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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Weight of Water

As a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow is held to certain standards that are totally unfair. When she became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, she seemed to want no part of being a trailblazer, and wanted to be considered a director, and not a symbol. As such, a lot of people have mentioned that her films don't seem like the kind of fare that a woman would direct--high-octane action films, mostly, as if a woman were incapable of finding that type of film interesting.

Therefore I found it interesting to view The Weight of Water, which was released in 2002 (but sat on the shelf for a long time). It is, in the limited way of looking at things, the film most fitting the stereotype of female directors. There is some action--notably multiple views of two women being murdered, one with an ax, and a ship in a middle of a squall--but mostly it's a meditative look at two sets of characters, united in location but separated by time. At the risk of sounding like a pig, it's the only Bigelow film that could be considered a "woman's" picture.

Perhaps this is why it's a total dud. Tortuously slow, and ultimately pointless, the film never really connects the parallel stories, though it tries mightily. And though the cast is eclectic (Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley!?) nothing they do seems to be motivated by anything.

The film is set off the coast of New Hampshire. One story is set in 1873, when two Norwegian immigrant women are brutally murdered. A third (Sarah Polley), escapes, and identifies a fisherman (Ciaran Hinds) as the killer. He is put on trial, and we flash back to when Polley and her husband arrived from Norway. All along we sense there's something not quite right with Polley, especially her relationship with her brother. When he arrives a few years later, with a bride (Vinessa Shaw) things start to become more apparent.

In the present day, Penn and his photojournalist wife (Catherine McCormack) visit Penn's brother (Josh Lucas) on his boat. He has agreed to take McCormack to the island of the murders so she can take pictures. Also along on the trip is Lucas' girlfriend, Hurley, who flirts shamelessly with Penn (in a significant departure with reality, Penn is a poet who is so famous that strangers recognize him. I don't think any poet today has that kind of fame). There's a lot of tension as Hurley throws herself at Penn, while McCormack becomes convinced that Hinds was innocent, and that Polley committed the crimes.

The action cuts back and forth between the two stories. The murder story is more convincing, as the period seems right and Polley is pretty good as the icy fisherman's wife. The modern scenes never mesh with the older story. Hurley seems to do nothing but lounge around in a bikini (sometimes without the top), which was welcome but totally gratuitous. Things pick up during the storm scene which ends the film, but it was too late.

The film was based on a novel (though the murders are factual), and it shows, as the film has a novelistic approach, with clearly delineated chapter breaks. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but the meat of the story just isn't enough to sustain it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Strange Days

With 1995's Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow turns to science fiction in a story co-written by James Cameron. It centers on a nifty idea--in the near future, it will be possible to record a person's experiences directly from their cerebral cortex and store this on a disc, which can then be played back in another person's mind. This way, one can fully experience, right down to the emotional response, everything from participating in a robbery to having sex with a model.

All of this is illegal, though, so ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) deals in these so-called tapes (though they are discs) on the black market. He has a network of friends, such as a prostitute who tapes sexual experiences for him (as with almost all new communications technology, porno drives most of the business) and a bad-ass limo driver, Angela Bassett. When the prostitute ends up murdered, Fiennes is led to believe his ex-girlfriend, a rock singer played by Juliette Lewis, who is now the consort of a sleazy record producer (Michael Wincott, who specializes in this kind of role), he tries to get to the bottom of things, which involves the murder of a popular rabble-rousing rap singer.

Bigelow tells this story on the last two days of 1999, which was then in the future. The depiction of a near-future Los Angeles is pretty bleak, with a seemingly constant riot going on, as if the explosion after the Rodney King verdict had never stopped. It's always interesting to see how movies set in the future which are now in the past get things wrong or right--there's no mention of Y2K--in fact, when someone mentions 2K, another person asks, "What is that?"

Strange Days is technically accomplished and has hard-driving action, but I never became fully engaged in it. I had the same problem with a film similar in tone, Blade Runner. I found that the creation of the world exceeded the emotional investment in the characters. Fiennes acts his heart out in the role, making Lenny a twitching mess, but I thought the connection between him and Bassett, which is ultimately essential, didn't work. Better is Lewis, who I've almost always liked, as a vision of Fiennes' past that he can't let go of--in this case, literally, because he spends many hours reliving memories via his contraption (which by the way is nicely rendered in the film through many P.O.V. camera shots, but the thing that rests on the head looks like a hairnet).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

In a Lonely Place

1950 was a banner year for withering self-examinations in Hollywood. In addition to Sunset Boulevard (which I'll discuss in this space next month) was In a Lonely Place, released in May sixty years ago. It's a bilious tale, directed by Nicholas Ray, that turns a gimlet eye on the edges of the Hollywood dream factory.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a washed up screenwriter who "hasn't had a hit since before the war." His patient agent, Art Smith, arranges for him to get a chance at adapting a best-selling novel, and gives it to him at a local watering hole. Steele gets in an argument with the film's director, accusing him of being "a popcorn salesman," and then gets in a fistfight with another man, who insults Bogart's friend, a drunken thespian.

Not wanting to have to read the book, he invites the restaurant's hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) to come home with him and tell him the story, as she's read the book. Finally convinced he's on the up and up, she agrees, and accompanies him to his apartment, which is in a Spanish-style complex (Ray lived in just such a place in West Hollywood, which still exists). Across the courtyard lives a cool beauty, Gloria Grahame, who sees that Stewart leaves Bogart's apartment. This is important, as the young hat-check girl ends up murdered, dumped from a moving car, strangled.

Bogart becomes a suspect, and the investigating detective wonders at his lack of emotional response. But Grahame supplies him with an alibi, and the two begin a relationship. She's drawn to him, but he also frightens her, as he has anger management issues (he pummels a youth after a traffic accident and his ready to stave in his skull with a rock when Grahame stops him). He wants to marry Grahame, but she's leery of his mood swings, and plans to flee.

I'll leave the plot discussion there, for as the film goes along we can never be sure that Bogart didn't kill Stewart. During a scene in which he has dinner with one of the detectives (who was an old army buddy) Bogart takes delicious delight in imagining how it happened, instructing his friend to act it out by wrapping his arm around his wife's neck. A key light highlights Bogart's mug, his eyes dancing with murderous glee. He explains that he's killed off many people in his scripts, but the seed of doubt is planted in the viewer's mind.

During this scene Bogart speaks the title of the film, talking about the place where the girl was killed as being "in a lonely place," but of course the title has many more meanings, such as Bogart's condition during the film, and overall as a description of a world without love. A line that is repeated throughout the film is when Bogart, who works on the adaptation of the book after all, writes "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me." This applies as well to his relationship with Grahame, as he takes a good thing and strangles the life out of it with his paranoia and anti-social behavior.

Bogart gave many great performances throughout his career, but this one is especially great, given it's complete lack of ego. His character is very unsavory, and the lighting of the film does his homely visage no favors. In those scenes when his anger erupts there is a certain lightning in his eyes that really is frightening. From the late forties on, especially from Treasure of the Sierra Madre through The Caine Mutiny, Bogart was not afraid to play the unhinged.

There have been many films about Hollywood, and most are not flattering. This one seems to regard the whole process cynically. In addition to the line about "popcorn salesman," Bogart is asked to simply follow the plot of the book as he writes his script, ignoring any originality. When he turns a script that changes the book, his agent reveals that he didn't like it, but then he says, "I advised Selznick not to do Gone With the Wind." Bogart, who though not awash in offers, says that he doesn't want to work on anything he doesn't like, which here is shown as the principle of a crazy man.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Columbine

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned to kill hundreds of their classmates at Columbine High School. They managed to kill thirteen, wounded several others, and then committed suicide. Though their plan failed in many respects, it left a wound that has lingered for years, and forced America to examine its culture as few other incidents have done.

Last year, on the tenth anniversary, Dave Cullen's comprehensive book on the murders was released, and I've just finished it. It's a fine, crisp look at all aspects of the case, from the killers' backgrounds and step-by-step plans, to a moment-by-moment description of that fateful day, and the aftermath, which was marked by the media getting many things wrong and the local constabulary lying about how Harris and Klebold had already been in the system. I was surprised to learn many things I didn't know.

Harris and Klebold, of course, are central to the book. Their motives may be unfathomable, but Cullen makes use of the extensive material they left behind, including journals and the "Basement Tapes," in which the two boys taped themselves in a talk-show format, discussing the impending crime. However, a lot of this information was revealed slowly. As Cullen puts it, "Eric and Dylan's true intentions would remain a mystery for years."

Cullen fully explores all of the myths of the Columbine shootings: "We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of these elements existed at Columbine--which is what gave them currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders. The lesser myths are equally unsupported: no connection of Marilyn Manson, Hitler's birthday, minorities or Christians." I was surprised to read how Harris and Klebold were, if not overwhelmingly popular, at least not outcasts. They both went to the prom the weekend before the killings, and Harris had several girlfriends. They were active in school activities, and the night before the crime Klebold was working on his fantasy baseball team.

The other myth that Cullen debunks is that of Cassie Bernall. She supposedly was asked by Harris if she believed in God, and when she answered yes, he shot her dead. Her parents and the nation's evangelicals seized upon this, and she became something of a martyr. Sadly, none of it was true, as was bore out by the videotape of the killing. Another girl, who survived, was asked if she believe in God, but when she made the claim she was scorned as come kind of copycat.

There's also a lot of discussion of the psychology of the boys. Harris was a text-book psychopath, who believed himself superior to others and therefore he was entitled to kill them. Deep down he seemed to want to kill everyone on Earth. Klebold was the follower, a much more dreamy kid. "Eric had no use for love. Sex, maybe. He shared none of Dylan's desires for truth, beauty, or ethereal love. Eric's only internal struggle concerned which stupid bastard was more deserving of his wrath."

I think I was most fascinated by the parents of the killers, people who were put in an impossible situation. They lost their sons, but were vilified in the process. As the Klebold's lawyer told them, "'Dylan isn't here anymore for people to hate,' he said. "So people are going to hate you.'" A minister who offered the Klebold's comfort was eventually forced out of his position, and when fifteen crosses were erected in memoriam a great cry went out. Eventually the memorial that was permanently constructed contains reference to only the thirteen of their victims. Harris was aware of what this would do to his parents: "'It fucking sucks to do this to them," he said. "They're going to be put through hell." They could not have stopped him, Eric assured them. He quoted Shakespeare: "Good wombs have borne bad sons.'"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Point Break

It would seem Kathryn Bigelow came into her own with 1991's Point Break, which is exhilaratingly entertaining and survives one of Keanu Reeve's criminally wooden performances. I've heard a lot of good things about it over the years but can finally say that the hype was justified. It's not a great work of art, but damn if it isn't fun.

The plot hinges on the delicious idea that a band of surfers are robbing banks, using rubber masks of ex-presidents (given that it's 1991, the commanders in chief depicted are Reagan, Carter, Nixon and LBJ, the latter of whom probably wouldn't be recognized today). An FBI agent (Reeves), fresh out of Quantico, teams with a grizzled vet (Gary Busey), and the former goes undercover as a lawyer looking to learn how to surf. His way in is a young woman (Lori Petty), who introduces him to Bodhi, the guru of the beach.

If Reeves is a stiff, its more than made up for by Patrick Swayze as Bodhi at his best, a leonine, sun-dappled surf god who practices Buddhism but also knocks off banks. It takes Reeves a while to figure that out (he targets a different group of surfers first, in an exciting and well-executed raid scene) but then is on to Swayze's gang and almost catches them in the act, resulting in a terrific foot chase through the alleys and houses of Los Angeles. I have to stop and think and I can't come up with a better foot race in any movie--it's really a rarity, and this one is so well-done, cutting from the point of view of both pursuer and pursued, that it ranks as one of the better action scenes of the last generation.

The film also has some spectacular scenes involving skydiving (these surfers like to ramp up the adrenaline any way they can). This does lead to the most ludicrous moment of the film, when Reeves jumps out of a plane without a chute, but the film has built up so much good will by then that it can be overlooked (barely). There is also, of course, some brilliant and breathtaking surfing footage. This was done in the days before the technology allowed digital replacement of actors' faces, and it's amazing how seamless it was all done.

Point Break certainly doesn't have the gravitas of The Hurt Locker, but as far as pulse-pounding action, it stands right there with it. It was a gas to watch.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blue Steel

Kathryn Bigelow's 1990 film, Blue Steel, is an example of a movie that is competently directed--the numerous actions scenes are well shot and edited. But the story is so preposterous that it is completely undermined. As the characters did increasingly stupid things, I got more and more angry.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a rookie cop. On her first day (oh, the cliche of the cop being literally baptized by fire on their initial shift!) she foils a grocery store robbery by shooting and killing the suspect. A witness (Ron Silver) grabs the robber's gun and somehow eludes the police, and Curtis is suspended for using excessive force. Immediately my bullshit detector went crazy--how did Silver manage to get out of the store without anyone noticing, especially with a gun?

Possessing the gun makes Silver go crazy--it's sort of like Gollum's ring. He becomes obsessed with Curtis, and etches her character's names on bullets he uses to kill people. Silver goes way over the top, hearing voices and wallowing in a dead prostitute's blood. He contrives to meet Curtis and they date, but eventually he confesses to her, but when she arrests him his lawyer gets him out.

Bigelow, who co-wrote the script with Eric Red, seems to have no knowledge of how policemen actually work. A detective (nicely played by Clancy Brown), asks Curtis who she knows that might be behind this. She says she only knows her parents and one friend, which seems unlikely, given that she lives in New York City. When she starts dating Silver Brown knows it, but doesn't seem to think that tailing Silver might prove instructive. Then, when they tail him to Central Park where he has buried the gun, Curtis takes complete leave of her senses and handcuffs Brown to the steering wheel. I suppose it's because she wanted to prove she could do it all by herself, but it's such a dumb fucking thing to that it was all I could do to keep watching.

Roger Ebert has written about the "idiot plot," where a story would come to a halt if the characters weren't idiots. This is even worse, because the characters are cops, who are supposedly trained. In fact, the film opens with Curtis during training, when she fucks up. I suppose the lesson here is that the NYPD should fire her ass immediately.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Near Dark

As I mentioned during the award season, the only Kathryn Bigelow I had seen was The Hurt Locker. Over the next few days I aim to address that, as I have her other six films at the top of my Netflix queue. First up, her first feature, 1987's Near Dark, a combination Western and horror film, that though low-budget drive-in fare, has some stylistic flourishes that indicate a better-than-average director.

Set in the contemporary West, Near Dark features Adrian Pasdar as Caleb, a ranch-hand who is in town and eyes a young lady eating an ice-cream cone. She is Mae, played by Jenny Wright, and he manages to get her into his truck. She holds out on him, and then seems concerned when dawn approaches. Before she bolts out of his truck she bites him on the neck, and when the sun does rise he realizes the light burns his skin.

It turns out that Wright travels with a family of vampires, headed by Lance Henriksen (when asked how old he is, he answers that he "fought for the South"). Being vampires, they need to hunt humans for their sustenance, but Wright still has a shred of humanity. Pasdar, though, balks at killing people, but his new family tells him he must carry his own weight in the bloodletting or they will kill him.

I found Near Dark to be moderately engaging. It was done on the cheap--most of the killing takes place off-screen, and I think that was less an attempt to mitigate the gore than it was to save on the costs of makeup effects. The film is only about ninety minutes, but has two fairly long set pieces--when the vampires come calling at a dive bar and kill everyone inside, and a shootout with police, utilizing a director's favorite, the shafts of light emanating through bullet-holes. Both scenes show Bigelow's craftsmanship.

But the film is very light on story (it was co-written by Bigelow and Eric Red). Basically the vampires must stay out of sunlight, but they always seem to having to deal with it. It's amazing that Henriksen lasted as long as he did, considering he mostly goes around covered in blankets and puts tin foil on the windows (what did he do before tin foil was invented?) It was refreshing to see a film about vampires that didn't have some subplot involving vampire bureaucracy. These bloodsuckers are on their own, and don't live very fancily. Instead of vampires on velvet-upholstered chairs living in villas, Near Dark's live in stolen Winnebagos. That seems about right.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The End of Lost

Last night was one of those rare occasions--a good old-fashioned series finale that engenders group TV watching. Of course, for those who have never seen Lost, this will all seem meaningless, and for those who do watch it but haven't seen the finale yet, look away, because this post will be rife with spoilers.

I've been a devoted viewer of the show since the very beginning, and have delighted in its audacious originality. It is the only TV drama I watch regularly--all the others seem to be some variations of cops, forensics, lawyers or doctors. Lost was something completely different--a puzzle, as well as a long arc for a diverse group of characters, united only in that they are survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. What the island is, and why they were brought there, pushed the plot forward through six seasons, and as the show wound down many questions were answered (but not all). In the end, though, the mystery was less important than the characters. The question is--was that the right strategy?

I've been bouncing around the Net this morning, and many critics seem to be disappointed. The ending did seem pat, as the "Sideways" world turned out to be an afterlife, set possibly many years in the future, as the characters (but not all) were existing in some sort of peaceful place, oblivious to their past on the island. Desmond, he of the time-traveling visions, figured it out first, and made it his mission to track down the others and wake them up so that they could "move on," gathering together in a church (judging by the multi-denominational stained glass window, it must have been a Universalist Unitarian church), be reunited with their true loves, and head off into a bright light.

Back on the island, which was the "real world," Jack replaces Jacob long enough to escort Desmond to the heart of the island, which turns out to be a drain. Desmond pulls a stone plug, which presumably unleashes evil on the world. He does this because when this is done, the Man in Black (the Smoke Monster) becomes mortal, and he and Jack duke it out on a cliff. Jack gets stabbed (in a Christ-like spot, hearkening back to the painting of Doubting Thomas), but Kate shoots Smokey. Now Jack has to put the plug back in, so evil will be contained. He does, but mortally wounded, he passes the baton to Hurley, who accepts it and takes on redeemed Ben as his number two. Six characters--Sawyer, Kate, Miles, Lapidus, Richard and Claire, make it off the island, to what fate we know not, only that when (some of them) die they end up at that church.

I got this right away, but there are some who don't. I've been reading that the island was purgatory, but it's clear that it was not--only Sideways world was. The key line was when Hurley, talking to Ben from the church (Sideways Ben is aghast to remember all the horrible things he did on the island, and decides not to join the party inside) tells him that he was a great number two. This indicates that Sideways is some years after the events of the island, and that the characters did not die at the same time.

So, if I have that figured out, there I some things I don't. For the picayune, there are innumerable questions that were not answered. A short list:

1. What was Widmore's end game?
2. What was the true nature of Eloise? What was her agenda in sending the castaways back?
3. Why was Ilana in a Russian hospital bandaged from head to toe, and why did she consider Jacob a father?
4. Who was shooting at Sawyer's outrigger during the time-skipping phase?
5. What was with all the Egyptian imagery, and who built the statue?
6. I understand why Michael wasn't in Sideways world (he was condemned to remain on the island) but why weren't Lapidus or Richard there?
7. What were the Others (besides Ben, Richard and Juliet) doing on the island, and how were they brought there (I'm speaking of Tom, Mikhail, etc.)
8. Why did Jacob assign numbers to the candidates? How did he travel freely from the island to the rest of the world, especially since he at one time believed there was no other world than the island?

I could go on, but to get hung up on these questions is to miss the larger point, I suppose. I do know that while watching the show I was gripped, and the sentimental ending hit me right where I lived. These kinds of endings have been very successful over the years (it was very similar to the M*A*S*H* finale in that respect), and if a show can move me I can overlook certain things that may have just got lost in the shuffle. After all, a TV show is not life.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

After watching the execrable Nine a few weeks ago, it became necessary to revisit the source of that misery, Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece 8½, to wash out the bad taste of the musical. In fact, I watched it twice, as I had yet to take a look at my copy of the Criterion Collection DVD, which contains numerous extras, including a commentary. This is at least the third and fourth time I've seen it, and it remains one of my favorite films of all time.

I remember distinctly the first time I saw it. I was in college, a freshman, and had never seen a Fellini film before. I don't think I had seen any kind of "art film" before, because when the film opens with the dream sequence of Marcello Mastroianni stuck in a traffic jam, and then flying on the end of the rope, I thought to myself, "uh oh, this is one of those avant-garde films I've heard tell about, and I'm not going to understand it." But soon, when the actual story gets going, I relaxed and realized I was watching genius at work. I think it was probably during the scene when the spa-goers are walking across the screen, (a collection of unusual faces, that today is known as "Fellini-esque") with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" playing, that I was hooked for good. By the way, I'd like to give a shout out to the folks who ran Tuesday Night Flicks back in Stony Brook during those days. Over four years I saw almost every foreign-film classic, at twenty-five cents admission.

is a film about a director who is having trouble making a film. That film is the film we are watching. It was inspired by Fellini's own trouble in making a film. The working title, appropriately enough, was The Beautiful Confusion. The resulting title comes from the number of films Fellini had made. Since he had made parts of compilation films, he reasoned that the current one numbered eight and one half. It was a recursive metafilm. He also considered it a comedy, and had a sign taped to the camera that reminded everyone to that effect: "Remember, this is a comedy."

Mastroianni is Guido Anselmi, who is suffering from director's block and is so strung out that he has decamped to a spa resort. He is soon surrounded by his producer, his designers, an actress who has been courted to play a role (and her agents), the press, and his mistress (Sandra Milo), a lollapalooza who seems to offer Guido solace only in the bedroom. In one of many baldly comic scenes, he goes to meet her at the train station, and when it arrives and she doesn't get off, he's secretly relieved. But then the train pulls away and he sees she disembarked on the other side.

Eventually Guido's wife (Anouk Aimee) arrives, and he reaches a crisis. He flashes back to simpler times in his life, such as being bathed in wine as a small boy, or going with his friends to the beach to pay the local whore, La Saraghina, to dance the rumba. He is caught by the priests and forced to undergo their primitive tortures--wearing a dunce cap, kneeling on gravel. He is told Saraghina is the devil, but it doesn't seem to have any effect, as he is consumed by women. Even with a mistress and a wife, he longs for an idealized image of a spa serving girl, played by Claudia Cardinale, who will emerge at the end of the film as his leading actress.

It seems trite to say it, but as with almost all Italian cinema, Catholicism is a key ingredient in 8½, and not just for the sexual guilt. During the commentary I picked up on something one of the experts said about questions in the film. Of course, catechism is the method of learning in Catholicism, and we hear many questions in 8½, but the ones that aren't answered are the most interesting. The very first lines belong to the spa's doctor, who asks Guido if his new film is another one without hope. The writer, Daumier, (Jean Rougeul), asks him if the film is "trying to make us think? Scare us?" (Daumier anticipates the criticism Fellini expected, offering a running critique of the action, as if he were watching from the gallery. At one point Guido indulges himself a little fantasy of seeing the man hanged). The press, both fawning and antagonistic, ask him dumb questions, such as whether pornography is an art form (one American reporter brays, "He has nothing to say!"). But there are three instances where the unanswered questions, or the inability to ask a question, are significant. One is when Aimee, angered by Guido's infidelity and lies, asks him, "Why do you want me here? What good am I to you?" and he doesn't answer. Also, he is given an audience with a Cardinal who is also visiting the spa. He is unable to form a question, simply saying he is not happy, and the Cardinal, in a steamroom that looks like Hell, only replies that "there is no salvation outside of the church."

Finally, when Guido meets his leading actress and vision, he asks her, "Could you leave everything behind and start from zero again? Pick one thing, and one only, and be absolutely devoted to it? Make it the reason for your existence, the thing that contains everything, that becomes everything, because your dedication to it makes it last forever? Could you?" Cardinale does not answer, but turns it on him, and he replies that he could not. She is only able to tell him, three times, that he does not know how to love.

There are two set pieces that seem to me to be the greatest in the film. One is a fantasy sequence in which Guido is in a harem. All of the women of his life, even those he has never known intimately (such as his friend's new girlfriend, played by Barbara Steele) wait on him hand and foot. He has rules--when one of the women ages, she must move upstairs, where she "basks in memory." One of the women, a French showgirl from his youth, rebels, and for a time the women revolt, but he, wearing nothing but a sheet and his trademark hat and glasses, literally cracks a whip to get them back in line. It's a magnificent scene--exquisitely shot by Gianni Di Venanzo--and a puckish parody of male fantasy.

The ending, justly famous, was originally shot as a trailer for the film, and because Fellini liked it so much he used it as the ending. (If you haven't seen the film, and what are you waiting for, you might want to skip this part). On the set of the film-within-the-film, a launching pad for a futuristic rocketship, Guido has decided to call an end to the film. He fantasizes about shooting himself during a press conference, and then, as the structure is dismantled, all of the characters from the film, living and dead, return, led by a procession of clowns playing musical instruments. Fellini loved the circus (he made a documentary called The Clowns), and to the catchy carnival-like theme of Nino Rota, Guido's life dances before him, all of the characters holding hands and traveling in a circle. He, and his wife, join them, and though the notion of life as a circus parade may seem a little pat, it seems accurate to me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Please Give

Before Please Give, I had seen two of Nicole Holofcener's films: Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing (I missed Friends With Money). Frankly, I don't remember too much about them, other than that they were amiable ensemble pictures with equal parts comedy and heartbreak. Please Give, it seems to me, is much in the same vein, but with a bit of an extra bite. It's also something of a house of cards, teetering on the brink of collapse, but maintaining its structure by the end.

The story concerns the residents of two adjacent apartments in New York City. In one lives a pair of married used-furniture dealers, Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, and their acne-plagued daughter (Sarah Steele). They acquire most of their stock by buying from the estates of the recently deceased. Keener is a bleeding heart, the kind who regularly gives money to the homeless, much to her daughter's chagrin--Keener balks at spending over two hundred dollars for a pair of jeans, not when there are so many homeless on the streets. Her daughter's reply--"What does that have to do with me?"

Next door lives an old lady (Ann Guilbert, who was once Millie Helper on the old Dick Van Dyke Show), a nonagenarian who is cared for by two granddaughters. They are cast in the tradition of King Lear, as one is good and dutiful (Rebecca Hall), while the other is cold and mean (Amanda Peet). Hall, who works giving mammograms, seems to exist in a permanent state of melancholy, while Peet is a shallow harpy who obsesses over her tan and spies on her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend. Guilbert has been imbued with many of the negative aspects of the elderly, mainly she is so direct that she openly insults people.

The neighbors are friendly, though there is a tension that exists since it has been arranged that Keener and Platt are buying the old lady's apartment after she dies. Further complications arise when Platt and Peet begin an affair, and this is the weakest part of the film, as it's never particularly clear why they do (Platt even says he doesn't know why). I hate to bring this up, but the difference in attractiveness between the two make this plot point even harder to swallow.

The characters interact, have dinner, and go about their business. Hall goes out on a date with one of her patient's grandsons (they each take their grandmothers along to drive north to see the fall foliage). Nothing much happens, but everything happens. Keener, constantly stricken with liberal guilt, tries to find a position as a volunteer, but she is so empathetic that she is forced to leave a center for the mentally retarded because she breaks down in tears of sympathy.

I liked this film because Holofcener doesn't hold back on letting her characters expose their flaws, but she also doesn't despise them, as some filmmakers do. This is not an easy accomplishment, as Peet's character is downright despicable, and Guilbert's old lady is no day at the beach. Conversely, Keener, who is outwardly sympathetic, begins to show an almost pathological inability to function when she is crippled by her guilt. At one point she is amazed that someone bought a table from her and then turned around and sold it for a higher amount, an event that seems to me to be an unremarkable occurrence in the world of used furniture.

Though I enjoyed the film, I'm not quite sure what it was trying to say. Certainly the tension between charity and selfish consumerism is large, but I didn't get any profound insight into the issue. There are those who can walk right by a beggar without giving and feel nothing, while there are those who couldn't imagine doing the same thing. Holofcener takes no sides here. I think its best not to try to fathom a motive from the director, and simply enjoy the well-written dialogue and sharp performances.

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Moon

There's a moment in the Twilight Saga's second installment, New Moon, when the heroine, Bella Swan, realizes that the boy she is attracted to is a werewolf. She is not completely flummoxed--after all, her first and abiding love is a vampire. Clearly this young lady has a problem finding boys without major baggage. One wonders if she takes a moment and wonders, where are all the normal boys?

After the soggy, listless first film in the Twilight series, I passed on seeing the second one in theaters, but to keep my finger on the pulse of America I took a look at the DVD. It's not that good, but it kept me interested, mostly due to director Chris Weitz' superior visual style (superior to Catherine Hardwicke, director of the first film, that is). There's more characters and an expanding plot, which takes the story from the rainy little town of Forks, Washington, to an Italian villa where the ruling aristocracy of vampires holds court. It's all very silly--Michael Sheen, who played a similar character in Underworld, hams it up as chief vampire (why do all vampire ruling bodies look like aging rock stars in renaissance clothing?), but if I were a teenager I might enjoy it a little more.

The heart of the story is Bella (played by Kristen Stewart, who does display more range of emotion this time out--she even laughs once) and her love quandary. Edward, her dreamboat vampire from the first film, has to leave with his family. He's afraid he endangers her (his foster brother goes berserk when Bella gets a paper-cut) so the whole clan packs up and leaves. Bella goes into a funk that even outdoes most teenager girls, staring out the window for months, distancing herself from her friends. But a local Indian boy, Jacob (Taylor Lautner) gets her involved in a project rebuilding motorcycles, and she comes out of her depression a bit, though she still sees Edward in her mind whenever she puts herself in a dangerous situation. A parallel to Romeo and Juliet, which is referenced throughout the film, comes up when Edward thinks Bella is dead, which makes him want to kill himself.

Lautner, unlike Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, has a spark and charisma that makes him interesting to watch. But things get complicated when he starts turning into a giant wolf, which apparently many men in his tribe are want to do. Werewolves and vampires, it turns out, are natural enemies, though the wolves and the Cullen family have a truce. Bella finds herself in the middle of it.

I'm sure fans of the book series liked this fine, and it appears to be a faithful adaptation, as there are several specific details that didn't need to be there and it's over-long (although I did like Dakota Fanning as a sinister vampire). There are all sorts of greater questions raised by certain plot elements, such as when Jacob announces that being a werewolf is how he was born, which sounds like something a gay teen would say, and Bella's insistence that she be turned into a vampire so she can be with Edward forever smacks of anti-feminist rhetoric. Edward finally gives in on this point at the end of the film but only if Bella will marry him. Vampires are so old-fashioned!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Specter of Defeat

There was some seismic activity on the political Richter scale on Tuesday. In Pennsylvania, five-term senator Arlen Specter was defeated in the Democratic Party primary. In Kentucky, Tea Party Republican Rand Paul trounced the establishment candidate. And in Arkansas, incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln, challenged from the left, will have to participate in a run-off election to get the nomination. These results have been categorized by the chattering media as anti-incumbency, but as usual, this is oversimplification, and each result has different meaning.

In the case of Specter, who was defeated by Joe Sestak, it was a case of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Last year Specter, correctly sizing up the political landscape in the Republican party, decamped to the Democrats. This made him temporarily popular with the White House, as he was the 60th vote for the Democrats. Over the years he has been the Democrats' favorite Republican, supporting abortion rights and playing a key role in defeating Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court in 1987.

But being the Democrats' favorite Republican is not the same as being a Democrat. Chris Matthews put it best: it was like putting on a dress to get a spot on the lifeboat. Specter has some odious marks on his record. He voted for the war in Iraq and was shameful in his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. He's literally and figuratively a Philadelphia lawyer, carefully parsing his opinions over the years (he voted "Not Proven" in Clinton's impeachment trial, using an old Scottish legal maneuver). I also learned today that he was on the Warren commission, and came up with the "single-bullet theory" to explain Kennedy and John Connolly being wounded from the same marksman.

In short, I am not sorry to see Specter go. The White House doesn't seem too broke up about it, either. He served his usefulness for Obama, who did not exactly break a sweat campaigning for him. I'm sure the White House figured Specter would have a better chance of winning in November, but I'm not so sure, as I know Republicans in Pennsylvania and they didn't seem to like him any more than Democrats did. Fare well in your retirement, Arlen.

Kentucky is shaping up as a place to watch. Incumbent Jim Bunning is retiring, and the standard-bearer was Trey Grayson, supported by the establishment, including Senator Minority Leader and Kentucky's own, Mitch McConnell. But Rand Paul, son of the fringe presidential candidate Ron Paul, gathered the Tea Part outrage and swamped his rival. This sets up an interesting general election in November against Democrat Jack Conway, because Paul is, well, something of a kook. He's already stepped in it, revealing last night that he disagrees with the Civil Rights Act, which means he's fine with restaurants refusing to serve blacks. Nothing like setting the clock back fifty years to get things in a frenzy.

As for Lincoln, she appears to be fine in holding the nomination, but who knows if she'll hang on the seat itself. She is one of those Democrats who try to live comfortably in the center, which in certain times is a sound strategy but nowadays may be political suicide, as no one is pleased. She faces a challenge from the left, and if she vanquishes that may be done in by the right.

Combining all of this with the defeat of Utah's Robert Bennett a few weeks ago, this is all being painted as anti-incumbency. I see and hear about the "throw the bums out" attitude, and it's easy to sympathize with that kind of thinking. But I would ask those who cast their ballots in a knee-jerk response to rid Congress of incumbents--do you really think their replacements will be any better?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Robin Hood

I think it's important than anyone reviewing a film should review the film they see, not the one they expect or want to see. But with Ridley Scott's version of Robin Hood it's a bit tough. The film doesn't have a swatch of Lincoln green to be seen, no feathered hats, no archery contests, no talk of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. The hero has no glint in his eye, and the merry men aren't all that merry.

What Scott has made is a serviceable historical action picture, with clashing swords, thundering hoofbeats, snarling villains, bodacious wenches, and palace intrigue. It just doesn't keep with with the centuries of incarnations of the gallant hero from medieval English ballads. It's as if the film needed a big name to be made and sold, and that big name was Robin Hood.

In this tale, our hero, Robin Longstride, is an archer with Richard the Lionheart's army as it plunders its way back from the third Crusade (most of the Robin Hood stories have him doing his Sherwood Forest thing while Richard is away). The king, played memorably by Danny Huston, as if he had just recently watched Anthony Hopkins' performance as the same man in Lion in Winter, ends up dead from an arrow (this is close to the way he really died, but the truth is more interesting, as he ended up pardoning the young man who shot him). The bad guy, a nobleman called Godfrey, has made a deal with the French king to make sure the weak John ends up on the throne, thereby softening the land up for invasion. Robin, impersonating a dead knight, returns the crown to Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and then ends up in Nottingham to return the knight's sword to his father. I realize as I type this that it was all pretty complicated, and I think needlessly so.

While in Nottingham Robin has eyes for the knight's widow, Marian (no maid she in this version). He and an ousted chancellor (William Hurt, in a WTF is he doing in this movie performance) figure out Godfrey's treachery and try to convince the king to unite with barons, who are pissed over high taxes, to stave off the French invasion. Someone writes up a first draft of the Magna Carta, and there's a big battle on the coast, and afterward Robin and his cohorts take to the woods as outlaws, and we're told the "legend begins."

This is moderately interesting and entertaining, but throughout I just couldn't get fully engaged. Russell Crowe is not my idea of Robin Hood. For one thing, he's too old to be playing the guy in an origin story. Sean Connery, who played Robin Hood in retirement in Robin and Marian, was the same age Crowe is now (46). For another, Crowe has always represented the kind of hero that crashes through walls and leads with his forehead, while to me Robin Hood is a dashing, swashbuckling fellow, nimble of feet and quick with a quip. But again, that's my preconception. It's not as if we know what Robin Hood was really like, if he existed at all.

While I grant Scott his artistic license, that doesn't mean I have to like it. I would have liked more Merry Men. As they exist here, there's not much to distinguish them, and Robin and Little John don't meet with a fight on a log bridge, they squabble over a shell game. Only Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) seems consistent with past versions. The Sheriff of Nottingham, usually Robin's foil, is here given short shrift, though played by an actor (Matthew Mcfadyen) of some note. Instead the villain is Godfrey, and he's embodied by Mark Strong, who I've now seen figuratively twirl his mustache in three films (Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass are the other two) in the last few months. Oscar Isaac gives a one-note performance as King John, who isn't helped by the writing, while Eileen Atkins, a fine actress, has to play Eleanor. After Katharine Hepburn played her in Lion in Winter, that can't be an enviable task.

As for Crowe, though he may be miscast, he brings star appeal to the role, though I couldn't understand many of his lines through his accent. It was a pleasure to watch Cate Blanchett as the feisty Marian (after Elizabeth: The Golden Age, she's specializing in women who like to don battle armor), and Max Von Sydow steals his scene's as Nottingham's local baron, though I would hate to try to figure out exactly what kind of accent he's using. Maybe he's left over from the Viking invasions.

Robin Hood is a grim film, full of the harshness of medieval life, with lots of bad teeth, dirty fingernails and septic wounds. This may be historically accurate, but when this film is inevitably remade again in another generation I'd love to see a return to the jocularity of earlier versions. That's just not Ridley Scott's bag, though. Looking over his filmography, there's nary a sign of a light touch.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Roadside Crosses

This is the first of Jeffery Deaver's many thrillers that I've read, and I must say I wasn't terribly impressed. Part of my disappointment may be that it was part of a series devoted to a particular sleuth, this time Kathryn Dance of the California Bureau of Investigation, so readers familiar with her and the supporting cast may have found some comfort there. But I was hung up on some of my pet peeves in the mystery genre--tedious detail, last-second rescues, and twists for twists' sake.

Roadside Crosses is a chop suey of themes relating to the computer age, including social networking sites, incendiary blogs, and online multiple-player games. Deaver, as if sensing his audience is an older one, takes great pains to explain what it all means, even giving a definition of what a blog is (and an avatar, too). It's as if Deaver, troubled by the problems the Internet has created in modern life, decided to throw it all against the wall and see what stuck.

Essentially, it's the story of a killer who puts up one of those roadside memorials before he attacks someone, which is a nifty idea, but seems tacked on to the larger computer theme. Dance, who investigates, thinks her suspect is a troubled teenager who has been cyber-bullied. She tries to get a local blogger, where all of the bullying has gone on, to disallow continued comments, but he refuses, citing freedom of the press. It's clear Deaver disagrees with this sentiment, as the blogger is presented as something less than exemplary.

As Dance and her team (a large one, I couldn't keep them all straight) look for the teen, the attacks keep coming. Of course only the dimmest reader won't figure out that it might not be the teen after all, and Deaver supplies not one but two twists, each one proving more ludicrous than the last. Somehow Dance figures it all out, which makes even less sense. There's also a subplot involving Dance's mother, a nurse who is arrested for a mercy killing, which is totally superfluous.

What bothered me most about the book was the standard police procedural style of crisp, no-nonsense reportage. Though Deaver doesn't write in a florid style, he does get bogged down in the mundane, such as what people are having to eat or what they are wearing, which makes me think he's getting paid by the word. Dance has appeared in several novels, and he tries to make her interesting by giving her a sideline of being an expert on folk music, but she still comes across as something of a blank slate.

Books about killers who use the Internet can be frightening, see Michael Connelly's Scarecrow, but Roadside Crosses comes across as a cranky old guy complaining about all this new-fangled stuff (I'm reminded of the embarrassing Andy Rooney commentary of last week, in which he was amazed that he didn't know any of the artists on the Billboard 100). Deaver clearly knows his audience, and they must be all over sixty.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kagney Linn Karter

This year's Adult Video News Award for Best New Starlet went to Kagney Linn Karter, a sad-eyed, oval-faced young lady from St. Joseph, Missouri (as she notes, home of the Pony Express) who is one of the new breed of porn stars--the businesswoman who has developed her marketing skills as much as her sexuality. I hadn't seen any of her films, but I've done my best to catch up, having seen her in ten of her 92 films.

The first one I looked at was Not Married With Children XXX, and she appropriately played the Kelly Bundy character in this porn parody. Karter (apparently her first name really is Kagney--were her parents fan of Warner Brother's gangster films or the cop show starring Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless?) projects the persona of the airhead, with her blonde hair and curvaceous body. But as I watched more of her work I got the underlying sense of her as less a ditz than a calculating careerist. I'm reminded of Dolly Parton's line, "It costs a lot to look this cheap."

Her look is defined by her large breasts, which are not real but her plastic surgeon deserves a medal, for they are true works of art. Accordingly, she appears in many films catering to over-sized mammary fans. Here's a sampling of titles: Big Wet Tits, Big Tits at School, Rack-Tastic, She's Got Big Boobs, Titty Sweat, Busty Cops on Patrol, and my favorite, Tits to Die For. But unlike some performers with with hefty chests, Karter is an overall stunning beauty. She'd be a star with a normal-sized set.

As a sexual performer, Karter is excellent, giving her all and displaying considerable talents in her repertoire. But I found some of her scenes interesting in context with the comments in her behind the scenes interviews. She frequently alludes to a promiscuous adolescence, at one point saying she didn't make her mother proud. Often during her scenes she ad libs, asking aloud if she is a "good girl," and in one scene proclaims herself "Princess Slut." It's easy to dime-store psychoanalyze and conclude that she has a bifurcated self-worth, coupling her past as an easy girl and her current life as a brand-name.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reliving the Horror of the 1980s

The movie business is not known for its originality, but perhaps in no other genre is it to be as wanting as the "slasher" film. Introduced in the late seventies and then flowering in the eighties, a number of films made their mark and then were remade, again and again and again, simply giving the viewer what they expect--young people being viciously murdered in bizarre ways.

Last year two of the iconic slasher films were remade or, in the parlance of Hollywood executives, rebooted. Friday the Thirteenth, one of the pillars of the genre, was originally released in 1980, and then had eleven sequels, with roman numerals and subtitles attached (even though number four was proclaimed the "Final Chapter"). In 2009 the button was pushed to reset, with no number, no subtitle, just the bare-bones title.

As the film opens, the end of the first film is re-told, as the mother of Jason Voorhees gets beheaded by a plucky camp counselor. It seems that at Crystal Lake a young boy drowns in the care of counselors, and Mom goes crazy with sharp objects to get her revenge. Jason didn't drown, though, and in each subsequent sequel he creates havoc while hiding behind a hockey mask.

In the 2009 version, directed by Marcus Rispel (who also rebooted The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--keep aiming high, Marcus!) we meet some kids looking for a crop of marijuana near Camp Crystal Lake. After about five minutes they are all dispatched with sharp weapons. A few weeks later, the brother of one of them is looking for his missing sister, and runs into some horribly douchey young people who are going to spend the weekend and the douchiest one's vacation home. Jason is on the prowl, and eventually they are picked off, one by one, with a creative list of implements, including an arrow, a machete, and deer antlers.

The template for the Friday the Thirteenth series has always been that the kids are punished for their behavior, whether it be slutty behavior by girls (kids sneaking off for sex are always killed) or boorish behavior by boys. This version is not much different, although I was surprised by the death of one of the girls, who is set up as the paragon of virtue. In the end, though, there's nothing unique or dynamic about this film, and watching it is something of a chore.

I've never seen My Bloody Valentine, a Canadian slasher film from 1981 that is known for its high gore factor. It was remade last year as a 3D film, and though I didn't see that effect on my TV, I did get what it must have been like, as several objects, such as bullets, tree branches, and body parts, go flying toward the screen.

Set in a mining town, it's a somewhat complicated story about a cave-in that allows only one survivor, who had killed his colleagues to save air. He's in a coma for a year, and then awakens, dons a jump-suit, a gas mask, and a mining helmet, and goes crazy, killing 22 people, including several teenagers who for some reason have chosen the closed mine as a party spot. The miner is thought to be killed, but ten years later someone who matches his description is again killing, the usual method his trusty pick-axe.

Directed by Patrick Lussier, My Bloody Valentine sets the bar low and delivers what it promises. The axe-wielding maniac, who is pretty spooky-looking in that mining get-up, is indiscriminate in his carnage, even killing a female midget. The real star of the production is not the actors or director, but the special effects designer, Gary J. Tunnicliffe. He has rigged several eye-grabbing "gags" (as he calls them), including a man who has his jaw ripped off and a girl who's head in halved by a shovel blade. Really this is a film of special effects with a story written around it.

Both of these films earned R ratings, and feature some casual nudity. In My Bloody Valentine there's a sequence for ages. An actress named Betsy Rue has a scene of close to five minutes in which she is wearing nothing but her shoes. She has sex, follows her lover out into the parking lot, and is then menaced by the miner, all of her charms visible to the world. For a mainstream film, it might be the longest full-frontal nude scene in history.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

The Secret in Their Eyes is the most recent winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and is playing now in the U.S. in art-houses. But aside from the fact that it is from Argentina and in Spanish, their is nothing exotic about it--it's firmly set in the idioms of the Hollywood mystery/thriller. The director, Juan José Campanella, has extensive credits in U.S. television dramas, and while the film is too good to be relegated to TV stuff, it certainly doesn't stretch the boundaries of cinema.

I mention that only because the film beat The White Ribbon, a dense, complicated film that may be remembered years from now while The Secret in Their Eyes is not. But having said that, I must say that I can understand the vote. The White Ribbon challenges the viewer in profound and disturbing ways, while The Secret in Their Eyes is an old-fashioned good time at the movies.

The film, set about ten years ago, exists in two planes--the present-day and a flashback to events about twenty-five years earlier. An investigator (unfamiliar with the Argentine justice system, I was never quite sure what his job was--he's not a cop, nor a lawyer, but he works for a judge) Ricardo Darin is in retirement and working on a novel. He is haunted by a case of a young woman who is brutally raped and beaten to death. Teaming with his regally beautifully superior, with whom he is secretly in love, (Soledad Villamil) and his alcoholic but charming colleague (Guillermo Francella) Darin has a suspect, but he is missing. Finally they catch him, but there's a twist or two. To reveal more would spoil the fun.

Campanella deals with crime-procedural cliches, but in such a gifted manner that we can overlook them. For one thing the characters, particularly the three principles, are expertly etched. Darin (if this film were remade in America the part would have to be played by Joe Mantegna) is a particularly good character, a man who is unable to let go of both the murder and his affection for a woman he let get away. For comic relief there is Francella, who manages to be both amusing (he frequently answers the office phone with wise-guy responses, like "Sperm bank, are you a donor or a recipient?") and bathetic, as he is frequently found in a dive bar. The interaction between all the characters is sparklingly written (a scene in which Darin and Francella break in to the suspect's mother's house is dandy) and emotionally powerful.

But they are still cliches. Only in retrospect does one realize that the only clue that Darin uses to finger the suspect is extremely far-fetched (and earns the film its title). There is also a scene of whopping coincidence at a soccer match, but it so well shot and edited that it's easy to let it slide.

The film is based on a novel, and that shows in both good ways and bad. The ending reminded me of the ending of a Matthew Scudder novel by Lawrence Block (not sure which one came first) that is a bit unusual in that plays it deliberately and thoughtfully, without action. I also liked that the characters age without ridiculous makeup (Darin is first introduced as an older man, and when I then saw him younger I was surprised).

The Best Foreign Language winner is often an embarrassment, but not this year. The Secret in Their Eyes is a foreign film, but uses the language of Hollywood, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Lit

Book six of the New York Times Book Review Ten Best Books of 2009.

Lit has number of definitions. Beyond being the past participle of light, there are two that are relevant to this memoir by Mary Karr. One is the abbreviation of literature, as Karr is a poet of some merit and a teacher of the subject at Syracuse University. The other, and perhaps more meaningful to this work, is a synonym for drunkenness. Karr used to get good and tanked.

Lit is the third memoir by Karr. I read the first, The Liars' Club, about her unorthodox childhood in Texas, and it was terrific. I missed the second, Cherry, but am back on board with Lit, which chronicles her life from her college years to the present day. It takes a certain amount of moxie to write a memoir, presuming that people will be interested in your life story, and to write three seems the height of narcissism, but Karr is anything but. Her life has certainly been offbeat and harrowing enough to be published, but above all it is vividly written, in a style that is akin to someone sitting across from you at a diner and telling you their life story.

Karr's parents have been dissected in all of these books, but to recap--her father was a redneck oilman, not sophisticated but beloved. Her mother was what might be termed a caution--married seven times, occasionally crazy (she once stood over Karr during childhood with a knife in her hand) and an alcoholic. As Karr notes, "Drinking to handle the angst of Mother's drinking--caused by her own angst--means our twin dipsomanias face off like a pair of mirrors, one generation offloading misery to the other through dwindling generations, back through history to when humans first fermented grapes."

After a stint with some surfers during her teen years, Karr went to college for a while, ended up marrying a fellow scholar, settled in Cambridge, had a child, and began to drink. She ended up in Alcoholic's Anonymous, and even though she dried out she was still depressed enough to make a half-hearted suicide attempt (she carried around a garden hose and some duct tape), spending some time in a mental hospital. Eventually she pulled herself together, became a published poet, and wrote her first, wildly successful memoir.

The heart of this book is Karr's religious evolution. During her A.A. rehabilitation she severely resisted the step of recognizing a higher power. She does so often and vociferously, and is told in several different ways how to pray without necessarily believing in God. When she does start praying, things start to turn her way, and eventually, after her son expresses a wish to go to church, she ends up converting to Catholicism. I found this part of the book interesting, because if I were in the same situation I'd have the same stubborn resistance. While I don't believe in God, I think that whatever works is good, and if Karr found happiness in the Catholic church, more power to her.

What makes this book great is the writing, which is free-wheeling but packs a wallop. She never talks down to the reader, and is always self-deprecating. After reading this book I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to be her pal. She is wise: "What hurts so bad about youth isn't the actual butt whippings the world delivers. It's the stupid hopes playacting like certainties." She is also uproariously funny: "One day I might splay across the sofa staring at infomercials with the sound off, wondering whether the Abdominizer is the answer, or the Pocket Fisherman, or that glittering altar of knives."

Though her parents are both gone, Karr is never overly sentimental, in fact if I had one criticism it's that the book didn't make me choke up--she's far too clear-eyed in her assessments. But this isn't that type of book. You don't need a box of tissues nearby, just an open mind.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Informers

I had never heard of this movie until Penthouse recently mentioned it as containing some of the best nudity of any movie released last year. Amber Heard is spectacularly naked almost throughout, and that's enough to earn a look-see from me. But it has such a star-laden cast that I was surprised that it went under my radar. It may be because it is unrelentingly grim.

The film, directed by Gregor Jordan, is based on a novel of connected stories by Bret Easton Ellis, and Ellis co-wrote the script. It is familiar territory for him: the decadence of college-age kids, this time in Los Angeles, circa 1983. They are the children of privilege, numbed by too much drugs and casual sex. They are the kind of people who you may enjoy watch being slaughtered and, indeed, in an opening scene of them is mowed down by a sports car. At his memorial service his mother plays his favorite song, and when it's one by Pat Benatar his so-called friends smirk.

There are adults in the story as well. Billy Bob Thornton plays a selfish studio head (oxymoron?) who is attempting a reconciliation with his ex, Kim Basinger, after leaving a local newscaster (Winona Ryder), but he's doing it mainly to save from getting scalped in a divorce. His son (Jon Foster) is a drug dealer involved with the clothes-challenged Heard, but she has a thing for group sex, frequently inviting Foster's friend, a music video director (Austin Nichols). When we see a news report on TV about the new virus in the gay community, and then Heard talks about getting rashes and bruises, we know what's coming.

There are a few more plot threads, including Chris Isaak as a man trying to reconnect with his zombified son on a trip to Hawaii, and a hotel clerk and struggling actor (Brad Renfro, in his last performance) getting an unwelcome visit from his uncle, Mickey Rourke, who quickly involves him in the kidnapping of a young boy. There's also the cliche of the rock star who is completely lost to drugs and empty sex. In all of these threads there is not a glimmer of sunshine to be found, not a titter of humor. The future is bleak for all of these people.

So why should we watch? Are any of these characters sympathetic? Maybe just a bit, if we're feeling charitable. If we're not, they're getting just what they deserve. But no matter, I found the film to be an interesting stroll through a sub-culture that was summed up by the shallowness of the decade. And we get a lot of cultural artifacts of the era, including the atrocious fashion, hairstyles and music--there's even a shot of the video for "The Safety Dance."

This film received horrible reviews, with many critics mentioning they felt like they needed to shower after watching it. I think that was precisely Ellis' intention.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elena Kagan

I've had about forty-eight hours to mull over the nomination of Elena Kagan to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, ingesting all of the news reports and blog spoutings, and I still don't know what I think. Certainly there's no evidence to suggest she will be some liberal lion in the mold of Thurgood Marshall, whom she clerked for, but you never know. The key to the whole thing is nobody seems to know, except perhaps the president.

After two nominations, it's clear to me that President Obama has no interest in finding the next Marshall or Brennan or Douglas. He's a consensus builder down to his bones, and seems to value Kagan's abilities as a political animal. She participated in many Democratic campaigns over the years, and was a staffer in the Clinton White House. She's no right-winger.

But she also is not, outwardly, a fire-breathing liberal. Most of the caterwauling about her nomination has come from the left, focusing on a remark she made during her confirmation hearings that suggests she supports the detention of enemy combatants without any rights (a galling prospect, considering the man she would replace, John Paul Stevens, was a champion of due process of law in this regard). Supporters of hers say that isn't true, and we once again are faced with the bizarre circumstance of the White House reassuring the left that she's a bona fide liberal while telling the right that she's a reasonable centrist.

Certainly there's not much to go on. Though she has spent most of her legal career in academia, there's not much of a paper trail. In some respects it seems she's been planning her whole life for this--friends say her ambition even as a young woman was to be a Supreme Court justice--and she has left a scarce printed record accordingly. Ever since the Bork nomination of 1987, prospective justices have been valued for the ability to appear like Sphinxes, not revealing their opinions or leaving any evidence of them. The slightest utterance, like Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark, can provide grist for hours of numbing questioning by skeptical senators. With Kagan, their is little grist.

The Republican response has been contrarian but muted. I doubt that they would attempt a filibuster in this case, so her confirmation is all but assured. They may secretly be happy that Obama did not nominate a liberal hero, such as Diane Wood, Harold Koh, or Pamela Karlan, who would have generated a fight but would have been a much more reliably liberal justice. The main Republican objection is to her lack of experience, which is only partly correct. Many justices, including Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, Earl Warren, and William Rehnquist, did not have judicial experience before taking their seats on the Court. But Kagan does have very limited litigation experience, which I think is valuable. She has argued six cases before the Supreme Court as Solicitor General (her only six appearances in any court anywhere), so perhaps that's enough.

What has me feeling okay about the nomination is though there is no visible evidence of Kagan's liberalness, Obama and Biden know her (she worked for Biden when he was on the Judiciary committee). I trust that they know what she's made of, and went with her despite an obvious liberal reputation because they have inside information. Obama seemed to be saying "Trust me on this one," and I will.

The odd, gossipy component of Kagan's nomination is the rumors concerning her sexuality. Many, irresponsibly, have accepted at face value that she is a Lesbian, based on one source. The White House and those who know her have denied this. Of course her sexuality is irrelevant, but it's interesting how in this culture a never-married fifty-year old person raises eyebrows. I'm forty-nine and have never been married, and I'm not gay. Sometimes I wish I was, it would explain things easier, but no, I'm into women. Kagan's private life is her own business.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron Man 2

The novelty of the almost-always interesting Robert Downey Jr. playing a comic book superhero has warn off in the sequel, unimaginatively titled Iron Man 2. The weaknesses of the director, Jon Favreau, and a muddled script by Justin Theroux make this a mostly boring time at the movies, save for a little infusion from an interesting villain and a sexy new heroine.

We pick up from the first Iron Man film with Tony Stark, played by Downey, in a funk because he's dying. Whatever the power source that he wears in his chest that is keeping his heart beating is also killing him. He responds by going into a tailspin of alcohol abuse, while also resisting attempts by the government (in the form of an oleaginous senator played by Garry Shandling) to take away his Iron Man suit.

Meanwhile, the son of a scientist who was slighted by Downey's father, played by a permanently dingy Mickey Rourke, plots revenge. He creates some kind of power suit that enables him to crack whips of electricity, and he uses them on Downey at a Grand Prix race in Monte Carlo.

Rourke fails and is jailed, but a rival industrialist, hammily played by Sam Rockwell, recruits Rourke to build his own army of Iron Man suits. But Rourke has his own ideas, and there's a big showdown at an exposition in Flushing Meadow Park (one hopes there wasn't a Mets game going on the time). Rourke has a grand time with the character, warbling in a Russian accent, sporting gold teeth (I'm not sure that they aren't Rourke's own teeth) and covered in prison tattoos.

Despite all this, and a subplot involving the recruitment of Iron Man into the Avengers by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in the longest build-up to a tent-pole picture on record) and Stark's friend, Jim Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) also donning the Iron Man suit, there are long stretches of tedium in this film. What's clear is that Favreau has no idea how to pace an action picture--there is no rhythm here at all. We get a lot more of people fiddling with computers, which I find about as exciting as watching someone type.

Furthermore, the action scenes are not great. There's a long one between Rhodes and Stark, both in their suits, that has no drama because neither one is really trying to hurt the other (though Stark's Malibu mansion gets trashed). The final battle with Rourke is over almost before you can blink.

The best action scene involves the new character of Black Widow (we know her name from the comics, but it is never said aloud in the film for some reason). Sexily embodied by Scarlett Johansson, she takes out an army of guards with some snap, crackle and pop (and mace) that gives the film's final act a nice jolt. The role also plays to Johansson's increasing tendency to act with a vacant stare.

As for Downey, he's as charming as ever, but Favreau's strategy seems to have been to just let him go. A lot of his lines are mumbled, and there's a sense of improvisation. A little more discipline is called for here, as this was perilously close to seeming like a Robin Williams performance.

We're not done with Iron Man. He will certainly be back for a third film (no doubt to further explore his burgeoning relationship with Pepper Potts, again played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and he'll be in The Avengers, which will be released in 2012. I suppose it's too much to hope that Favreau won't be involved in the third film (he even casts himself as Stark's valet Happy), but perhaps Joss Whedon, who will be helming The Avengers, will do the character better justice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nine

Woody Allen had a joke in his stand-up act that he was working on a new project: Taking the musical My Fair Lady and removing the music and lyrics and turning it back into Pygmalion. I thought of that while watching Nine, and wishing I could remove almost everything about it and turn it back into its source, Federico Fellini's masterpiece 8½.

To be fair, this film is twice-removed from Fellini, as it based more closely on a Broadway musical which I have never seen. But no matter how you look at it, Nine is a terrible movie, that fails on almost every level: direction, screenplay, editing, acting. The only pluses are the design, which earned a few Oscar nominations. But even that is problematic, as we are told we are in Italy in the early 1960s, but nothing about the film suggests our time and place other than those title cards.

The story is a ghost of Fellini's. A famed director (Daniel Day-Lewis, horribly miscast) is experiencing creative block as he plans his new movie. He is married to a dutiful wife (Marion Cottillard) but also has a flighty mistress (Penelope Cruz). He is besieged on all sides--the press, his producers, his design team, his performers--and as he undergoes his crisis he flashes back to times in his youth.

Anyone who has seen will understand that this is that film as if someone had filtered it through burlap. Fellini was so much more comprehensive in presenting the life of a creative man, but what we have here is drivel. None of it is compelling, and the whole thing seems to be trivial. We really don't care at all about Day-Lewis or any of his problems.

The director is Rob Marshall. I liked Chicago, but after seeing Nine I wonder if he only had one good movie in him or if someone else was responsible for what was good about that film. He seems here to have no conception of how to tell a story, and isn't help by choppy editing that amounts to overkill. A number involving Kate Hudson (a character created for this film) is a case in point. Called "Cinema Italiano," it's about the things she loves about Italian cinema, but ends up being a laundry list--guys with skinny black ties, sports cars, etc.--that was prepared by someone who really knew nothing about Italian movies. The scene is edited within an inch of its life, and goes from color to black and white and back again in a fevered pace. It's a mess.

Perhaps the best example of how the whole thing fails Fellini is the scene most closely lifted from 8½, the one involving La Saraghina, the prostitute that the young Day-Lewis visits as a boy. In the Fellini, she is both a seductress and a monster, a zaftig creature that haunts the imagination. In Nine, she is played by Fergie, and though she has a fine, Broadway-style voice to sing "Be Italian," there is none of the mystery of the scene--she's just another pretty face. And what, exactly, does "Be Italian" mean--she's singing to a bunch of Italian boys. What else could they be but Italian?

Speaking of Italy, this film tries hard to be steeped in Italy. It's set at Cinecitta studios, and the film-within-the-film is called Italia. But to me this film seemed as authentically Italian as the gondola rides at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. Part of the problem is having almost no Italians among the major cast members (to be fair, Fellini did have non-Italians such as Anouk Aimee and Claudia Cardinale in ). Day-Lewis is totally lost, Nicole Kidman is wooden, Judi Dench is no singer (her number, a tribute to the Folies Bergere, seems to have been carted in from another movie) and Cruz, who was Oscar-nominated, works hard but is also at sea. I did admire Cottillard's work, though her singing voice isn't very strong.

I don't know if it's possible for an adaptation of the stage show to be successful, but Marshall doesn't help by having his musical numbers garish and cliched as those seen on cruise ships. It's clear that he have had appreciation but no understanding of what made the Fellini film great. And to that end I have watched the original to get the bad taste of Nine out of my mouth. I'll post an essay about that film later this week.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Meet John Doe

The third film in Frank Capra's "common man" trilogy is Meet John Doe, from 1941. Though similar in many respects to the other two films, it differs in many ways, particularly in tone. I found it to be much darker than Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith, and I can only imagine this reflected the situation in Europe.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as yet another career-girl, a newspaper columnist who has just been given a pink-slip. In desperation, she crafts a phony letter from a man calling himself John Doe, who is so disgusted with society that he announces he will throw himself off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. The column ignites such an interest that she gets her job back, and even after the paper's brass (in the form of managing editor James Gleason) finds out she made him up, they continue the ruse. They need to find a person to play the part of John Doe, though, and a cavalcade of hobos descends on the paper's office. Stanwyck is immediately drawn to a washed up ballplayer, Gary Cooper, and he takes the gig, though his friend, Walter Brennan, who mistrusts anyone with a bank account, protests.

Cooper, giving speeches written by Stanwyck, is so popular with his common-sense shtick that he is a sensation. The paper's owner, Edward Arnold (in another sinister performance) senses the power of Cooper's act, and starts a series of clubs centered around his message of love thy neighbor. They pop up all over the country, and Cooper becomes a folk hero. Arnold wants to use Cooper as a puppet, intending to spring himself to the White House, but when Cooper finds out he threatens to expose Arnold. In a rally at a stadium in a rainstorm, Arnold's hired goons interrupt Cooper and he is exposed as a fraud. Come Christmas Eve, the cast reassembles on top of city hall, wondering if Cooper will jump after all.

Compared with Deeds and Smith, Meet John Doe seems a little more forced and doesn't work quite as well. The overlay of the spectre of fascism is a bit chilling. Cooper's down-home charm is fine, and there's a real anger behind it when he finds out he's been played for a sucker. There are a number of fine scenes, including one where Gleason, who has seen the error of his ways, drunkenly tips Cooper as to Arnold's intentions.

The film could also be considered a warning against the misuse of populism, a theme that would be re-explored in Elia Kazan's terrific A Face in the Crowd, or in real life situations like the recent Joe the Plumber. Almost without fail, whether fictional or real, folk heroes are seldom what they appear to be.

Though once again common decency triumphs, the victory is less clear cut, as Arnold is still powerful--the victory is more moral than tangible. And for the first but not last time Capra ends a picture with the sound and image of Christmas bells, which would of course end his valedictory film, It's a Wonderful Life.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Let It Be

Depending on the definition, Let It Be was either the Beatles' ultimate and penultimate album. It was recorded before Abbey Road, but released afterward, on May 8, 1970, just a few weeks after the group had officially called it quits. As such, it is something of a let-down, but has a number of memorable songs.

The record was conceived as part of a project that Paul McCartney was high on--a documentary of the band recording an album. Phil Spector was brought on to produce. But what the film ended up documenting was the end of the Beatles. I remember seeing the film when I was a kid (my father was a fan and took me), but I haven't seen it in a long, long time and it's not available on DVD.

After a string of highly polished albums, Let It Be is a raw collection of shreds and patches, much of it recorded live, whether in the studio or as part of a concert given from the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters. There is a lot of clowning around between takes that's included--the record begins with John Lennon intoning, "I dig a pygmy by Charles Hawtrey and the deaf aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats." They then break into the pleasant if a little twee "The Two of Us," which has its moments but seems under-produced. This is followed by John's hard "I Dig a Pony," and then his more cosmic "Across the Universe," which again seems under-produced. The chanting of "jai guru deva om" seems more of a George Harrison affectation. There are some very pretty lyrics here, especially the line, "this wind inside a letterbox."

This is followed by one of two Harrison compositions (neither of which are his stronger efforts) "I Me Mine," a kind of obvious rip on consumerism, and then comes one of a couple bits and pieces, "Dig It," in which John includes the names of B.B. King and Doris Day. This segues immediately into the finest thing on the album, the title song, which was a big hit and an example of the strengths of Paul McCartney, who could combine a kind of show biz schmaltz with an epic sound. If the rest of the record seems slipshod, this number is polished to the nth degree, an exquisitely somber yet hopeful song that never fails to get to me. The mixture of Billy Preston's church organ with the powerful guitar solo brings chills. When I was a kid there was a rumor that "Mother Mary" referred to marijuana.

Side one ended with another short bit of nonsense, "Maggie Mae." Side two starts with my second favorite song on the record, "I've Got a Feeling," which has Paul at his soulful best and John contributing a wistful bit about everybody "having a good year." The two often took parts of songs they were working on and combined them, and it works great here. "One After 909" comes next, a song that goes back to their Quarrymen days, and though it's simple it's a refreshing rocker.

Everything that worked on "Let It Be" doesn't work with Paul's other single from the record, "The Long and Winding Road." Frankly, it this were recorded by anyone other than the Beatles it would have been laughed at. Paul's vocals are over the top, and the addition of a heavenly choir is just too much. Stripped down, this song would have worked much better. There was a rumor that the choir was added, to Paul's dismay, as a kind of fuck-you.

After George's forgettable "For You Blue" we get to the last Beatles' song, if you played all of the albums in order of their release, "Get Back," though it was released as a single more than a year earlier. This one is Paul's, a loosey-goosey foot-thumper about a transvestite and a guy named JoJo who wanted California grass. It's a catchy, impossible-to-hate song, and Paul still plays it, as he did in his recent New York concert from the marquee of the David Letterman show (it was one of the songs originally performed from the roof of Apple Corps). I still get a little lump in my throat when I hear the extemporaneous ending, as provided by John: "I'd like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition." Yes, John, you passed.

Let It Be is not exactly a soaring conclusion to the Beatles career, Abbey Road is much better suited for that label, but it does have its moments. Even in art one can't make things come out exactly perfect, but as the song implores us, it will have to do.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Await Your Reply

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon, is a literary novel that has the force of a good thriller. I read the last few pages breathlessly, pleased with myself that I had figured out the book's central conceit but still wondering where it was going.

The novel trades off chapters between three protagonists: Miles, a twin who has been searching for his lost brother, Hayden, for a decade, and is following a trail that leads to the edge of the Arctic circle in Canada; Lucy, a high-school girl who has run away with her charismatic history teacher to his family's abandoned motel in Nebraska; and Ryan, a college student who goes missing and presumed dead from his comfortable suburban life and takes up with his biological father, who runs Internet scams.

Internet scams and identity theft is at the heart of the book. The book's title comes from one of those email cons, in which a person from Africa (often Nigeria, but here the Ivory Coast) promises a fortune in exchange for a little assistance. Chaon writes out an entire email like this, and inserts it midway through the book, and it takes patience to fully realize why it's there. Like a developing photograph, everything comes into focus slowly, as it's understood that Miles' missing brother is somehow involved in all three of these stories.

Beyond the suspense of the work, the writing is precise and extraordinary. There isn't a wasted word. The language is not flowery, but it isn't terse either. The three main characters are all passive and close to inarticulate, existing in the shadow of a more powerful figure (Miles' brother, Lucy's teacher, Ryan's father), which makes for simple if not almost non-existent dialogue. But the characters are vivid nonetheless, if only in their quiet despair.

I especially liked the relationship between the brothers. Hayden is possibly a genius but certainly mentally ill, with an overactive imagination (the brothers have taken an atlas and drawn a Tolkien-like world on it) that dwarfs Miles. He is accused by their mother of enabling his delusions, but he can't help but be wrapped up in Hayden's world.

This book should be enjoyed both by those who like mysteries and those who disdain them. It's an excellent read.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Take Flight

The McCarter Theatre' season closes with Take Flight, an original musical that parallels the stories of a trio of pioneers of aviation: the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart. For all of the hard work on stage and the brilliant visuals by director Sam Buntrock and his scenic design team, the result plays like a history pageant, with forgettable music and uninspired lyrics.

As I watched the show and realized I wasn't enjoying myself, I wondered what makes a good musical, or why Take Flight is not a good one. I think it comes down to the songs. As I sit here typing this now I can't remember one melody, and without looking at the program there are few titles I can remember. None of the songs here could exist outside the world of the production, which is a direct contrast to the glory days of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, or even rock musicals like Hair or Godspell. All of the songs in Take Flight further the plot, laying out exposition and reeling off facts that are evidence the writers did a lot of research--too much research. If the History Channel made musicals, they might come up with Take Flight.

Almost all of the good things I took away from the show were for the eye. It opens with Wilbur and Orville Wright, in derbies and waistcoats, like Vladimir and Estragon, standing alone together on the beach at Kitty Hawk, holding opposite ends of a trunk. Their story tells us that these two modest bicycle salesman from Dayton adjusted the accepted mathematics and managed to get a flying machine into the air. The brothers are depicted somewhat in comic archetypes by Stanton Nash and Benjamin Schrader--Wilbur is the frustrated hothead, while Orville is the more patient, less cerebral brother. He also is given the unforgivable line, "We can't be wrong, we're the Wright brothers."

Lindbergh, played by Claybourne Elder, gets a warts and all treatment (although there is only one line, spoken by Earhart, about his Nazi sympathizing). To put it simply, the guy was a tool, and we see him explaining away his ass-hattery as having trouble relating to people (he refuses to shake hands with people, too). He was a mail-plane pilot who entered a contest to be the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, and defied common sense by wanting to do it alone (although this would help because he could make up the weight in fuel). As with Jimmy Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis, the act of a man flying by himself across a vast body of water lacks inherent drama, so instead we get Lindbergh hallucinating his past, visited by the plane's designer and his first boss when he was flying stunts.

Earhart, sassily played by Jenn Colella, earns fame by being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, first as a passenger, then as a pilot. She is supported by a publisher, George Putnam, who becomes her husband (to her chagrin--she only marries him so he'll let her fly). Putnam is played by Michael Cumpsty, who I've seen many a time, mostly in New York Shakespeare productions. He looks disturbingly here like football analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

The three stories weave in and out, with all of the them coming together for the finale. I wasn't sure what we were to take away from all this--maybe a scene at the end with a modern person settling into his seat for a New York to Paris trip without worrying about plunging into the ocean, and saying, "Boy, am I grateful for those who made this possible!" Otherwise it's just corny history backed by listless music. The composer is well-known music scorer David Shire, the lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and the book by John Weidman, but they've all done better work elsewhere.