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Sunday, November 29, 2009

North by Northwest

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its release, Warner Home Video recently released a two-disc DVD of the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest. I have just concluded several hours of watching the film (for the umpteenth time) and the many extras (apparently the previous DVD release was fouled up with a flaw in the last act--the Amazon reviews are a litany of complaints about it, but a flaw in the Amazon review system doesn't differentiate between releases).

Following the box-office disappointment of Vertigo, Hitchcock teamed with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to adapt the book The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Lehman couldn't do anything with the book, and told Hitchcock so, but the director liked the writer enough to suggest they just scrap that idea, not tell MGM about it, and do something else. Hitchcock had always wanted to make a film that had a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore (a possible title for the film was "The Man in Lincoln's Nose") and that's where they started. Hitchcock would never make Mary Deare.

The film was a hit, and has grown in time to be acclaimed as one of the greatest Hitchcock made. It is certainly his most entertaining, and in many ways is the ultimate Hitchcock film, incorporating all of the elements that he is known for in one package: the wrong man (as well as the man who's entire world is upended), the domineering mother, the icy blonde, the spectacular set piece, the McGuffin, and mischievous humor. It is also something of a valentine from Hitchcock to his adopted country, as the film's motion, described in its title, from New York to Chicago to the frontier of South Dakota, is essentially American.

The film begins with the double wallop of an exquisite Saul Bass title design and a swirling Bernard Hermann score. The design shows diagonal lines which eventually morph into the buildings of Madison Avenue, but over the course of the film the carefully calibrated geometry will be undone, as the life of cosmopolitan man-about-town Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) will fray until he is hiding in an Indiana cornfield and hanging for his life off of Mount Rushmore. Through a case of mistaken identity, international spies take him for a federal agent, and he is thrust into something out of Lewis Carroll, where he meets a suave villain (James Mason), then a sexy but mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) and his chased across the country.

Hitchcock does some amazing things in this film, perhaps none so bold as the iconic crop-duster scene, where Grant is left standing in a wide open space for about six minutes, an incredible amount of time for nothing to happen in a mainstream Hollywood film. First one car goes by, then another, as Grant waits hopefully to meet the man who we know doesn't exist--George Kaplan. Finally another man appears, and Hitchcock frames the two men in a wide shot without a bit of sound, a scene abundant in both suspense and absurdity. Then, finally, the plane attacks, and we react as Grant does--this can't be happening!

This scene, one of the most famous in Hitchcock's career if not in cinema history, is indicative of how North by Northwest works--it is a series of preposterous plot advancements that glide past the audience because of how skillfully the direction is. Let's face it--sending a man into a cornfield to be assassinated by a crop-duster is not exactly efficient (as is being loaded drunk into a sports car hoping for a fatal accident). Mason's international spy ring could take some lessons from the mob, who believed in a simple two shots to the head. (Additionally, there are some lapses in geography: Long Island has no rocky cliffs, and no one, not even a dapper spy, lives on top of Mount Rushmore).

Aside from the crop-duster scene, there are others that bear scrutiny. The scene in which Grant approaches Mason at the art auction scene is an example of both disrupted expectations and the recurring theme of the orderly world turned anarchic. When Grant stalks across the room, bitter at being double-crossed by Saint, the audience could expect that Mason and his stooge, Martin Landau, would strike back. But because they are in a citadel of sophistication, their stand-off is done in hushed tones and sober politeness. Then, to escape their clutches, Grant realizes he must be escorted out by police, and sets about disrupting the proceedings until they are called. He does by breaking the rules of the auction, bidding below the established bid, or by absurdly low figures. It is again a touch of Lewis Carroll, unusual for a film that is meticulous in construction.

North by Northwest has been called by some the first James Bond film, in that it anticipated the template for those films with a multitude of iconic locations and pulse-pounding derring-do. But in reality it only captures the essence of Bond in the final act, because up until that time Grant's Thornhill character is a passive hero, acted upon. It is only after he is informed that his behavior has endangered the life of Saint does he choose to be proactive, even breaking free of the government handler and going to the villain's lair at the end of the picture.

A few tidbits: Hitchcock loved to use iconic locations and landmarks--he used the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, and along with Mount Rushmore he sets a scene at the United Nations (where he was banned from filming, but surreptitiously shot an establishing scene from a camera hid in a carpet-cleaning truck). The suit that Grant wears through almost the whole film was voted by GQ magazine as the greatest in film history, though there is a dispute over who made it. There is also a funny mistake in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria scene, just before Saint shoots Grant. A boy, who obviously had been through a lot of takes, can be seen putting his fingers in his ears before the gun goes off.

Speaking of humor, it is a major reason why North by Northwest is so enduring. At one point a government operative, after learning of Thornhill's predicament, says, "If this weren't so sad it would be funny," which is a nice summation of Hitchcock's style. In so many of his films there are grim circumstances, but one can't help but be amused. Grant, careening along the highway, an entire bottle of bourbon in him, sings from My Fair Lady (a part he would eventually turn down), he sneaks into a woman's hospital room, and she is ready to scream, until she puts her glasses on and then asks him to stay, and of course the final shot, the vulgar joke of a train hurtling into a tunnel while Grant and Saint settle into their honeymoon bed. It is hard to imagine any other director besides Alfred Hitchcock getting away with something like that.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I don't have kids, but if I did I would imagine that it can be sometimes brutal to have to take your kid to "family" films, as most of them seem to be punishment for adults, a recurring reminder that you should have used better birth control. Today I saw trailers for an Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel and Dwayne Johnson in The Tooth Fairy, either of which could be used as advertisements for vasectomies. But then there are films, which could be called "family" films, in that they are animated and appeal to children, that transcend being cartoons and delight all age groups. Most of them are made by Pixar, but now we can add the idiosyncratic genius Wes Anderson to the list.

Of course, Anderson is not an animator by trade. He is a cinematic miniaturist, a spinner of tales that exist in a whimsical world of his own making, set to a soundtrack from a playlist of a college radio station, with title cards that announce what is about to happen. Usually his films are about fathers and sons. This is all true in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but in this case the source material is a children's book by Roald Dahl. I haven't read the book, but I have the feeling that what's on screen is very little Dahl and a whole lot of Wes Anderson.

The title character is a fox who specializes, as most foxes do, in stealing poultry. When his Mrs. tells him he's about to become a father, she makes him promise to find a less dangerous living. He becomes a newspaper columnist (I await the DVD so I can freeze-frame his columns, because they appear to be fully written) and his son, Ash, is an oddball who aspires to be a great athlete like his dad. When a cousin, Kristofferson, arrives (that name couldn't be from Dahl), Ash finds out that he's outclassed in every way.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fox can't resist heeding the call of his nature and with an opossum as a sidekick, endeavors to rob food from each of three human farmers nearby. One of them, Mr. Bean, is a vicious gun enthusiast who makes it his mission to retaliate, and drives the foxes, as well as all of the other woodland creatures, deep underground. As Bugs Bunny used to say, "This means war."

This film is a constant delight, full of the eccentric details that populate Anderson films. This is apparent immediately, when we see at the opening the cover of Dahl's book, but with the tell-tale label on the spine that indicates it's a library book. The animation is old-fashioned stop-motion, so it's not as slick as computer-generated stuff, but it reeks of charm. The "sets" are like dollhouses created by obsessive shut-ins, with bric-a-brac by the truckload. Would anyone beside Wes Anderson imagine that a fox would have a train set? He even invents rules for a sport played by animals, and gives us the Latin names for all of the creatures.

Beyond the whimsy, the script, written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, packs both suspense and heart. The showdown between Fox and a drawling rat who seems to have seen West Side Story too many times is as gripping as anything I've seen this year (and Fox's line after the fight: "Redemption, yes, but in the end he's just a dead rat in a trash pail outside a Chinese restaurant" could have been written by Raymond Chandler). The heart comes from the love between Fox and his long-suffering wife. Helpfully, he psychoanalyzes himself and explains why he does the thing that he does, perhaps a first in animated film history (basically, it's because he's a wild animal). Then there's the relationship between Fox and Ash, which to me is better than Kevin Costner asking his father if he wants a catch.

Normally I'm unimpressed by celebrity voice-actors in animated films, wondering why they went to all the trouble to basically get radio performances. But George Clooney as Mr. Fox is a perfect choice. His voice is recognizable enough that we can picture him, if not his actual face then at least the spirit of Clooney performances past, particularly Danny Ocean, while we watch Mr. Fox hatch a scheme. And I love his trademark, a whistle followed by a tsk-tsk sound, that may be imitated by many, unconsciously or not. Meryl Streep is fine as Mrs. Fox, although she has less to do, and Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Willem Dafoe, and particularly Michael Gambon as mean Mr. Bean fill out a wonderful cast.

As for whether this film works for kids, I can only judge by my fellow audience members who were knee-high or smaller. Most of them watched in rapt attention, and one tyke told his father that "this was my favorite movie ever." Hear, hear, kid.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Capitol Men

By Philip Dray, Capitol Men is an informative and generally well-written book, but it's not quite what one may expect. I thought I was going to read a group biography of the men who, during reconstruction, were elected to congress from formerly Confederate states despite being black, which was a condition back then which wasn't much better than being enslaved. This book is not that, instead it is a history of the period, with periodic drop-ins on these men. The subtitle really sums it up: "The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressman."

After the civil war, when the Federal government basically occupied the former Confederacy, the Republican party was in control, and those states that had a majority black population: South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, managed to elect black men to high office, including both houses of congress (later Florida and North Carolina would do so as well). This was something of a blip in history, though, as after the last congressmen of this period left office (in 1901), it would be seventy-two years before another black would be elected in a Southern state. These early pioneers of black suffrage are largely forgotten today, and Dray's book is an admirable attempt to resurrect them. However, he almost instantly loses focus and they drift to the periphery. In some chapters they are hardly mentioned.

Dray starts off with the lively adventure of Robert Smalls, who during the war managed to appropriate a Confederate ship and sail it to the Union, where he turned it over and gained his freedom. But the book bogs down in extraneous details, such as the menu during Grant's second inaugural, and the subject of the title becomes lost. When the book focuses on them, it's very good, but otherwise it's just a recitation of reconstruction history that will be familiar to anyone versed in the topic.

I would have liked to know more about men such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who was the first black governor of any state (there have only been two since); Robert Brown Elliott, who bested former Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens in a debate; and Blanche Bruce, who may have been the best of them all in terms of intellect and legislative skill. Aside from certain events, such as Elliott's speech, and Pinchback racing back to Louisiana in an attempt to seize control of the government while he was lieutenant governor, the book doesn't do them justice. I would have appreciated an appendix that at least lists them all and when they served. Dray says there were sixteen, but I'm not sure all were mentioned.

I also found wanting a better understanding of how these men got elected in the first place, but I think that may be how incredible it all seems now. Just five years after the end of the war, Hiram Revels of Mississippi took his seat in Washington. I would imagine it seems like a fantasy at this point because of what happened thereafter. Southern whites did everything, not short of murder, to disenfranchise blacks and put them back in their place, and they succeeded in doing so for another one-hundred years. This period saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, audacious voter fraud, and ingenious methods of preventing blacks from voting (topped by the "understanding" clause, which required a prospective voter to read and interpret a portion of the state constitution, judged by the poll worker, which wasn't outlawed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965).

Dray also covers "exodusting," a mass migration of blacks out of the South, where they were treated so horribly, westward, to places like Kansas. Amazingly, Southern whites did not like this, because even after the end of slavery, the economy still relied heavily on the labor of blacks. The symbiosis of the Southern white and African Americans was the stuff of Freudian analysis.

If this book does anything, may it encourage further reading about these men, who are unfairly forgotten.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Till Human Voices Wake Us

My Helena Bonham Carter film festival drags on, with Till Human Voices Wake Us, a 2002 Australian film written and directed by Mark Cantori. At first I found this film very slow going and dull, but at about the halfway mark it kicked in and became very intriguing, with its mixture of memory, hallucination, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

The title comes from the last line of Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "Till human voices wakes us/and we drown." The theme of being asleep and drowning runs all the way through the film, as does the act of forgetting.

Guy Pearce is Samuel Franks, a Melbourne psychologist, who is first seen teaching students about the difference between passive memory loss, such as forgetting where you put your keys, and acting memory loss, such as repressing a bad event. As we find out, Pearce has reason to forget, as returning to his home town in the outback for his father's funeral rekindles memories of a sweet romance he had when he was a teenager.

In flashbacks we see young Sam (Lindley Joyner) and Silvy (Brooke Harmon), a pretty girl who wears braces on her legs. They both like to do things like read poetry and look at the moonlight reflected on the water. A tragedy unfolds though (and though I knew nothing about the film beforehand this was obviously telegraphed) and Silvy drowns, her body never found.

These flashbacks are intercut with Pearce meeting Carter on a train, and then saving her from drowning when she falls from a railroad bridge into the river. He brings her back to health, and he slowly realizes that she seems to share memories with his dead Silvy. The film then takes on the qualities of a ghost story, as it isn't apparent what we are seeing is reality or just the fantasies or dreams of Pearce. As such, it is very gripping, and ends with sweet melancholy, much as Eliot's poem does.

This is not a film to see if you are sleepy, as most of it is quiet and reserved. Comparing films to poems is not something I do lightly, as it is an overworked phrase, but Cantori does construct this film much like a poem, telling the story with fragmentary images. The performances are low key but solid. Till Human Voices Wake Us is very worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Roger Angell

This week's New Yorker had an annual favorite of mine: Roger Angell year-end essay on the baseball season. This year's article is titled "Daddies Win," with its subhead, "Can we love the Yankees now?"

Angell is the long-time fiction editor of The New Yorker, but as a sideline has been writing stunning literary baseball pieces for almost fifty years. I discovered him quite by chance, and fortunately early in my life. Some relative got me a gift of his book The Summer Game, presumably because as a boy any book about baseball would have seemed a good bet. It was a collection of his pieces covering baseball from 1962 to somewhere in the late sixties or early seventies, mostly long, comprehensive season summations, and a game-by-game description of that year's Fall Classic. Most of these contests he covers as a sportswriter, in the press box, but not always: his essay on the 1964 World Series was covered in various New York City bars, where he watched with the hoi polloi.

I ate that book up, along with the follow-ups Late Innings and Season Ticket, and then it dawned me on I didn't have to wait for a compilation, I could simply read his articles as they appeared in the magazine, and began to scope the newsstands in late November/early December, when they usually appeared. Once the issue comes out, I put aside everything and settle in for a good read.

Unfortunately, Angell's pieces are not quite what they used to be. For one, they're much shorter. At his heyday, the essays may run over 5,000 words, maybe even 10,000. The piece in this week's issue is more like 2,500, and in a more breathless prose. He doesn't even mention any of the National League playoffs, for instance. Of course, this may be due to his age--he's 89 years old, and, not to be morbid, this is one annual pleasure that I can't imagine will last too much longer.

Baseball attracts the most literary of fans, and Angell is one of its more literary chroniclers. He's constantly throwing in classical and literary allusions. For instance, in describing the Tigers-Twins play-in game of this year: "Their manager, Jim Leyland, stood in the late going with one foot up on the step of the dugout and the same gaunt Dorothea Lange expression on his face that we saw back in 1991," or describing A.J. Burnett as a "Tom Joad with beads." This is all done with a cheerfulness, not pedantically. Angell also is a master of describing the mechanics of action, such as he does with Cliff Lee's delivery: "He throws with an elegant flail, hiding the ball behind his hip or knee and producing it from behind his left shoulder, already in full delivery. His finish brings his left leg up astern like a semaphore, while his arm swings back across his waist."

As I think back I remember some of my favorites of his. There was "Up at the Hall," his mid-summer visit to baseball's Hall of Fame. He had been reluctant to go, but ended loving it. His best season recap has to be "Not So, Boston," a deconstruction of the 1986 season. For Angell, this had a lot of personal resonance, as his two favorite teams, the Red Sox and the Mets, faced each other in the World Series. I remember much about the article, such as his recalling a reaction to a critical play in the Red Sox-Angels ALCS, shouting "oh no!" and disturbing a sleeping pooch at his feet, or when Dave Henderson hit a key home run in the Series writing "Hendu!" on his scorecard. The best was the title itself, a palindrome that struck deep in the heart and psyche of Red Sox Nation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fight Club

I hadn't seen Fight Club since it premiered ten years ago, and I was no more impressed with it yesterday than I was then, but it occurred to me that it couldn't be made today--9/11 changed everything.

The acclaim from some quarter for this film baffles me. Oh, I get it what it's saying about the emasculation of men in a consumer society. But I found the message unappealing and wrong-headed, and the posturing whiny. If your idea of a good time is a men's encounter group, a la Robert Bly in the woods beating on a drum, then I can see the fascination. But to me, Fight Club was pseudo art, as well as pseudo sociology. It was, to cop from Shakespeare, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Just today I was reading comments about it on Jeff Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere, where supporters cited it as the best film of the 90s. Wrong, it wasn't even the best film of the month (I'd give that to Three Kings) but it certainly is of the 1990s. It came out in 1999, in October, the last few months of the go-go decade, when Brad Pitt could say of his generation that they'd had no great depression, no great war. Now, ten years later, we're flirting seriously with a great depression, and though the war in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be great, it has worked its way under the collective skin of Americans. Perhaps sad to say, but ten years later worrying about losing our manhood by shopping in an Ikea is the least of our worries.

Then, of course, there is the ending, a symphony of destruction involving buildings tumbling to the ground. We are told they are empty buildings, but it's clear to me that the ending would have been rewritten in a post-9/11 world. I would imagine the whole movie would have been rethought as well.

Beyond this, I've never thought it was good just as a movie. The plot concerns a disaffected office drone, Edward Norton, who meets a man on a plane (Pitt) who awakens his inner wild man. They start Fight Club, which is simply men getting a chance to beat each other in fisticuffs. The whole idea of this is abhorrent to me, so I guess I would have been the target of their scorn, but I fail to see the appeal of the entire enterprise. It seems to me that a man's goal would be to become more civilized, not less, but that's just me I guess.

Anyway, Pitt's crusade goes beyond the fight clubs and into first petty vandalism, and then terrorism. Then we find out that Pitt isn't who we think he is, a twist that seems to exist simply for the sake of existing--it doesn't really add to the plot or to the message. Besides that, it doesn't make sense. Fincher attempts to explain it, but it all one can do is cast one's mind back at scenes that don't add up. It's like a showy magic trick.

But I do admire some of the film, particularly some of the dialogue, which has at times a charming brio: "Fuck Martha Stewart!" or Norton saying if given a chance he'd fight William Shatner. The rules of Fight Club have become part of the lexicon: "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club," and Helena Bonhan Carter's line: "That's the best fuck I've had since grade school" is a fanboy favorite. Some of Pitt's sermons, such as when he tells his followers that they've been lied to, made to think they'd be movie gods or rock stars, but they won't, or on the mark, but did someone really have to tell them that? They couldn't figure it out for themselves?

Fight Club, to me, masquerades as a great film, but is in reality a shell game, the kind of product that the characters so assiduously come to shun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Duma Key

It's been a long while since I've experienced the pleasures, as well as the frustrations, of reading a Stephen King novel. I picked up his Bram Stoker Award-winning novel from 2008, Duma Key, and blew through it's 769 pages almost as quickly as a Florida thunderstorm.

The book contains many of King's familiar themes, but it is in a unique setting. Instead of Maine, or Colorado, he's set up horror camp on Florida's west coast, the fictional key of the title, located just off shore from Sarasota (I read that King winters there, so he got in his research while making trips to the local Starbucks and multiplex I'm sure). Though the location is a lot sunnier, it is not exempt from the primeval malevolence that King specializes in. It seems that off the shore of this idyllic, undeveloped island is an evil as old as time itself.

The story is narrated by Edgar Freemantle, a building contractor from Minnesota. He's hurt horribly in an accident, losing his right arm and sustaining severe head damage. On the long difficult road to recovery his marriage ends, and he's advised to get away and rents a house on Duma Key to take up a long suborned interest in art. When he gets there he moves into a house he dubs "Big Pink" and starts sketching, then painting, and he realizes that what he paints is coming from some unknown source, and the resulting pictures are telepathic and psychic. In a certain way, he's painting with his phantom limb.

At the other end of the road live an old lady whom he discovers owns the island, along with her caretaker, Wireman, who becomes his best friend. Together they unearth a mystery that involved the old lady when she was a girl, and the pieces of the mystery include some spooky dolls, birds that fly upside down, and a ship that lies off the coast and seems to be manned by ghosts. It's white-knuckle stuff, especially the last few chapters, which involve Freemantle in a cistern with a couple of skeletons (and I almost forgot the alligator that emerges out of the tar-filled swimming pool).

King is a controversial figure among people of letters. Some insist he should get credit for writing literature, not just pulp. I'm of the opinion that Frank Zappa was about music--there's two kinds, good and bad, and that goes for writing. King is not William Faulkner, he's not even Ernest Hemingway, but so what? I think his incredible prolificness inspires envy (it certainly does in me), and some many cite a prolixity that calls out for an editor, but his writing is so fluid that it's hard to object. He has some turns of phrases that are just perfect, such as something having a "green smell," and knows how to build and alleviate suspense. At a certain point in the book Edgard lets us know at a departure from a beloved character that this would be the last time he would see her and the news hits us in the solar plexus.

What creeps into Duma Key, along with ghosts from the watery depths, are some of King's old standbys. Edgar is not physically described, and at first I pictured a Minnesota contractor as someone I'd see at a Rotarian meeting. But it became apparent rather quickly that Edgar is just a stand-in for King, especially since I've gotten to know him from his columns in Entertainment Weekly. I can't imagine any other building contractor having a near encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, particularly of rock and roll. Consider this sentence,which could come straight from his column: "I turned on the radio and the The Bone: J. Geils doing "Hold Your Lovin." J. Geils was nothing special, only great--a gift from the gods of rock and roll."

But later in that same chapter, King forgets about trivia and gets into serious fright mode, returning to one of his favorites: twin girl ghosts (who can forget The Shining?) "I came to the head of the stairs and looked down, and there at the bottom were two small dripping figures. Then the lightning flashed and I saw two girls of about six, surely twins and Elizabeth Eastlake's drowned sisters. They wore dresses that were plastered to their bodies. Their hair was plastered to their cheeks. Their faces were pale horrors."

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Precious has engendered a lot of punditry, both by film critics as well as those called upon to express opinions on all manner of social and cultural facets of American life. As such, it has been both wildly over-praised and unfairly vilified. I would never pretend to know how it fits in with the black experience, and frankly that doesn’t concern me. What interests me is was it a worthwhile experience watching it in a movie theater. For the most part, yes.

It is instructive that Oprah Winfrey signed on as an executive producer and endorsed it on her TV show. Oprah is the queen of daytime talk shows, and she is also the queen of good-intentioned, middlebrow entertainment, which is essentially what Precious is–an earnest tale of moral uplift with a sympathetic protagonist. At certain moments it is brilliantly moving, especially when focused on the two main performers, and at other times it wallows in a kind of self-satisfied Afterschool Specialness.

The story concerns the title character, an obese African American girl in Harlem in 1987. Played by Gabourey Sidibe, she would seem to have no hope. She is illiterate, although somehow gets good grades in school (albeit she is 16 and still in junior high). She is pregnant with her second child, both the result of rape by her father. Her daughter has Downs Syndrome, and is cruelly nicknamed “Mongo.” Her mother, scarily portrayed by Mo’Nique, is a lazy monster, telling Precious she is worthless, stupid and unloved, and there is nothing in the girl’s life to indicate otherwise.

Her school principal gets her transferred to an alternative school, where she meets a teacher, played by Paula Patton, who is like someone out of a fairy tale. Not only is she beautiful, patient, and dedicated, she’s even a lesbian! When Precious hears Patton and her partner talk she says “they talk like a TV station I don’t watch.” Precious also gets support from a caring welfare case-worker, unglamorously played by Mariah Carey, who more than makes up for Glitter (I wonder how she took the news that her character would have a slight mustache).

Thus this film is very pro-government, the kind that would play well in the Obama White House but might draw suspicion from a “tea party.” I share the opinion that the system can work sometimes, but I doubt it’s this rosy. Of course, any pencil-pushing bureaucrat would seem like an angel when contrasted with the brutality of Precious’ mother, a character that ranks right up there with Medea and Joan Crawford in the pantheon of bad mothers. The greatness of Mo’Nique’s performance is that though this woman is vile there is a human being there–she has no visible redeeming features, but she is human. In the climactic scene, the best scene in the film, Mo’Nique lays bare the psyche of her character, and it’s not a pretty sight. But it’s certainly believable, given all the tabloid stories about abusive mothers through the years.

As for Ms. Sidibe, well, she’s remarkable. A woman who had never acted professionally before gives such an assured performance. At the start her face is a mask of impenetrability, but over the course of the film her features soften, and when she can finally laugh it’s as though a weight has been lifted from the audience. It can’t have been an easy thing to play–her character faces so many setbacks that it’s almost too much to bear, especially a medical one near the end of the film that felt like piling on. But I never found a false note in Sidibe’s work. I sincerely hope that this is not a one-shot deal for her.

Where the film suffers is in the over-direction by Lee Daniels. He tries to busy things up a bit too much. Precious has many daydreams, and they don’t always work, especially one where she inserts herself into an Italian film (I think it was Two Women). A scene showing bits and pieces of speeches by great black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Shirley Chisholm seemed unnecessarily didactic, and I thought most of the scenes involving her classmates were like an updated version of Room 222.

There were some touches that were daring, and have created quite a fuss, particularly one in which Precious looks into the mirror and imagines her ideal self, and she sees a white girl. This has caused some consternation in the black press, and I can understand why. But I think the scene seems right, given that Precious hates herself as the film begins, and her walls are covered with posters of white stars like Stevie Nicks. It is also counterbalanced by a scene toward the end where Precious looks into a mirror and sees herself exactly as she is, which is also entirely appropriate.

I liked Precious, and give it a B, or three stars, whatever system you may choose. I wouldn’t call it one of the best of the year, although Oscar nominations for Sidibe and Mo’Nique will be well-deserved. But I think I was relieved to find that the film wasn’t simply a catalogue of ghetto misery.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ashlynn Brooke

The first thing one notices about adult film star Ashlynn Brooke, even before her pneumatically constructed body, is her interesting face. There's something a bit wrong with it--I think it's that her eyes are a little too far apart, giving her a space-alien look. This quirk of visage doesn't have a bit of negative effect on her as a sexually exciting performer, however. In the grand scheme of things pornographic, it probably adds to it.

Ashlynn is twenty-four years old and has made in excess of eighty films in the last three years, but I hadn't seen too much of her until I just took a look at a compilation of her scenes titled I Love Ashlynn (with the "love" represented as a heart symbol). This has given me a good overview of her talents and her general performing style, which is sort of a casual, good ol' girl in cut-off jeans and flip-flops (although some of the scenes have her in stockings and heels, but they aren't as effective).

She's from Oklahoma (in one scene this is mentioned and, on her knees before her co-star, she dutifully recites the first line of the famous Broadway show tune bearing the same name of her home state). I can easily imagine her sitting barefoot in the bed of a pickup truck, taking a long swig of cold beer on a hot summer night. She is petite, like most porn stars, but also like most porn stars appears to be long and lean, with legs that won't quit. Although she is an itty-bitty thing, her voice is surprisingly deep, marinated in a whiskey coating. When called upon to look straight into the camera (as in the above scene from the film Handies) she has a tendency to cock her head, her eyes half-shut, letting the viewer in on her private little game.

Her only fault, such as I can see, may be her breasts, which are not natural (when asked in Handies if they are real she replies with a smirk, "They're really mine"), and the surgical stars are plainly visible. They chip away at the patina of a small-town Midwestern girl, and push her into the realm of the cosmetically enhanced of Porno Valley, California. I would have liked to have seen her pre-boob job, when the picture I have in my head was complete.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Levi Johnston's Fifteen Minutes

Sarah Palin is a great example of how arbitrary celebrity is--she was an obscure governor until the whim of a dotty presidential candidate turned her into a megastar, who now dominates our airwaves like Billy Mays never did. And if the fact that she is a celebrity is a noodle-scratcher, how do we justify that Levi Johnston, a sidebar in the Palin sideshow, is some kind of star?

Palin's fame was based on John McCain's choice, but Johnston had to have that, plus one other thing: knocking up Palin's daughter. Without one of these, Johnston would be continuing his uneventful life as an inarticulate laborer in Wasilla, Alaska. But because both one-in-a-million shots happened he's parlayed them into something of a career, going on talk shows and now posing for nude photos in Playgirl (sorry ladies, word is we don't see the full monty).

I find all of this amusing. For the odious Palin, I relish that this young man, who was brought on stage at the Republican National Convention in a public shotgun wedding, has turned on her, and makes vague threats about information he knows. Of course it's all a bit unseemly--if he knows something, he should tell it, and stop being coy, but this is small potatoes compared to what Republicans do all the time. I just find it funny that this woman, who certainly has images of the White House dancing in her head, is bedeviled by the hockey-playing stiff whom she can't shake. He is the father of her grandchild. Holiday meals will be a trial from now on for the Palin family.

When and if Palin's star dims (I would imagine it will right around the time she bottoms out in the Iowa caucus, if not before), so too will Johnston's. I hope he's saving his money, or really does have something juicy to say, enough to put in a book that will get pawed over by the punditry. Eventually he will probably be back in Alaska, after finding that Hollywood can be tougher even than Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sam Shepard

I received this week's copy of The New Yorker and was pleasantly surprised to find it included a short story by Sam Shepard. I haven't thought much about him lately, but I read the story, a brief and tough one called "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" and got to thinking about how important he's been in my life.

When I was a theater student back in college, he was omnipresent. My mentor, Professor Carol Rosen, was something of an expert on him, and led me to read his work, especially his more experimental stuff like The Tooth of Crime. Over the years I've managed to catch productions of his plays in far-flung places: I saw his brilliant Curse of the Starving Class off-Broadway, starring a then unknown Kathy Bates; A Lie of the Mind, all three hours of it, on Broadway (during which I was having a mild asthma incident, but didn't leave); his minor work States of Shock, also off-Broadway (I don't remember much about that production, other than than Michael Wincott played a man who had a hole in his mid-section); Fool for Love at the McCarter Theater in Princeton; and, on a visit to Dartmouth College, a student production of the one-act Cowboy Mouth, which was co-written by Patti Smith, who was at the time Shepard's girlfriend.

The rest of his stuff I've either read or seen adaptations of on film or TV, such as True West. He's also written screenplays, most notably for Zabriskie Point (a dud), and Paris, Texas (decidedly not a dud). He was also a drummer for the sixties band The Holy Modal Rounders, has written a song with Bob Dylan (the monumental "Brownsville Girl") and, of course, has had a long and rich career as a film actor, earning an Oscar-nomination for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. I thought he was even better as a farmer losing his land in Country.

But it's Shepard as a writer that is most exciting. He brings to the table a heady mixture of two distinct American types--the cowboy and the punk. He's like a mash-up of the Marlboro Man and Iggy Pop. Most of his work is about the dying of the American dream in the mythical West, set in the dusty towns or wide expanses of the North American desert. His characters are near-crazy, or flat-out crazy. In his Pulitzer-Prize winning Buried Child, the titular object is indeed a baby buried in the backyard, a metaphor for all sorts of things. There is a scene in which a one-legged man is forced to crawl across the stage for his prosthetic limb. In Curse of the Starving Class we hear the riveting metaphor, spoken by the father of the family, who has returned after an absence, describing an eagle that has grabbed a tomcat and carried him into the sky. The cat then claws the eagle, who does not let go of the cat, and together they plummet to their mutual deaths. True West is the modernization of one of the oldest dynamics in human history--Cain and Abel--two brothers locked in perpetual combat. The Tooth of Crime combines the West with rock and roll, as rock stars face off against each other like gunfighters.

These plays enlivened the American theater throughout the '70s. His output slowed after his film career began, and he's written some prose--I think there's a novel or two out there by him, which I should check out. But beyond his gifts as a writer and actor, Shepard has represented something that I think many men, not just me, have responded to. He's like the big brother we always wanted to be. I have no ideas of the trials or tribulations of Shepard's life, but I would like to be him, or someone like him. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way because Spalding Gray, in one of his monologues, spoke of playing a game of pool with Shepard, and almost being emasculated by it, as Shepard was so rugged and masculine that any other man paled in comparison.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


After being so impressed with their previous album, The Con, I was quick to purchase Tegan and Sara's follow-up, Sainthood, and it's just as good. The baker's dozen album of songs, none of which are much over three minutes in length, are compellingly up-tempo and peppy, but as with The Con appearances may be deceiving.

The collection kicks off with "Arrow," and many of the songs feel as if they are flying at high speed. The ironically-titled "Don't Rush" moves forward as if it's rolling downhill, and "Northshore" is even faster. But the lyrics, upon close inspection, contain some of the darker elements that were prevalent on The Con.

"Northshore" is a good example, with the refrain "My misery's so addictive," or the first line of "Night Watch"--"I've got grounds for divorce." Or "The Cure": "All I said to you, all I did for you seems silly to me now." It seems that neither Tegan or Sara, who write most of their songs separately, have a lot of good to say about relationships. Lyrically their songs also display a lot of verbal circularity, such as "And so now you know you know it now," or "I don't want to know that you don't want me."

I'm not enough of a fan of theirs to know how to tell them apart. One of their voices has a cartoon-mouse-ish helium-inflected sound, with the rounded vowels of a Canadian, while the other sister has a deeper, mellower voice, that at certain times, especially on the closing track "Someday" can sound like Alanis Morrisette.

Musically these songs are catchy, danceable and filled with candy-coated keyboard sounds. Beyond the terrific hooks, though, are some intriguing, if devilishly circumspect, ideas. It's a fine record.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Abbie Cornish

I was very impressed with actress Abbie Cornish recently in Bright Star. I haven't seen much of her before: supporting roles in Stop-Loss and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, both of which were impressive. She is also, ahem, very easy on the eyes, evidenced by a recent pictorial in Esquire as a "Woman We Love," from whence the picture at right was taken. So I decided to do further study and take a look at some of her early roles from her native Australia.

First up is Somersault, written and directed by Cate Shortland and released in 2004. It is one of those earnest indie films about rootless people searching for connection that appears to be endemic to all nations. Last year I wrote about the tendency for these sorts of films to be shot in cold climates, and even in Australia that happens, as this one was shot in Jindabyne, a ski resort town (I'll admit I didn't know it cold enough to high enough for people to ski in Australia).

Cornish stars as Heidi, a sexually precocious sixteen-year-old who gets kicked out of her house after she makes out with her mother's boyfriend. For some reason she heads to Jindabyne (the DVD is sorely missing subtitles, and with the heavy accents I missed a lot of the plot), searching for a job or a guy to take care of her. She eventually hooks with Joe (Sam Wainwright, star of the upcoming Avatar), who is pretty nice to her but freaks out when she asks him if he loves her (when he balks at answering they are in a Chinese restaurant, and she responds by chugging a dish of chilis). She also befriends the kindly owner of a motel, who offers her a place to stay, but tests that friendship by ending up in the parking lot drunk and naked.

Part of the problem with this film is, despite a nice performance by Cornish, Heidi is a bit sketchy as a character. Is she a nymphomaniac, or in some other way mentally disabled? Another character in the film, the brother of a co-worker, is identified as having Asperger's Syndrome, and I wonder if that was a clue that Heidi was afflicted with some sort of malady. She does things that are so stupid it's hard to root or care for her.

This film also suffers from a complete lack of a sense of humor. The color palette is saturated with drab grays and browns, and so is the script, as it is unrelentingly grim. No one seems to enjoy any part of their lives. It could have used a few moments of levity here and there. Even people down on their luck have a laugh every now and then.

The next year Cornish co-starred with Heath Ledger in Candy, directed by Neil Armfield, as two charismatic junkies. Unlike Somersault, this film, though about a grim subject, is colorful and has some humor, most especially in the droll performance of Geoffrey Rush as a friendly drug manufacturer. The tone is set from the opening scene, as Ledger and Cornish enter a carnival ride (identical to the one in The 400 Blows, life seems to be a series of coincidences) that spins them around while Rush watches bemusedly from above.

The film is a showcase for the thespian abilities of the two attractive young leaders, and in some ways that works against the film as a whole. There's something off-putting about taking pleasure in watching two young beautiful people make love and then shoot up. When they are their worst, particularly a harrowing scene where they try to kick, they are made up to look sick, but one never forgets they are glamorous movie stars.

Still, this is a good film. I liked the tension between Cornish and her middle-class family, particularly the difficult relationship she has with her mother (who screams at her for screwing up making whipped cream). Armfield has a terrific eye for striking visuals, and the screenplay, by Armfield and the author of the source novel, Luke Davies, has an equal balance of drug horror and tender love story. Unfortunately the untimely death of Ledger is impossible to forget, and seeing his raw talent can't help but make one think of what might have been for years to come.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The 400 Blows

It was fifty years ago tomorrow that The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coup), the debut feature from François Truffaut, premiered in the United States. It was the first of what would be a five-film collaboration between Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Léaud that would cover twenty years in the life of Truffaut's fictional alter-ego, Antoine Doinel. Along with Breathless, it is the signature film of the movement known as the French New Wave, but has transcended that label and become a classic in its own right. As I stop to consider the question, I realize it is my favorite French film, and would be in my top twenty or so of all time. A few years ago I received as a gift the Criterion boxed set of the Antoine Doinel films and yesterday popped The 400 Blows into my DVD player, watching the film for at least the third time.

Truffaut was only twenty-seven when he directed this film. He had been a critic, a disciple of Andre Bazin, and was among the daring young men who would leap from the pages of Cahier Du Cinema to the big screen, turning away from the silly romanticism of post-war French cinema and embracing the themes and style of a wide variety of other types of film, notably American B-pictures and Alfred Hitchcock. Though The 400 Blows is the quasi-autobiographical tale of a troubled boy searching for identity, the major subtext is a reverence for the image.

The title is a literal translation from the French, but it is meaningless to Americans, as the phrase is French slang that is roughly equivalent to "painting the town red" and has nothing to do with receiving a beating of any kind (the supplemental materials lists a few dozen alternate titles Truffaut considered, including The Vagabonds, Antoine Runs Away, or Down With School). Antoine is a thirteen-year-old boy in a largely loveless home. His mother is distracted and pays him little attention, more concerned with carrying on an extra-marital affair. His father, who is in reality his step-father, is a more likeable figure, but has no real connection to the boy. The autocratic school system is no succor, as the teachers are depicted as cruel brutes who inflict literature rather than teaching it (it is notable that Antoine's love of Balzac comes not from school, but from his own intellectual curiosity).

Antoine is more interested in playing hooky with his friend, where they go to the movies or just hang out. He is in constant trouble for lying (most notably when he tells the teacher that his mother has died, a Freudian infraction if there ever was one) and then stealing a typewriter from his father's office, which lands him in reform school. There is no snuggly reconciliation of family in this film (the next Doinel film, a short also on this disc, Antoine and Colette, reveals that Antoine is living on his own at the age of seventeen), but instead a search for identity that exists outside the boundaries of family. It is an anti-Hallmark card.

So on the one-hand we have something of a Dickensian journey of a young man, but on the other hand this is a film about the healing power of film. From the very first scene, when schoolboys pass around a forbidden photograph of a pin-up girl, the power of imagery is repeatedly explored. We see Antoine and his friend, René, going to a carnival where they ride "The Rotor," a spinning contraption that is the same mechanism as the zoetrope. Other carnival patrons watch from above as those inside are spun around in a centrifuge. Truffaut, Hitchcock-like, gives himself a cameo as one of those being whirled. Then there are two instances where Antoine goes to the movies. In one of them, a rare enjoyable outing with his parents, they attend Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us, a bit of cinematic log-rolling as Rivette was one of Truffaut's New Wave cohorts. And finally there is the magical, brief scene in which young children watch a puppet show, and we see not the show, but the faces of the kids as they are transported by what they see.

The pleasures of this film are many. There is plenty of comedy, ranging from the Our Gang-ish scenes of a boy's slapstick struggle with his leaking pen and composition book to the scene, lovingly lifted from Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduite, where a gym teacher leads his charges on a run through the city, but he fails to notice that the boys drop off in dribs and drabs until there are only two boys left on the run. I especially liked the way Truffaut depicts Antoine as a boy who is growing up too fast, a kind of miniature adult. The shot of him lying back on his bed, smoking a cigarette while reading Balzac, is both funny and sad, and the way he shakes hands with René after being told by his father to say goodbye to him has a grim, fatalistic humor to it.

A lot of this has to do with Léaud, of course, who gives one of the most amazing juvenile performances in the history of film. The greatness of his work is best exemplified by the interview scene with the psychiatrist near the end of the film, where he discusses his dislike of his mother in frank, startling terms--we learn that his mother was talked out of an abortion by his grandmother, who actually raised him until he was eight. In this way the film ties into many of the American juvenile delinquent films of the fifties, but without the full-throated sensationalism. I never cease to marvel at the quick dart of the eyes and silly smile that Léaud gives when the psychiatrist asks him if he's ever slept with a girl. It's pure gold.

I learned for the first time that The 400 Blows was shot completely M.O.S. (without sound) and all of it was dubbed in later. Truffaut thought this was perfectly acceptable, as he was used to seeing American films dubbed into French, and because he was operating on a shoestring it allowed him to work without heavy and expensive sound equipment (he shot the film on the streets of Paris). Truffaut, in what was new then but is commonplace these days, would have the sound from one scene overlapping after a cut to another scene, as he figured the human ear could track the transition.

Then finally there is the closing shot, one of the most iconic in film history, a zoom to a freeze-frame, the first time a film had ended in that manner. Antoine has run away from the reform school to seek out the sea (he tells René that he doesn't want to join the army, but wouldn't mind the navy). When he finally reaches it, the film stops at his moment of self-liberation, but the look on his face doesn't suggest triumph, but instead uncertainty. Truffaut and Léaud would carry forward Antoine's story two more decades, but in a certain sense it ends right here, forever frozen in time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

War Dances

Sherman Alexie has carved a certain niche as an American Indian author. This is my first time reading him in book-length form, but I once saw him give a reading, about ten years ago, at the New Yorker festival. He was paired with Nick Hornby, which is telling, because both have that kind of contemporary smart-ass voice, full of humor and pathos simultaneously.

War Dances is something of a scrapbook, full of short poems and sketches surrounding four longer short stories. As such it's pretty hit or miss, and I wonder if some of the pieces were pulled out of a drawer, as they have the distinct odor of a youthful writer. "The Senator's Son," about a gay-bashing, is particularly tin-eared, with a kind of pat misunderstanding of the conservative ethos (it turns out that the gay man bashed is a Republican).

The other stories are better. "Salt" is a humorous lark about a young man's recollection of a time when he was called on to be the obituaries editor of a newspaper, and "The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless" is a layered look at a traveling salesman and philanderer who becomes obsessed with a woman he meets serendipitously in airports. "Fearful Symmetry" is more ambitious, the story about a writer, not unlike Alexie himself, who is hired to write a screenplay. We get the familiar Hollywood zaniness, but the story takes a strange turn when the narrator enters a crossword puzzle competition.

The best piece is the title story, a stew of various writing styles about a man who loses his hearing in one ear and fears he has a tumor, which makes him think of his deceased father's visit to the hospital to have part of his foot amputated. Of the longer stories, it is the most redolent of Alexie's Indian heritage, and is also gleefully and mordantly funny. The narrator, seeking a warmer blanket than the hospital issue, finds another Indian, and after a brief and friendly conversation, asks to borrow a blanket:

"So you want to borrow a blanket from us?"
"Because you thought some Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?"
"That's fucking ridiculous."
"I know."
"And it's racist."
"I know."
"You're stereotyping your own damn people."
"I know."
"But damn if we don't have a room full of Pendleton blankets."

I've always been fascinated by the indigenous cultures of North America, and how they've adjusted to not only being conquered, but having their way of life and language almost completely eradicated. Alexie, while on the surface a writer of the here and now, has deep roots to the past.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lush Life

The previous two books I've read by Richard Price, Clockers and Freedomland, take place in fictional Demarest, New Jersey, a creation of Price's that is nestled somewhere around Jersey City and Hoboken. But Lush Life is set in the very real Lower East Side of New York City, and one can speculate that Price was inspired to write this book by walking its streets, which are lined with velvet-roped nightclubs, punk-rock venues, young hoodlums, and the ghosts of the immigrants that settled it in the last century. The neighborhood is the main character of the piece.

It's on Eldridge Street that the crime that the book's plot pivots on takes place. A callow restaurant manager is out on a drunken evening with two men he hardly knows, including a new bartender at his restaurant, when the bartender is shot and killed. The manager, Eric tells the police that they were victims of two stick-up men, one black and one Latin. But the police, particularly the hard-boiled detective Matty Clark, think that Eric may be lying. Meanwhile the real killer is struggling to cope in a neighborhood of despair, with a brutal stepfather, and Clark is dealing with the police bureaucracy and two sons from upstate that are dealing drugs.

The book, at it's most banal, is like a special episode of Law and Order, but at its best it crackles with electricity, particularly in telling the story of Eric, who is one of the many artistic types roaming New York, either hoping to be actors, writers, or anything but what they are. The police procedural aspects are also good, as Price seems to have done his homework on what happens at One Police Plaza. I have to give a man credit for trawling in waters that are nearly fished out--how many books about NYC cops have been written? In the thousands? But this one feels fresh.

I thought the book was weakest when Price gets into the head of the assailant, who is an amateur poet. It made me think of the old Eddie Murphy sketch: "Cill my landlord!" When he was writing from the point of view of the street toughs in the neighborhood my eye naturally scanned ahead, hoping to get back to the other characters.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Wings of the Dove

Attentive readers may have noticed I've been screening a lot of films starring Helena Bonham Carter lately. Her only Oscar nomination came in the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove, directed by Iain Softley and adapted from the novel by Henry James.

James has been well-treated by the cinema. I mentioned a while back that E.M. Forster has, as well--three books turned into Best Picture Oscar nominees. There are no flat-out classics and only one Best Picture nominee based on James' books, but consider this output: Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl, The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw), and The Heiress (adapted from Washington Square--the only Best Picture nominee). Not a clunker in the lot. Even when one considers the strange Marlon Brando film, The Nightcomers (a prequel to Turn of the Screw) one can hope James has had no occasion to roll in his grave.

The Wings of the Dove contains many of the familiar Jamesian themes: the juxtaposition of Old Europe to Young America, as well as the collision between the classes, and the psychological development of characters that was contemporaneous with Freud. In this film the central character is Kate Croy (Bonham Carter), who is the daughter of a derelict (Michael Gambon). After the death of her mother she is taken in by a wealthy but rigid aunt (Charlotte Rampling), who tries to marry her off to money. One of those circling around her is Lord Mark (Alex Jennings), who is one of those frequently drunken upper-crust twits that litters British literature and film (fifty years earlier he would have been played by George Sanders).

But Kate is interested in Merton Densher (Linus Roache), a penniless journalist. Rampling won't allow Kate to see him, threatening to cut off the modest stipend her father receives. The affair seems doomed until they meet Millie (Alison Elliot), an American heiress who is not in good health. When Kate learns two things: Millie is soon to die, and she is in love with Merton, Kate hatches a plot to have Merton seduce and marry her. He will inherit Millie's riches, enabling the two to marry. Needless to say, the ethics of all this are deplorable, and Merton objects, but goes along. Things don't exactly work out Kate's way.

The film is a mostly fascinating look at morals, and though set in Edwardian England it has a stinging contemporary quality to it. Bonham Carter is very effective as the scheming, though well-intentioned, anti-heroine, while Elliott, whom I've admired in the few films I've seen her in (she's great in Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath) is wonderful as the tubercular flower of youth who is eager to drink in all that life has to offer.

The film also offers some lovely views of Venice, where most of the action takes place, with stunning photography by Eduardo Serra. The film sags a bit in the center, with some dead patches that could have used either trimming or amplification, but on the whole it's fairly gripping.

I should add that this film also contains an example of a scene of non-gratuitous nudity. At the end of the film, Kate and Merton meet. She strips, and they have a rather joyless sexual encounter. That Bonham Carter takes the step of exhibiting herself naked--not artfully draped by a sheet, or shot from the neck up--gives her character far more vulnerability. I can understand actresses who refuse to do nudity--they will forever more be on the Mr. Skin web-site if they do--but I give credit to actresses who put that aside and bare all for their craft.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Clap for the Wolf Man

"Even he who is pure at heart
And says his prayers by night,
May turn into a wolf

When the wolfbane blooms,
And the moon is full and bright."

Although vampires have been dominating pop culture lately (when haven't they, really?) the werewolf is also keeping a steady presence. They exist in the Twilight books and films, and Benicio Del Toro is starring in a new version of the tale set for release soon. But I am drawn back to the original films--the Universal horror films of the '40s, in which the templates for these things were created.

As part of their Legacy series, Universal has released multi-disc sets of all of their monsters, and I recently took a look at those in the Wolf Man boxed set. To see all of them, it necessitated crossing over into the Frankenstein and Dracula sets as well. All told, there were five films featuring the Wolf Man, with two others incorporating the theme but were not part of the canon.

The Wolf Man was the third member of the trinity of Universal monsters, originating in 1941, well after Frankenstein's monster and Dracula. He was the only one of them who was not based on a literary source. In fact, he was mostly the brainchild of screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who took some Eastern European folk tales and remade them. Turning into a wolf when the moon is full? Can only be stopped by a silver bullet or knife? Wears the sign of the pentagram? All of these were products of Siodmak's imagination, which have carried forward to all werewolf tales that followed.

The first Universal film to feature lycanthropy was 1935's Werewolf of London. It starred Henry Hull as a botanist who gets bitten by a werewolf in the Himalayas while hunting for a plant that only blooms during a full moon. Turns out this plant is the only cure for lycanthropy, and thus the werewolf that bit him (Warner Oland, best known as Charlie Chan), comes for him. But Hull also turns into a wolf, although his makeup wasn't as elaborate as in the films that would come (he looks a bit like Eddie Munster).

The film that Siodmak wrote and was directed by George Waggner was The Wolf Man, from 1941. It starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot, and Chaney would go on to play him in five films, the only actor that would play the part (unlike Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, or The Mummy, who were played by several different actors). The story is set in Wales, and Talbot has returned as heir to the family estate after the death of his brother. He's been Americanized, and is like a fish out of water. His father is Claude Rains, and though Rains was a great actor there's no way we can believe that this slight, dapper man could be the father of the large, craggy Chaney.

This particular town has a gypsy camp, and there's a fortune-teller, played by Bela Lugosi. Turns out he's a werewolf, and while attacking a young girl Chaney steps in to help, and kills the wolf with his cane, which has a silver head, but not before being bitten himself. Chaney is shocked to find out later that he killed a man, not a wolf, and he ends up changing into a werewolf, with the then-revolutionary film effects showing in time-lapse photography his transformation (makeup man Jack B. Pierce, who worked on all the Universal horror films, created the effects, which took several hours to apply). Thus began the tragic story of Lawrence Talbot.

The Wolf Man is a dandy little horror film that I think holds up today. There's lots of great atmosphere--the fog machine got a work out--and some creepy notes along the way, particularly by Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman who lays it out for Talbot: "he who is bitten by a werewolf becomes a werewolf." The psychological subtext is largely borrowed from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but what remains constant for Chaney/Talbot is the wish to either have the curse removed, or die.

But Talbot can't die. In the next installment, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, he is dug up by some graverobbers, and once the moonlight hits him he's back in business. He travels to Frankenstein's castle, hoping to find the good doctor's notes in a hope that they will help him (this is a common thing, the hunting for the doctor's notes, which makes me laugh thinking of the gag in Young Frankenstein when Gene Wilder finds the notes, helpfully titled "How I Did It"). Of course while poking around in the ruins he finds, in ice, the monster. A doctor who has been trailing Talbot gets inspired to try to revive the creature (another common theme--the hubris of science) and the two monsters end up squaring off. In this film the creature is played by Lugosi, who doesn't quite do it for me.

Next came House of Frankenstein, which added Dracula, played by John Carradine, into the mix, as well as Boris Karloff (who refused to play the creature anymore). Instead Karloff is a mad scientist, locked away for putting a man's brain into a dog's body (I'd like to see the prequel). He escapes from prison and hijacks a traveling horror show that happens to include the remains of Dracula. Karloff revives him, and puts him to work eliminating his enemies. But Dracula becomes a nuisance, and ends up getting caught in sunlight, and exits the picture at about the half-way mark.

Karloff ends up at Frankenstein's castle and finds both the creature (now played by Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man on ice. He revives them, and this ends badly for all of them, with Karloff and the creature slipping into quicksand and Talbot being shot by the gypsy girl who loves him (she's played by Elena Verdugo, whom I remember from Marcus Welby, M.D.).

But of course, no one stays dead in the Universal horror world, and the three returned for House of Dracula. Carradine was back as the Count (I had a hard time buying him in this role, as he reminded me too much of the gambler he played in Stagecoach) seeking to cure his vampirism by visiting a doctor, played by Onslow Stevens. Of course it's just a ruse, he wants to seduce the doctor's assistant. Then Talbot shows up, his existence unexplained, but once again repeating his plaintive cry of "you must help me, there's no time." Chaney, who had showed that he could act in films like Of Mice and Men, showed no evidence of thespian skill in the Wolf Man films.

Stevens tries to help, and the two end up unearthing, you guessed it, the creature (again played by Strange), entangled in the skeleton of Karloff. Dracula, during a transfusion, gives the doctor some of his vampiric blood, and the doc goes crazy, reviving the monster, who once again goes up in flames (many horror film aficionados have special sympathy for the monster, who in film after film is revived without his permission, only to be destroyed minutes later).

The last appearance of the trinity of Universal monsters was in, of all things, an Abbott and Costello film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, released in 1948. Lugosi returned as Dracula (he only played the count twice, in the original film and this one), with Chaney as Talbot and Strange as the creature. This film is generally acclaimed as one of the best of Bud and Lou's films, as well as a good example of a horror-comedy: both frightening and funny. I think the trick is that the men playing the monsters are playing it strictly straight. At one point Talbot tells Lou, "When the moon is full I turn into a wolf." Lou says, "You and fifty million other guys," at which Talbot grabs him by the lapels and throws him into a wall. It's as if Chaney himself were not being taken seriously.

As with the other Wolf Man films, in this comedy Talbot is the good guy, seeking to destroy Dracula, and does so quite memorably, catching him in his paws while the Count is in bat form, tumbling into the sea, and once again the creature perishes in flames, his face a contortion expressing both sorrow and, "Not this again!" It would be the end of their run at Universal, and the Hammer studio in Britain would take the characters and remake them, and they've stayed with us ever since.

While most of the sequels are pretty silly, and basically retell the same story, they have a certain quaint charm, particularly to those of a certain age who remember watching them for the first time on late-night TV, perhaps hosted by Vampira or her later imitator, Elvira (the movie host when I was a kid in Detroit was Sir Graves Ghastly, who was a knock-off of Zacherle). These films are cheesy, yes, but also maintain a certain integrity of spirit.

The one downside of these boxed sets is that they were released at about the time Universal was promoting Van Helsing, a god-awful film directed by Steven Sommers. He is on some featurettes, telling us how he loved those films, although he seems to have no idea what made the early films resonate through time. While many will still be absorbed by watching the original Wolf Man, no one will care about Van Helsing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Let It Bleed

What a year 1969 was for rock and roll! There was The Beatles' Abbey Road, the Who's Tommy, the first two albums by Led Zeppelin, plus debuts by Chicago and King Crimson, and the concert of the millennium, Woodstock. In November of that year the Rolling Stones released one of their finest records, Let It Bleed.

This was the second in the Stones brilliant four-album run, preceded by Beggar's Banquet and followed by Exile on Main Street and Stickyfingers. It features the Stones at both their most malevolently sensual and boyishly playful, and begins and ends with two of the most anthemic songs of the decade.

"Gimme Shelter" kicks things off, and was the flip-side of the sunny hippie songs of the era, as well as a foretelling of the bad vibes that would doom the movement, typified by the killing at the Stones concert at Altamont. "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away," the band sang (including a fierce vocal by guest vocalist Merry Clayton, that can still raise goosebumps forty years later). I try to imagine how an unsuspecting listener could put this on their turntable and be greeted with a despairing prediction of the apocalypse. Perhaps the best response would be to reach for one's bong.

The record closes with the more hopeful "You Can't Always Get What You Want," with the bad boys or rock employing a boys choir. The verses are inscrutable, though doing some reading I learned that "Mr. Jimmy" refers not to Mr. Hendrix but to Jimmy Miller, the song's producer (and drummer on the track), and that "he said one word to me and that was 'dead'" is not a statement about mortality--"dead" was lingo roughly equating with "neato."

Though that last song has a shoulder-shrugging call for acceptance, much like the Beatles "Let It Be," (there is an assumption that the album's title was a wink at the Beatles, even though this album came out before the Let It Be album, the Beatles song was already known) most of the songs have a poorly hidden reference to sex, drugs and murder. Midnight Rambler includes actual testimony from the Boston Strangler, and despite it's peppy harmonica has some pretty fucked-up lyrics. Live With Me seems to be about a guy who wants a woman to move in with him so she can clean up after him, and the title track includes the line "You can cum on me," which is pretty daring for 1969.

The record also includes the finger-snappingly cool Monkey Man, Keith Richards' first solo lead vocal, You Got the Silver, and the gorgeous cover of Robert Johnson's Love in Vain, another example of my dictum that any song about trains is a good one.

Let It Bleed is also a transitional record, as Brian Jones was booted from the band (he would then die on June 23, 1969). He only plays on two tracks, and this would be the debut of new guitarist Mick Taylor.

Since then, it has become a hallowed object in the classic rock pantheon, voted number 32 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and number 28 on Q Magazine's 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. Given the indelible power of the opening and closing numbers, I would rank it even higher.

Monday, November 09, 2009


It isn't often that I ever regret seeing a movie, but I'm still annoyed that I wasted the time and money to see Lars von Trier's witless and pointless film Antichrist yesterday. It put a crater in my Sunday afternoon, and the $6.99 I spent in purchasing it from On Demand could have been put to more useful purposes, like a value meal at McDonald's.

This dismay is not for the shock value of the film--as a regular viewer of hard-core pornography, the sight of a prosthetic penis ejaculating blood garners more giggles from me than horror. What angers me is the inane nature of the film, which seems to be more about von Trier flexing his "look at me, I'm a rebel" chops than making art.

The story begins with an unnamed couple, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, having a frenzied fuck that starts in the shower and ends up in the laundry room. While they are doing it, their son, a toddler, finds an open window and plunges to his death. This scene is shot in black and white, in slow motion, and with an opera on the soundtrack, as if it were a tony perfume commercial. If this was meant to be poetic or tragic it fails miserably--I found it funny.

Gainsbourg has trouble dealing with her grief, and Dafoe, who is a therapist, comes up with the bright idea to go to their weekend cabin in the woods, which they call "Eden" (ooh, religious metaphor!) He wants to get at the core of Gainsbourgh's fear, which he charts in a sophisticated manner--he draws a triangle on a piece of paper.

What ensues is the camping trip from hell. Gainsbourgh is so spooked by the woods that she has trouble setting a shod foot on the ground (she describes nature as "Satan's church") and they both go bonkers. Dafoe watches a doe being born, and then an eviscerated fox speaks to him, telling him that "chaos reigns." I'm tickled that this month will see two films with talking foxes (the other being The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and that they couldn't be more dissimilar.

They make love, but things get out of hand when Gainsbourg whacks Dafoe in the privates with a log and then gives him the worst handjob ever. For good measure she takes a drill to his leg. Then, after masturbating in the woods, she takes a pair of scissors and snips off her clitoris. Isn't this edgy stuff? I can almost imagine von Trier writing this, cackling to himself and thinking, "This will get the critics talking."

So what was the point of all this? I'm not sure, other than being a warning to those who want to take a romantic weekend trip to the country. I think it has to do with the lack of a distinction of good and evil in nature, but I'm not sure. Gainsbourgh mumbled most of her lines and the middle section of the film was so boring that I watched it while winnowing my CD collection (I'm selling a good portion of them).

The worst sin of this film is that it's boring, which is saying something given the controversial aspects of it. Von Trier, in the opening sex scene, includes a shot of real intercourse, which was done with porn actors as stunt doubles. There is absolutely no reason for him to do so, other than to get people who don't watch porn to gasp. I think it's the equivalent of the forty-something guy who grows a pony-tail and wears a motorcycle jacket to make himself look cool.

This is all a shame because von Trier, when he's on his game, can make some startling films, such as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. This one is a complete monstrosity, though, and will be tough to beat for the worst film I've seen all year.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Big Love

I'm no expert on the origins of polygamy in the Mormon church. I expect it made certain sense when they were settling in Utah, where maximizing the birth-rate was key. But today it seems little more than an excuse for old men to have sex with young girls and call it religion.

I wonder if most men have had, at one time or another, a fantasy about having sexual access to more than one woman at a time. If so, those fantasies of plush harems and nubile serving wenches go up in a puff of smoke after watching the first season of Big Love, HBO's take on a modern polygamous marriage. Yes, the husband in question has three wives, whom he sleeps with on a rotating basis. But he also has three mortgages, seven kids, and has to hide his marital status from a disapproving society (it's also illegal, but the show never made clear if he was legally married to all three--presumably he was not, but the issue is never addressed). The show is a fascinating and skewered look at the American dream.

Bill Paxton is Bill Henrickson, who owns two home and garden stores in Salt Lake City. He is the grandson of a man once known as "the Prophet," and grew up on a polygamous commune in rural Utah. He was kicked out, though (these groups routinely exile teenage boys so as to limit the competition for young girls). He married Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), but when she had ovarian cancer and could not conceive any more children, they agreed to re-embrace the polygamous principle. He took a second wife, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), the daughter of the current Prophet (Harry Dean Stanton), a sinister Warren Jeffs-like figure, and then Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rootless and naive young woman.

As the series begins, Paxton hopes to open a third store, but is feuding with Stanton. He's also dealing with his unstable mother (Grace Zabriskie) and rascally father (Bruce Dern), who still live in the commune. And of course there are the normal family dramas, times three. All the while the family must stay discreet, as though they are surrounded by Mormons, those who are in the regular LDS sect highly disapprove of polygamy.

I watched all twelve episodes of the first season over the last week and a half. I enjoyed it, though it was a glossy soap opera. I was surprised that it pulled no punches in condemning polygamous sects--in this day and age even a religion practicing something illegal might get a break from the sensitive media. Where the series excels in the characterizations of the three wives. Each is well-acted, with Sevigny getting the toughest assignment. Nicki is a conniving, mean-spirited, materialistic shrew, and it's to her credit that she makes the character even remotely sympathetic. I've always found her to be a interesting actress, but I wonder if I'll ever see her again without thinking of this character.

Goodwin has it easier, but is no less interesting as the innocent Margene, who is not much older than Paxton's oldest child. Paxton plays a spiritual man who really believes that he's doing God's bidding, but after watching these episodes back to back I got tired of his smug moralizing and wanted to smack him a bit. A little of Bill Paxton goes a long way.

But any show with both Stanton and Dern can't be bad. Unfortunately they only shared one scene together, but it was a beaut. Also in the cast are Amanda Seyfried as Paxton's oldest daughter, who has doubts about the life style she was born into, and Daveigh Chase, who was so good as the creepy little kid in The Ring, as a fifteen-year-old girl who will be Stanton's next wife. All together now, ewwww!

But something to consider: why should polygamy be illegal? Certainly underage marriage, or forced marriage of any kind should not be tolerated. But if more than two consenting adults want to marry and live as a unit, why should society object? If one is not opposed to same-sex marriage, as I am not, then why not polygamy? It's an interesting discussion topic.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Education

An Education is a fine, engrossing character study set in a particular time and place, and studded with fine performances. The only thing keeping it from absolute excellence is a conventional structure that ultimately lets a little air out of the film’s tires.

The setting is Twickenham, England, a suburb of London. The time is 1961. The protagonist is Jenny, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, played by Carey Mulligan. She is smart and has an ambition to be accepted to Oxford, or rather that is the ambition of her father, a bumptious but meek man (Alfred Molina) who is both a tightwad and a dullard. Her mother, Cara Seymour, has drifted into a life of obsequiousness to him, though flashes of personality indicate that Mulligan is her mother’s daughter.

Enter David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a rakish older man who gives Mulligan a lift in his sports car in a driving rainstorm. He is witty and dashing, and knows how to have fun, which earns Mulligan’s affection immediately, as she wants to shake off the dust off her provincial town and listen to French records, read books, and be a full-blown Bohemian. Sarsgaard wants to show her things, and together with his friends, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike, they paint the town red, going to swanky restaurants and classical music concerts.

Sarsgaard is the kind of guy who can want something from someone and manage to spin it so he can make it seem like the thing he wants is the other person’s idea (he does with Molina when he wants to take Mulligan on a weekend trip to Oxford, dropping the name of C.S. Lewis while doing it). Of course this means he’s a man of slippery ethics, as Mulligan finds out while witnessing what kind of business he and Cooper are in. But she’s too dazzled by him to let it bother her, despite the protestations of a sincere English teacher (Olivia Williams) and an officious headmistress (Emma Thompson).

After all, her parents don’t object. In 1961 a 34-year-old man could court a teenager without too many eyebrows being raised, and Mulligan realizes that her father thinks her being provided for in a marriage to a man of means equals an Oxford education. Therefore when she discovers a secret about Sarsgaard her entire world crumbles.

The film is based on a memoir and written by novelist Nick Hornby, and the screenplay crackles with clever dialogue. The direction, by Lone Scherfig, is unobtrusive–this is not the work of an auteur. The smartest thing Scherfig does is let her writer and cast dominate, particular the lead. A lot of ink and pixels have been expended on how this is a star-making turn for her, and I’m not disagreeing, as its a performance of incredible poise and depth. Her facial expressions at certain points in the film will linger with me a long time, and I feel, after just under two hours in her company, that I know the character she creates well.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Sarsgaard has played these sorts of shifty types before–he’s an actor that specializes in ambiguity–but it’s strong work (his best performance remains the one he gave in Shattered Glass as a man with impeccable integrity). Molina, touted as a surefire Oscar nominee, is good, but the part is the flimsiest in the film. He’s a man who’s afraid of life–he has to be dragged to a fancy restaurant because he’s worried he won’t know how to order a starter–and he’s funny, but there’s something phony about the character. He gets a speech at the end that’s supposed to tell us all about him, but instead it only makes him more obscure. Williams, who previously played a different kind of sympathetic teacher in Rushmore, is quietly effective as a woman whom Mulligan initially wants to be nothing like, but later finds she has a lot to learn from.

It’s the film’s final moments that knocked it down a peg for me. I’ve seen too many films that climax with a character receiving a letter from the college they hope to attend to see it pop up in a film like this one, and then a voiceover narration by Mulligan closes the film. I’m not against voiceover narration, but it hadn’t been heard at all up until the final minute of the film, so it was awfully jarring to hear it, especially since the dialogue was particularly trite.

That quibbling aside, this film has a wonderful look and great performances, and is one of the better films of the year.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Jefferson in Paris

After reading, a few weeks ago, Annette Gordon-Reed's book The Heminges of Monticello, I was curious to take another look at James Ivory's 1995 film Jefferson in Paris, which covers the period when Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began their relationship. I hadn't seen it since I saw it upon it's opening (as I look over my records, I see that I saw it on April 13, Jefferson's birthday, and at the Paris Theater in New York).

Armed with fresh knowledge of the events, the film had more resonance for me this time, but I still found it to be a bloodless pageant more than stirring drama. Part of the problem is that Ivory and his screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adhere so strictly to the history that there's little room for emotion, particularly in the area of Jefferson and Hemings' feelings about each other.

Hemings, played by Thandie Newton, doesn't show up in the film until the half-way mark. The first portion of the film deals with Jefferson (Nick Nolte), in Paris as a diplomat, and his flirtation with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife on an English painter. His daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) has been entered into a convent school, though Jefferson is worried that she will become converted to Catholicism. It is after Jefferson's youngest daughter dies back home in Virginia that he sends for his middle daughter, allowing her to bring one servant with her--Sally.

The second half of the film is far more fascinating than the first, which plays like a soggy historical romance, complete with powdered wigs and courtly manners. These were formal, educated people, but I have to believe once in a while even a man like Thomas Jefferson had an unguarded moment. Jhabvala has such respect for her characters that she seems reluctant to allow them any ugliness. This is especially true of Hemings, and to be fair, there is nothing in the historical record that tells us what her personality was like, other than what her children said about her. Jefferson never wrote about her, except to note her in his farmbook (an inventory of his holdings). So, in this film, she is a bit nebulous, a girl who is afraid of ghosts, likes to dance, and favors bright colors.

Given these limitations, the film still has its moments, none so much as the momentous conclusion, when Jefferson vows to Sally's brother James, who has served his master in Paris as a chef, that he will free him if he returns to Virginia. He also swears to free Sally and her unborn child, which is Jefferson's (although it is unspoken among them) upon his death. Paltrow, also aware of what has been going on, is called upon to witness the oath and vows to carry it out. This she did.

Problematic is Nick Nolte as Jefferson. I still can't wrap my mind around how Ivory and his producer, Ismail Merchant, came to choose him as Jefferson. Yes he looks like him, but I've always thought of Nolte as a more rough-hewn kind of actor, more appropriate for Daniel Boone than the aristocratic Jefferson. As the film goes on, though, I got more used to the idea,

This is the kind of film that can be show in an advanced high school history class. It has no overt sexuality--there's only one shot of Hemings in Jefferson's bed, her bosoms heaving. But as compelling drama it falls flat.