head. The emotions are raw--one dancer is told, during a call-back, to do what she did last summer during a previous round, but she has no memory of how she did it then, and another despairs that she really needs this job (this of course, is a refrain heard in the opening number of the show) because she is out of unemployment.

The resolution of the film, when we see who gets cast and who doesn't, is exhilarating. There is so much joy in the good news, but for every person cast there is the heartbreak of who doesn't get cast. It's hard not to be moved by the entire thing, and then realize that this happens for every Broadway show, over and over again.

As much of a pleasure this film is, it is not perfect by any means. It is not virtuosic filmmaking. Shot with handheld cameras, the directors stay out of the way and let the story take center stage, but at times it looks pretty shoddy. They even keep in a couple of scenes where an interview subject hits some equipment, as if to say, "See! This is real!" Also, if you have no knowledge of A Chorus Line you may be lost, as a lot of shorthand is used. Some characters are completely ignored, and we don't even know who gets cast in some of the featured roles (although we see who doesn't get cast).

Still, this film will easily be remembered by me at year's end as one of the best. The crowd I was with stayed firmly in their seats during the closing credits, as "What I Did For Love" plays on the soundtrack. Who could walk out on that beautiful song?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bolt

In an effort to establish some sense of completion, I put the film Bolt on my Netflix queue, because it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film, while Waltz With Bashir was not. It would be improper to castigate the Animator's branch for this seeming faux pas without actually seeing Bolt. Well, the film was popular, and sat at the top of my queue for more than two months, but finally arrived for my perusal. The upshot? An acceptable Disney entertainment for tots.

Of course it's not better than Waltz With Bashir, but if you think about it, you can understand why it got a nod while the Israeli anti-war film did not. Animators, I suspect, are interested in animation. Waltz With Bashir's animation is somewhat primitive and stylistic, and secondary to the theme of the piece. In fact, it's really animated because, as a documentary, there is no actual footage of the events told. Bolt, on the other hand, is the kind of child-oriented animated tale that professional animators work for years on, Faberge eggs that open in thousands of theaters at the same time. The story, really, is beside the point.

Bolt is a dog who is the star of a TV show, but he doesn't know it. He's in sort of a canine version of The Truman Show, as he really thinks he has superpowers and is protecting his owner, Penny, from villains. When he is loosed from his trailer and finds himself out in the real world, he discovers that he's an ordinary dog, and with the help of an alley cat and a plastic-encased hamster, works his way across country to a reunion.

This is all fine and perfectly ordinary. There's the requisite slapstick and heartstring-tugging (I admit I got a little choked up at the inevitable reunion--I'm human, after all) and the moralizing is kept mostly at bay (the strongest message is a good one--children and dogs should be kept out of show business). The voice-actors are John Travolta as the intrepid pooch and teen sensation Miley Cyrus as the kid, but Susie Essman steals the show as the dyspeptic cat Mittens.

Where Bolt excels is in its craftsmanship. I read online that the animators used the paintings of Edward Hopper and the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond as guides. Now neither of those names leaped to mind while viewing, but I was frequently astonished at the precision of the backgrounds. The opening shot is a pet store window, which reflects the street behind it, and if I didn't know better I would have thought it was live action. The same could be said of when the animals arrive in Las Vegas and marvel at the lights of the Strip. Of course this is all done with computers but someone has to program those computers, right? We're not in the Terminator era of machine-rule yet, are we?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Nothing to Be Frightened Of


Number six of the New York Times Ten Best of 2008 is a book-length essay by British novelist Julian Barnes that is essentially an examination of the fear of death. Of course, it's much more than that: it's about faith, or the lack of it; the imperfection of memory; and a deeply personal recollection of his family, and how they died. Fortunately, for a topic so weighty, the book is frequently chatty and funny. It's kind of like being seated next to a very learned, very witty fellow on a long plane trip and discussing the issues that are common to every human being.

Though death is the underlying theme, Barnes kicks off with God. The first sentence of the book is "I don't believe in God, but I miss him." He then records that his older brother, a philosopher, finds this statement "soppy." Barnes was an atheist as a youth (he tells a chaplain at Oxford that he is a "happy atheist," at sixty he as an agnostic). He takes a dim view of many views, from Bertrand Russell to Pascal's wager: "The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out to exist, you win. If you believe, and God turns out not to exist, you lose, but not half as badly as you would if you chose not to believe, only to find out after death that God does exist...What if God is not as imagined? What, for instance, if He disapproves of gamblers, especially those whose purported belief in Him is dependent on some acorn-beneath-the-cup mentality? And who decides who wins? Not us: God might prefer the honest doubter to the sycophantic chancer."

Though Barnes is not a believer, he stills fears death: "We fall thereby into four categories, and it's clear which two regard themselves as superior: those who do not fear death because they have faith, and those who do not fear death despite having no faith. These groups take the moral high ground. In third place come those who, despite having faith, cannot rid themselves of the old, visceral, rational fear. And then, out of the medals, below the salt, up shit creek, come those of us who fear death and have no faith."

Barnes also calls on many other minds. "I should also warn you that there are going to be a lot of writers in this book. Most of them dead, and quite a few of them French. One is Jules Renard, who said: 'It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish.'" Renard is the central figure of the book (aside from Barnes). He also said, "I don't know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn't," and "God does not believe in our God," and "Yes, God exists, but He knows no more about it than we do." Other writers and composers make appearances, such as Stendahl, Zola, Stravinsky and many others, including thanatologists, doctors, and always appearing at opportune moments, Barnes' brother.

Though Barnes notes this is not an autobiography, there are many recollections of his life, from boyhood to the circumstances surrounding his parents' death. He is hard on his mother, which must have been difficult, but she does sound quite impossible, a very controlling individual who wondered aloud whether it would be worse if she were deaf and blind and finally decided she would rather be deaf, because then she could still do her nails.

Barnes also has a personal relationship with the reader, frequently addressing him or her (or more precisely, me) directly. He ponders the writers' immortality, and wonders whether it is better for a writer to be forgotten before they die, or die before they can be forgotten. And he writes directly to that person who will be his last ever reader: "My last reader: there is a temptation to be sentimental over him or her (if 'he' and 'she' still apply in that world where evolution is taking our species). Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes--if eyes have not also evolved differently--to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in: your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn't recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! You're really not going to press my book on anyone else? You really are so mean-spirited, so idle-minded, so lacking critical judgement? Then you don't deserve me. Go on, fuck off and die. Yes, you."

Of course Barnes' tongue is firmly in cheek. This book is a great deal of fun for armchair philosophers, though the subject matter is not pleasurable to contemplate. I must say that while reading it I didn't really have the occasion to confront my own mortality. One writer quoted in the book suggests that people believe everyone will die except themselves, maybe that's me. Most of the time I was thinking about Barnes' mortality. Should I outlive the man, hearing about his passing will certainly be an amplified experience after reading this lovely book.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tom Horn

To end this short discussion of Steve McQueen, I turn to his penultimate film, an elegiac Western titled Tom Horn. It is based on a real person, a cowboy, a tracker and Pinkerton agent who apparently chalked up quite a few killings in his short life. In this film, McQueen portrays him as something of a romantic figure--the last of a dying breed as the frontier is closing, but the truth may be a bit more brutal.

An opening title card tells us of the many adventures of Horn (one of them, that he rode with Teddy Roosevelt as a Roughrider, is not true--Horn missed the Spanish-American War with malaria). The story picks up in 1901, as he drifts into Wyoming. He gets into a fight with heavyweight boxing champ "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, by suggesting Geronimo is a better man. He gains the attention of Richard Farnsworth, a local cattleman who is being plagued by rustlers. He takes Horn on a a "stock detective," but essentially he is a hired assassin.

After many of the rustlers are killed the cattlemen realize they've created a monster and want Horn gone. A local teenage boy is shot to death, and Horn is suspected. (One of the films strengths is that we don't know if Horn did or not--nor does history). Horn is put on trial and displays a casual disregard for his fate. Although the films ends historically accurately, I'll leave it to the viewer to discover what happens.

I enjoyed this film, but it's tone and pacing have a lackadaisical quality, much like McQueen's portrayal of Horn. He is a stone killer, but has a puppy-dog nature. The film gives him a romance with the local schoolteacher (Linda Evans) but it's clear that what Horn really loves is the wild terrain of the Rockies, where he wants to return.

The film was directed by William Wiard, who seems to have directed mostly TV, and was co-written by novelist Thomas McGuane, and the script does have a literary quality. Frankly, I was caught up short by the ending, which certainly deviates from the standard Western template.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Brothers Size/Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet


Last night I took in the other half of the McCarter Theater's production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays. This half consisted of two short plays: The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet. Both of these plays were also set deep in the Louisiana bayou, among African-American characters who are a mixture of Creole and Yoruba, and have connections to the old ways even though they live in contemporary U.S.A.

The better of the two plays, and the best of the trilogy, is The Brothers Size. It most strictly adheres to the unities of time and space, and limits the fanciful nature of McCraney's writing, which I appreciated. It has three characters, two of them the brothers of the title. Ogun Size owns an auto-body shop, while his younger brother Oshoosi is just out of prison. They live together with a certain tension, and Ogun basically forces his brother to work at the shop. Oshoosi's friendship with Elegba, who can't seem to avoid staying out of trouble, leads to a crisis, and the two men realize the age-old maxim that blood is thicker than water.

The acting is quite good here, especially by Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun. He appears as that character in all three plays. Oshoosi is played by Brian Tyree Henry. The direction of both plays is by Robert O'Hara.

The second play, Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet, is less successful, but presumably is a far more personal play for McCraney. The title character, Elegba's son, is a fifteen-year-old boy coming to grips with his homosexuality. He is played by Alano Miller, who also plays Elegba, and he perfectly captures the confusion and fear that must go through a young man in a conservative community would go through.

However, there are certain amateurish touches of the play that weigh it down. Coincidentally I'm reading a book now by novelist Julian Barnes in which he mentions that in his first novel he made a point of not describing two things: dreams and the weather, as they are both overworked in fiction. McCraney's play relies heavily on both, as Marcus has a persistent dream of a man walking in a rainstorm, and during the action of the play a hurricane is bearing down on the area (is it Katrina? I don't recall the name being mentioned, but I got the impression that it was that storm). This leads to a lot of lumbering metaphors and hackneyed writing.

After seeing all three of his plays its clear that McCraney is a talent, but still has to shed some youthful (he's under thirty) quirks. Is he going to have his characters speak aloud stage directions in all of his plays? Is he capable of writing about people from other locales? He's certainly a writer to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Papillon

Papillon, a Steve McQueen film from 1973, holds a certain place of importance in my movie-going life. It is one of the first films I saw that was expressly not for children, and thus I felt like a grown-up going to see it. I remember attending a show at the old Calvin Theater on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn with my friend Andy, and we were dazzled by all sorts of things we never saw in kiddie flicks: a beheading, lepers, bare-breasted native girls, references to the anal cavity, intimations of homosexuality, and a man eating bugs. We loved it.

I hadn't seen this film since its initial release until last night, and while it is an admirable film, and McQueen may have given the best performance of his career in it, I'm left wanting. There's something missing at the heart of the story, and it's tough to put my finger on what. Perhaps by the end of this review I'll have figured it out.

Papillon is based on a memoir (or was it fiction?) by Henri Charriere, who got his nickname by the butterfly tattoo on his chest. He is a petty criminal who was convicted of murder (he claimed he was framed) and sentenced to the notorious French penal colony on Guiana. He befriends a fellow convict, a bookish counterfeiter played by Dustin Hoffman. They have a mutually beneficial relationship--Hoffman has a lot of money (kept in a canister shoved where the sun don't shine), which he will use to underwrite McQueen's escape attempt, while McQueen will protect Hoffman from the other prisoners.

McQueen escapes once, briefly, for which he is imprisoned in solitary for two years. Hoffman arranges for him to receive coconuts, but when this is discovered McQueen is told to inform on who supplied them or suffer half-rations and a darkened cell for six months. He refuses to comply, and it is during this harrowing sequence that McQueen is most impressive. In so many films McQueen is known for his cool, but here he lets it all go. He really makes you feel what it's like to be incarcerated in such a dehumanizing way, and the makeup effects combined with his performance are chilling.

McQueen again escapes, this time with Hoffman, and they encounter a leper colony. They make it to Honduras, but again are captured, and in the film's last scenes the two old friends are reunited on Devil's Island, where McQueen is told that "the tides and sharks serve as guards." The prisoners live fairly autonomously, and Hoffman is completely beaten, happy to tend his garden and pigs. McQueen, though, is never dissuaded from trying to escape, and studies the waves, figuring out a system that will take him to freedom.

As an adventure film, Papillon works very well. The director is Franklin J. Schaffner, and he paints a big canvas, well using the lush jungle settings. But yet, there is something missing. Perhaps it's in the central character. We meet him as he is loaded on the boat to South America, so we get no sense of him as a non-prisoner. We only know him as a man who refuses to stop attempting to regain his freedom. In this way he is sort of a stand-in for humanity in general, and this is a burden the character and the film just can't carry. Perhaps the film would have been more successful had it dialed down and settled for being an adventure without the over-arching themes.

Some of this film works beautifully, though. The last twenty or so minutes, with McQueen and Hoffman reuniting on Devil's Island, both of them battered by years of imprisonment, are poignant, and when they hug goodbye the emotions are ripe.

Papillon is a good film, missing greatness by just a bit.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wacky Packages


When I was a lad of about 12 a fad swept our school. It was a series of stickers called Wacky Packages, which were Mad Magazine-like parodies of every day brand name products put out by Topps, who also put out baseball cards and Bazooka gum. When I collected them, about 1973 or 1974, the circle I ran with was fanatical about them. Rumors would spread about which stores had the new series, and we would rush to some out-of-the-way party store after school on our bikes to buy them before they sold out. Then we'd apply the stickers to our notebooks like trophies.

Now there's a book out that allows me to relive those days. It's called a coffee-table book, but it's kind of compact to be called such. On each page, in full color as if they were frescoes by Raphael, are each sticker from the '73 and '74 series. As additional touches, some stickers are included inside, and the dust jacket is printed on that same kind of waxy paper that enveloped each pack back in the day.

The only text is an introduction by Art Spiegelman and an afterword by Jay Lynch. Spiegelman, who is a respected comic historian as well as the author of Maus, was a teenage kid when he was taken on by Topps in the mid-sixties, and he was on the ground floor of Wacky Packages. Many of the artists were employed by Mad, and the humor was in that vein, a kind of low-common denominator punning that was so appealing to kids on the brink of puberty. Most of them dealt with filth or decomposition, with worms a popular trope. Just opening the book at random, I see Hungry Jerk pancake mix, Choke King Chinese food, Fang breakfast drink for vampires, Milk-Foam brand dog toothbrush. You get the idea.

Leafing through this book today, there are no genuine laughs generated by the material. All that it does is infuse a guy my age with a glow of nostalgia for what was good about the seventh-grade (and there wasn't much). Now someone needs to do a book about Odd Rods and Silly Cycles.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Angels & Demons


Three years ago I gave a pass to The Da Vinci Code, despite many misgivings. Yes, it was a slick Hollywood film without a shred of authenticity, but it was also fun. The puzzles were clever, the race across Paris was a nice travelogue, and the bits or arcana about The Last Supper and the Nicene Council gave the film an unusual aura of intellectualism. It was a joy to watch Ian McKellen chew the scenery. But I have my threshold for this kind of thing. Angels & Demons, which reunites director Ron Howard with the author Dan Brown, is essentially a pale copy of The Da Vinci Code.

I realize that Angels & Demons was written before The Da Vinci Code, so when discussing the books it can be said that A&D was a warm-up for the second, more successful book. But in making these films in the order they did, they've done a disservice. Angels & Demons follows the same pattern as The Da Vinci Code--a threat by a secret society in a great capital of Europe (this time it's Rome), and a series of clues that leads our hero to one musty old building after another. Mix in a skeptical member of law enforcement and a pretty girl at the hero's side, and these films resemble variations on each other.

The story takes place in one night. The pope has just died, and the college of cardinals has gone into their conclave to elect the new pontiff. But four cardinals have been kidnapped, and clues point to the Illuminati, an old secret society of scientists and thinkers who were once persecuted by the Catholic church. They're out for revenge, and have stolen a canister of antimatter, which they will use to blow up the Vatican. The church reaches out to professor of symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to follow the clues that will find the explosive device and save the day.

Most of this is complete nonsense. The history and the science is all wrong, and would have a much better home in a second-rate comic book that in a film based on a book that is supposed to be historical. But beyond that, there are the tics of films like this that grate on the nerves. There's the exposition that is yelled as Hanks and Ayelet Zurer, as a physicist who knows all about antimatter, race up and down staircases. Or the solemn way one of them will announce a find in one language, while the other responds with equal solemnity the English translation. There's so much over-explanation in this film I was expecting a quiz at the end.

Then there's the story arc, which is also identical to The Da Vinci Code. If you saw that film, you'll know who the villain is, as Brown is not exactly a supple plottist. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing the screenplay pays certain respect to the text, and the writers, David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, are two guys who aren't exactly Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Ewan MacGregor, as the pope's chamberlain, gives an embarrassing speech about how science and religion can co-exist. Props to MacGregor for being able to say that with a straight face. As director, Howard offers his usual fare: it looks good, it has an obnoxious score, and it has an eye on the bottom line. That's a shame, because as A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon show, he can do better.

Dan Brown is working on another book, called The Last Symbol. That title offers us hope.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Getaway



The Getaway, from 1972 and directed by Sam Peckinpah, was one of Steve McQueen's bigger hits. It's a gritty and quirky crime drama that has a fairly simple story with pretensions of a layered psychological character study. It's better when it sticks to the crime.

McQueen is Doc McCoy, and as the film begins he's turned down for parole. He's had enough of prison life, and misses his wife, Ali MacGraw (who can blame him?). He tells her to approach a local political bigwig, Ben Johnson, to arrange for him to get sprung in return for doing Johnson's bidding.

That bidding turns out to be a bank job. MacGraw is not only beautiful, she's an accomplice, but McQueen is forced to team with two men of Johnson's choosing, which of course leads to disaster. One of them is Al Lettieri (you'll recognize him as Solozzo in The Godfather), and after the robbery he tries to abscond with all the ill-gotten gains. McQueen shoots him but doesn't kill him, so the rest of the movie is a chase, as McQueen and MacGraw attempt to get into Mexico ahead of Lettieri.

A friend of mine saw this film recently and noted similarities to No Country For Old Men. Sure enough, a scramble for a suitcase full of cash through West Texas does strike a resemblance, but The Getaway doesn't have the existential dread of the Coen Brothers film. Peckinpah, frankly, didn't have that kind of film in him. Part of the problem is that McQueen's character isn't particularly interesting. He's kind of a dick, actually, the way he treats MacGraw, so he doesn't come across as an antihero, he's just a schmuck.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the mordantly funny business that Lettieri has with a couple he kidnaps and forces to drive him to El Paso. The husband is a veterinarian, played by Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague from Mayberry R.F.D.), and the wife is Sally Struthers, who at the time was on top of the TV world as Gloria Stivic in All In the Family. Her character immediately sees what side she should be on, and openly flirts with her captor. She and Lettieri have sleazy motel room sex while Dodson is tied to a chair, forced to watch, a vacant expression on his face. Instead of plotting revenge, Dodson ends up hanging himself in the motel room shower.

The film ends, predictably for a Peckinpah film, in an orgy of violence, with several characters blasted with a shotgun. It's too late, though, as the film has meandered too much along the way. A fifteen-minute trim could have done it a world of good.

The film was re-made about twenty years later with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, but that version remains unseen by me.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Saint Valentine's Day Massacre

When the two satellite radio entities, XM and Sirius, merged, that meant that I as an XM subscriber got to listen to Little Steven's Underground Garage, a station sprung from the entrepreneurship and free time of Steven Van Zandt, E-Street Band guitarist and rock and roll historian. Now it's practically the only station I listen to, as it's one of the few (and maybe the only) station on the line-up that plays music from all different periods, from the fifties to today.

The Underground Garage promotes new artists, and I was taken with a song by a Norwegian band called Cocktail Slippers. The song is called Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, and it was played extensively on the station. I bought the album a few weeks ago, and I learned something a little disturbing: Cocktail Slippers are on Wicked Cool Records, which is Van Zandt's record label. What's more, he produced the album, and wrote the title track.

I'm not sure there's anything inherently wrong with this, as it's on such a small scale, but there's something about it that makes me queasy. It's kind of like when the studios that made movies also owned the theaters (and they were forced to divest about sixty years ago). I suppose it's a small price to pay for commercial-free radio.

I'm also willing to forgive because the song is so friggin' good. It's classic power pop, with a great hook and some terrific lyrics: "Well it's New Year's Eve and you say that you love me, but who'll be the last lover standing on Saint Valentine's Day?" Van Zandt also wrote the last and second-best track, Heard You Got a Thing For Me.

The band consists of five Oslo girls, and they've been packaged, given names that sound either like a Saturday morning cartoon or porno: Rocket Queen, Squirrel, Modesty Blaze, Sugar Cane, and Bella Donna. Being an all-girl band, there are some unavoidable comparisons to The Go-Gos or The Bangles, but Cocktail Slippers have a grittier edge, possibly courtesy of Van Zandt. The songs are all about young love, and if you weren't sure that they are an attempt to be retro, consider the second track, You Do Run, contains a sampling of The Crystals Da Doo Run Run.

This is a fun record, nothing Earth-shattering, and since Van Zandt is always talking about rock and roll being authentic, the fictitious names of the girls is a little too typical of cynical music business branding. But since it's all about the music, I give it all a pass.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bullitt

The Steve McQueen "cool" persona was reinforced with the release of Bullitt in 1968. He plays an unflappable police lieutenant who has an almost Zen calmness, even as he's roaring down Lombard Street in a Mustang.

The film was directed by Peter Yates in the kind of gritty style that would dominate police dramas in the 1970s. Set in San Francisco, it has smarmy Robert Vaughn as a local politician enlisting the police to babysit a witness set to testify in a Senate hearing on organized crime. McQueen handles the case, but things go wrong when the witness himself allows gunmen to enter his hotel room and a cop gets shot. Vaughn wants McQueen's hide, but the cool one's captain (the steady Simon Oakland) backs up his man.

This film is best remembered today, and perhaps was best known at the time, for a centerpiece car chase, with McQueen behind the wheel of a Mustang, chasing bad guys in a Dodge Charger up and down the hills of Frisco. The scene is perhaps the best car chase ever put on film, and was the prototype for many to follow. It still holds up today, and Yates and his editor (Frank P. Keller, who won an Oscar for his work) wring everything possible out of the situation. It begins quietly, with McQueen noticing he is being tailed. He ends behind the villains, and the chase is on. Much of it was shot from a P.O.V., so there's a thrill-ride aspect to it that gets the juices pumping, and you'll wince thinking about the abuse those shock absorbers are taking. You can even forgive that the cars pass the same VW Beetle three or four times.

The rest of the film is decent if not earth-shattering. There's a certain procedural tone to it, especially in an extended sequence early on in a hospital, where McQueen waits to hear about the condition of one of his officers. He waits, has a sandwich, listens calmly to Vaughn's invective, quietly considers the facts of the case. He's not in any particular hurry, and neither is the movie.

The obligatory romance has McQueen involved with Jacqueline Bisset, which seems tacked on. Her big scene is yelling at McQueen because he deals with a murdered woman without emotion. I'm not sure what her point was--does she want to date a policeman who would fall to pieces with every tragedy? And he is Steve McQueen, after all. He's not an emoter. She is nice to look at, though.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Cincinnati Kid


Back to Steve McQueen....

The Cincinnati Kid can be viewed as the attempt to do for poker what The Hustler did for pool. The plot and characters are similar, but The Hustler was far more serious and deep. The Cincinnati Kid is lighter fare, with the characterizations not as sharp and the overall effect fairly flat.

Released in 1965, it was directed by Norman Jewison, who considered it is first dramatic film. It was his initial team-up with Hal Ashby, who would edit several of his films and would later be a first-rank director on his own. Both of them acquit themselves well, with the camera moving around brilliantly and the edits quick and at times breathtaking. Where this film lays down is the script, by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern. At the end of the day, the story is a big so-what.

McQueen is the Kid in question, the best stud poker player in depression-era New Orleans. We don't know much about him--presumably he's from Cincinnati--except that he has a girlfriend, Tuesday Weld, who feels that he doesn't need her enough so she goes back to the country to her parents. The Kid's best pal is Shooter (Karl Malden), who was once a great player but now is a dealer and arranger of games. Shooter is married to Anne-Margret, who has a wandering eye, especially for McQueen.

The action is set in motion by the arrival of Edward G. Robinson, who is acknowledged as the country's best player. His resemblance to Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats of The Hustler is almost embarrassing, but Robinson gives a good performance none-the-less. Also in the cast is Rip Torn as a rich guy who gets gutted by Robinson in a game and thus bets on McQueen to beat him, and he's paid off Malden, who will be the dealer, to make sure McQueen wins.

The rest of the film, almost half, is the game. If you like watching poker on TV, this should be catnip for you (and a DVD commentary is offered by professional poker player Phil Gordon). Even if you're not interested in cards the suspense is pretty thick, and Jewison makes it interesting. I'm always suspicious of the patter that goes on in movie card games, though. Do players really refer to queens as "ladies," and keep up all the cliches throughout the many hours of a game? I would think most poker games for high stakes have very little chatter.

Speaking of The Hustler, it's interesting to compare McQueen and Paul Newman. Both had similar careers, though McQueen did die quite young, at 50, in 1980. They both came from the New York theater, and both were fond of going very fast in vehicles. But though McQueen became a big star, he never achieved the kind of respect that Newman attained. As I watch more of McQueen's films I'll try to figure out why.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Indignation

I've read many of Philip Roth's books, but I've never read one of his books as fast as Indignation, his latest novel. I read it in its entirety on a round-trip train ride from Princeton to New York. It's brief, yes, but it was also difficult to put down, as Roth details the downward spiral of his lead character in punchy fashion.

The character is Marcus Messner, a young man from Newark, New Jersey (Roth's home town and the backdrop of most of his books). It is 1951, and he is a college student. In order to get away from his increasingly over-protective father, a kosher butcher, he has transferred from a small college in Newark to the bucolic Winesburg College in rural Ohio. Marcus is determined to devote all of his discretionary time to his studies, and shuns fraternity life. He has a run in with a couple of roommates and changes rooms. Then he goes out with a pretty but troubled co-ed and he receives a surprising blowjob. All of this leads to catastrophe.

In a challenge to book reviewers everywhere, Roth introduces a surprise bit of information on page 54 of a 223-page novel, so it becomes an ethical challenge whether it's a spoiler or not to reveal it. I'll leave it unmentioned, even though I knew it was coming, as the New York Times book reviewer didn't consider it a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Marcus' story is a steady downward slope of despair, as it seems that every decision he makes is the wrong one. Viewed from a certain angle, it's like a joke, a shaggy-dog story like the Be-Bop-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie commercials that Garrison Keillor does on The Prairie Home Companion. Just when things get about as bad as they can for Marcus, they get worse.

Much of this is familiar Roth territory, starting with the young Jewish man from Newark. It harkens back to themes in Portnoy's Complaint, such as the dating of a Midwestern shikse (Portnoy dated a girl like this he called the "Pumpkin.") Also from that book is the story of the young Jewish man who hung himself but was such a good son that he left a note pinned to his chest letting his mother know she had a phone message. Marcus is sort of like this good son, a boy scout on the outside, a simmering cauldron of rage on the inside.

That Roth chose the name Winesburg for his Midwestern college couldn't be accidental--of course it's lifted from the famous book Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, about a seemingly perfect town that has all sort of diseases of the soul. Marcus chooses the school on the basis of a catalogue photo picturing two idealized students in their perfect collegiate outfits. When he gets there, though, he can't get along with anyone. It all comes to a head in a brilliantly imagined scene between Marcus and the Dean of Men, in which Marcus explodes, declaring his atheism and his devotion to Nobel-laureate Bertrand Russell.

Of course, there's some troubling aspects of the book. Those who find Roth misogynistic won't be pleased with the characterization of Olivia, the girl Marcus dates and offers a hummer. She's mentally ill and promiscuous, but he lusts after her anyway. Aside from Marcus' mother, she's the only female character in the book, and while she is attractive to those of us who have a savior complex, it's all a bit much.

Whether the theme of this novel will appeal to all (it certainly did to me) there is no denying the skill of Roth's wordsmithing. The sentences are polished gems, and the story wraps around on itself. For instance, the title refers, in addition to Marcus' increasing agitation, to lyrics of the Chinese National Anthem, as adopted by the Communists. In a nice bit of irony, Marcus' story ends facing these very same Chinese in the Korean War.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ruined

Ruined, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama a few weeks ago, and is now playing at the Manhattan Theater Club's home base, the New York City Center, is set in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. It has hot-button issues, such as the genital mutilation of girls, and crackles with intensity. Yet it is also an extremely conventional play, structurally speaking. At times you can almost hear the creaking of the plot. This is, however, not a criticism. Lynn Nottage, who is the author of the play, knows her stuff, both in how to craft a play and in how to make an audience of New Yorkers believe they are in a very dangerous spot in Africa.

The setting is a bar and brothel in a mining town in the rainforest. The proprietress is Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), by turns vivacious and mercenary. She has a touch of Rick Blaine about her, as she serves both the rebels and the government soldiers--she doesn't care who wins, as long as her palm is greased. She has an admirer, a salesman she teasingly calls Professor (Russell G. Jones) who keeps her in soap, condoms and lipstick. One day he has some extra cargo in his truck--two girls, both for sale.

One of them, Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is a plain and battered woman who has been spurned by her family because of her being used like a rag by a company of rebels. The other, Sophie, is the Professor's niece. She is pretty and sings well, but she can't be a whore--she is "ruined"--she was genitally mutilated, a common and shockingly barbaric practice in many African nations. After much persuading, Mama Nadi agrees to take on Sophie, even though she can't be a working girl.

Over the course of the play, which is over two and a half hours, there is almost a constant tension, especially when the soldiers are in the bar. Both rebels and government men are scary, and even though I was in a comfortable seat in mid-Manhattan I had the sense that violence could break out at any time. I can't begin to imagine how it must be really like in such a place. The ensemble of actors who play multiple roles are brilliant at depicting how young, heavily armed men possess a menace that chills the blood.

Mama Nadi manages to keep the men away from Sophie, though Salima and Josephine (Cherise Boothe) ply their trade. The truth is they are safer working for Mama Nadi than being cast out into the bush. Most of the men seem to treat them well, especially a white mineral dealer (Tom Mardirosian), who promises Josephine he will set her up with an apartment in the big city. Josephine has a chip on her shoulder, frequently reminding others that she is the daughter of a chief, though she is then told that that now means nothing.

Life is cheap here, and even cheaper for women, so Mama Nadi is a pretty remarkable character, and Ekulona gives a bravura performance. But there isn't an actor in this cast that doesn't deserve the highest accolades. Bernstine, as the pathetic but dignified Salima, has a monologue at the opening of Act 2 about how she was abducted by rebels and her baby was murdered that didn't leave a dry eye in the house. Jones is also terrific, a reciter of poetry with a dusty old suit, who begins the play drinking nothing stronger than orange Fanta but ends up falling off the wagon after he is forced to drink whiskey by the government's commander. Condola Rashad, in her New York debut, is Sophie, and if her performance isn't as scintillating as the others it's probably because her role isn't as fully shaped.

The direction by Kate Whoriskey is flawless. The scenic design by Derek McLane effectively recreates the jungle, but I was puzzled by the linoleum floor, which looks like a suburban finished basement. Perhaps this was a practical decision, since many characters go barefoot, but it was out of place.

Ruined is effective melodrama. Yes, there is a certain Swiss watch aspect to it. Perhaps it could have been a little messier, and left a few threads hanging, but there is no denying that it is an emotionally draining evening of theater, and richly deserves its prize.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek



It seems that with the film Star Trek, one should preface discussing it by stating what one's involvement is with Star Trek as a whole. Therefore, I am not much of a Star Trek fan. I've seen my share of episodes, but never had a passion for it. During high school (the show was then a decade after cancellation and firmly in syndication) I had a couple of friends who were passionate fans (Trekkies, Trekkers, whatever) so I lived somewhat vicariously through them. We were just out of high school when the first feature film was released, and a whole bunch of us went. The movie stunk, of course, but it was interesting noting how glorious it was for these fans to see, after more than ten years, the Enterprise and its crew in action again.

Since then nine more films were released, some with the original cast, some with the Next Generation cast. I've seen most of them, although without looking at the IMDB I couldn't swear to which ones. Most have been acceptable entertainment, the Next Generation ones better simply because we were spared the sight of the aging and spreading original cast. Now J.J. Abrams has resurrected the franchise with a "reboot," a popular and dangerous term for starting familiar characters and storylines all over again, as if everything that happened before never happened. The results are mixed.

Abrams, creator of TV fare Lost and Alias, has previously directed only one film, Mission Impossible II, and is notable more as a mastermind of worlds than a hands-on tinkerer. Star Trek, the series, was always about ideas more than action or special effects (I mean they had Styrofoam rocks, for goodness sake), while this Star Trek tries for both, but comes up short in each. Abrams doesn't show much of a flair for action, and he recycles an idea that is now on display in his TV brainchild, Lost.

The film really consists of two halves. The first is a frequently dull introduction of characters, all with a kind of wink at those who recognize them. For anyone who walked into the film with no knowledge of Star Trek, it would be extremely painful. We meet Jim Kirk, son of a heroic captain, who is squandering his talent on driving fast and boozing; Spock, the Vulcan-Human hybrid who deals with racial discrimination and tries mightily to suppress his emotions; McCoy, the ship's doctor and comedian, and Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov, all of whom would patiently occupy their respective chairs on the bridge in the series. Abrams tries to give them a bit more to do (a romance between Uhura and Spock?) and some back story.

Then the plot takes shape. It seems that time travel is involved, so an alternate storyline is created, thus denying Trekologists the right to complain that such and such never happened or couldn't be possible. It's a clever move and cynical one at the same time. Anyway, a Romulan (played unrecognizably by Eric Bana) swears revenge on the Federation after his planet is destroyed, but comes from the future to do it.

The film began to get interesting when Leonard Nimoy shows up. Just who he plays and why he is in the film is something of a spoiler, but suffice it to say that his presence is both reassuring and gives the film a kick-start. Despite the focus on Kirk, this film is really about Spock, and when I think about it is his character, along with Nimoy and the fine performance by Zachary Quinto that is in my brain. His struggle at being in two worlds is, in his term, "fascinating."

There's plenty for the old fans to chuckle over. A lot of the catch-phrases are there, such as McCoy's "I'm a doctor, not a..." and Scottie's "I'm giving it all I can!" (By the way, Simon Pegg is a delight as the excitable Scot). I would imagine more than a few Trekkers got a little thrill hearing Spock say, "Phasers set to stun."

I'm guessing that there will another film, and I'm actually optimistic about that one. With all the introductions out of the way, the story can probably get underway immediately, and perhaps we can see more of Abrams storytelling gifts.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Never So Few

For the next week or so I'll take a look six films that are in a boxed set called Steve McQueen: The Essential Collection. How essential is a question, since it doesn't contain some of his best known films (there is another set that contains The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven).

The first film, chronologically, Never So Few, from 1959, doesn't star McQueen. He's a supporting player, but it's important historically because it was his first big film (after the B horror picture The Blob and his television work in Wanted: Dead or Alive). He replaced Sammy Davis Jr. in the role, because Davis pissed off the star, Frank Sinatra. Frankly, Davis would have been interesting, sociologically, since this is a World War II film and the troops were still segregated then.

The film concerns a squad of American and British officers that are leading a group of local Burmese soldiers as they try to hold off the Japanese. Sinatra is the captain in charge, and he's the kind of guy who does it his way, a way that would make Dick Cheney proud. Whether it's torture, executing prisoners, or openly defying orders, Sinatra goes by his gut. I'm sure this was intended as good, old-fashioned American gumption, but to modern sensibility it is awfully obnoxious.

Whatever the movie's politics, it's just plain bad. The director, John Sturges, made much better films with McQueen (including The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven) but seems lost here. This was in the era of a lot of bloated World War II epics, but for every great one (like Bridge on the River Kwai) there were some turkeys, too, like this one. The pacing is glacial, gummed by a romance between Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida (the poor man's Sophia Loren) that is completely unnecessary.

As for McQueen, he's cast in a role that he would go on to play many times, a kind of can-do tough guy who knows all the angles. He steals the picture right from under Sinatra's nose, though he's given far too little to do. Also in the film is Charles Bronson in an early role. He plays a Navaho code talker, and provides some of the "conscience" of the film. He is angry every time another soldier calls him Hiawatha, but turns right around and refers to the Burmese as "gooks."

Look for George Takei, who would later be Sulu in Star Trek, in a very small role, as well as James Hong as a Chinese general. Who is James Hong? Why he's the maitre 'd in the "Chinese restaurant" episode of Seinfeld. "That will be five, ten minutes!"

Friday, May 08, 2009

Wendy and Lucy


Kelly Reichardt is a minimalist filmmaker whose previous feature was the pastoral Old Joy, which had its charms, but was no where as impactful as her 2008 release, Wendy and Lucy. The two films bear certain similarities: Wendy and Lucy is filmmaking on a shoestring budget, and is paced extremely leisurely. But even though the film focuses on the immediate problems of one person, it is something for a stand-in for recession-era America.

Michelle Williams is Wendy. She is a young woman on her way to Alaska, where she hears they are hiring workers. We don't know too much about her, other than she's from Indiana and her closest companion is her dog, Lucy. The dog, a modest bankroll, and an '88 Accord is all Wendy has, and one day while passing through Oregon she almost loses all of it.

She awakes from slumber in her car to find that it won't start. Then she gets pinched for trying to shoplift dog food, collared by an over-eager stockboy who is a searing avatar for the Fox News culture ("if someone can't afford dog food, they shouldn't have a dog," he says imperiously). While Wendy is being held by the police, Lucy disappears, and her bankroll is threatened by the prospect of an expensive repair at the local garage.

That story is a tale in miniature, but whether or not Wendy finds Lucy is as fraught with suspense as any summer blockbuster. When a person has almost nothing, the loss of that something is as big as the world. A lot of the success of this has to with Williams, who gives a lovely performance. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but the expressions on her face speak volumes. There are some lovely moments with a drugstore security guard who befriends her, and an emotionally wrought scene in a gas station bathroom, when her world is shattering around her, is pointedly poignant.

I watched a lot of this movie with my heart in my throat, none more than the scene in which the mechanic (Will Patton) gives her some bad news. How often I've sat in auto shop waiting rooms, white-knuckled, waiting for good or bad news. It really can be life altering.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Clash By Night

This is an example of a DVD that was on my Netflix queue for months and months, patiently climbing the ladder, until when it arrived I had no memory of why I added it to the queue in the first place. But no worry--it's a decent film, directed by the estimable Fritz Lang and with a great performance by Barbara Stanwyck.

Wikipedia calls it a noir film, but it really isn't. That genre seems to have cast a pretty wide net, but there's nothing about this film other than moody black and white photography that would suggest noir. Instead it's a melodrama, a pretty sudsy one at that, but Lang and Stanwyck and Robert Ryan give it a hard edge.

The film is set in Monterey, California, around the fishing industry. Stanwyck returns to her home town, dropping hints that she's been around the block a few times. This is a nice twist on the usual plot of a man returning to his home town. She returns to the old homestead, where her brother (Keith Andres) isn't exactly thrilled to see her, but welcomes her back. He has a girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe) who is inspired by Stanwyck's peripatetic life and longs to shake the fish oil out of her pores and hit the road. Meanwhile, Paul Douglas, as a stolid fishboat captain, takes a shine to Stanwyck and asks her out. She warns him that she will end up hurting him someday, but the two get married and have a baby.

Douglas has a friend, a film projectionist played by Ryan, who is a self-loathing cynic. He's attracted to Stanwyck, and she is, too, but tells herself and everyone else that she hates Ryan. The two are cut from the same cloth, and dutiful but dull Douglas gets cuckolded. Finally Stanwyck must choose between the two of them.

A lot of this is a soap opera, but it's well executed. Stanwyck is great as the world-weary dame, and Douglas, in the William Bendix/Ernest Borgnine mode, is also very good as a decent man who gets in over his head. He thinks that providing love and security should be enough for Stanwyck, but she's the type of person who always is looking for something else. Ryan is fascinating as the third leg of this triangle, a guy who is outwardly the life of the party but on the inside is rotting.

The film, released in 1952, was the first that billed Monroe ahead of the title. Her nude photos (one of which would end up as Playboy's first centerfold) were circulated during the filming, making for something of a sideshow. In what would be a career trend for her, she drove Lang nuts, being late and not remembering her lines. But you can tell from just a few minutes that she had what it took to be a movie star.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Sirens of Titan


This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut's second novel, The Sirens of Titan. I read this book back in college, and I picked it up again and re-read it this week. An advantage of getting old is that I almost completely forgot it, so reading it a second time was almost like reading it the first time.

I remembered only two things: a character becoming rich by investing in the stock market using a system derived from the Bible; and the book-within-a-book title "Unk and Boaz in the Caves of Mercury," which is so vivid that I've never forgotten it, even though I did forget who Unk and Boaz were.

In some ways this book perfectly crystallizes Vonnegut: it's outwardly a pulp science fiction novel, but inwardly a deeply humanistic look at mankind's struggle for meaning. The sci-fi is pretty slapdash, and has an almost childlike quality. A character named Winston Niles Rumfoord has built his own spaceship but gets caught in something called the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula, which means he is in several places at once, appearing in various places throughout the solar system in regular intervals, along with his dog, Kazak. Rumfoord can see the past, present and future at the same time, and manipulates time to fulfill his own prophecies (the TV show Lost is sort of like this now).

Rumfoord invites the world's richest man, Malachi Constant, to visit on one of his appearances on Earth. Constant is told that he will end up visiting Mars, Mercury, and finally Titan, and that he will father a child by Rumfoord's wife, Beatrice, even though Constant takes an instant dislike to her. Of course all of this comes true, and Constant ends up part of a war between Mars and Earth that Rumfoord arranges so as to create peace and brotherhood on terra firma (an idea that also appears in the comic book epic Watchmen).

That's only part of the story. Late in the book a mechanical being from the planet Tralfamidore takes center stage (Tralfamidore would later play a big role in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five). Salo, as he is known, is quintessential Vonnegut, a creature that though a machine is terribly sentimental (think Epicac, his story about a computer who falls in love), and also combines the fantastic with the banal: he has been stranded on Titan, waiting for a replacement part for his spaceship. How long has he been waiting? 200,000 years.

The book is both marvelously zany and also heartbreakingly tender. Constant, who loses his fortune and is recruited to be a Martian soldier, becomes a kind of everyman, who is reduced to his simplest elements but still longs to be reunited with his family. Vonnegut satirizes a full range of Western concepts, whether they are business (his first novel, Player Piano, was also rooted in the financial), religion (Rumfoord creates a new one, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent) and the military (the Martian army is really commanded by privates, who control the other soldiers through antennas in their brains).

As with all Vonnegut, though, this book puts forth the idea that no matter how insane our lives are, they are worthy, as is mankind in general. It is this book that Vonnegut, through the vile character of Rumfoord, says, "I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." And the ending, which is tough to read without getting a tear in the eye, allows Salo, a creature of technology, making the grandest gesture to a man of flesh and blood.

If I live long enough, I'll have to give this book another read in another twenty-five years. I'll be close to the age of Constant as he is at the end of the book, and I may have forgotten it all over again.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith has made some terrible movies, but I find that I've seen most of them (I've yet to see Mallrats or Clerks II, but I think I've seen the rest). I was keen to see his latest, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, because having some knowledge of what the real world of adult films is like, I'm interested to see how that it is translated into the mainstream.

I was surprised to find that Zach and Miri may be Smith's best film (it's in competition with Chasing Amy). Much of this is due to a sweet yet gleefully profane script that is often genuinely funny and enlivened by Seth Rogen's performance as Zach, but the key may be that Smith lays off his usual indulgences. Many of his films, notably Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma, appear to have been made for Smith's friends.

Zach and Miri doesn't have Smith's stock character. Jason Mewes, who plays Jay in several other films, shows up, but actually plays a different character, and Smith's Silent Bob character is absent. I don't know what accounts for Smith reining in his ego, but it's entirely welcome.

As for the porno angle, it's largely irrelevant, as this is not a film about the professional world of porn. Zach and Miri are two childhood friends who share a house but are barely above water, financially speaking. Working in marginal jobs (Zach is a barista, I'm not sure what Miri's job is, but it can't be too prestigious), they are late on the utilities and the water and electric gets shut off. Zach comes up with the idea of making a porno film, and after enlisting the aid of some friends, they're off and running.

Elizabeth Banks plays Miri, and she's an appealing actress, but she'll never be good enough to convince me that she could be such a loser. The script paints her as some sort of slut (she's slept with a lot of guys, but not Zach, because she says it would be like sleeping with her brother) but I kept wondering how her character went so wrong. Banks is simply miscast, but she's still a pleasure to watch. Rogen, on the other hand, is perfectly cast. We're used to seeing him as bearish slackers, but he outdoes himself here.

The spine of the film is that Zach and Miri are secretly in love with each other, and when they film their sex scene they actually make sweet love, even though it's on top of sacks of coffee beans and a crew is watching. The game playing (Miri gets jealous when Zach is going to have a sex scene with another actress) is nice if not predictable, and the ending is easily foretold. The path to the end is where the film sings.

The supporting cast is notable for having current and former porn stars (Katie Morgan and Traci Lords) and a very funny turn by Craig Robinson (who is terrific in The Office and was very funny in Pineapple Express). The film is not set in Smith's New Jersey, instead in suburban Pittsburgh, but the director has a sure hand in depicting the lower middle-class environs of his characters. He also approaches David Mamet status with his expletive-laced dialogue. I found most of it hilarious, but don't expect to see this one on an airplane, unless it's Hooters Air.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"No More Souters"


Though I'm not a lawyer, I am a fierce civil libertarian, so I take a close interest in the comings and goings on the U.S. Supreme Court. On Friday, Associate Justice David Souter announced his retirement at the end of the term, giving President Obama an early opportunity to put a justice of his own on the court. This is the first vacancy on the court since I started this blog, and since I'm a Democrat, this process will be fun.

I'm sorry to see Souter go, which is something I wouldn't have thought possible nineteen years ago, when he replaced liberal legal hero William Brennan. The first President Bush named him to the court, and the Republicans thought of him as a "home run." He was largely unknown, and didn't have much of a paper trail, but still ignited knee-jerk opposition from liberal groups, and was not unanimously confirmed. In retrospect, everyone was dead wrong.

Souter was the ideal Supreme Court justice. He has no ideology, no axes to grind, no agenda. He seemed to approach each case with, shockingly enough, objectivity. It quickly became apparent that he was not a lock-step conservative justice, and in fact settled into what became known as the liberal wing of the court (along with John Paul Stevens, another Republican-appointee that didn't hold to form).

This angered the conservatives, of course, and in the next few Republican appointments to the court, proclaimed "No more Souters," meaning, get someone who will vote how we want them to. Bush the second, with his picks of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, heeded the call.

This weekend in the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse wrote about how indeed there will be no more Souters, but that's because of the changing nature of judicial politics. Of course Souter was an eccentric presence on the Court, like a character out of a nineteenth-century British novel. He was pointedly anti-technical, writing with a fountain pen, and eschewing email and television, and possessing quirks that amused court reporters, such as having the same lunch every day--yogurt and an apple (core and all). But Souter was even more unusual for his lack of politicalization.

He's leaving the court at the relatively young age of 69, most say, because he despises Washington and would like to spend more time in his beloved New Hampshire. But perhaps there is more to it. In his book The Nine (reviewed on this blog), Jeffrey Toobin reports that Souter almost quit the court after the Bush v. Gore decision, despondent over the putsch made by the majority in that case. The Supreme Court is famously collegial even with the justices who reside on different sides of the ideological spectrum, but Souter may have taken things more seriously than was comfortable.

So, who will Obama choose? Almost exactly a year ago I posited that it would be Sonia Sotomayor, an appellate judge who has two desirable traits--she is female and Hispanic. Immediate scuttlebutt suggests that Obama will choose a woman, as a one-in-nine ratio is a stark under-representation. And there has never been a Hispanic on the court, which is another embarrassing condition. Sotomayor would solve both problems, and would seem to be eminently qualified.

I would love to see Sotomayor chosen, if only to make me look like a seer, but I don't think she has it in the bag. The two major reasons would be her being from New York (seven of the current nine justices have substantial ties to the Acela corridor, Washington to Boston) and that she's an appellate judge (all nine of the current justices were plucked from the Appellate Courts). Obama has hinted that he would like a Justice who has some experience beyond the cloistered chambers of courtrooms, which may mean someone who has political experience (Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is brought up when this is discussed).

From all I've read, Obama will not pick a firebrand, a liberal version of Antonin Scalia. That's too bad, because with 60 votes in the Senate he could pick almost anyone he liked (just as long as they've paid all their taxes and don't frequent hookers). But I believe he will pick someone with a pragmatic view of the Constitution, perhaps along the line of his own view (Obama, of course, was a professor of Constitutional Law).

Other names mentioned are Kim Wardlaw, who is also a Hispanic woman (she is of partial Mexican descent, despite the Anglo last name, and is from California); Leah Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court; Diane Wood, who was on the University of Chicago faculty with Obama; and Elena Kagan, newly minted Solicitor General and previously Dean of Harvard Law School.

I'm going to stick with my pick, though, and put my money on Sotomayor. Obama will incur some major wrath if he does not choose a Hispanic (although he is almost certain to get another pick in his term, perhaps two), and Sotomayor is the most qualified female Hispanic legal mind in the country. Whoever Obama picks, the Republicans will squawk and ruffle their feathers and may even amass thirty votes against, but Obama has house money and this seat, which has been liberal since Brennan was appointed over fifty years ago, will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine


At one point in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a character is killed and told by his vanquisher, "You are so predictable." That's my chief complaint about this film--it's a by-the-numbers superhero film that offers very little sizzle or flair. And that's a shame, because I like the character and how Hugh Jackman, now in his fourth go-round, has successfully made Wolverine a compelling figure. It's perhaps the best marriage of performer to character in all of the Marvel films.

But alas, Jackmancan not save this thing. I find it interesting that Gavin Hood was chosen to make the film. He has drifted far from his art-house origins. There's no trace of the ingenuity he brought to his film Tsotsi. After making a fair-to-middlin' Hollywood film, Rendition, he's now reduced to churning out standard-issue greasy kid stuff. They could have done just as well to bring back a hack like Brett Ratner, who certainly would have been more comfortable dishing out the cliches, including two of my least favorites: the character cradling a dead loved one, looking to the heavens and screaming, with the camera directly overhead; and the character calmly walking away from an explosion.

If the title doesn't clue you in, what we have here is Wolverine's origin. We learn that he was born in Canada in the early 1800s and discovers he has claws when there's some sort of family dispute (perhaps this is spelled out in the comic books, because it sure gets short shrift here). He learns that his brother, Victor, is also a mutant, who also has some gnarly claws, and the two can't be killed and don't age. During the prologue they fight in several wars (somewhere along the line they've moved to the States). What they do during peacetime is not specified.

After Vietnam, they are recruited for a special unit run by Stryker (Danny Huston). Jackman has had enough of the bloodshed, and turns to a simple life of lumberjacking and living with a hot schoolteacher (Lynn Collins). His situation is so idyllic that we know it will end tragically.
There are a lot of extra characters, some of whom were X-Men, in this film. I faithfully read Marvel Comics for twenty years and I had trouble sorting out who was who. In some instances they scraped the bottom of the barrel (The Blob?) and also briefly feature some more prominent characters, like Gambit, Deadpool and Emma Frost. Victor (played well by Liev Schreiber) is of course Sabretooth, although he is never addressed by that name in this film (perhaps to avoid the problem that Sabretooth was a character in the first X-Men film, without the baggage of him being Wolverine's brother). This is probably the only comic-book film I've ever seen that needs annotation. Many of these characters have powers that are never fully defined: if Gambit is a mutant, what's with the magic stick? How is John Wraith different than Nightcrawler?

The action scenes are nothing to write home about. Wolverine and Sabretooth square off several times, and each time is about the same. There are long stretches where nothing seems to be happening, yet the film isn't that long, by comic-book standards. The music score is wretchedly bombastic.

The film does tie-in nicely with the beginning of the first X-Men film, as Patrick Stewart makes a cameo (although he appears to be doing it against his will). Since Jackman was one of the producers of this film it's pretty clear he's not tired of wearing those funky whiskers, but I don't know what the future of Wolverine could be, without making another full-blown X-Men film. Maybe by then we'll see the New Mutants. Casting ideas for Cannonball, anyone?