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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Forty years ago today the number one album in the U.S. was Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Trouble Water. It would have a ten-week run on the top. In the U.K., it would spend an incredible 33 weeks at the top of the charts. It won six Grammy awards, including album of the year. I have a boxed set of all five of the duo's albums, and have listened to it repeatedly for the past few days. It holds up marvelously.

This would be the last Simon and Garfunkel album, and the theme of separation runs throughout it. It's easy to read too much into it, and listen for clues to the two's relationship in every song--for example, with "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," in which Garfunkel sings, "I can't believe your song is gone so soon, I barely learned the tune," or "The Only Living Boy in New York," which Simon wrote while Garfunkel was off shooting a movie, and sings, "Tom, get your plane right on time. I know you've been eager to fly now."

The pair certainly had a complicated relationship. Simon, in many respects, didn't need Garfunkel, artistically speaking. Simon was the musical genius, Garfunkel had the heavenly voice with which he could harmonize, and Simon's solo career hasn't missed a beat. But one has to wonder whether, as they were breaking up, the pull of nostalgia wasn't there, remembering when they were known as Tom and Jerry and copying the Everly Brothers (a cover version of "Bye Bye Love" is on this record). Years later Simon would make an album called Hearts and Bones, which he recorded with Garfunkel, but then removed all of Artie's vocals before the album was finished. Very complicated.

The album kicks off with the title song, one that has been become iconic. It's pleasant to think of Simon first coming up with the tune on the piano (or guitar, but I prefer imagining the piano, as this is how it opens) and wondering to himself, "I think I have something here." It's Garfunkel's crowning achievement as a vocalist, so it's odd to read that Simon regrets not singing it, and Garfunkel didn't want to sing it. It's hard to imagine this song without Garfunkel's ethereally beautiful vocal (of course Simon has sung it in concert, and it doesn't sound right). The lyric is a simple declaration of unwavering support, and when the last verse, along with the strings and Simon's harmony, kicks in--"Sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way"--bliss. Even after repeated listens the song never sounds too treacly or bombastic to me. It has a lush production, a novelty in the age of hard rock, but pushes the limits without exceeding them.

As Garfunkel hits the high note and the song ends with a bang, it fades into "El Condor Pasa," an old Peruvian song that Simon updated with a Zen quality: "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail," etc. The Andean instruments backing him were something of a first on a pop record, and gave it an exotic sound that still entrances today. Years ago I was at a shopping plaza and heard an Andean musician playing a pan flute and immediately thought of this song.

The hits keep coming with "Cecilia," a hard-rocking comic song that includes the memorable lines, "Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia, up in my bedroom. I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed someone's taken my place."

Side two (when there were sides to records) has a masterpiece of its own, "The Boxer." I've never quite been sure what it's about. It has the structure of the opening of a bildungsroman, with a young man singing about his humble roots, and ends with a metaphor of a pugilist. It has the sense of being profound, but perhaps there's nothing to be found there. In any event, it is brilliant produced, and the haunting chorus of "li-la-li" lingers in the mind. Simon admitted that he chose those syllables because he couldn't think of any words to go there.

The album also contains a pair of fun and foot-tapping rock numbers, "Keep the Customer Satisfied" and "Baby Driver." The only song I don't really care for is "You Never Write Me," which, in comparison with everything else on the album, seems like a throw-away.

Of the five albums the pair made, this one is right up there with Bookends as their greatest. The latter was perhaps a greater accomplishment as a themed collection of songs, but Bridge Over Troubled Water is probably their grander achievement, as it contains Simon's best writing, Garfunkel's best vocals, and the four hit singles.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nothing But the Truth

Nothing But the Truth, from 2008, is a competent but unexceptional film from Rod Lurie, very much keeping in tone from his earlier The Contender, in that he explores a legal situation from all angles in a kind of parlor-game manner. This time it's a fictional examination of the Judith Miller-Valerie Plame story, in which a journalist, outing a CIA operative, goes to jail for refusing to name a source.

The journalist is played by Kate Beckinsale, one of a host of familiar faces in the cast. The CIA agent is Vera Farmiga, the relentless special prosecutor is Matt Dillon, Beckinsale's husband is David Schwimmer and her flashy celebrity attorney is Alan Alda. They're all fine (though Dillon wears a Southern accent with difficulty) and the steps Beckinsale takes through the legal process, all the way to the Supreme Court, are interesting if not a little bloodless. Lurie attempts to inject some humanity into the piece, notably with the female characters, but these moments are few and far between.

Lurie also falls back on some old tricks. In The Contender, he had the president, played by Jeff Bridges, engaged in a running gag about ordering sandwiches from the White House chef. In this film it's Alda, who is a clothes horse, making jokes about designer duds. In fact, this film almost looks too good--even the female prisoners who share a communal cell with Beckinsale seem too perfectly arranged. I think this film is lacking some messiness that would lift it out of a lesson in civics to something more artful.

I watched the "making of" featurette and it was interesting that the cast members seem to come down on different sides of the issue, depending on the character they played. Dillon seemed to have a sympathy for the government, thinking that in matters of national security, journalists had no right to keep sources private. Alda, a reliable lefty of course, was four-square on the side of the First Amendment. Floyd Abrams, an attorney with the ACLU, was recruited to not only provide technical consultation but also play a judge. I think listening to him on the issue was far more engaging than the film itself.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Greenberg

Greenberg, like its title character, is frequently exasperating, but you hang in there because there seems to be a promise of something worthwhile, and its never boring. But, a day later, I'm not sure this film succeeds. Call it a thumbs sideways from me.

Ben Stiller, free of his comedy-film shtick, is Roger Greenberg. We are told he's just out of a mental hospital from a nervous breakdown, and was working as a carpenter in New York. He's come to Los Angeles to house-sit for his wealthy brother. He's determined to do "nothing," and catches up with old friends, particularly Ivan (Rhys Ifan). They were in a rock group together, but Stiller turned down a record deal and the band dissolved, their hope of fame and riches evaporated.

Though the film is called Greenberg, it opens from the point of view of Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is Stiller's brother's personal assistant. She's a few years out of college and seemingly adrift, both professionally and emotionally. Gerwig, a veteran of mumblecore pictures, is again playing a character who would be right at home in one of those kind of movies. She and Stiller form an odd relationship, in which she is open to his advances but he pulls back. He's also drawn to his old girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has moved on with her life and has kids, and has forgotten much of her relationship with Stiller.

The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Leigh shares a story credit). I enjoyed his Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale (didn't catch Margot's Wedding) but I'm on the fence about Greenberg. Part of the problem is the nature of Greenberg himself. A main character in a film doesn't have to be warm and fuzzy, but we have to care about him, and at times I just wished he'd go away. As I mentioned, the film opens from Gerwig's point of view, and Greenberg appears, fully formed, giving her a list of items to buy: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches. In this way he never really develops into anything beyond a collection of tics and quirks, often cruel and self-centered. You have to wonder how he had any friends to begin with.

And then there's the huge crater in the middle of this film: Gerwig is a terrific actress, the real find in this movie and someone with a very bright future, but she's not good enough a performer to convince me of her interest in Stiller. She tells him, "You like me more than you think you do," which I believe, but when she tells him "I'm impressed by you," because he's not interested in personal success, I had a hard time believing it. Sure, I believe there are women out there who are drawn, for perverse reasons, to slackers, but what exactly do they talk about? We only see their halting stabs at sex, and one instance where Gerwig tells a story that sends Stiller fleeing from the room. I'm no authority on male physical characteristics, but it seems to me Stiller is not good-looking enough to smooth over his litany of neuroses. Gerwig's best friend tells her at one point that if she continues to drive him around (Stiller doesn't drive, another quirk) she'll never speak to her again. I could only agree.

That's not to say that Greenberg doesn't have its charms (both the film and the character). I liked a scene, late in the film, in which the 41-year-old Stiller is in the midst of a party of college students, and fueled by cocaine he breaks down the whole Generation Y: "You're mean...you're all ADD and carpal-tunnel. I hope I die before I meet you in a job interview." I liked Baumbach's shaggy-dog direction, and the film's ambivalence about L.A. Yeah, everybody's got a pool, but the opening shot is the thick haze of smog.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Mad Tea Party

What a week it's been in American politics. It started a week ago today, when the House approved the health care reform bill. I must admit I'd been keeping my head in the sand on this one, not following the give-and-take and machinations of how this bill was put together, so when the vote happened, and it was all over, it was sort of like awakening to find it snowing on Christmas morning. I had been despairing that the Obama presidency was slowly being strangled by attempts to be bipartisan, but it's clear that Obama saw the light and, though there is no public option and he had to grant concessions to the pro-life wing of the Democrats, this turned out be, as Joe Biden said, a "big fucking deal."

What it will all mean is anybody's guess. I haven't had any health insurance since I was laid off more than a year ago, and I still don't, as Obama signing the bill did not magically give me any. But it fills my heart with gladness nonetheless to know that the government did the right thing, acting on the behalf of the have-nots in this country, a vote that puts many of them in peril of losing re-election. What a concept--to vote to improve the common good, regardless of the electoral consequences.

Beyond that there's been an extra degree of glee in all this, and that's watching the response of the Republican party, which has been acting like a spoiled child. John McCain, who recently ran a presidential campaign with the tag-line, "Country First" has vowed to not cooperate with the president on anything. Republicans ended meetings earlier, no doubt to go off for a long pout. It's like the kid who says, "It's my ball and I'm going home," only it's not their ball. They've been saying over and over again that Democrats are acting in defiance of the public, but that's a bad argument. The public voted, two years ago, to send a president and congress to Washington who had campaigned on health-care reform. A democracy hinges on elections, not telephone polls. If this bill is a disaster, and I don't think it is, the voters get their revenge in November. Besides, Republicans didn't heed the call of the public when they impeached Bill Clinton, despite overwhelming disapproval in the polls.

At the heart of the Republican caterwauling is something more disturbing--the Tea Party movement. Of course we all have the right to protest, but there's something sinister about the fringe that have identified with the colonists who dumped tea in Boston Harbor in 1773. For one thing, those citizens were protesting taxation without representation, while in the here and now Obama has cut taxes. No, these folks have something else in mind, a kind of knee-jerk repulsion at anything the president or Democrat congress want, in the guise of a nebulous sense of freedom and liberty. I fail to see how making sure the uninsured get insurance is any more freedom-restricting than say, the Patriot Act, but of course that reveals the true nature of these ruffians--if Obama is for it, they're against it.

In the wake of the health care bill the Tea Party has showed some ugly colors. Bricks have been thrown through congressional offices. Congressmen of African heritage were called the N word and spat on, while Barney Frank received anti-gay epithets. The rhetoric, fanned by the blasts of hot air by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, has grown increasingly violent, while other groups have used violent imagery, such as Nancy Pelosi in flames or gun-site cross-hairs on other politicians. Beck, in a monologue of the highest lack of taste, suggested any violence was provoked by Obama himself, which is analogous to a wife-beater telling his wife, whom he has just pummeled, "See what you made me do?"

Reasonable people can disagree about policy, but the Tea Party seems to have no reason. I'm sure there are many nice people who consider themselves Tea Partiers, but there's no doubt that at the core of this all-white group is the presence of racism--these people just can't stand the fact that a black man is president. The tendency for Tea Partiers to also be birthers--those who foolishly believe that Obama was not born in Hawaii, despite the existence of a birth certificate, suggests that the prime moving force of these people is a petulant resistance to his right to govern. I've heard many of them say, "I want my country back," but this statement is confusing to me, as the country is still right where it's always been, and in fact the democracy seems to be working better than ever, as we have a president who said what he was going to do and is now trying to do it.

Their may be an up-side to the Tea Party. The Republicans have to listen to them, lest one of two things happen: the Tea Party could field there own slate of candidates, thus draining Republican votes and assuring a Democratic majority for the foreseeable future, or the Republicans have to veer hard right to cater to the Tea Party to forestall primary challenges from the right (something McCain is experiencing). This means the Republicans will abandon the middle, and the Democrats will fill the void. Since only about thirteen percent of Americans say they identify themselves as Tea Party, this means the middle is still a vast place. In some ways the Republicans find themselves in the same situation the Democrats did in 1972, when the fringes seized control of the party, and the convention showed long-haired delegates wearing dashikis. Now it's Republicans carrying guns, holding signs depicting Obama as a monkey.

I'm heartened to believe that though the Democrats will certainly lose seats in November, it won't be as bad as initially thought, as the perks of the health care bill will please many, and when death panels and a communist take-over doesn't happen, people will realize the Republicans were screaming about nothing. Obama, who faced the prospect of a moribund presidency, has been given new life, and if the economy begins to turn around could coast to re-election, particular if he faces an opponent that has been nominated by a crowd of crackpots.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Click

Click, from 2006, is one of those films that take a pretty good premise and ride it to death, without fleshing it out and making it into something that transcends the concept.

Adam Sandler stars as an overworked architect who struggles between finding time for his family and trying to get ahead at his firm, which is run by a ball-buster. When he wanders into a Bed, Bath and Beyond in search of a universal remote control, he ends up in a back room (labeled "Beyond") and finds a mad scientist-type who sells him a hot new gadget. Soon Sandler realizes the gizmo can stop time, or more intriguingly, allow him to fast forward through the unpleasant periods in his life. In true Twilight Zone fashion, he realizes that it's not always good to get what you want.

To the extent that Click sporadically succeeds is due to Sandler, who brings a diffident charm to the proceedings, almost as if he realizes it's kind of stupid and is sharing the joke with the audience. Some of his lines seem like ad libs, and I would imagine that his commentary (I didn't bother to watch it again to find out) was more entertaining.

Another plus to the film is Christopher Walken as Morty, the mad scientist. As usual, Walken improves any film he is in, with his offbeat line deliveries and seeming barely contained sanity. The cast is also full of TV personalities such as David Hasselhoff as the boss, and Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner as Sandler's parents. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup Effects, with the estimable Rick Baker in charge. There is a lot of makeup involved, but not all of it worked. Making Sandler old and grossly fat is one thing, but trying to make Winkler and Kavner look younger was a disastrous failure--they looked as if they had been made up by a mortician.

The direction is by Frank Coraci, a Sandler crony, and has little style or flair, resembling an extended sit-com. The script, aside from Sandler's witticisms, is a hash of mawkish sentimentality, mostly battering home the "stop and smell the roses" moral. For a more daring look at what a man can do given the ability to stop time, read Nicholson Baker's The Fermata. It's hot stuff!

Of course I saw this because Kate Beckinsale is in it, playing Sandler's put upon wife. It's a thankless role--she mainly has to look harried and hot at the same time, and she does so admirably.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Vacancy

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Vacancy, a 2007 film, starring Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, was not a complete waste of time. It's no classic, but it's a tense thriller. Credit is due to director Nimrod Antal, but mostly to writer Mark L. Smith, who wrote a script that is free of a lot of the cliches and intelligence-insulting habits of most movies of this type.

Wilson and Beckinsale play a bickering couple on a long, late-night drive (we later learn they are on the brink of divorcing and have lost a child). Wilson has decided to get off the Interstate (sort of a cliche) and in swerving to avoid a raccoon does something to his car. They end up at a run-down motel, and despite the general creepiness of the proprietor (Frank Whalley), decide to suck it up and spend the night. The script presents this as the only alternative, though a line referencing Psycho or Norman Bates would have been good.

The couple quickly realize that the motel makes its money by using unsuspecting patrons as subjects in snuff films, and the rest of the film has our intrepid travelers trying to avoid getting knifed to death. It's one of those one-set, limited cast scripts that are constantly being called for on screenwriting Web sites, but I enjoyed this one for a few reasons. One, the imperiled characters are not stupid, and almost every choice they make is the reasonable one. Two, the killers are not superhuman in their ability to defy the laws of physics or medicine (a problem in the otherwise good Joy Ride).

The very ending does go on for a beat too long and does have a medically-unsound moment, and the behavior by a policeman would suggest he's forgotten all he learned at the academy, but all in all the action of this film is not too outside of what could happen in the real world, which contributes to its over-all effectiveness. It's a good one to watch on a dark and stormy night.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Ghosts of Belfast

I just finished a terrifically tense thriller called The Ghosts of Belfast, a debut novel by Stuart Neville. As the title implies, it's about the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, and also has a supernatural imprint.

The book is about Gerry Fegan, a one-time assassin for the IRA. He's done in time in Maze prison and is now a feeble drunk. It seems he has been haunted for years by the spirits of twelve people he killed. They follow him everywhere--even into the john. Eventually he comes to realize they want him to kill the men who were responsible for ordering their deaths. Only then will they leave him alone. Neville brilliantly imagines these wraiths--they remind me of the bereaved ghosts that Marley points out to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, as they weep and wail over the poor and destitute.

This is a deliciously nifty idea for a book, and is especially trenchant given the setting. I'm somewhat knowledgeable about Irish history, but I would imagine this means more to someone who can understand what all the acronyms mean (I was barely able to distinguish between "Republicans" and "Loyalists"). It's clear that Neville believes that, though there is a peace now, the thugs have simply moved into politics.

As Fegan sets about settling scores--"Everyone must pay," he is told, and transmits to his victims, he becomes interested in a woman, who has been ostracized since her brief romance with a Protestant policeman. The woman has a small girl, and some of the redemption for Fegan as he relates to the child is a bit much, sentimentally speaking. But the scenes of violence are crackerjack in their intensity, especially the climax, set an old farm where fighting dogs are bred.

According to the book jacket this is the first book in a series, but I think this one stands on its own. It's a fine work, for fans of ghost stories, shoot 'em ups, or those interested in the Irish situation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Serendipity

Getting back to Kate Beckinsale, she starred in Serendipity, a 2001 film directed by Peter Chesholm. I give credit to the filmmakers for choosing a word that most people probably can't define, but on the whole this movie was far too fluffy and mushy--it's for people who avoid conflict at all costs, even in their entertainment.

Beckinsale and John Cusack, at his most twinkly, meet cute in Bloomingdale's vying for a pair of gloves. They are smitten but attached to others, but have sundaes together at the New York ice-cream emporium that shares a name with the film. Cusack goes heavy on the make, but Beckinsale is more demure, and tells him that if they are meant to be together, it will happen. She has him write his contact info on a five-dollar bill, and then spends it, and writes her info in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera and tells him she will sell it to a used book store. If they find these items, well, it's kismet.

Of course any guy with a right mind would immediately size up a woman like this as a nut, no matter that she looks as good as Beckinsale. Therefore the script has a hard time convincing us that, as the years go by, these two are really meant for each other, even though they have only spent a few hours together. Both end up engaged to other people: Cusack to Bridget Moynihan, and Beckinsale to John Corbett. Moynihan's character is completely inoffensive, and I felt bad for her being the victim of chick-flickitis, but Corbett, who plays a Yanni-like musician, is set up as a preening twit.

It should be no shock to anyone that the five-dollar bill and the Marquez end up in the hands of our principals. It's interesting that both of these characters break it off with their duller fiancees off-screen, as if to try to eliminate all bad feelings.

Serendipity is a bit critic-proof--after all, it embraces it's coincidences and contrivances. But it could have been a bit less cliche-ridden: both characters have wacky best friends who aid them on their search for each other (Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon). The only bit of originality is in the form of Eugene Levy as a pugnacious Bloomingdale's clerk (and I liked a cameo by Buck Henry).

I'm far too cynical for this type of movie. After Cusack and Beckinsale have dumped their intendeds (one right before what must have been a massively expensive wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria--no deposits returned on that one) they meet up at Wollman skating rink, and we fade to black. But I can only imagine that hours, perhaps minutes, later, we hear something like: "Oh my god, you smoke?" or, "Really, you voted for Bush?" or, in the great words of Paul Simon, "You like to sleep with the window open, I like to sleep with the window closed, so goodbye, goodbye, goodbye."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Prophet

One of the nominated films for the most recent Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language film was A Prophet, a French film directed by Jacques Audiard. I admired it but didn't love it, as I left the theater wondering what the point was.

The film chronicles the life of a young Frenchmen of Arabic descent, Tahar Rahim. He enters a tough prison, transferred from a juvenile detention center, and quickly finds out how life will be--his shoes are stolen. The prison is stratified into gangs of ethnic distinction, and things are run by a ruthless bunch of Corsicans who have ties to organized crime. Their leader, a wizened elder named Cesar (Niels Arestrup) sees Rahim as a potential recruit, and tells him that he will assassinate an Arabic prisoner who is going to testify in a big case, or he himself will be killed.

Rahim is taught how to handle a razor--with his mouth--and does the deed, and the film then shows us how this green kid learns the ropes and wends his way to power within the prison. The scenes between Rahim and Arestrup are fascinating, as both need but never quite trust each other. There's a lot of different characters that come in and out of the story (many introduced by helpful title graphics) but I was still was a little lost at times. Also, a storyline that has the ghost of the man Rahim killed haunting him is used intermittently and is under-developed, and I'm not sure a supernatural element works in a gritty prison drama.

What I think was missing most from this film was a reason why I was watching. I don't how Audiard feels about Rahim or prisons or anything else. As it is, it's an entertaining genre picture, and falls in line with any number of similar pictures, like White Heat, Brute Force or even Papillon. If it's anything I've learned after seeing a decent prison movie (or even a bad one) is that prison is no place I want to be.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Princeton Cemetery

Yesterday I took advantage of the spectacularly nice weather to do something I'd been meaning to do for a while--take a stroll through Princeton Cemetery, which has an above-average number of notable permanent residents. I had been there before, when by friend Bob and I paid a quick visit to the most illustrious inhabitants (a president and vice-president), but hadn't been there in over ten years.

The cemetery, which is affiliated with Nassau Presbyterian Church, was established in 1757. The oldest grave belongs to Aaron Burr Senior, who was a president of Princeton University (at that time called the College of New Jersey). Several of Princeton's presidents can be found within a few feet of him, in what is called the "President's Plot," but perhaps the most famous interment is that of Burr's son, Aaron Junior, who was the third Vice-President of the United States (under Thomas Jefferson), and the winner of the deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton. When I visited I found a woman hanging around the grave, and she told me that Burr was the greatest patriot we've ever had. I didn't bring up his being tried for treason for trying to establish his own country out west. No doubt she would have had an answer ready for me.

Topping Burr in the political hierarchy of the buried is an actual President of the United States. Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th President, lived in retirement in Princeton, and was buried there upon his death. He is flanked by his wife and daughter (the latter is the possible inspiration for the name of the Baby Ruth bar--experts disagree). His grave is pictured here, with a fresh wreath of flowers placed there by a military honor guard on his birthday, March 18th. This is done at the graves of all presidents.

Other notables names buried there are Jonathan Edwards, who was briefly president of Princeton, but is better known for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God." There are also many names familiar to drivers of Princeton as they share street names--Wiggins, Witherspoon, Bayard, Stockton, etc.--they were the early settlers of the town. As one might imagine, there are many professors from the University, as well as prominent figures from the Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute for Advanced Study. The latter institution employed cemetery residents and mathematicians Kurt Godel and John Von Neuman. However, the most illustrious Princeton resident, Albert Einstein, was cremated, and his ashes are not in the cemetery.

From the literary world the cemetery houses the novelist John O'Hara, who wrote Butterfield 8 among other books, and Sylvia Beach, the proprietress of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company and an early support of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Also interred there is pollster George Gallup.

One of the most prominent memorials is for Paul Tulane, a philanthropist who was a big benefactor of Tulane University. His stone is topped by life-size statue, and legend has it that's it's facing away from Princeton University because they would not accept the terms of a donation--that is they would not rename the school for him, a condition the college in New Orleans was obviously willing to accept.

A few other interesting residents are Barbara Boggs Sigmund, a mayor of Princeton but perhaps better known as the sister of TV newswoman Cokie Roberts; the parents of Paul Robeson, the actor, singer, and activist who grew up in Princeton; and Jose and Kitty Menendez, who were murdered by their sons, Lyle and Eric. Their graves are understandably not on the handy map that the cemetery provides. It would take a few hours of diligent search to find their headstone.

Lastly a grave that is on the map belongs to William Hahn. He has an epitaph that includes, "I Told You I Was Sick." I've also seen this on a headstone in Key West, Florida. I don't know who had the idea first.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Underworld

Okay, so I said I wouldn't lower myself to watching any of the films in the Underworld series. Well, the first film was already in my Netflix queue (I have films there that I have completely forgotten adding) so, as part of my Kate Beckinsale film festival, moved it up and gave it a chance.

The film, from 2003 and directed by Len Wiseman, is a standard bit of gun porn that happens to be about a battle between vampires and werewolves (here called Lycans). As pointed out in the "making of" featurette, it really isn't a horror film, as almost all of the horror elements are recycled from the long history of movies dealing with this subject. And here is where the film gets dragged down.

Beckinsale is a vampire, and also a "death dealer"--that is, she tracks down and kills Lycans. Their war has been raging for centuries, but she doesn't know why. All she knows is that she is loyal to the elder who made her a vampire (Bill Nighy), who as the film begins is in a long slumber. The head vampire in his stead (Shane Brolly) is a weaselly guy who has the hots for Beckinsale.

The Lycans, under the leadership of Michael Sheen, are after a human (Scott Speedman). It all has to do with blood and an attempt to cross vampires with Lycans to form one species. All this mumbo-jumbo is fine as it is, but as the film goes on all of this gets very tedious. Especially the interminable rules and codes these creatures live by. It would seem the vampires are caught up in protocol, or "the covenant." They must be nuts for Roberts' Rules of Order. They are also the grimmest bunch you've ever seen. For once I'd like to see a non-comic vampire film in which a vampire actually smiles or cracks a joke. These vampires are major bummers.

Of course all of Underworld is shot in dark, dank places, like subterranean tunnels, and it's raining a lot. I know that vampires can't be out in the sun, but this film is visually repressive. I'd love a change of pace and see vampires and werewolves duke it out in a field of poppies.

As for Beckinsale, she looks great in a tight-fitting Lycra bodysuit, and it's interesting that the gender roles have been switched--she's the kick-ass character who gets things done, while Speedman plays the passive, victim role. Also, it should be noted that both of Beckinsale's husbands, Sheen and Wiseman, are involved in this film. What happened behind the scenes may be more interesting than what's on the screen.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Last Days of Disco

As I mentioned in my opening post about Kate Beckinsale, the best film to feature her in a starring role was Whit Stillman's 1998 film The Last Days of Disco, a wry look at a particular slice of time in a particular strata of American society. Stillman, who could be thought of as the WASP Woody Allen, made a trilogy of films about the children of privilege sometimes awkwardly taking steps into adulthood, and this was the third film. It also remains, disappointingly, his most recent film.

The film, set in 1980, centers around two women, Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, who knew each other at Hampshire College and currently work as editorial assistants at a publishing house. Beckinsale is the more assured and popular one, and takes Sevigny to the hottest disco in town (it is never named, but we can presume it's Studio 54). Beckinsale gives her shier, more serious friend pointers on being a hit with men (she tells Sevigny that she has the look of a kindergarten teacher about her), including things like throwing the word "sexy" into conversation. Sevigny takes her advice and ends up with a one-night stand with a Harvard man, Robert Sean Leonard, who collects Uncle Scrooge comics.

Meanwhile Chris Eigeman (a Stillman regular) is another Harvard grad, and a manager at the disco. He gets in trouble for letting in his friend (Mackenzie Astin), an advertising man, bring clients into the club. Another Harvard friend (Matt Keeslar) has just landed a job as a Manhattan D.A., much to Eigeman's surprise, given that Keeslar once had a mental breakdown.

These characters, along with a few others, pair up in various combinations. Beckinsale and Sevigny rent an apartment together, even though they're not sure they like each other. Beckinsale, in fact, has a real mean streak, and when Sevigny passes on an alcoholic beverage, she speculates in front of everyone that Sevigny must be taking antibiotics for a venereal disease. It turns out she's right, and by way of apology tells her friend that getting V.D. can actually improve her social life.

This film is a marvelously rich tapestry, and that it's about characters whom I normally would like to machine-gun to death is a testament to Stillman's writing skill. These people are shallow and pretentious, but Stillman makes them so vulnerable that my heart goes out to them. Sevigny, in particular, is like an orphan in the storm, unsure of every move she makes. She's too serious by half (she announces, twice, that the writer of Spider-Man comics is not a genius). Eigeman is immensely appealing, though he is a womanizer who breaks up with women by telling them he's just figured out he's gay (he discovered this when he realized he was attracted to the zoologist on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom).

The script is full of nuggets, such as a group analysis of Lady and the Tramp, when the participants start identifying with the characters of that film--either the tail-chasing Tramp or the loyal Scottie. Keeslar says the film has indoctrinated women into being attracted to jerks. Or another debate on whether they are yuppies--they're young, but they're not necessarily upwardly mobile, or professional. In some ways the film reminded me of an upper-middle class Diner, but that film was about men, while Disco has a balance of genders and the romantic tensions resulting from it.

Through it all is the disco, which is where the story is anchored. Stillman seems to have affection for both the music and the lifestyle. Beckinsale reminds Sevigny that the Woodstock generation, who "were so full of themselves and conceited" couldn't dance. Keeslar's character sees disco as a movement, and the disco as a contemporary salon. But the tides are shifting, as the title indicates. At the end of the film the doorman of the club, an imperious decider standing guard at the velvet rope, tells the group that disco is dead, and church bells chime. Keeslar can't believe it: "Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever."

Stillman's trilogy, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, are excellent films. I hope he makes another film some day.

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

Wow. Twenty years ago tomorrow Sinead O'Connor's album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, was released. I must have bought it only a day or two later. Where has the time gone? Thinking about this record takes me back, as some co-workers and I shared an enthusiasm for O'Connor, going to see her in concert at the Beacon Theater and marveling at her talent and propensity for putting herself out naked for the world to gawk at.

I had been an admirer of her first record, The Lion and the Cobra, but her sophomore effort took the music world by storm. It hit number one in several countries, and the single and video, Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," made her a mega-star. The iconic video, directed by John Maybury, does not deviate from a close-up of her angelic face, pouring her heart out over a lost love (for Prince, it was a girlfriend, but for O'Connor it was something more complicated). That song was the only one on the record that O'Connor didn't write, but she did produce it, along with Nellee Hooper, and the gorgeous string accompaniment works perfectly with her soulful voice. Only the most stone-hearted can't be moved by it.

As fine as that song is, it's only one of many on the album, which even today seems audaciously open in its emotional intensity. She begins the record by reciting the serenity prayer, and the overall effect does have a twelve-step self-help nature to it, as if the whole thing had been assigned to her by a psychologist. But, remarkably, this soul-baring does not come off as self-indulgent or maudlin, maybe because we can realize this was a young woman (just twenty-three at the time) with abundant gifts, but also still in the middle of working out some serious problems.

There are two themes that resonate throughout the record--loss and maternity, and sometimes both together. O'Connor had a young child at the time, and also had severe issues with her own mother, whom she accused of abusing her. Thus we get songs like "Three Babies," or the mournful "Black Boys on Mopeds," a slam against the authorities in Britain--"England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses, it's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds. I love my boy, and that's why I'm leaving."

As for loss, there's plenty of it, ranging from the plaintive "Nothing Compares 2 U" to the Celtic hip-hop song "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," presumably about the death of a childhood friend. There's also the terrific song "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance": "I know you don't love me anymore, you used to hold my hand when the plane took off."

This song also best exemplifies one of O'Connor's great strengths as a musician--her voice, which can range from breathy whisper to piercing Klaxon. "The Last Day" starts with that whisper, the sound of a beaten woman, but then builds until she is yelping the chorus at the end, reconciled and victorious. For as much as this record has songs about the heartbreak of human relationships, there's a sense of valedictory, ranging from the line in the opening song, "Feel So Different": "All I'd needed was inside me," to the closing title song, done a capella in hushed tones. There are also a couple of straight-ahead rockers, "Emperor's New Clothes" and "Jump in the River," which standing alone would have made the record worth listening to.

O'Connor would never again approach the heights she hit from this record, either in popularity or quality. Several controversies, ranging from ripping up the Pope's picture on Saturday Night Live to refusing to allow the "Star-Spangled Banner" before a concert in New Jersey, alienated her from a certain knee-jerk segment of the population. She has also had something of a spotted personal life, claiming at several times to be a lesbian, but also fathering four children by four different men. I picked up a few of her records since then, but haven't followed her very closely. Instead I think back to how to twenty years ago, when a bald-headed Irish girl with Bambi eyes momentarily gripped the world in her grasp.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Haunted/Shooting Fish

Getting back to my Kate Beckinsale film festival, I start with Haunted, a 1995 film directed by Lewis Gilbert. It's a low-budget ghost story, and is interesting for having all the modern ghost-story twists, but before The Sixth Sense and The Others. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that you never know who's a ghost and who's not.

Aidan Quinn stars as a psychology professor in 1928 England. He's wracked by guilt over the death of his twin sister during childhood, and has come to be a debunker of spiritualists and mediums. He is called to an estate by a family whose nanny is going nutso thinking there's ghosts on the premises. The first family member he meets is the ravishing Beckinsale, but her brothers are a bit off the boil. One of them, Anthony Andrews, paints nude portraits of her.

Ghost stories are seldom done well, and this one moves in fits and starts (and Quinn is particularly wooden). Once again we get to see gratuitous nude shots of Beckinsale. And would a ghost really be able to drive a car? Stunning moment in the credits--one of the executive producers was Francis Ford Coppola.

Shooting Fish, from 1997, is a dreary example of a film that tries way too hard to be charming and eccentric and just comes off as annoying. It stars Dan Futterman and Stuart Townshend as con-men, and Beckinsale is their secretary. Futterman is the smooth-talker, while Townshend is the socially awkward technical genius. Both were orphans, and dream of living in a huge mansion, so they con rich people to meet their goal.

The film misfires on so many levels its hard to know where to start. The director and co-writer Stefan Schwartz starts with a supposition that was not true to this viewer--his main characters are sympathetic. I don't find their antics charming or noble or anything in between. I inwardly cheered when they did a stint in prison. Then there's a ridiculous ending, which involves a horse race, that comes out of nowhere, and has the outcome dictating whether some children with Down Syndrome will get kicked out of their house or not. Talk about loading the dice.

I hated almost frame of this movie, but Beckinsale comes out unscathed. Since she does not get naked in this film, I assume her career had turned a corner.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Art Student's War

I was interested in reading The Art Student's War, by Brad Leithauser, because it is set in Detroit. There aren't too many books set there, and often when they are they are crime novels. I grew up in a suburb outside of Detroit, and while I lived there it was a scary place--the only time I crossed over its borders were to go to Tiger games. But the period that this novel is set, during World War II and the years afterward, it was a thriving city.

The novel is told from the point of view of Bianca Paradiso, and as the book begins she is eighteen and taking art classes at the Institute Midwest. Though the book is not narrated by her, it is seen through her eyes, and we come to understand things from her perspective. Thus her parents are referred to as Mama and Papa, not by their names. Her father is a contractor, and her mother is a moody woman, who would today be taking anti-depressants. Bianca, called Bea by her friends, also has a brother and sister and an aunt and uncle who are close to her. Her uncle, a doctor named Dennis, is an untarnished hero throughout the story, a simple, decent man who will do anything for his family.

We follow Bea as she dates a fellow student, Ronny, who is the son of a drugstore magnate. She volunteers to draw the portraits of soldiers recuperating from wounds in a hospital, and meets one, Henry, who falls in love with her and will end up being her first lover. Meanwhile her family life, which had seemed do idyllic to her, ends up slowly disintegrating, stemming from a seemingly innocent incident at a picnic by a lake.

The novel has two halves--the second follows Bea about ten years later, when she has married and has children. This half is less successful then the first, as it is more weighted on soap-opera melodrama. There's an entire section revolving around the firing of a milkman.

The style of this book is something pretty rare. It is not a book for children, but it has the breathless prose and numerous exclamation points of a work of juvenilia. I wonder if Leithauser had read many books that were popular during the years depicted and copied their fusty style. Aside from the scene of Bea's deflowering, there is little in the book that wouldn't have been acceptable back in the forties. There isn't anything wrong with this approach, but it certainly is a different experience.

As for its depiction of Detroit, I got some of the references, but I'm sure most of what was mentioned was long gone by the time I lived near there, such as streetcar lines and various businesses (although I recognized the name Sanders). There's a telling bit of dialogue near the end of the book, when Bea and Dennis are discussing the construction of a suburban shopping complex being built, Northland (which is a real place). Dennis doesn't think much of it: "Oh, it may succeed for a while. As a novelty. But how is a shopping complex going to compete with a real downtown? It doesn't make any sense." In this one instance, Dennis couldn't be more wrong.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Good Soldiers

Book four of the New York Times Book Review's best ten books of 2009 is The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, who spent several months embedded with a battalion of the U.S. Army in a dusty outpost of Iraq during the much-publicized "surge." The account is written in narrative style, without political snark, though each chapter is opened with a quote by George W. Bush, that may or may not be ironic considering what is going on on the ground.

This is an excellent book, but I must admit to a bit of fatigue on books about Iraq. However, this one does not heap on the political outrage, but instead serves to simply chronicle the lives of soldiers in their everyday life. The 2-16, as they are designated, are based out of Fort Riley, Kansas, and that's where Finkel begins. We meet their commanding officer, Ralph Kauzlich, who is earnest and well-meaning and has a habit of saying "It's all good." We will start to feel for him as he deals with all sorts of problems, none so more than having to write and give memorial speeches for his fallen soldiers.

Finkel covers all aspects of military life, whether it's mordantly humorous, such as how to go about removing the body of a dead Iraqi out a septic tank in an abandoned spaghetti factory, or the tension of the monthly soldier-of-the-month contest, to the terror of not knowing when an IED or EFP (the book is heavy on acronyms) will rip a soldier to bits. The book is punctuated by the deaths or injuries of soldiers, and it is testimony to Finkel's skill that though these become sadly common, they are never lessened in effect.

Perhaps the most gripping chapter is a visit to a rehabilitation center, when Kauzlich visits his wounded men. One soldier, with severe brain damage, is tended to by his wife and mother, and even thinking about it now it makes me emotional. These men, most of them boys, are working in impossible conditions, facing daily violence, for a purpose that seems to be ill-conceived and ill-defined.

As Finkel states: "They were soldiers whose choices had ended when they had signed contracts and taken their oaths. Whether they had joined for reasons of patriotism, of romantic notions, to escape a broken home of some sort, or out of economic need, their job now was to follow the orders of other soldiers who were following orders, too."

If you had to read one book about the lives of American serviceman in Iraq, and don't want to get too invested in the political arguments of the deployment, The Good Soldiers would be a good choice.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Meet Abraham Flexner

Yesterday afternoon, for a few hours, I pretended to be Abraham Flexner. No, this is not a rare form of dementia, but rather a condition of participating in a community celebration of something called "Princeton Pi Day." You see, yesterday was March 14--314, the first three numbers of pi --and also happens to be the birthday of one of Princeton's most celebrated inhabitants, Albert Einstein.

So who was Abraham Flexner? When his name was given to me by the day's organizer I had no idea, but I did some research and learned that he was the first director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, a think tank founded in Princeton in 1930. Einstein was one of the first and most illustrious members of that organization, and it was Flexner who recruited him. But Einstein grew to hate him after Flexner attempted to muzzle him and and keep him out of the public eye. This was done out of concerns for Einstein's safety (the Nazis had put out a bounty on his head), and also because Flexner did not wish for Einstein's outspokenness to kick up anti-Semitism (Princeton was not known for its welcoming of non-white, non-Christian sensibilities).

For three hours I stood in the back of Landau's, a woolens store that also has the only permanent museum in North American dedicated to Einstein. I was one of five stops on the tour, as other re-enactors brought to life other figures from Einstein's life. I must have repeated my spiel twenty or so times (I had frantically memorized it a few days before) and though it was kind of tiring I had fun. Their were other activities during the day, such as a pie contest (pie-pi, get it?), an Einstein look-alike contest, and a pi-reciting contest. The winner of the latter reeled off about 200 numerals of pi, pretty impressive, but an 8-year-old kid got 18o-some.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Breathless

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Breathless, the most revolutionary film, technique-wise, to be released since Citizen Kane. It was Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film, and remains the most iconic film by the critics-turned-filmmakers of Cahier du Cinema, who would become known as the “French New Wave.” I have spent a rainy day watching the Criterion edition, and all the extras.

The film bears the name of three of them. In addition to Godard, Claude Chabrol is listed as “artistic advisor” and the script treatment is credited to Francois Truffaut. But these credits were smoke-screens, slapping the names of the more prominent New-Wavers on the poster to give the film some juice. Truffaut had hit it big with The 400 Blows, and Chabrol with Les Cousins. But in reality, it was all Godard, and some say that cinema can be broken into two parts: before Breathless, and after Breathless.

The New Wave was fascinated with American cinema, and Breathless (the literal translation of the title is “at breath’s end) is a marriage of the American crime picture with the European art film. The first to do this was Jean-Pierre Melville, who made Bob le Flambeur a few years earlier. Melville makes a key appearance in Breathless (more on that later), and the character of Bob is even mentioned during the film (someone mentions that he’s in the pen).

The story was conceived by Truffaut, who saw a news story about a car thief. We meet Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Marseilles. He steals a car, but ends up chased by motorcyle policeman. He kills one of them, and flees to Paris, where a man owes him money. He hopes to collect and take his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to Italy. He is tracked by the police, and the net draws around him, and ultimately Seberg decides to turn him in, and he’s gunned down in the street.

This would be the simplest, most straight-forward plot Godard would ever film, but its execution was hardly conventional. The most radical element was the use of the jump-cut, which was almost accidental. The rough cut of the film was two and a half hours, far too long for Godard’s taste, so he hit upon cutting within the middle of the scene. Thus a scene with dialogue would be trimmed of the dead moments between words, so though the picture jumps, the dialogue (which was all dubbed–they did not shoot with synchronous sound) flowed uninterrupted. The effect gives the scenes a vital, kinetic rhythm that grabs the viewer immediately. The first, most ostentatious use of it is when Belmondo kills the policeman. We see a close-up of the gun, the trigger is pulled. Then, the policeman falls dead in the opposite direction of the way the gun is pointing (another rule violated), followed by Belmondo running across an open field. All of this is done in about three or four seconds, but the mind is quickly able to assemble the parts of the scene and intuit what happens. Another example is when Belmondo is driving around, with Seberg in the passenger seat. He tells her that he likes a girl with a pretty neck, pretty breasts, a pretty face, etc. The camera remains in the back seat, behind her left shoulder, but for each fragment of the sentence Belmondo says, the background of the scene changes. The effect is astonishingly embracing, and now used all the time.

There are many other audacious moments in the film, perhaps none so more than the famous, twenty-plus minute scene (or almost a third of the film) between Belmondo and Seberg in her cramped hotel room. The hotel room was so small that only the actors, Godard, his director of photography and the script supervisor were in the room (and the latter was on the balcony). There were no lights, no cables (Godard’s photographer, Raoul Coutard, used only available light). Godard had written the scene the night before, and the two actors improvised around the words, flirting and teasing and advancing and retreating. I think it’s one of the great love scenes ever filmed.

The film, though the story of a small-time crook and the American girl he falls in love with, manages to be about much more. Seberg is a woman who is from America but lives in Paris, but isn’t really at home in either culture. She hawks the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysee, but hopes to be a journalist. Though American, she represents high culture, fancying Chopin, Mozart, Picasso, and William Faulkner. Belmondo is of low culture, (his first line is, “After all, I’m an ass-hole”) reading nothing but the newspaper (there’s a funny scene when a girl selling copies of Cahiers du Cinema approaches him and asks if he believes in youth, but he sneers at her and says he likes old people) and worshipping Humphrey Bogart–he stops at a movie poster of one of Bogart’s films in the glass case at a cinema and regards it as a shrine, and has adopted Bogart’s move of running his thumb across his lip. He seems to have cultivated his style from detective movies, wearing his fedora cocked over his eyes, a cigarette dangling from his lips and saying things like “I always fall for women who aren’t my type.” But if Bogart is Poiccard’s idol Belmondo’s acting style is clearly modeled after Marlon Brando, who had set the acting world on fire in the 1950s.

Godard wrote the script as he went along, and there are some lines that make one wonder if it’s really deep or just really silly. There is a lot of circular Carrollinian nonsense, such as when Seberg says, “I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” The scene with Melville amplifies this by a thousand. He plays a novelist who gives a press conference at Orly airport. He is asked a lot of pretentious questions and gives enigmatic answers, like “Love is a form of eroticism, and vice versa.” When Seberg asks him what his greatest ambition is, he looks her in the eye and says, “To become immortal, and then die.”

Death is an ever-present theme in the film. Belmondo asks Seberg if she thinks about it, and when she quotes Faulkner she chooses the last line of Wild Palms: “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” When Belmondo lies dying on the street at the end of the film, he looks up disgusted, and says, “Makes me want to puke.” (The French word is degueulasse, which can be variously translated as rotten or disgusting, but here is meant to suggest vomit). In a controversy that is reminiscent of the discussion of what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, we don’t know if Belmondo means that his situation in general makes him want to puke, or whether it’s Seberg, now standing over him, who has disgusted him. He, after all, fell in love with her, despite his instincts, and she betrayed him. Seberg, who speaks French but is also always asking Belmondo what a particular idiom means, asks the policeman what he said, and he responds, “You make him want to puke.” Then Seberg, who had such a magnificent face, and whose gamine appearance would set the pace for fashion throughout the sixties, from Mia Farrow to Twiggy to Edie Sedgwick, asks, “Qu’est-ce que c’est ‘degueulesse?’” (“What does ‘puke’ mean?”) She then looks straight into the camera and runs her thumb across her lips, Bogart-style, as if sealing them.

I’ve seen this film several times, and I could almost convince myself to watch it again right now, even though I’ve already watched it once today. It remains as vital as it certainly was fifty years ago. It made Belmondo a big star, but sadly Jean Seberg struggled for the rest of her career, and committed suicide at the age of 40. Godard continues to make films, and some of them, like Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Week-End and Masculin/Feminin, were also strikingly original, but in many ways his crowning achievement remains his very first film.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

From the first notes of the Danny Elfman score, with the voices of the spooky children's choir, my heart sank a little, for it was clear that this adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was going to be less about Lewis Carroll than it would be about Tim Burton. There have been dozens of film and stage adaptations of Carroll's enchanting stories in the years since their publication, and almost all of them have been reflected through the prism of their adaptor. In the case of Burton, though, this means little other than dead, curlicued tree branches and allowing Johnny Depp to run wild.

I've admired many Burton films over the years, including some that were reviled by many, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But it turns out that Burton and Carroll don't mix, especially when the script, by Linda Woolverton, is an assault upon the original. What they have chose to do is make a sequel of sorts to the originals: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice, now nineteen, is on the cusp of adulthood and is courted by a weak-chinned twit with a horrible mother who proposes to her in front of an assembled gathering of guests. She asks everyone for a moment and chases the white rabbit, and ends falling down a hole. She had already been there, when she was six, but has no memory of it, but the creatures in Wonderland (or "Underland," as they call it) remember her, and hope that she can be their champion and overthrow the evil rule of the Red Queen.

Now, it's not a sin to have to apply twenty-first century screenplay rules to Carroll's episodic tales, which defy a strict adaptation. But it's another to completely lose sight of what made the originals so charming and instead cherry-pick characters and lines (some of them spoken by the wrong characters) into a plot that is a mash-up of The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia. Burton and Woolverton have jettisoned many characters (no Mock Turtle, Humpty Dumpty, or White Knight) and focused on the Mad Hatter (played without discipline by Depp), the macrocephalic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat and the White Queen, standing in for Glinda the Good Witch, played by Anne Hathaway. Carroll fanciers such as myself will be either stewing or bemoaning or a combination of the two as the wit of the originals are squeezed out like so much pulp.

But what if someone stumbled into the theater with no knowledge of the original books--what to make of the film completely standing alone? Not much. The plot, as it were, is very thin--Alice meanders among the various characters as those for good, led by the Hatter, hope that she will take arms against the Red Queen's dragon-like Jabberwocky, and thus defeating him will restore the White Queen to the throne. While all of this is going on, though, there's little suspense or much understanding of why any character is doing anything at all. And while I'm discussing the Jabberwocky, why is it that it is called the Jabberwocky, when in the book it is called the Jabberwock (the name of the poem is called "Jabberwocky"). This is a pretty sloppy mistake.

Instead of the magic of Carroll's puns and riddles, we get Burton's obligatory art direction and a modern, mushy application of psychology. This is not new, of course. Way back in 1932 G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Poor, poor little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others." Now that we're in the Dr. Phil era we get an Alice that is all about grrl-power; it seems that she fell down that hole to get the courage to reject a marriage proposal and suggest that Britain trade with China.

There's very little to admire about the film. The acting is all over the map. Mia Wasikowska makes a bland Alice, and as mentioned Depp is out of control. Carter has fun with the Red Queen, and several recognizable voices (Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough) pop up as CGI'ed characters. As for the CGI, some of it works, but some of it doesn't--why is Crispin Glover, who plays the Knave of Hearts, given a CGI body and horse to ride? The photography, by Dariusz Wolski, makes great use of color, but it doesn't fit the material, instead reiterating Burton's palette from his entire career.

Fortunately, the books remain vivid. I went home and pulled my copy of The Annotated Alice off the shelf, with notes by Martin Gardner, to remind myself of why this story has been pulled at and messed with ever since its publication in 1865. It will long outlast this woe-begone adaptation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Hollies

This year The Hollies will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The criteria for induction into that body seems to be liberal--The Hollies, to me, were a minor part of the British invasion, with a handful of hits that have endured for forty-plus years on oldies radio. I picked up their greatest hits disc and have been playing it all week in the car.

The group was founded by Graham Nash and Allan Clarke, and were noted for their harmonies. Taking their name from Buddy Holly (although this is in some dispute) the indelible hits from the early days included "Bus Stop," "Stop, Stop, Stop," "Carrie-Anne," and "Carousel." I think these songs are what people think of when they think of The Hollies, and are indicative of their sound.

After Nash left, in 1968, to join Crosby and Stills in a new trio, The Hollies still had some hits, but the sound was less definitive. "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" was an earnest reflection of the civil rights movement, while "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" had the swamp-rock sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their last hit, from 1973, was the deliciously cheesy "The Air That I Breathe."

Listening to the songs over and over gets one to pay attention more closely to the lyrics. "Bus Stop," a short story about two people meeting at a bus stop and sharing an umbrella in the rain, has the interesting slant that the singer, a man, has marriage on his mind--"someday our names will be the same"--a twist of sorts, since usually pop songs have women more interested in commitment. And in "Carrie-Anne" the singer recalls a role-playing game they used to play: "I'd be the janitor, you'd be the monitor." The mind kind of reels at wondering what that game really was. "Dear Eloise" is a kind of creepy song in which the narrator has written a letter to his old girlfriend, who's been dumped by an older man who went to sea. He decides that Eloise having her heart broken "could be the best thing that's ever happened to me."

The Hollies were a fun group with some catchy songs, but never really expanded upon that. I certainly don't begrudge their entrance into the Hall, but you have to wonder where the line gets drawn on who belongs and who doesn't.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kate Beckinsale

A few months ago, Esquire named Kate Beckinsale as 'The Sexiest Woman Alive." I have no quibble with that selection, but it got me wondering about her career. Aside from Kate Hudson or Ashley Judd, is their any actress of somewhat major distinction whose filmography is pitted with so many lousy movies?

Her only film that could remotely be called great is The Aviator, and she has only a small part in that as Ava Gardner. Of her starring roles, she has made one excellent small film, Cold Comfort Farm, and another indie, Snow Angels, has its heart in the right place. I admired parts of Laurel Canyon, but mostly due to Frances McDormand's performance. Her best starring role may be in Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, which was long unavailable on DVD but now is, so I will revisit that film in a few days.

On the negative side of the ledger, we get the historically awful Van Helsing, plus Pearl Harbor, and the Underworld series. When added up, Beckinsale is woefully in arrears.

I will be studying several Beckinsale films in the next couple of weeks (but I will not lower myself to seeing any of the Underworld films). I started with the 1994 film Uncovered, in which Beckinsale, hair cut pixie-short, plays an art restorer who uncovers a mystery in an old painting that starts a murder spree. It's the kind of film that is moderately interesting, but is marred by shoddy production values (the score is particularly unpleasant). Some good actors, such as Sinead Cusack and John Wood, are horribly used. But the director, Jim McBride, is clearly enamored with Beckinsale, as she looks lovely, and has one gratuitous nude scene. Her breasts, as they say, are real, and they're spectacular.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

American Buffalo

Last night I saw a production of David Mamet's American Buffalo at McCarter Theater. The play, written in 1975, is something of a landmark of American drama, and coupled with his Glengarry Glen Ross, is one of the most withering looks at the American capitalist system.

The play is set in a junk shop in Chicago. The owner is Don, who appears to an upright businessman. He looks over a pathetic young man, Bobby, who is perhaps a recovering junkie, and clearly does not possess all his faculties. They are joined by Teach, an obstreperous associate of Don's. They chat aimlessly, liberally using the kind of profanity that is typical of Mamet.

Eventually Teach learns that Don is planning something, and we realize that these guys are not on the up-and-up. Don feels he was swindled when he sold a buffalo nickel that was probably worth far more than he got for it, and plans on stealing it back, plus the man's entire coin collection. Teach, sensing a score, talks him out of him using the addled Bobby, and himself instead. Don insists on adding another man, not trusting Teach's breaking-and-entering skills (there's a beautifully weird sequence about how Teach will find the combination of a safe, if there is a safe).

Act I is the planning of the heist, and Act II is later that night, when things start to go wrong. The extra man has not shown, and Teach is late. Tempers flare, and a key bit of information that Bobby gave them turns out not to be true. Everything changes between them.

At first glance this play seems to be slight--it's a brisk ninety minutes, and in the end nothing really happens. This play is about business--the pursuit and acquistion of wealth. That it happens to be by men who are not that bright and criminal seems to be the point. At one point Teach declares, "I am businessman!" Also, a play about a burglary written in 1975 can't help but be a reflection of the Watergate scandal.

The three actors are good. Playwright Tracy Letts (who wrote the brilliant August: Osage County) is Teach, and he's a constrast to the most famous actors who have played the part--Al Pacino on Broadway and Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Letts is far more ruddy and beefy, balding but wearing his minimal hair in a grungy pony-tail. He has a gift for gab but really doesn't know what he's talking about--there's a great line when he says that knowing what you're talking about is everything. Kurt Ehrmann was Don, who was great (he was the understudy), a man with one foot in the respectable world of the shopkeeper, but another in the criminal element. And Patrick Andrews was Bobby, who managed to be both a shell of a man but also able to maintain his self-respect and dignity.

The play was directed by Amy Morton, a member of Steppenwolf (the source of this production) and an actor who was in August: Osage County (she also played George Clooney's sister in Up in the Air). The pacing is terrific, and I was heartened to see that my sight-line was okay, even though I was on extreme stage right. Great credit is also due to the set designer, Kevin Depinet, for assembling a junk shop of epic proportions. It's packed to the brim with stuff (even including an old copy of Playboy that I happen to know was the right time period). The set has to be flexible enough, as late in the play comes along one of my all-time favorite stage directions: "Teach destroys shop." So much action stemming from three simple words.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Il Divo

In my anal attempt to see all of the Oscar-nominated films, I turn to an otherwise obscure Italian film that picked up a nod for Best Makeup. Il Divo, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is a fast-paced, witty look at the labyrnthine nature of Italian politics. The problem is, not being Italian, I had no idea what was going on.

The title character is Giulio Andreotti, who has been a fixture on the Italian political scene for half a century. I think his closest American comparison may be Richard Nixon, as both were seen as shady, manipulative men. Andreotti, in addition to being known as "Il Divo," was also called "The Hunchback," "The Black Pope," "Moloch," and "Beelzebub." Yeah, I think Nixon is the closest comparison.

Though Andreotti's career was long (he was prime minister of Italy seven different times), Sorrentino chooses a small window of time running up to when Andreotti was put on trial for conspiracy and murder (a journalist was murdered). He is haunted by his unwillingness to negotiate with the Red Brigade after the kidnapping and subsequent murder of ex-P.M. Aldo Moro some fifteen years earlier, but he betrays little emotion. In fact, the man is something of a sphinx. I imagine that every Italian immediately understood immediately the performance of Toni Servillo as Andreotti, but to the uninformed it's very creepy. Andreotti, looking something like a gargoyle (here's where the makeup comes in) apparently had some kind of back problem--otherwise why would he never turn his head on a swivel? It would be interesting to know how he got elected to anything in the first place, as he barely registers any emotion upon meeting other people. In the U.S., where we are used to glad-handing politicians who exhibit charm in the place of substance, this is close to impossible to understand.

Sorrentino, perhaps realizing he's wading into confusing waters, does his best to help. The soundtrack is full of pop songs, and when each knew character is introduced we get a graphic telling us who they are, what their title is, and usually a nickname. But I quickly forgot who was who, except for an associate of Andreotti's who looked a great deal like Larry David.

If you have an intimate knowledge of Italian politics, you will like Il Divo much more than I did.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Oscars: As Tears Go By


As I write this I'm still a little loopy from short sleep. As old as I get I still have trouble letting go of an Oscar night, and though I lay my head on my pillow at a little after one (after driving an hour home from my friend's house) I lay awake for a good while, and then woke up for good at five. Call me silly, but I still find the Oscars to be exciting, an invigorating blast of the old glamour associated with Hollywood, an intrinsic thread of the movie experience.

That being said, the show last night wasn't any great shakes, and the results were largely predictable. Also, it seemed to be more lachrymose than most years. I think the segment in which the lead acting nominees were introduced was the most instructive--Oprah's recitation of Gabourey Sidibe's "Cinderella" story induced the young woman into streaming tears, as did Michelle Pfeiffer's mention of Jeff Bridges' family. The mission seemed to be to get the most tears out of everyone as possible, even the audience.

Usually it's laughs that an Academy Award broadcast tries to mine. This year the hosts were very funny fellows, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, and for the most part they were entertaining, but they reminded me of the funniest guys at a corporate retreat, asked to take the stage and tell a few stale jokes. The funniest image that remains with me is the two of them in fire-engine-red Snuggies, eating popcorn. They were certainly a welcome improvement from the improbable opening from Neill Patrick Harris, who seemed to have escaped a cruise ship. But his wasn't the worst musical number of the night. More on that later.

Unlike last year's theme of awards progressing in order of process (script, sets and costumes, etc.) we went back to the old way of getting an acting award out of the way. Christoph Waltz seemed to be the only one surprised by yet another win. A steady parade of presenters came and went (I liked Tina Fey with Robert Downey Jr. for Best Original Screenplay, wasn't so crazy about the forced humor of Ben Stiller painted blue like a Na'Vi). More than a few times I had to ask the fourteen-year-old girl watching in our party who people were (I didn't recognize Chris Pine, but I did know the Twilight kids--does Kristen Stewart ever smile?) When The Hurt Locker won the Screenplay award I knew it was over, and then when it swept the sound awards (which killed my chances in the pool) it was shaping up to be a beat-down.

Mo'Nique won another non-shocking award, and indirectly blasted Jeffrey Wells for writing she needed to be taught a lesson. Another sign that bloggers don't have as much clout as they think they do. The big surprise for me was when Precious won the Adapted Screenplay award, meaning Up in the Air would get totally skunked. Was this a factor in the array of sourpussed expressions George Clooney wore all night? Internet buzz speculates he had a fight with his arm candy, but how, if she doesn't understand English? When Martin and Baldwin spoofed with him it looked like he was ready to jump on stage and thrash them both.

The oddest moment of the night came during the acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Short Subject, when the director was interrupted by a woman who looked like Mike Myers' Coffee Talk lady. Turns out they were feuding, and she wasn't supposed to be on stage, but oh well. She was the original producer of the film, and didn't like the way it turned out. Yeah, if she had only had her say it wouldn't have won an Oscar. For the Best Documentary Feature winner, The Cove, former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry unfurled a banner with a text number on it, but the cameras quickly cut away. That was as political as things got all night.
The most ungracious speech of the evening? That would be the one by Best Costume winner Sandy Powell, who strode to the stage as if she were receiving catcalls, and then said, "I've already got two of these," like a cat looking at a litter of kittens. She then tried to be noble but ended up insulting the voters for their silly habit of always awarding the costume prize to movies about "dead monarchs." But instead she seemed ungrateful and condescending. Here's hoping the costume branch and the voters at large take note, and maybe they won't put her through such a thing again.

As stated earlier, the lead acting crowd got testimonials from those they had worked with before. This was decidedly hit and miss. The good was Winfrey and Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci gave a droll tribute to Meryl Streep. But some of them seemed too off the cuff, such as Vera Farmiga's barely coherent tip of the hat to Clooney, and his "crinkly smile," which was not in evidence last night. And why did Peter Sarsgaard turn Carey Mulligan's moment into something about him--"she's fallen in love with me twice." Ew.

The winners, again, were not surprising. Jeff Bridges, channeling The Dude, rambled a bit, while Sandra Bullock gave a textbook example of a good speech, honoring her co-nominees specifically and then, of course, choking back tears in thanking her dead mother. Her hubby was tearing up in the audience, but every time I see him I can't help but think how brave Bullock was for marrying him--his ex-wife is a porn-star.

Barbra Streisand was strategically chosen to give the Best Director Award, and it went as expected to the first woman to win it, Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker. Then all the feminist good will evaporated when they played her off with "I Am Woman" (earlier they'd played on Mulligan and Zoe Saldana to the tune of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls").

Tom Hanks, perhaps double-parked, rushed out to give the last award. We'd seen clips of all ten Best Picture nominees (there were a lot of clips this night, a welcome addition, except for the most visual category of all--cinematography) but he didn't even remind us of them, he just ripped open the envelope and ended Jim Cameron's agony. Yes The Hurt Locker, which earned less than 20 million domestically, had toppled Avatar, the behemoth of worldwide cinema. We'll never know if it was a squeaker or not, or truly understand why this was able to happen, other than that Avatar, for all its gifts, was a deeply flawed film, and the voters had trouble selecting it over The Hurt Locker, less ambitious perhaps, but on the whole a more acceptable choice.

Now, more on the show. I liked the extra clips, but the show was too long. Why cut the performance of the Best Song nominees, but then introduce a god-awful production number that included an interpretive dance to the music of The Hurt Locker (including a dancer who seemed to be blowing himself up) and a guy doing the robot to the music of Up (were there robots in that film I'm not remembering?) The spectacle raised uncomfortable memories of Rob Lowe and Snow White, and was the kind of thing that Oscar shows are mocked for. I liked the clip segment on horror movies, but what exactly was the relevance--no horror movies were nominated for anything? Was it the best thing they could come up with for the Twilight kids to do?
The tribute to John Hughes was moving, but seemed excessive, considering they didn't do anything for Marlon Brando after he died. The death montage seemed skimpy, and the Internet is buzzing about the absence of Farrah Fawcett and Bea Arthur, but those were primarily TV people--please. The presence of Michael Jackson in there--a few quick seconds--seemed a nod to the culture more than anything else.

I was pleased with the results, worried that Avatar would win. Unless you're the most unhinged fanboy, you have to give credit to this glossy, self-fellating organization for giving its highest honor to a war movie that hardly anyone has seen.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's name on The Ghost Writer has brought the film extra attention, attention that Polanski certainly would rather do without. I found it interesting that his name was not in the opening credits (nor was anyone else's). That was a good decision, as it was easy to slip into the story without constantly thinking of the legal situation that surrounds the director.

The Ghost Writer, adapted by Polanski with the author of the source novel, Robert Harris, is a paranoia-tinged thriller that aims to be more intelligent than the typical multiplex cloak-and-dagger exercise these days. There isn't an incendiary device to be seen, and of three deaths in the film, two of them happen off screen. The style is welcome, but I couldn't help but leave the theater unmoved by the skulduggery. The baddies are the usual suspects (I won't reveal that here) and the sense of menace is toothless.

The title character is played blandly by Ewan McGregor. He is a writer-for-hire who's brought on to pen the memoirs of an ex-British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor ended up taking a header off the ferry between the mainland and Martha's Vineyard, where Brosnan is living in a kind of exile, along with his wife (Olivia Williams) and assistant (Kim Cattrall). Their house, right on the beach, looks like a concrete bunker, accentuating the feeling that Brosnan is in a kind of prison.

As McGregor begins his research, Brosnan comes under investigation by the World Court, and is threatened with war crimes. It seems he illegally turned over a British citizen captured in Pakistan over to the CIA for rendition. This story line makes unsubtle comparisons between Brosnan and Tony Blair, who was famously known as George Bush's lap dog.

As this storm swirls around the principles, McGregor finds some holes in Brosnan's life story. Brosnan's performance in this area is cagey, as he is supposed to be something of a lightweight, a former actor who serendipitously wound up in politics. Then, in a commercial for BMW's GPS system, McGregor ends up finding a key bit of information in the form of a Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson).

Viewed piece-by-piece, these scenes are taut and well-done. The very end, which involves a note being passed through a room full of people, followed by pages of a manuscript blowing through a street, are brilliantly rendered, but upon deeper reflection I found myself wondering, "So what?" The reveal at the end is clever, but doesn't seem all that earth-shattering. I couldn't help but comparing the film to Polanski's other paranoid mystery, Chinatown. The ending of that film, which involved a much narrower scope, was far more disturbing than The Ghost Writer's, which has geopolitical consequences.

Part of the problem is McGregor's character. He is unnamed, and I get that this reinforces his role as the unknown man behind the scenes, but unfortunately the character is pretty much a cypher, and I didn't care about him. He ends up in bed with Williams, who's a far more complex character, but it's hard to see why she's attracted to him, other than that he's a warm body in her orbit. Brosnan is well-used--his breezy charm, which nearly ruined the James Bond franchise, is intriguingly used here.

The cast is also full of cameos in strange places--Jim Belushi, head shaved, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach. Most of these faces are welcome, but not enough to elevate the material into the realm of the top rank. Instead, it's a moderately successful film, ably helmed but ultimately not equaling the sum of its parts.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Welcome, Lane!


I have a brand-new nephew, by the name of Lane Manning, born this morning at 2:20. He shares a birthday with, among others, Michaelangelo, Rob Reiner, Lou Costello, Willie Stargell, and Alan Greenspan.

For those keeping score, this makes eight nephews and two nieces. Little Lane is the first boy born to my brother and his sister-in-law, as they already have two girls. The middle name of Manning is not a tribute to either Peyton or Eli, but instead a family name--it was my grandmother's maiden name.

This is the first child born in the family that I learned about first via Facebook. When my mother called to tell me the news I could let her know "I already know!" Somehow my sister-in-law, from the hospital, put up a status change. Truly we live in a brave new world.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Oscar Predictions: Best Picture, Director

The big night is Sunday, and if all goes according to plan I'll be at my friend's home, who has hosted the last twenty Oscar shows (and I've been at them at all). I haven't missed an Oscar telecast since my first one, way back in 1972 (The French Connection won). I continue to get a kick out of the whole thing, while recognizing, even embracing, the notion that these awards are not a reflection of quality, but instead of a snapshot of how a few thousand movie insiders feel at a given time (or how they have been influenced by publicists and marketers).

Over the almost forty years I've had fun with the Oscars there have been great changes, most notably in their coverage, due to the Internet. Everybody and his uncle can post their picks, whether they be predictions or who-should-wins, and everyone can express their outrage in the comments section. I'm somewhat amused by many of them. Over at AwardsDaily there will be a post about something, say the costume nominations, and there will be a torrent of comments, indignantly decrying a nomination or bemoaning someone who isn't nominated. I admire the passion, but it's misdirected. I have never particularly cared who wins Oscars--though I have my favorites--it's the process that intrigues me. As I've mentioned before on this blog, it combines my love of movies with my love of sports. It's just another horse race.

This year's races are mostly settled. Three of the four acting races are mortal locks, and the fourth one is near to one. I think there is genuine suspense in the Best Original Screenplay category between Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker and Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, and a few of the tech categories could go in a number of different ways, but Best Director seems to be another foregone conclusion. After 82 years, a woman will win.

As there are still very few woman directors working regularly in Hollywood, it shouldn't be a surprise that the winner will be Kathryn Bigelow, who is not a big name in the field. The Hurt Locker is only her ninth film, and she's never directed a huge hit or iconic film--as I look over her filmography I see to my astonishment that I haven't seen any of her films other than The Hurt Locker (I suppose Point Break is the one I should have seen). She's mostly directed genre action films, and the pontification from the blogosphere has been that she's a woman who directs films like a man--a vaguely sexist statement, since how is a woman supposed to direct?

She is also the ex-wife of James Cameron, who will likely be the runner-up in this category, for Avatar, a film of technological advancement but retroactive story-telling. Cameron had all the heat when the film was released, and I'm not quite sure where the tipping point came, but he and the film (more on that below) have sort have become yesterday's news. I don't see this award being given for only half of the moviemaking process-you gotta do both.

As for the rest of the field, there are many who would award to Tarantino, the not-so-enfant terrible of Hollywood. Certainly his direction was dynamic and visually arresting, but since Pulp Fiction Tarantino has played within his own fenced-in yard, seemingly uninterested in expanding his view to beyond those of a dimly-lit grindhouse.

Jason Reitman, who would be the youngest winner ever, looked good in early December, but Up in the Air, for reasons I'm not sure of, has also cooled. He will win for Best Adapted Screenplay. And Lee Daniels, only the second African-American to be nominated in this category, will have to be content with his nod for Precious.

So that leaves Best Picture, and in many ways it's the most exciting race of all. It really won't be settled until the envelope is opened, as a Bigelow win in the directing category, normally a belwether of mammoth size, won't necessarily signal a win for The Hurt Locker. Will there be those who vote for Bigelow, but then vote for another film for Best Picture? Most assuredly yes, but which one? And with the instant run-off system of voting, where films are ranked one through ten, which means a film may win without getting the most first-place votes, well, it's hard to know what will happen.

Also coloring this race is the predictable smear tactics that erupt. It happened with A Beautiful Mind, it happened with Slumdog Millionaire. Accusations are hurled from anonymous sources, lawsuits mysteriously pop up. The Hurt Locker, which was first seen eighteen months ago, has all of a sudden been attacked from all sides--soldiers have gone on record saying it is not authentic in how things happen in Iraq--while another has sued the production, claiming it's his story. Not helping was a producer who sent a mass email asking for a vote, a rules no-no that ended up costing him tickets to the show. Will it cost his movie a win?

I don't think so. These things are tempests in martini glasses, providing copy for the entertainment journalists facing few exciting races. Most of this brouhaha has happened either after or within a few days of the close of voting, so it's unlikely to effect the count too much. I'm predicting A Hurt Locker victory.

But I wouldn't be bowled over if Avatar does win. It did earn over 700 million and changed the face of film technology. But it seems to be polarizing, and not a favorite among actors (it had actors, but they weren't seen on screen as themselves). It didn't win the Producer's Guild, and if the money guys didn't vote it their number one, I don't see the Academy as a whole doing it.

The wild card in this race is Inglourious Basterds, which has the power of Harvey Weinstein behind it. What isn't clear is whether Weinstein's power is nothing more than noise--he's proclaimed Basterds a cinch to win. Ever since Weinstein maneuvered Shakespeare in Love to a surprise win over ten years ago, there are those who think he can make any one of his pictures do the same thing. But of course that's not true--you just need to go back to last year, when he couldn't do it for The Reader. I would be very surprised if this entertaining but ultimately soulless live-action cartoon wins Best Picture.

The remaining seven films have zero chance to win. In descending order of probability, they would be: Up in the Air (at one point the frontrunner), Precious (also had a moment of frontrunner status back in October), Up, An Education, District 9, The Blind Side, and A Serious Man.

My full list of predictions:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Foreign Language Film: ElItalic Secreto de Sus Ojos
Best Animated Film: Up
Best Cinematography: ItalicAvatar
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Best Song: "The Weary Kind"
Best Musical Score: Up
Best Documentary Feature: The Cove
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Animated Short Subject: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Best Live Action Short Subject: The Door
Best Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Visual Effects: Avatar