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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Good Guy

I end my little run of Alexis Bledel films with The Good Guy, a 2009 film written and directed by Julio DiPietro. It's a more adult film than Bledel has ever done, and it's mostly thoughtful, if not incredibly powerful. It treads into a fairly common arena of film--the aggressive, alpha-male world of Wall Street--and it's conclusion is familiar.

The main character, who narrates, is Tommy (Scott Porter), a young but successful Wall Street trader. He is called upon to replace a member of his sales team, and chooses, despite his boss's objections, an IT guy, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg). Greenberg is vastly out of place with the hot-shot traders, who know how to wine and dine their clients and live a "masters of the universe" kind of existence, clubbing all night and using and discarding women. Porter has a steady girlfriend, though, Bledel, though we come to learn there is more to him than we are led to believe. Porter tries to teach his methods of seduction to Greenberg, who is hopelessly inept when it comes to talking to women.

The film has some literary pretensions--there are references made and parallels to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (I don't know of any other film that discusses the concept of the unreliable narrator) and I liked the overall intelligence of the script. What I find tedious is the depiction of guys like Porter and his buddies. I'm sure that there are men who act this way--we see them all the time in almost every beer commercial that airs on television--which is why I don't need to see any more of it. Greenberg, the "good guy" of the title, is presented as the sympathetic hero, but if I never see another scene of shallow, rich young men hitting on women in an exclusive Manhattan nightclub, I would be grateful.

As for Bledel, who must be catnip for cinematographers as they emphasize her amazing blue eyes, it's good to see her expanding upon her fan base of teenage girls cultivated by The Gilmore Girls and The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants films. She's quite good here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Post Grad

Post Grad is a disposable, mostly harmless film that is much more suited to the small screen that the big one, and I wonder how it ever got released as such. It tells the story of Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel), who has just graduated from college and has a specific plan to get a job with a particular publishing company. She's so sure of herself that she writes a bad check for a deposit on a great apartment just a few blocks away from her supposed office. Of course, she doesn't get it, and much of the rest of the movie details her attempts to get a job and deal with her eccentric family.

We know her family is eccentric because they have garden gnomes in the yard. The grandma (Carol Burnett) buys herself a fuchsia coffin, her younger brother likes to lick his classmate's heads, and her dad (Michael Keaton) has lots of get-rich-quick schemes, like selling belt buckles on the Internet. All of this is obvious and has no particular rooting in real life--it's simply goofiness as defined by a not-great script by Kelly Fremon.

The director is Vicky Jenson, who specializes in animation (she co-directed the first Shrek), and she shows no special flair for live-action as shown here. The most interesting things about Post Grad are what it says about certain aspects of modern life. For one thing, it is set specifically in 2009 (a large banner at Bledel's graduation tells us that), but there is no mention of the economic crisis of that year (which is still going on). Bledel's struggle to find a job is viewed as a character flaw rather than a condition of the economy, and it's especially cruel given that she wants to work in publishing, an especially hard-hit industry. She also spends a lot of time looking at classified ads in newspapers for a job, an activity that is largely obsolete. Since the film opens with the character making a video for a social-networking site, I would hope she's heard of Monster and CareerBuilder.

Secondly (and I'm giving away the ending here) I was surprised after all this that the character, after getting her dream job and excelling at it, gives it up to follow a boy across the country. She is then congratulated for this by her father. This film is not exactly a feminist manifesto. I assume that the character is still pounding the pavement looking for a publishing job in New York, because believe me, there aren't any. I've looked.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Solitary Man

As I was watching Solitary Man I tried to scan my memory and recall a film that chronicled a greater downward spiral than that of Ben Kalmen, memorably played by Michael Douglas. There have been a lot of films about men who hit bottom, but I'm not sure they have been complete as this one. In many ways the film is similar to last year's Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, but whereas that film had a protagonist influenced by outside events, but in Solitary Man the troubles of the main character are all of his own making.

Douglas' character is quite a piece of work. Once a hugely successful car dealer, so rich that he could afford to donate money to his alma mater to construct a library, he ends up crashing on an old friend's sofa. All of his troubles stem, like some character from Philip Roth, from his inability to stop pursuing young women. He also has a habit of speaking so bluntly that even his closest family members begin to shun him.

The events kick off with Douglas escorting his girlfriend's daughter (Imogen Poots) to her college interview, since it is at his alma mater and he knows the Dean. Douglas unleashed in a college full of co-eds is like a fox loose in a chicken yard--his eyes light up, he has a predatory bounce in his step. He befriends a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) and gives him pointers on successfully seducing women, and then makes a mistake so momentous that his entire world crumbles. His long-suffering daughter (Jenna Fischer) finally has enough, especially after he sleeps and then discards the mother of one of Fischer's friends.

Douglas is on screen the entire film, and it's tough to structure a film around such an unrepentant reprobate. The writer, Brian Koppelman, has the savvy to make him so true to his own failings that we can't help but watch. We may not feel sorry for him, but we are fascinated by him. Koppelman co-directs with David Levien, and the film is a nicely-paced ninety minutes, covering the arc of the character. My only quibble is that, at the end, Douglas explains to his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) when exactly he became what he was, and it seemed a bit too psychologically tidy for me.

The cast is full of familiar faces, including Mary-Louise Parker as Douglas' girlfriend and Danny DeVito as his old friend (DeVito and Douglas go way back to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest days). It's not as wickedly funny and emotionally profound as A Serious Man, but it is above-average and entertaining. Douglas, in throwaway Hollywood junk, can be very bad, but when he's called upon to give vanity-free performances like this one we are reminded how good he can be.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Being a middle-aged man, I'd never heard of the young-adult novels in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series until they were made into a couple of movies. And, being a middle-aged man, I didn't go to see either movie in a theater, not relishing the prospect of looking like some sort of predator amidst a crowd of teen-aged girls. But with home video no one need know one's sins, and this weekend I rented both the initial film and its sequel (inelegantly titled The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2). The films are aimed squarely at girls from about ten to twenty years of age, but as these things go they weren't bad.

The first film was directed by Ken Kwapis, and the premise is laid out quickly: four sixteen-year-old girls, who are friends from birth, are out shopping when they find a pair of vintage jeans that somehow fit them all perfectly, even though they are of different sizes. The girls are facing separation in the summer, so they hatch a plan to circulate the jeans, with each girl having them for one week. Lena (Alexis Bledel), a shy, uptight and delicate girl, will be spending the summer with her grandparents on the Greek island of Santorini. Bridget (Blake Lively), bold, blonde and beautiful, but also suffering from the effects of losing her mother to suicide, is attending a soccer camp in Mexico. Carmen (America Ferrera), a zaftig girl who is half Puerto-Rican, is visiting her father, but she is dismayed to learn that he is going to marry a woman who has two children of her own. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), a rebellious girl interested in making films, is stuck at home for the summer, working at a store like Wal-Mart.

Each girl learns a lesson in a kind of bland, Afterschool Special sort of way. Lena has a Romeo and Juliet-style romance with a Greek boy, Bridget chases after a cute soccer coach, Carmen feels alienated from her father's new family, and Tibby has her cynicism about life challenged when she meets a younger girl who is dying of leukemia. The latter story is the only one I thought that had any power, with Tamblyn giving an excellent performance as the kind of girl who has blue streaks in her hair and hates her existence, but is confronted with a situation that requires her to examine her own feelings.

The second film, directed by Sanaa Hamri, is a little darker. Though it uses the exact same pattern, it is more complex, and examines how childhood friends inevitably drift apart. For this outing the girls are all in college. Lena is taking a summer course at art school, and, after having her heart broken by the Greek boy, is attracted to a fellow artist and figure model. Bridget goes on an archaeological dig in Turkey and is inspired to try to get to know her grandmother. Carmen attends a summer theater program in Vermont and serendipitously gets cast in a production of Shakespeare, and Tibby, a film student at NYU, gets a pregnancy scare when she sleeps with her boyfriend and the condom breaks.

One thing that is notable about these two films is that they are about teen-aged girls but they are not about back-stabbing, queen bees, or bullying. The friendships between the girls are honest and admirable, and as such are quite refreshing. Though the films aren't any great shakes as drama, they are certainly laudable and worthwhile for girls to watch as the kind of thing that can be learned from. I was amused, though, and how easy it is for the girls to move around the country. At one point Tibby, in New York, calls Lena and asks her to get her a pregnancy test. Lena, though, is in Providence. Undaunted, she makes the three-hour drive lickety-split. Then, at the end of the film, all the girls end up back in Santorini (these sections are gorgeous--I hope I get there some day). This is all explained by one of the girls saying that her new stepfather had a ton of frequent flier miles. Are frequent flier miles so easily transferable?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fordlandia

The word that kept popping into my head while reading Greg Grandin's fascinating book Fordlandia was hubris. It tells the story of how auto magnate Henry Ford bought a huge patch of land--an area about the size of Connectict--in Brazil to harvest his own rubber, and then tried to import American values and create an ideal American town in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. As Grandin puts it, "Over the course of two decades, Ford would spend tens of millions of dollars founding not one but, after the first plantation was devastated by leaf blight, two American towns, complete with central squares, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, hospitals, manicured lawns, movie theaters, swimming pools, golf courses, and, of course, Model Ts and As rolling down the paved streets."

As interesting a story as this, it is outshone by the character of Henry Ford himself. I spent a great deal of my childhood in Dearborn, Michigan--I consider it my hometown--and you can't go far without seeing something of his legacy, as parks, roads, schools, shopping malls and almost everything else has his name on it, and the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company still dominates the economy. But the man was, to put it kindly, complicated. He frequently held two contradictory notions at the same time, and in the case of Fordlandia it was his longing for the simplicity of small-town life while at the same time his revolutionizing industry destroyed it. "Many in the press judged Ford's antiquarianism with contempt," Grandin writes, "pointing out the irony of the man singularly responsible for the disappearance of small-town America now claiming to be its restorer. 'With his left hand he restores a self-sufficient little eighteenth-century village,' wrote the Nation, 'but with his right hand he had already caused the land to be dotted red and yellow with filling stations.'"

Consider Ford's treatment of his workers. "In early 1914, Ford made an announcement that sent seismic shocks across the globe. Henceforth, he proclaimed, the Ford Motor Company would pay an incentive wage of five dollars for an eight-hour day, nearly double the average industrial standard. The Wall Street Journal charged Henry Ford with class treason, with 'economic blunders if not crimes.' Yet his absentee and turnover rate plummeted and Ford was jolted into the ranks of the world's most admired men, 'an international symbol of the new industrialization.'"

But there was two sides to that coin. "Ford conditioned his Five Dollar Pay plan with the obligation that workers live a wholesome life. And to make sure they did, the carmaker dispatched inspectors from his Sociological Department to probe into the most intimate corners of Ford workers' lives, including their sex lives." Throughout the book, we get glimpses of the strange paternalism of Ford, with him pushing activities on his employees such as ballroom dancing and gardening, and even compelling his Brazilian workers to be only allowed to eat in the company's cafeteria, thereby controlling their diets. This led to a riot in Fordlandia.

Other Ford curiosities were his pacifism (he came to loggerheads with Theodore Roosevelt during World War I), his rampant anti-Semitism, and his belief that "history is bunk." In fact, many thought Ford was illiterate. He also had an aversion to experts: "He liked to brag that his company never employed an 'expert in full bloom' because they 'always know to a dot just why something cannot be done.' 'None of our men are experts,' Ford said. 'We have unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert--because no one ever considers himself expert if really knows his job.'"

This kind of counter-intuitive thinking was the ruination of Fordlandia. Ford sent down many men to plant a crop to harvest latex, but that team did not include entomologists or botanists. The company in Dearborn had no clue how to treat workers in the Amazon jungle. High wages in cash were fairly meaningless to them, as there was nothing to buy. They tended to work for a while and then drift back home. Engineers unaccustomed to the climate made blunders such as building houses with metal roofs, which trapped the heat inside rather than blocking it. Deaths from malaria and yellow fever were high, and despite Ford's attempts to make his plantation a moral oasis, vice still won out. Then there was leaf blight and insect infestation, which destroyed much of the crop.

Ford never visited Fordlandia, which made him something of an Oz-like figure. The locals were constantly waiting for him to arrive. Instead, when he yielded the company to his grandson, Fordlandia was sold back to the Brazilian government for a fraction of its value. As Grandin puts it, "Fordlandia represents in crystalline form the utopianism that powered Fordism--and by extension Americanism. It reveals the faith that a drive toward greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the world and that technology itself, without the need for government planning, could solve whatever social problems arose from progress's advance. Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained."

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Father of My Children

The Father of My Children is a 2009 French film, written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. It is one the most perceptive films I've ever seen about a certain segment of the film industry, and also a serious family drama. However, I found myself doing a lot of timepiece checking during the film, as I wasn't particularly engaged with the characters. I found the film to be very analytical, almost as if it were studying the characters like laboratory specimens, rather than being involved heavily in their lives.

The focus of the film is on a production company based in Paris. It is run by Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who does his best to juggle the demands of his business with his family, a wife and three daughters. We soon come to learn that his company is under incredible financial pressure, owing a million Euros to a film lab and dealing with a mercurial Swedish director.

But Gregoire has a happy home life, when he manages to spend time with them. His two younger daughters are imaginative and irrepressible, and his oldest daughter (played by the actor's real-life daughter, Alice de Lencquesaing) is more circumspect. During this first half of the film, though, one gets the impression that another shoe is going to drop. Maybe it's because I've seen so many films that I knew something was coming.

And something does come, and the film turns on a dime about half-way through. It's difficult to discuss the film without discussing this plot point--suffice it to say that a tragedy strikes the family. The second half of the film is about how the family deals with this tragedy, and while I admired Hansen-Løve's restraint in this matter, I also felt the film was a little bloodless. It's a very tightly constructed film, but it might have been better with more mess.

This is an admirable film, but I wanted it to be better. There is some nice acting by both the de Lencquesaings, though.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a small, carefully-crafted film from Rebecca Miller, who adapted her own novel. I couldn't help but feeling, though, that the novel was much more interesting, as the film seems sketchy and undeveloped. I still enjoyed it, though, mostly because I appreciated the underlying sense of humor that exists despite the sorrow and tragedy that occurs.

The title character, very nicely played by Robin Wright Penn, is the wife of a successful publisher who is many years her senior (Alan Arkin). After health problems, he and Penn have moved to a retirement community in Connecticut. Penn is only in her forties, though, and grows bored, as well as developing a problem sleepwalking. She develops an attraction towards the son of one of her neighbors, stoically played by Keanu Reeves.

Through all of this we see flashbacks to Pippa's life, beginning with her birth (she was covered with a fine layer of blonde hair). Her mother (Maria Bello), was addicted to speed, and as a teenager Pippa moves out of the house and ends up living a hard-partying lifestyle (she is played as a teen and young adult by Blake Lively). Eventually she meets Arkin, who takes her under his wing and eventually marries her, even though he is already married to a tempestuous Italian woman.

The film's novelistic structure doesn't always work, but it's a moderately interesting story, sold mostly by Penn's performance. There are a few problems in this, notably that simply putting hair on Alan Arkin does not make him seem younger, so his postcoital snuggle with Lively is pretty high on the ick factor. The writing is quite good, though, and Reeves is used effectively. There are also numerous famous names that pop up in small parts, such as Winona Ryder, Monica Bellucci and Julianne Moore.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gossip Girl

In an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist of today's teenagers, I took it upon myself to watch, in it's entirety, the first season of the teen soap opera Gossip Girl, which airs on the CW network. That the cast is full of attractive young actresses did not have anything to do with this. And today is opposite day.

I must admit that, like most soap operas, I hated myself for actually getting involved in the characters. Like junk food, it has little nutrional value but it can be very tasty, full of the usual unbelievable twists and turns that soap operas have. But I found myself rooting for some of the characters, and hoping against hope that Dan and Serena wouldn't break up.

The most fun of Gossip Girl is peeling back the lid and analyzing it on other levels. For one thing, it is useful for anthropological reasons. The show centers on old-monied debutantes of New York's Upper East Side, and their rituals are as alien to me as those of the Hottentots. From all I've read, the depiction of these kids is fairly accurate, which is hair-raising, considering all of the underage drinking they do. They get ferried from door to door in limos, and when feeling blue may take their father's private jet to Monaco. Shows about the impossibly rich are always catnip to us because we love to see them suffer.

Then there's the employment of modern technology. The title character is a blogger, known only as Gossip Girl (and voiced by Kristen Bell), who narrates the action. This ties into the world of teenagers today, who can be bullied on social networking sites, and offers an insight into the complicated social world of teenage girls. I'm sure that the scenes in which girls make social faux pas and then are ruined for sport are disturbingly accurate. The use of cell phones and text messaging devices is also key to the storylines--it's unimaginable that this show could have existed before the advent of the use of them.

But the show wouldn't succeed if the viewer didn't care about the characters beyond wanting to see them machine-gunned to death, and I have to hand it to the writers, who take the privileged, selfish, vain characters and actually give them some depth--not much, but just enough to make it interesting.

The show centers around six characters, who all attend a fancy private school. The two main characters are Serena van der Woodson (Blake Lively), who as the show begins is returning from a mysterious stint in boarding school. Her friend and foil is Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), the queen bee of the girls in school and a spoiled, pampered princess. Serena and Blair, over the course of the season, go from being friends to enemies to back again. Blair's boyfriend is Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), who is a pretty but vacuous boy who is pushed around by his overbearing father (he shares a name with basketball player Nate "Tiny" Archibald, which seems to be a coincidence, but a delicious one). Nate's best friend is Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick), the bad boy of the group, who seems to be modeled on the Ryan Phillippe character in Cruel Intentions.

Then there are Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) and his younger sister, Jenny (Taylor Momsen). They live in Brooklyn, attend the school on scholarship, and are the children of a faded rock star. Dan is basically the viewer's entree into the world of the rich, as he experiences their bizarre rites with the same amount of confusion as we do. When he begins dating his long-time crush Serena, he can't believe his good luck, but learns that getting involved with her kind requires a certain amount of sacrifice.

As with all soap operas, there are certain cliches that we just accept, such as that the kids seem to be constantly running into each other, a character who has tried to kill himself seems to be the sanest person in the cast, and that some of the parents seem to be far too young to have kids that old (as with shows like Beverly Hills 90210, the main cast look too old to be playing seventeen-year-olds, though Momsen, at fourteen, was exactly the age of the character she was playing). Crises are wrapped up quickly before the next one starts, and grudges are held for only as long as they are dramatically needed.

The cast is appealing, but I don't know if any of them will break out beyond this sort of thing. Lively has a past in films, and Badgley could have a future in them, as he is the most dynamic performer in the group, playing the most articulate character. Westwick is good also, but I couldn't get past how much he looks like Jimmy Fallon.

The best thing about the show is that once a viewer gets to know the characters, they mostly remain true to themselves, and there is a certain amount of loyalty among them. A plot involving Michelle Trachtenburg as a girl from Serena's past trying to wreck her future was wrapped up satisfyingly, as Blair and Chuck teamed up to help. Here I was, a forty-nine-year-old single straight man, watching and rooting for the bitch to get her comeuppance.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Persons Unknown

Originality is a rare concept in broadcast television, which is one of the reasons why Lost was such a breath of fresh air--a show that didn't remind me of several other shows. Of course, once something becomes popular it is copied in many different ways, and over the last few years there have been many shows on the networks that have used the same template--some sort of mystery involving disparate characters.

I haven't watched any of them, but in the afterglow of the end of Lost I decided to give one a shot. It's called Persons Unknown, which airs on NBC. It has the benefit of being a limited-run series, which will end this summer. At least I don't have to commit six years of my life to finding out the solution of the mystery.

What drew me to the show was the premise, which is pretty great, if not completely original: seven strangers awake to find themselves in a hotel, which is part of an empty town. They have been kidnapped (unlike Lost, there is no chance of them being dead and in purgatory). They are watched by cameras, like in Big Brother, and after three episodes have not been able to escape, due to an invisible fence that emits microwaves on contact. A San Francisco reporter is trying to find out what happened to one of the characters, a single mother, but at the end of the third episode a twist is introduced that suggests he knows more than we thought.

This reminds me of countless other movies and shows. A forum on the show has mentioned Silent Hill, Cube, and Battle Royale, but I'm reminded most of a Twilight Zone episode called "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." But it's a premise that can go a multitude of ways, as the characters try to find a way out while also trying to withstand the mind games that are thrown their way (such as being provided three gas masks when there are seven of them).

The actors are all new to me, except for Alan Ruck (the legendary Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off), and are kind of bland so far, but the actors on Lost were mostly knew to me as well. I think the problem so far is that the characters aren't drawn nearly as sharply as they were on Lost, and the show lacks a sense of humor. I'm getting tired of the single mother screaming about getting back to her daughter--it reminds me of the tedious way Angelina Jolie kept screaming "He's not my son!" in Changeling.

But I think I'll stick with the show. It was created by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the screenplay for The Usual Suspects. Maybe Keyser Soze will turn up to be behind it all.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex is based on a comic-book series that I'm unfamiliar with, but outwardly it would seem like something I would like: a hybrid of the Western, horror, and sci-fi genres. But after only a few minutes into the picture I realized that I was in for a grim time at the movies. The film is ugly, unpleasant, and stupid, and instead of a clever meld of genres, it's a collision.

Directed by Jimmy Hayward without any flair, the story concerns a Confederate soldier (Josh Brolin), who in the opening is forced to watch his family burned to death by his commanding officer (John Malkovich). A whole lot of exposition is laid out in a short time, but I think what happened is that Brolin refused to attack a hospital, and somehow Malkovich's son got killed. Malkovich then killed Brolin's family and additionally branded Brolin's face. Left for dead, Brolin is revived by some Crow Indians, and in the process ends up straddling the line between life and death--he's very tough to kill, and he can talk to dead people.

Malkovich fakes his own death so he can mount a terrorist organization set on overthrowing the government (his character's name is Quentin Turnbull, which seems too close to William Quantrill to be a coincidence). The film makes an attempt at relevance by both being an example of the Tea Party gone wild, and making parallels to Islamic terrorism (at one point Malkovich says there are no innocent people). But instead of making the film relevant, it just trivializes the news of today. When some of Malkovich's men act as suicide bombers it just made me angry.

Brolin is employed by the U.S. government (Aidan Quinn plays President Grant) to stop Malkovich, who has his hands on a superweapon that is completely anachronistic. I guess the U.S. Army was too involved with trying to wipe out the Indians to help (the film is set at the Centennial celebration in 1876, which was precisely when Custer was getting his scalp handed to him at the Little Bighorn).

Also in the cast is Megan Fox, as a whore who loves Brolin, despite his facial deformity. She seems bored by the whole enterprise, and looks far too contemporary to be authentic (no whore in 1876 had skin and teeth looking that good). She also wears a corset, which makes her look like a swizzle stick. Her greatest achievement continues to be her pictorials in Maxim.

Ultimately, Jonah Hex is a mash-up of movies both good and bad like Hang 'Em High, The Crow, and Wild Wild West. I'm always up for a Western, but this one isn't even technically a Western--it's set in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. Which makes it curious how, late in the picture, Brolin receives aid from Indians, who had long been removed from the part of the country. It was called the Trail of Tears. You can look it up.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Alice Cooper Goes to Hell

I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard a snippet of a song I hadn't heard probably in over thirty years--"I'm Guilty," by Alice Cooper. That prompted a rush of memories, as back in the day I was a big Alice Cooper fan, and the album that contained that song, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, was one of the first albums I ever bought with my own money.

Alice Cooper started as a collective name for a band, that released their debut album in 1969. They fumbled about for a style, but it soon became apparent that when their lead singer, Vincent Furnier, adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself, and presented himself as an androgynous Gothic glam figure, their popularity soared. This was true especially when their music took on a Grand Guignol quality, a tongue-in-cheek representation of horror-film tropes. Songs about dead babies and necrophilia did two things--made parents denounce them, and kids to buy their records.

When I was a kid I was a little afraid of the persona. I would look at his records in the store--Killer (which had the song "Dead Babies") had a menacing cover featuring a snake. "School's Out" became a huge hit--every kid knew it by heart. And he had a big hit with a ballad, "Only Women Bleed." But I still had no Alice Cooper records in my possession.

But when I was fifteen and had a little pocket money I started buying my own albums (I never would have dreamt of asking my parents to buy me an Alice Cooper record). Mostly I bought Beatles albums, or similarly safe material like Simon and Garfunkel. But in the summer of '76 Cooper released Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, a concept album that saw our hero descend into the underworld. I bought the record and played it incessantly.

I still own the album, but I learned last night that my turntable doesn't work anymore, making the hundreds of vinyl records I own obsolete. No matter, I know Alice Cooper Goes to Hell so well I can look at the song list and recall them all sharply. The opening number, "Go to Hell," sets the stage: "For criminal acts and violence on the stage/For being a brat, refusing to act your age/For all of the decent citizens you've enraged/You can go to Hell." Cooper, winking at his audience, takes us on a trip to Hades. We get a song from Satan's point of view called "I'm the Coolest," a plea for mercy called "Give the Kid a Break," and the aforementioned "I'm Guilty." My favorite song on the record was the sinister, "Wish You Were Here." There's also a version of the old standard "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," but I didn't know that it wasn't an original song. I remember watching a figure-skating competition, and one of the skaters twirled to that tune. I was amazed that a figure skater would choose an Alice Cooper song! Of course, I learned that the song was actually written in 1918, and in turn is based on a theme by Chopin. From Chopin to Alice Cooper--the mind boggles.

That may have been the last time Alice Cooper was relevant as a musician. He managed to walk both sides of the street--he was a ghoulish rock singer, but also turned up on bland entertainment shows like Hollywood Squares. He would go on making albums, but they wouldn't sell well and his legacy had already been written, focused on his elaborate stage shows and macabre lyrics. Some of his records, most specifically Billion Dollar Babies, were very good musically speaking, but today he's best known as a footnote in rock history, albeit a very fun footnote.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hardball

I'm a little leery of starting a book in a long-standing series with the latest volume, but I'd heard good things about this latest V. I. Varshawski novel by Sara Paretsky that I took a chance. For the most part I was pleased, but it does have some of the pitfalls of the series detective.

To be honest, I may have read a Warshawski novel before, but I can't remember. She's a tough Chicago P.I., and like many in the giant mystery landscape she's fueled mostly by a chip on her shoulder. I tend to like my private eyes dissolute and cynical, but Warshawski gets by largely on indignation--her greatest flaw is her temper, which usually results in nasty quips.

Hardball deals with a crime committed over forty years ago. Warshawski is asked by a nun to help two elderly black sisters find out what happened to the son of one of them. He went missing in 1966, and Warshawski's digging into a very cold case leads back to the race riots around the visit of Martin Luther King Jr. to the Windy City (King said that Chicago could teach Mississippi how to hate). Warshawski, whose actions are complicated by her idealistic young cousin, who is working on a senate campaign, uncovers police corruption, which pains her because her own deceased father was involved in the arrest of possibly the wrong man for a murder back in '66. A lot of it hinges on an old baseball, signed by former White Sox star Nellie Fox.

Some of this is difficult sledding in the first half of the book. Warshawski, who narrates, is not exactly someone I want to spend a lot of time with. As with many fictional private eyes, she flouts the law and does things that defy sense, while at other times makes leaps of logic that no one could anticipate. Frankly, she can be a bit of a pill, and isn't very charming. But Paretsky also does a great job of giving the reader a sense of Chicago. I'm not up on the geography of the city, but it felt completely authentic to me, from visits to the old stockyards to the former Polish neighborhoods that are now Hispanic or African American (she and her cousin visit the house where she used to live and cautions that they should be careful leaving the car).

The ending builds nicely to an exciting conclusion, and the reminder of the civil rights struggle is never a bad thing, as there is still a lot of work to be done.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3

I'm pleased to report that the third installment of Toy Story is a worthy successor to the first two films, which in their own way were classics, and that there is little drop off in humor, adventure, or pathos. I laughed, I got a little teary, and I thought back to my days in political science class, as the film could be used to detail the perils of totalitarianism, or collectivism versus individualism.

Directed by Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 contains many of the same themes of the second film--the fear of abandonment, as the toys deal with their owner's inevitable aging, and their duty to serve him, whether he plays with them or not. When we pick up with them this time, the owner, Andy, is getting ready to go to college. His toys have sat unplayed with for years in a toybox, and Andy does have a sentimental attachment to them (my childhood toys were long gone by that age). His mother gives him three choices--they go in the attic, get donated to a daycare center, or go in the trash.

Through several near-misses and close calls, the toys all end up at a daycare center, which seems ideal, as their are several children to play with them, and the supply of kids never ends. But, like this seeming utopia has a dark side. It ends up being something like a gulag, and a large stuffed bear (voiced by Ned Beatty) is the place's Stalin, his second-in-command a large, creepy baby-doll.

It is a testament to the writing by Michael Arndt that I was simultaneously charmed by this, as well as challenged by the intellectual implications. I also loved the many references to old prison dramas, such as the hardened inmate (this time a Chatter Phone) or the toy that made it out, and is forever scarred (a clown doll). We also gain insights into the physiology of the Potato-Head toys--it seems that their appendages can function independently. You'd have thought they would used this to conquer us all by now.

The most amazing thing about this film, as with many Pixar films, is how sharply the characters are drawn. These toys, even the minor ones, have more depth that the humans in most films. A flashback showing how the bear got to be the way he is was expertly done (much like the "When She Loved Me" sequence in Toy Story 2). The voice-actors are all great, with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris all back for the fun. There are also some memorable new toys--Michael Keaton as a vain Ken doll (this being a G-rated film, there are no jokes about whether he's anatomically correct) and Timothy Dalton as a Shakespeare-quoting toy hedgehog. There's also a great scene in which Buzz Lightyear gets switched to his Spanish-mode, which had a woman behind me in stitches.

Some of the action is a little intense, particularly a Dante-esque scene that seemed to spell doom for the toys, but most of the little children in my crowd seemed engaged. The ending packs an emotional wallop. After you see this, you'll never throw a toy away again without thinking of this film.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

There has been a star-studded history to the attempts to adapt Jim Thompson's 1952 pulp crime novel, The Killer Inside Me. Big names such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor to Tom Cruise, Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio have been attached to it. Quentin Tarantino had it for a while, hoping Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman, and Juliette Lewis would star. A film was made in 1976, starring Stacy Keach, but is unseen by me (and by many others, it seems).

Now we have Michael Winterbottom's film of the book, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson, and the problems that no doubt plagued the creative minds in the past are self evident here. The film looks great, wonderfully suggesting the sleepy, dusty world of a small west Texas town of the 1950s. But The Killer Inside Me is a tale narrated by a psychopath. What works on the page--a glimpse into the mind of a killer--on film seems like a so-what exercise.

Affleck is Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. He seems completely normal, and is sent on an errand by his boss to tell a prostitute (Alba) to get out of town. She responds by slapping his face, and this seems to be flip an on-switch in him. He tans her bare bottom with a belt, and they end up in a clinch (this film is nirvana for spanking enthusiasts). The affair goes on hot and heavy, despite Affleck's relationship with his girlfriend, Hudson, and Alba's relationship with the son of the town's richest man.

Affleck learns that a beloved step-brother's death may not have been an accident, and in order to get revenge on the man he believes responsible, that same rich man (Ned Beatty), he cooks up a plan to kill Beatty's son by making it look like the son and Alba killed each other in a lover's quarrel. Affleck first must kill Alba, and he does so in a shocking matter--pummeling her in the face. At first he gets away with it, but an inquisitive district attorney (Simon Baker) is suspicious of him, and Affleck needs to kill more people to keep his secret.

The film has other flaws. It's heavy in exposition in the beginning, but even so there are numerous confusing moments. I was puzzled about some flashbacks to Affleck's childhood and a woman who may have been his mother laying the foundation for his love of hitting women. Not helping is the sound mix, which has the dialogue recorded way too low, or Affleck's mush-mouth Texas accent, which frequently required subtitles. It is almost calls for a second viewing just to get everything straight.

But how many will want to watch this film twice, let alone once? It is extremely unpleasant--the violence has already caused controversy. The assault on Alba is one of the most brutal I've seen in a long while, and it is not the only scene in the film that takes a long, clear-eyed view of a woman being savagely beaten. I'm sure misogyny was not intended, but this is not the movie to take a girl out on a date. It is to Alba and Hudson's credit that they did this movie, as so often a movie with either of them signifies automatic crap, but I am curious as to Alba's decision-making process. Did she read the script, realize that almost all of her part required her to be punched in the face or roll around in a state of semi-undress with Affleck and say to herself, "I must do this part!"

When it was over I had to wonder what the point was. Affleck, as movie psychopaths go, is not all that particularly interesting. I suspect the book is a much more gripping experience.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Far-Right Angle

I think the most fascinating aspect of this year's general election will be whether the "Tea Party" movement will spell triumph or defeat for the Republican Party. In their attempt to "take our country back" from the perceived anti-American socialism of the Obama administration, will Tea Party folks scare away the moderate voter, either into voting Democrat or, more likely, staying home altogether? It could be like the Democratic Party of the McGovern era, when left-wing activists so dominated the party that the middle fled to the Republicans.

Perhaps the best example of this is the senate race in Nevada. A few months ago, Harry Reid was a dead man walking. Now, he has a pretty decent shot at keeping his seat, despite being an entrenched incumbent and the Democratic leader, one of the faces of the party that the Republicans have demonized. Why the change? The Republicans nominated a woman who, to be frank, is a kook.

Sharron Angle, a former Nevada assemblywoman from Reno, will be the test for the Tea-Party Republican wing. Even more than Rand Paul, she represents the loony-tunes aspects of the movement. Her positions are severe: abolishment of the Department of Education; the U.S. leaving the United Nations; the eventual phasing out of Medicare and Social Security. She even, in the state of Nevada no less, has advocated prohibition of alcohol and the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. I'm waiting for her to advocate a ban on gambling--that ought to go over well.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Angle has made remarks concerning an armed revolution. She has said, "What is a little bit disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock ... That tells me the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn't that they are so distrustful of their government? They're afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways?" and "That's why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?"

If Angle wins, it won't be the end of the world, she would only be one of 100. But it would be a sign that the Tea Party mentality of paranoia has grabbed a firmer footing than is safe for comfort.

By the way, the Democrats have their own bizarre nominee. In South Carolina, which is doing its best to be America's weirdest state for politics, the Democratic nominee for Senate is Alvin Greene, a thirty-two-year-old unemployed veteran, who despite having practically no advertising, Web site, and practically no campaigning, got 59 percent of the vote, beating the establishment Democrat, Vic Rawl.

In the aftermath, a lot of questions have been raised. How did Greene, a complete nobody, win? It has been revealed he is under indictment on a felony obscenity charge, for showing a pornographic picture to an eighteen-year-old girl. It is not clear how he paid the $10,440 filing fee (law requires that this be paid out of his own funds). Some have even wondered whether he is a Republican plant, clearing the way for an easy reelection for the incumbent, Jim DeMint. I even saw an article the other day wondering if Greene is border-line retarded.

Clearly nothing happens according to Hoyle in either Nevada or South Carolina. Greene will get slaughtered in the general election, but the Reid-Angle race will be an interesting one to watch.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sunset Boulevard

This summer marks the sixtieth anniversary of the release of Billy Wilder's classic film, Sunset Boulevard, which in my mind is the best film ever made about Hollywood, in large part because it simultaneously holds both an acidicly cynical view of Tinseltown, and a nostalgically romantic one. I've spent the last few days watching the film and the many extras on the Paramount Centennial Collection DVD, and it holds up as if it were made yesterday.

Wilder long had an affection for the lore of the Silent-Film Era in Hollywood, and with his partners Charles Bracket and D.M Marshman Jr., crafted a tale steeped in the romance of old Hollywood, while also as caustic as lye, with a self-hating screenwriter at its center, narrating the story from beyond the grave.

That lead character is Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. We first see him floating dead in a swimming pool (he had always wanted one, we are told) and then the story plays in flashback. It starts as film noir, with Holden evading repo men as they try to take his car, and use of extensive voice-over in wise-guy patter, such as telling us that the shoeshine man doesn't talk finances, he knows your status by the look of your heels.

But while being chased by those repo men, Holden blows out a tire and pulls into a driveway on the eponymous boulevard. It is here that the story turns into a kind of horror film, as he meets the monster, a has-been silent-film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She is first viewed in a long-shot, through venetian blinds. When we do see her she is something out of Grand Guignol, her hands frequently twisted into claws, clutching an absurd cigarette holder. She mistakes Holden for an undertaker who has come to tend to her dead chimpanzee ("He must have been an important chimp," Holden says, "The great-grandson of King Kong, maybe"). Little does he know that he will be the replacement for that chimp, as Swanson, served faithfully by her creepy butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim) draw him into their world just like Dracula. In fact, her house, a decrepit mansion in the Italian Renaissance style, is a bit like Dracula's castle, with rats in the swimming pool and Max playing haunted-house music on the organ.

But as with the best monsters, Norma Desmond is sympathetic. She was a huge star, now reduced to wallowing in her memories, surrounded by the trappings of her past life and living in a lie, fueled by Max, who duplicitously sends her fan letters. She's been working on a script telling the story of Salome, and wants Cecil B. DeMille to direct. She offers Holden a job to help her finish it, and being desperate, he takes it. Even when she has all his belongings moved in, starts buying him expensive clothing, and he realizes he's something of a prisoner, he stays. He hates himself too much to do otherwise.

Enter Betty Schaefer, played winsomely by Nancy Olson, a reader at Paramount who believes that Holden is capable of writing a good script. He starts collaborating with her on the sly, and they fall in love. But the controlling Desmond gets jealous, and does her best to break them up.

It's interesting to watch this film and realize how edgy it really is. Wilder could have used fictionalized much of it, but he doesn't. He doesn't use a fictional studio--it's Paramount, and the recognizable Bronson Gate is used prominently (as is Schwab's Pharmacy). Several real names are used, and several people appear as themselves, from Buster Keaton to Hedda Hopper to DeMille himself, who has an extended cameo in a great scene where he hosts Swanson as she appears, like Cleopatra on a barge, at her old stomping grounds. In fact, the casting of both Swanson and von Stroheim were both very close to the bone. Swanson was a huge silent-film star, but though her film career had been dormant, she had continued to work on stage and in radio. She was hired after Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri all passed. Von Stroheim's situation was even more eerily similar, as we learn that not only did Max discover Desmond and direct her great pictures, but he was even her first husband. In one scene Max screens for Holden and Swanson one of Norma's old pictures, and it is an actual Swanson film, Queen Kelly, that von Stroheim directed. It was a huge flop and helped end his directorial career. It was von Stroheim that suggested that Wilder use it.

The film has a great legacy, mostly in Swanson's performance. It's a very tricky business, as she must be totally over the top but rooted in some kind of reality, and she manages it brilliantly. Of course she has given drag queens everywhere material for a lifetime, mainly in three memorable lines: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small;" "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces;" and then her famous last scene, when she slowly moves down the staircase, surrounded by cops and gawkers, her mind totally gone, and she looks straight into the camera and says,"You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Incredibly, Swanson did not win the Oscar. She may have lost because in the same category was Bette Davis, playing a similar type in All About Eve, and they both lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Holden, von Stroheim and Olson were all nominated, but the film won only three awards: for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Musical Score (Franz Waxman). It lost Best Picture to All About Eve, a worthy competitor and surely there are no excuses necessary, but one wonders whether there were movie people who found Sunset Boulevard just a little too disturbing. The cynicism drips, mostly in Holden's dialogue and voice-overs, such as when he remarks that he once wrote a picture about Okies in the Dust Bowl, only it ended up being played out on a torpedo boat, or when he pitches a baseball movie to an executive and he wonders aloud if it might be turned into a Betty Hutton vehicle. Of course, there was also the fairly obvious tawdry relationship between Norma and Gillis, most seedily exemplified by a scene in a men's store in which Norma is outfitting him with expensive clothing. A salesman, who knows exactly what is going on, suggests that Gillis get the vicuna coat--after all, if the lady is paying for it, why not get the most expensive coat?

Though the film is about Hollywood, like any great film, a layer can be peeled back to reveal a greater and more universal theme. Swanson and Holden are figures locked together, doomed to destroy each other. But in the end, each of three characters gets what they want: Swanson gets her return to film, even if it's a slow descent into madness in front of newsreel cameramen; von Stroheim gets the chance to direct again, though it is Desmond's mad scene; and Gillis gets that pool he always wanted.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Human Element

It's been almost two weeks since the game that has created much opprobrium in the baseball world--the perfect game that wasn't. I haven't had a chance to comment until now, and in that time I'm mulled over the two key issues at the heart of the controversy: should commissioner Bud Selig have overruled the umpire's incorrect call of safe on the runner, which cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game; and should baseball institute further instant replay challenges?

This game dealt with my favorite team, and I must start by saying I didn't see this happen live, and I'm glad I didn't. If I had seen a pitcher for my team jobbed out of a no-hitter and a perfect game by a bad call by an umpire I would have been sick. As it was I heard about it the next morning, so it was already a done deal. Of course, when I saw the replay, it became apparent to me, as to everyone else, that the umpire, Jim Joyce, blew the call.

And, to some astonishment, Joyce knew it, too. As the story reached a national level, being commented on by straight news outlets, it grew a pleasant veneer, as the two men involved, Galarraga and Joyce, exhibited sterling sportsmanship. Galarraga, raising his glove after receiving the toss from Miguel Cabrera, certain he had accomplished a feat that had only happened twenty other times in baseball history (more men have walked on the moon that have thrown perfect games) registered the umpire's call of safe, and then smiled. I understood that smile immediately--it was a kind of facial shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, "well, I guess the gods weren't with me on that one. So be it." Other Tiger players and coaches weren't so kind, and Joyce received an insistent chewing out. But when he saw the replay he owned up to his mistake in a way that removed all anger from anyone who had a beef. Galarraga, in a post-game interview, summed it up: "We're all human."

So, should the call have been overturned by Selig? He has the power to, in the best interests of baseball, whatever that means. Initially I was against him doing it, and even after he took a lot of heat for not doing it, I'm still of the same mind. I'm against the commissioner changing a play on the field that does not involve a rules interpretation (there is a procedure for protesting games based on rules interpretation, but a call at first base like this one lies outside that).

This generated a lot of chest-thumping on both sides. I watched a lot of very smart people and devoted baseball fans say, "Of course he should change it," and an equal number of those who say, "Of course he shouldn't." I don't know of a recent issue in baseball that's been so polarizing. Arguments for a change point out that we all saw that the guy was out, why should we stubbornly resist the advances of technology and cling to the pastoral purist hokum that baseball engenders? It would also take the heat off the umpire, who will have to go through life known as the guy who blew the perfect game call. On the other side is that pastoral purist hokum, which is unique to baseball and a great part of its charm. Let other, new-fangled sports use dozens of cameras to solve tough decisions. In baseball, it all rests on the human element. Beyond that, we would all like to go back and change things that have happened in our lives, things that we've done that we lie awake in bed at night and rue that we were too stupid or immature to have avoided doing. But we've done them, we can't go back, and we have to live with the consequences. Why should that be different in sports?

The second question involves replay. I'm a little more likely to give on that one. We already have replay for questioning whether a ball clears a fence for a home run. Should we extend it to other plays, most notably out or safe at bases, or foul balls? Probably, but how?

Calls at first base would be a natural, as it wouldn't interrupt the flow of the game. This is not true of certain calls, such as whether a ball is fair or foul. For example, an ump blew a call on a ball hit by Twins catcher Joe Mauer in last year's playoffs. The ball clearly landed inside the leftfield-line, but the ump called it foul. But it couldn't be replayed--Mauer had stopped running, and the fielder had stopped chasing it, once it was called foul. You can't overturn something like that. Plays at the other bases could also be replayed, provided that overturning them doesn't alter things that are irrevocable.

Balls and strikes should also not be subject to review, although ironically this aspect of the game is most ripe for technological overthrow. It would be easy to remove the umpire from this task entirely, simply having a computer determine the strike zone through use of a camera, adjustable for each batter, and then if the ball hits inside the zone it's a strike, if not it's a ball. This would eliminate the way strike zones change with different umps (and would also return the high strike, which hasn't been called in decades). It will never happen, though.

If we get expanded replay, how should it be handled? Should manager's get challenges, like coaches do in football? Not a bad idea, but imperfect. What if Tiger manager Jim Leyland had already used a challenge in Galarraga's game? Being out of challenges would take us back to the central problem. I think there should be a fifth umpire in the booth, who could signal the crew chief. That fifth umpire would be the eyes for the play (no need for the silly spectacle of the umpires leaving the field to look at a replay) and would be the sole arbiter of whether to overturn or not. It would take a matter of seconds.

In the long run, this may be a blessing for Armando Galarraga. First of all, he was an unknown pitcher who now has a special place in baseball lore, right there with Ernie Shore and Harvey Haddix, who had perfect games of a sort but officially do not. In 1917 Babe Ruth started a game for the Red Sox. He walked the first batter, but in arguing the call with the ump was ejected from the game. Shore came in in relief, Ruth's runner was thrown out attempting to steal, and Shore retired the next 26 batters. A perfect game of sorts, but not really. In 1959 Haddix was perfect for 12 innings, but his team, the Pirates, couldn't score against the Braves. He lost the game in the 13th. To these footnote players in baseball history we can now add Armando Galarraga.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Flannery

In his splendid biography of Flannery O'Connor, titled simply Flannery, Brad Gooch chooses as an epigram one of O'Connor's statements: "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Indeed, on the surface, O'Connor's life was not exactly a thrill a minute. She spent most of her life living with her family in Milledgeville, Georgia. She never married, and appeared not to have any serious romances. She spent half of her short life suffering from the effects of lupus, which killed her at the age of 39.

But in her short life she wrote two novels and 31 short stories that are searing portraits of the Southern grotesque, snapshots of the freaks of society and those who live just outside the edges, many of them dealing with abrupt and cruel violence. O'Connor was also a devoted Catholic, and well read on the various aspects of theology, which permeates her work as it etched by lightning.

O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, and moved to Milledgeville when she was a young girl. She began writing early, but was interested in cartooning while in high school and then college. Gooch describes one her collegiate drawings: "portraying a 'wall-flower' of a girl in a long striped skirt, with glasses, sitting alone, watching other couples dance. The caption: 'Oh well, I can always be a Ph.D.'"

O'Connor then went on to study at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and then spent some time at the Yaddo Artist's Colony near Saratoga Springs, New York, where she spent time with some of the great writers of the era, such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Accounts like these are always heady to me, and I can quite envious of people who can live like this, writing full-time and seemingly without worrying about money.

Her first great success was her novel, Wise Blood, but she also at about the time of the publication of that book learned she had lupus, the same disease that had killed her father. She became debilitated by it, spending much of her time on crutches. She continued to write, though, living on her mother's farm, tending to her chickens and her growing collection of peafowl. She was socially awkward, but by no means a recluse, having many friends and giving many speeches. She died in 1964.

Inspired by reading this book, I addressed a gap in my education by reading some of her stories. I have a dear friend who is an English professor that teaches O'Connor, and I asked her which stories I should read. I read about ten of them, and they are all amazing, the kind of stories that widen your eyes and make the hairs on your arms stand on end. I think her greatest story is "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which depicts a family driving to Florida. The grandmother brings along her cat, who gets out of its carrier and jumps on the driver, leading them to turn over into a ditch. Some people stop to help, but it turns out they are escaped criminals. Things do not end well for this family. Then there's "Good Country People," which involves a Bible salesman who seduces a one-legged woman. They end up in a hayloft, and he steals her wooden leg. Or "The Lame Shall Enter First," about a do-gooding social worker who is determined to save a wayward youth with tragic consequences, or "The Artificial Nigger," about a grandfather and grandson who take a train trip to Atlanta and get lost in the black section of town. As indicated by the title of that story, O'Connor did not shy away from the incendiary racial relations of the time. Another story of this type is "Everything That Rises Must Converge," in which a woman and her son board an integrated bus, and things will change forever.

These stories are so bracing they are like slaps to the face. But her language is also supple and incredibly expressive, with similes that break the heart. From "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," she describes a woman's face: "as broad and innocent as a cabbage." From "The Life You Save May Be Your Own": "The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet's head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree."

Like any late convert to a cause, I'll be urging any of my literate friends who haven't already discovered O'Connor's words to rush right out and read whatever they can their hands on of hers. She may have spent most of her life between the house and the chicken yard, but the rest was spent at a typewriter, spinning gold.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Georgy Girl

When Lynn Redgrave died last month, I bumped the film that she's best known for, 1966's Georgy Girl, up in my Netflix queue, but I wasn't the only one who had that idea, as it became a long wait for it to finally arrive. But it has arrived, and I watched it last night, and it's an interesting artifact from the Swinging London period of British films, and also has one of the most recognizable theme songs of any film, which even now is running through my head like a runaway horse.

Redgrave was in her early twenties when the she made the film, playing a plump, plain but spirited girl. She is the daughter of domestics who work for the rich and perpetually bemused James Mason. She teaches music to small children, employing a lot of modern ideas, and shares a flat with a beautiful but heartless violinist (Charlotte Rampling), who has a boyfriend (Alan Bates).

Though Georgy is supposed to be disheveled and unattractive, she ends up fending off the advances of both Mason and Bates. Mason, who was a father-figure to her, paying for her expensive education, proposes that she become his mistress, and he's even typed up contracts for the arrangement. Bates and Rampling marry after the latter gets pregnant, but he realizes he's in love with Georgy, and the two share an assignation while Rampling gives birth. However Rampling has no interest in the baby, and Georgy takes custody of it.

The film, directed by Silvio Narrizano, is typical of the era. Shot in muddy black and white in almost guerrilla style, it calls to mind other British films of the era like The Knack, Billy Liar, and even A Hard Days' Night. Redgrave, Mason, and the song, which was a big hit for The Seekers (with lyrics written by actor Jim Dale) were Oscar-nominated. In fact, that year one of the Redgrave's rivals in the Best Actress category was her sister, Vanessa, nominated for Morgan.

Viewed today, it's mostly enjoyable for its ties to another time and place, and for being ahead of its time. I was a little shocked at how abortion was so frankly discussed. I think it would also make for interesting conversation in a women's studies class, as the choices Georgy makes for her happiness are a bit mind-bending. In some ways she's a feminist, in others a throwback to 19th century.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Clean

In my review of In the Mood for Love, I marveled at the talent and beauty of Maggie Cheung, and that is even more on display in Olivier Assayas' 2004 film Clean, in which Cheung gives a bravura performance. I'm still scratching my head at how she's avoided making any Hollywood films. Maybe she knows better.

In Clean, Cheung plays the wife of a rock star attempting a comeback. Raised in England, she became something of a minor celebrity as an MTV host in France, and is also a junkie. The couple's son is being raised by the husband's parents (the father is played by Nick Nolte). During a stop in Canada, Cheung goes out to buy heroin, and while she shoots up while in a car by a river, her husband dies of an overdose.

Cheung is jailed and completely humbled. Nolte, who is much more sympathetic to her than most people would be, tells her that he will continue to raise the child, but wants her to be able to see him, but not right away. First she must clean up her act. She agrees, and goes back to Paris, groveling for a job.

Cheung's performance is better than the film, but I don't mean to suggest that it's in any way a bad film. It's a familiar subject--a character that hits bottom and must seek redemption, but to Assayas' credit it doesn't follow all the familiar plot points. Throughout the entirety of the film I had no idea where it was going next. Even when the dreaded "missing child" scene pops up, I was heartened that it didn't resolve as most of these things do (for an example of how they shouldn't work, see Crazy Heart).

Cheung is on almost every scene and covers the gamut of emotions (she also speaks three different languages during the film). At the outset she is a tornado of action, defying her husband's managers attempt to sign him to a record label. This is contrasted with her behavior after her arrest, when she is hardly able to speak more than monosyllabically, completely bested by life's blows. Her struggle for redemption hits highs and lows, but at no point did I feel Cheung was opting for the easy way out--she is true to the character and the script, and by the end, when she breaks down in tears in view of the Golden Gate Bridge, one can sense that the character has completed a journey, though the ending itself is ambiguous. A fine film, a great performance.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Zombieland

Zombieland is a largely harmless, moderately entertaining spin on the growing list of zombie movies, though I must be pedantic here and point out that a zombie, strictly speaking and based on the Afro-Caribbean origin of the word, is a reanimated corpse. Zombieland concerns the after-effects of a virus that makes people turn into cannibals. So to start off with, the premise of the title is completely wrong.

But this film is not a PhD thesis, it is a disposable bit of fun, much like a Twinkie, the food that star Woody Harrelson craves throughout the whole story. It's also appropriate that the climax of the film is in a second-rate amusement park, for watching it reminds one of the experience of going on a ride that lasts for all of a minute and leaves one wondering what all the fuss was about.

The story takes place in an America post-virus, where most of the population has been afflicted and craves human flesh (why they don't turn on each other is never completely explained). Four hearty survivors band together. They know each other by the city of their destination--Columbus, a spindly collection of tics and phobias (Jesse Eisenberg), who seems to have wandered in from a Woody Allen movie; Tallahassee (Harrelson), a gun-toting redneck; and Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), scam-running sisters who initially con the men out of their car and weapons. The actors are all appealing. Eisenberg's character is one he has played before--it's essentially the same guy from Adventureland (another film set in an amusement park). One wonders whether twenty or thirty years from now he and Michael Cera, the other actor currently specializing in nebbish heroes, will have a momentous scene together a la Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat.

The film was directed by Ruben Fleischer, and he uses a large bag of visual tricks, such as superimposing graphics on the screen (Eisenberg has a long list of rules of survival) to distract us from the thin story. There's a long middle section featuring an extended cameo by Bill Murray that's very funny, but has the unintended effect of making the rest of the film seem like a let-down. I was also a bit put off by the disturbing glee of the carnage on display. Sure, it's a zombie film, but these characters enjoyed their violent streaks a little too much.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Cold Souls

In the theater, the adjective Kaufmanesque refers to a play similar to the style of comedies written by George S. Kaufman. I think that in film Kaufmanesque is also a valid term, referring to the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman, who has written mind-bending work like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaption, and Synechdoche, New York, which all deal with stretched definitions of reality. Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, seems like watered-down Kaufman, using an idea that he might have come up with but not utilizing it nearly as cleverly as he does.

As in Being John Malkovich, Barthes has her star, Paul Giamatti, playing himself (or a version of himself). He is an actor struggling during rehearsals of Uncle Vanya. His agent puts him on to a business that extracts the soul and then stores it, allowing one to think clearly and be unburdened by whatever burdens the soul has. Giamatti finally has it done, and is surprised when his soul turns out to be size and shape of a chickpea.

We then learn that there is an active black market for souls, and that poor people in Russia sell them. They are then transported via "mules," to the U.S., where rich people can have them implanted, choosing them much the way a woman chooses her sperm donor. When the Russian marketeer's vapid wife wants the soul of an American actor, one of the mules (Dina Korzun) steals Giamatti's, but tells her boss that it's the soul of Al Pacino. Giamatti finds he can't act without his soul, and his wife (Emily Watson) senses he's different, so he wants it back.

Much of this plays like an old Twilight Zone episode, or more precisely, an episode of The Simpsons that featured Bart selling his soul to Milhous and then desperately wanting it back. In that 22-minute cartoon more was said about what the true nature of the soul is than this film, which seemed to regard the whole thing as a mordant joke. Parts of it were engaging--I liked Giamatti acting badly without his soul--but most of it came off as a bleak, grim, small film that didn't have much to say. After watching it I have no greater idea about what the soul--if we have one--means to us, or what it does.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

In the "What Took You So Long?" department, I finally got around to reading Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its publications this summer. Of course I have seen the film a few times, but it was great to get a chance to read the source, which is a kind of child adventure layered with dark overtones.

The book, published in 1960, but set in 1930s Alabama, is about many things, but mostly about courage and race. Narrated by Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the story took place when she was six to nine years old. She and her older brother, Jem, live with their widowed father, Atticus, who is an attorney. They have a Tom Sawyer-like existence, playing with their friend Dill, mostly fascinated by boogie-man stories about a recluse, Boo Radley, who lives in a house down the street but is never seen.

Scout is a tomboy with a lot of sass. She gets in trouble quite a bit--her first day of school finds the teacher telling her to stop reading with her father, as it will throw off her teaching methods. She's quick to fight other kids who she feels are slighting her, but her father's most persistent lesson is that a person has to try to understand what it's like to be that other person, to walk around in their shoes a bit. The other big lesson is that of the title--it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, because they don't harm anyone. All they do is bring pleasure to folks with their singing.

This lesson will resonate with the Boo Radley subplot, but also with what ends to be the main plot--Atticus has been asked to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been charged with raping a white woman. The trial simmers throughout the book, as the children come to be affected by it when townsfolk give them dirty looks, or when one woman out and out calls their father a "nigger-lover." They end up watching the trial from the balcony with the black folks, and though the man is clearly innocent he is convicted, which Atticus knew he would be from the start.

The book is much beloved, but has also caused controversy through the years. Some have tried to ban it for the oft-used "N" word, but it seems to me that to not use it would be dishonest. Certainly white people used that word in the deep south (and almost everywhere else) in the 1930s. The criticism of the depiction of black characters in the book has a little more weight, as they are either the noble, stoic Tom Robinson, or the stereotypical Calpurnia, who is the Finch's cook, a kind of twentieth-century version of the contented house slave. Those criticisms certainly are accurate with the benefit of hindsight, but I have a hard time imagining black people of Alabama of the time to behave any differently--there was no black power back then. This is stressed in the fact that Atticus knows he has no chance with Tom's case, that no jury of white men will ever take the word of a black man over a white woman, even in the evidence is overwhelming.

It's not only race that divides the characters. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus' sister who comes to live with them, is constantly pointing out how even whites have their caste. When Scout wants to play with Walter Cunningham, she is disallowed by her aunt, because he is from a lower status. This rigid conformity to these roles permeate the book.

The character of Atticus Finch has gone on to have one of the great legacies of American letters, amplified by Gregory Peck's performance in the film. He is a patient man with his children, but has also come to represent the ideals of the legal profession, as many lawyers today say they entered the profession because of him. His speech, in which he idealistically posits that the courts are the "great levelers" is one of the greatest courtroom speeches ever written. But beyond that, his simple decency shines through, although he is really a secondary character of the book--he sort of hovers around the periphery of Scout's world, entering when she needs him, but mostly either reading the newspaper or attending the state legislature. His words are austere but powerful, such as when Jem asks him, after the verdict, "How could they do it, how could they?" and Atticus replies, "I don't know, but they did it. They've done if before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it--seems that only children weep."

It is his quiet courage that is held up for admiration in the book. His children have never known him to fire a gun, so they are therefore astonished when he is called upon to shoot a rabid dog--it turns out he was a great shot as a youth, but prefers not to shoot anymore. When confronted by an angry white man who spits on him, he turns the other cheek, and when the man asks him if he's too proud to fight, Atticus says no, he's too old. He represents the form of non-violent protest that was started by Gandhi and then carried on by Martin Luther King.

Lee's style is honeyed Southern syntax. One falls into the rhythms early, such as when Scout describes her hometown of Maycomb: "Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

Throughout the book are many wry observations by Scout, surely formed by the years that have passed since the book's event. My favorite was when she mentions a character named Braxton Bragg Underwood: "Atticus said naming people after Confederate generals made slow steady drinkers."

Harper Lee never wrote another book, and makes few public appearances. She was a character in two different movies recently, both concerning her association with Truman Capote, who was a childhood friend (and the basis for the character of Dill). The book has never gone out of print, and was recently proclaimed by British librarians as the one book everyone should read before they die, even ahead of the Bible. Not everyone loved it--fellow Southern writers Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers were hesitant in their praise--O'Connor said it was really a children's book. And yes, it is a children's book, in the sense that an ugly situation like racial prejudice is seen through the eyes of a child, and when it is it becomes even more ridiculous, sad, and tragic.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

When I reviewed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a movie I disliked with some intensity, I mentioned that I would like to see an entire film based on one of the supporting characters, the louche rock star played by Russell Brand. Well, writer/director Nicholas Stoller has heard that call and done just that. It's only fair that I go out to see Get Him to the Greek. I'm glad to say that it's a much better film than FSM, buoyed mostly by the appealing performances of Brand and Jonah Hill as a winning odd couple.

The plot is one of those one-sentence pitches they trumpet in screenwriting books. A sad-sack, low level cubicle dweller (Hill) of a record company mentions to his boss that it is close to the ten-year anniversary of a historic concert given by rock god Aldous Snow (Brand) at Los Angeles' Greek Theater, and it would be a good idea to stage an event to celebrate. The boss (Sean Combs, in an enthusiastic if not technically proficient performance) agrees, and sends Hill to London to fetch Brand. The whole concept of the movie is spelled out thusly--"You have 72 hours to get him to the Greek." Of course, those 72 hours won't be easy for our protagonist, an overweight schmoe who loves music but has little idea how to interact with musicians.

What follows is a race against time, as Hill lands in London, somehow gets Brand on a plane (but not before an evening of clubbing) to New York, where he then manages to get him to perform on the Today Show. The two make an unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, where Brand visits his cantankerous father (Colm Meaney), who is now a guitarist for a Rat Pack tribute show. As it is a law that any cinematic visit to Vegas results in some sort of drug-fueled riot, the two barely escape with their lives, and make it to L.A. with time to spare, but will Brand be able to defeat his demons and actually play the gig?

Most of this is a lot of fun, and there are a generous number of laughs. Stoller's most reliable gambit is to satirize the cult of celebrity, particular in the music business. Admittedly, that's an easy target, but most of the arrows land. There are a couple of terrific music video parodies, such as Brand's disastrous song "African Child," which sends up the rock world's perhaps glib efforts to help the poor: "I heard there was a war in Zimbabwe, Darfur, Rwanda, one of those countries," Brand says. His ex-girlfriend, played appealingly by Rose Byrne, is a Posh Spice-type model/singer who has a hit called "Ring Around My Dirty Posey." In fact, that's only one of the many references to anal penetration that abound in the film.

Where the film doesn't work is its predictably maudlin gooey center. The character of Aldous Snow, pumped up from a simple joke from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is given more depth, and it's a familiar refrain--a world-famous celebrity, loved by millions, is in reality lonely. Hill's subplot involves his doctor girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), with whom he has settled into a domesticity that's too cozy to allow for wild nights. The worst scene in the film has Brand initiating these two into a sexual threesome that has no rhyme or reason to it, and is badly directed, written and acted.

The best parts of Get Him to the Greek are those that exist in the moment, such as when Brand, running from a crazed Combs out of a Las Vegas hotel, has an expression of sheer delight on his face that sums his character in toto--the guy loves adventure. As long as the film sticks with moments like that, and leaves the Oprah moments behind, it works. Brand and Hill make a terrific team, and even if its something of a cliche--the slim, tall, sexy Brand and the rotund, sweaty, socially awkward Hill--whenever they're in some kind of jam it's a pleasure to see them work their way out of it. And, I should add, there are some great cameos, none so more than by Paul Krugman.

One final note--I don't know that I've ever seen a trailer for a film that has so many moments in it that did not make the final film.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Drag Me to Hell

You can palpably sense the joy that Sam Raimi has invested in his film Drag Me to Hell, released last year. After directing three Spider-Man pictures, which must have felt like running a small country, Raimi returns to his cheesy horror roots with this wonderfully campy fright flick. From the grinning skull logo of the production company, Ghost House, to the very last image, any fan of pure horror can't be disappointed.

Allison Lohman stars as a meek loan officer in a Los Angeles bank. She is bucking for a promotion, and when her boss makes it clear that he expects her to make tough decisions, she takes it out an old gypsy woman asking for an extension on her mortgage. The old woman begs her, but Lohman tremulously sticks to her guns and turns her down. She then gets attacked by the same old woman in her car (in a sensationally-edited scene involving a stapler) and then gets cursed. Things go really bad when a goat-horned demon starts tormenting her.

Instead of bloody gore, Raimi giddily uses a wide variety of body fluids and creepy crawlies to get a rise out of the audience. Lohman spews blood out of her nose, gets vomited on, and there's a memorable scene at the end in which she needs to open a grave at the end of the film and ends up covered in mud. All of this is done with pitch perfect tone by Raimi--it's never too serious, and there's just enough winking going on to keep it fun at all times.

I do wonder about the poor gypsies, though. They don't seem to have an anti-defamation league. Ever since the Universal horror movies of the 1930s they've been associated with some bad shit going down. This film isn't particularly kind of the frailties of the elderly, either, specifically dentures.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Half Broke Horses

The seventh book of the New York Times Ten Best of 2009 is a "true life novel" by Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses. It is, simply put, the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who lived a peripatetic life in the American Southwest during the first half of the twentieth century, mostly teaching in one-room schools and working on ranches.

Many of us have listened to stories told by elderly relatives, and some of them are pretty good, and Walls has done a fine job capturing the voice of her grandmother (the story is told in first person). We can almost feel like we're sitting on a porch, hearing the stories told aloud, with a kind of quaint American speech (using mild epithets like referring to her first husband as a "crumb-bum," or euphemizing anger as "that fried my bacon").

And Lily Casey Smith had a fairly interesting life. She began life in West Texas, and the first episode of the book shows how she saved her younger siblings in a flood. She went home and was told that it was her mother's prayers and a guardian angel that saved them. "The way I saw it, I was the one who'd saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel." The family then moves to New Mexico and young Lily learns how to break horses, but after a few years in a convent school, she heads off to Arizona, alone and on horseback, on a 500-mile trip to take a job teaching school. She was fifteen.

Over the course of her life, she will bounce around from school to school (she often butts heads with authorities, such as when she insists on teaching young Mormon girls that there's a world outside of their compound), a time spent in Chicago, where she marries her first husband (who is indeed a crumb-bum) and then ending up back in Arizona, where she marries and with her husband manages a large ranch. Lily is always up for adventure, as she learns to love automobiles and then even takes flying lessons.

Walls clearly has not elaborated too much on her grandmother's life, as there are chapters that aren't as interesting as others. The first half of the book is much more fraught with excitement than the last, when we get a short chapter on how Lily gets dentures. Most of the second half of the book is taken up with the sometimes difficult relationship she has with her daughter, Rosemary (Walls' mother, and the subject of a Walls memoir). But overall the book is a nice, quick read, and would be very appropriate for younger readers. It is written in a very sparse, matter-of-fact style, without a superfluous word, but occasionally this can be very powerful, as the opening sentence of a chapter following a family tragedy: "When people kill themselves, they think they're ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind." It takes a lot of work to create a sentence that simple yet that moving.