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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America is a cracklingly good documentary from Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith about Daniel Ellsberg and his leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a bit of recent history that doesn't hurt for any of us to be reminded of. It's not a stretch to say that Ellsberg's actions fundamentally altered the course of United States history, both in the attitudes about the Vietnam War, and also because it set the Nixon administration on its path to self-destruction.

Ellsberg was a military analyst for the Rand Corporation, a former Marine who was fully on board with the war in Vietnam. After meeting anti-war activists, though, he changed his mind. He endeavored to Xerox the 47-volume, 7,000-page Pentagon Papers, a history of the conflict prepared under Kennedy and Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, which outlined wholesale lying to the American public about the nature of the war and its origins. He then leaked the papers to the New York Times, which published them in 1971.

By now Nixon was president, and the administration got an injunction to have the publishing stop. But soon other papers took up the banner, and a junior senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel (who had a brief but memorable run for President in 2008) read the papers into the Congressional record, which meant they were now available to anyone in the public. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, and faced several years in jail, but as he said to a reporter, "Wouldn't you go to jail to stop this war?"

The film points out that it wasn't really the contents of the papers that stirred Americans--in fact, Ellsberg was disappointed in the lack of response. But his leak had unforeseen consequences. The administration, with Nixon's approval, set up the "plumbers" unit, led by Egil "Bud" Krogh (who appears on camera, apologetically) to "get" Ellsberg. The result was a break-in at his psychiatrist's office. This bit of presidentially-sanctioned burglary was just the first step in the criminality of Nixon and his men. The film makes great use of Nixon's own words on his office tapes (my favorite: Nixon referring to Vietnam as a "shit-ass" country).

Be warned--the filmmakers clearly believe Ellsberg is a hero. He fully cooperates, even going so far as to narrate. His wife, Patricia, who was an activist as well (the couple broke up early in their relationship over their differences on the war) provides commentary that fully develops Ellsberg as a human being, and not just a historical footnote. I'm sure there are many who think that Ellsberg should have been locked in jail, and they no doubt would hate every frame of the film. It was one of the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Documentary last year--typically liberal Hollywood!

Friday, July 30, 2010

I Am Love

It's been almost twenty-four hours since seeing Luca Guadagnino's film I Am Love, and over that course of that time my feelings about the film have started to gel. While walking out of it I didn't know what to think, and was kind of frustrated, but as I've thought back on it my opinion has gone up somewhat. I liked it, but still have some reservations.

The film deals with a bourgeoisie family in Milan. We begin at a birthday dinner for the patriarch, a man who owns a textile factory. He uses the occasion to hand over the reins to his son and grandson. His daughter-in-law (Tilda Swinton), is a Russian woman who has become totally assimiliated into the Italian life-style.

I knew almost nothing about this film going in, and I'm glad I didn't, because I had no idea where it was going. It was almost an hour into the film before the conflict arose. Up until that time it was a not uninteresting look at the members of the family, focusing on Swinton, and somewhat less on her son Edo and daughter Betta, who was in school in London and dealing with her sexuality.

A secondary character, Edo's friend Antonio, a chef, then moves to the forefront. I won't say more, but the plot development isn't particularly novel. The climax of the film is quite melodramatic, and recalls a kind of stodgy moralism from the nineteenth-century. Indeed, the name of Tolstoy is dropped during the course of the film, perhaps as a link to Anna Karenina. Like that novel, the trangression of adultery is dealt with harshly, and a character is made to suffer tragedy as punishment.

The film does have more layers than a simple tale of adultery, though. There's a great deal about business, as the family considers selling the company to make it more global (this is represented by a buyer who is both an American and a Sikh--certainly exotic for Italy). But the most dominant theme of the film is food as a metaphor for love. Two dinner parties bookend the film, and there is much made of the preparation of food. A dish of prawns triggers lust in one character, while a Russian fish dish turns out to be a huge plot point. Though it isn't as prevalent here as films such as Big Night or Babette's Feast, if the Food Network ever started running films they could show I Am Love.

Guadagnino's camera work is at times startling. It borders on film-school preciousness but ultimately avoids it, as he uses many quick cuts and closeups. He also makes great use of the weather, as the film starts in winter (I would have never dreamed it could snow in Milan) and then culminates in a drowsy summer in the mountains. Of course he also makes great use of the prodigious talents of Swinton, who gives a very restrained but percolating performance. She is certainly one of the best actresses working today.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Satchel

I always try to read one book about baseball a year; this year it's the fascinating story of Satchel Paige, the great pitcher of the Negro Leagues who was cursed by time to just miss a chance to pitch in his prime in the Major Leagues, but nonetheless has become an American legend.

Written by Larry Tye, the book is an excellent study of both Paige, the Negro Leagues, and Jim Crow America. Unlike too many baseball books, Tye writes straightforwardly, without the flourishes that were common in vintage sports reporting. He writes about the subject objectively, and not in breathless prose, taking a stand-back approach on the many grandiose claims that Paige made about his career. Some of them, it turns out, may be true--he certainly won far more games than Cy Young, and had far more strikeouts than Nolan Ryan.

Paige, who was born Leroy Robert Page in Mobile, Alabama in 1906 (his birth date was much speculated on), spent his early years in a reform school, and then joined the Negro Leagues in the 1920s. He was one of the dominant pitchers in those leagues for twenty years, but there was little record-keeping, and with a sport like baseball, which is dominated by numbers, Paige's gifts have relied on word-of-mouth. From first-hand accounts it is known that he had a blazing fastball and pinpoint control, and also pitched all-year round. He also jumped teams often--it is said over his career he played for 250 different teams, including barnstorming teams, and teams in places as far flung as South America, North Dakota, California, Puerto Rico and Alaska. He even played for a Jewish House of David team.

Through it all Paige was a big gate attraction. He was an original, a bit of combination of Muhammad Ali and Yogi Berra (once asked if he could pitch fast consistently, he answered, "No, I can do it all the time.") He also loved the finer things, like cars, clothes, and shotguns. He was married three times, with two of his wives overlapping.

At the height of his fame, Paige was earning $40,000 a year, the same that Joe DiMaggio was earning. Of course, Paige had to earn that playing all year-round, and in places where it may be hard for him to find a restaurant or hotel that would serve him. When the color barrier was broken, it was thought Paige might be the first to do so, but Jackie Robinson, a younger and blander man, was chosen instead. Tye reports that though Paige was outwardly supportive of Robinson, privately he and many other Negro League stars were resentful, as Robinson was not close to being the best Negro player. Paige got his chance in 1948, setting a record as the oldest rookie, when Bill Veeck signed him to the Cleveland Indians. He pitched in relief and had a few starts, including two consecutive shutouts, and packed houses. That year he was the first black hurler to pitch in a World Series.

Paige continued to pitch well into his fifties. Veeck was his primary benefactor, bringing him to the St. Louis Browns and then the minor league Miami Marlins. Another owner who appreciated publicity, Charlie Finley, hired Paige in 1965, when he was 59. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City Royals, setting a record for the oldest player even in the majors, a record unlikely to be broken, unless it's by Jamie Moyer.

In 1971 Paige became the first player who primarily played in the Negro Leagues to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but at first, incredibly, he and other Negro Leaguers were going to be put in a different category. Tye doesn't hide his indignance that after all these years the Hall was going to engage in "separate but equal," which the courts had ruled unconstitutional a generation earlier. Finally sanity prevailed, and Paige's plaque hangs right alongside the white players, who had the chances he never did.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Winter's Bone

One of the best things about Winter's Bone, a film by Debra Granik, is that it takes us to a place many of us don't know. In this instance it's the Missouri Ozarks, a place where the characters all have guns, many have pickups rusting in their front yards, and the local economy seems to be fueled by the manufacture of methamphetamines. This is the land dismissively called "fly-over country" by the sneering elitists, but it's a place full of great stories and is uniquely American.

Winter's Bone, co-written by Granik and Anne Rosselini from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a clear-eyed look at the poverty of the region. Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is raising her younger brother and sister and caring for her mother, who has been emotionally damaged. Her father is elsewhere, and as the film begins she finds out from the sheriff that he put up their house as collateral for a bail bond. If he doesn't show up to trial, the house is lost. Thus we have a simple plot but many layers of texture.

Lawrence begins her search, mostly on foot, a wool cap fitted snugly over her head. She starts with her uncle, a menacing figure played by John Hawkes. She moves on to more people, some of them also relatives, but none of them willing to talk. Clearly Lawrence's father caused some people problems. Though she is told to stop her search, she presses on, determined not to doom her siblings and mother to homelessness.

I come from people who lived in rural Kentucky and Ohio, so I got a sense of how authentic this film is. The people are taciturn and resilient, in many cases living off the land (Lawrence shows her siblings how to skin a squirrel). The women have years of experience etched in their faces, but defer to the men (one woman, Dale Dickey, asks Lawrence if she doesn't have a man to take care of this for her). The men are also hard-worn, given to scraggly facial hair and patriotic clothing, and are determined to keep their way of life a secret.

This film is beautiful to look at it, though in many ways it is an ugly beauty. The photography by Michael McDonough is at times breathtaking in the way it captures the stark scenery of the area, with the nearly dilapidated houses and austere woods. I don't believe there's a scene in which the sun is shining, and though I saw the film on a hot day I could feel the cold.

The acting is also terrific. Lawrence is the revelation. She resembles Renee Zellweger, but without her annoying mannerisms. The performance is without trickery and brutally honest, especially in a scene where she is roughed up by some women and suggests they either kill her or help her. Another great scene is one in which she discusses joining the Army with a recruiter. She stands a good shot at getting an Academy Award nomination, but Hawkes and Dickey shouldn't be forgotten, either. Both start the film as standard villains, but reveal shading over the course of the film that make the work even more meaningful.

My only caveat is that the film does have a perhaps overly hopeful ending, given what we've just seen. I suppose the scriptwriters didn't have the heart not to reward Lawrence's character after the hell she'd gone through, but it didn't ring one-hundred percent true. But that's a minor quibble--Winter's Bone is one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beatles Rock Band

I'm not a video games guy. The only game system I have is a Super Nintendo which has sat in the back of my closet for a decade. But last weekend, spending the night at a friend's house, I couldn't resist the chance to play Beatles Rock Band. We ended up playing for about six hours.

It's not so much a game as a chance to simulate playing or singing along to Beatles songs. To call itself a game, there are scoring mechanisms, and different levels of difficulty, but to me that was all beside the point.

For those who have played Guitar Hero or the other versions of Rock Band, (which I haven't) I guess the premise is the same--one holds a small guitar and as different color notes appear on the screen one must hit them on the guitar. Matching them earns points, while missing them does not. Beatles Rock Band also has a drum kit (which I didn't try) and a vocal track, in which you must try to hit the pitch as it shown on screen. It looks easy, but if you can't sing very well it can end up sounding awful.

I mostly stuck to the easy levels. On the basic level there are only three different colors to deal with (the colors refer to the frets on the guitar, which one must hit while simultaneously strumming the guitar). If you go up a level, you get a fourth color, and also get chords, which is hitting two frets at the same time. The higher levels introduce a fifth color, which is interesting considering you only have four fingers to use on the fret. The notes also come a lot faster, and one can quickly become hopelessly lost.

What makes the Beatles Rock Band game more meaningful for fans is the way that game encapsulates Beatles' history. My friend and I chose to play in "story" mode, which meant we started at the Cavern Club. As we progressed, we made it to the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium, their final concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, and eventually to the rooftop concert on the Apple Corps building. The changing styles of music and appearance accompanied us, as animated graphics of the Fab Four play on the background as one attempts to hit all the notes.

I know that those who frown on these sort of games wonder, "Why don't these people who play it just pick up a guitar?" A fair question. But for the musically challenged (a college roommate once tried to teach me guitar and gave up after about five minutes) this is a great substitute. I ended up humming Beatles songs all weekend, never a bad thing.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hawk, the White Rat, and God

I made my annual pilgrimage to the quaint village of Cooperstown, New York to see the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. With my friend Bob as my companion, we had a great two days, touring the Hall and then sitting in our camp chairs on the athletic field to see the induction of Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog, and Doug Harvey.

This year a new tradition was started. The evening before the induction ceremony, there was a modest parade down Main Street, ending at the entrance of the Hall. All the returning Hall of Famers took spots in the back of pickup trucks, waving to the crowd. They ranged from the nonagenarian Bob Feller, to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, to more recent inductees such as Goose Gossage and Paul Molitor. A pretty good crowd turned out for it.

The next day, after a two-hour visit to the Hall and the plaque gallery, we camped out on the field and waited for the induction to begin. Skies were threatening, and we got a few sprinkles. A brief rain shower passed over during the speech of umpire Doug Harvey. He had prerecorded his speech, as his voice has been ravaged by throat cancer. The rain stopped quickly, though, and the sun broke out. Harvey, who was nicknamed "God" by the players because of his authoritative demeanor as an arbiter, added "You'll notice that I stopped the rain."

Whitey Herzog, the longtime manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, among other teams, put aside any notion that he was bitter about having to wait so long to be enshrined, saying "Any time is a good time." He spent much of his speech talking about learning from Casey Stengel, including how to deal with reporters--mostly by getting them drunk.

Andre "the Hawk" Dawson also had to wait quite a while for induction. His plaque has him wearing a Montreal Expos cap, where he spent most of his career, but his kindest words for his time as a Chicago Cub, and those were the fans that were most in evidence (though there was a small but loud contingent of Expos fans, a dying breed). He spent a good portion of his speech thanking doctors and trainers, as he played much of his career with bad knees. But he's only one of three players (Willie Mays and Barry Bonds being the other two) with over 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases.

Before the players were inducted there was a brief honoring of John Fogerty and his song "Centerfield," which was released twenty-five years ago and has become the rock and roll staple for baseball fans. Wearing his trademark flannel shirt, he played the song live, strumming a guitar he calls "Slugger" that was made out of a baseball bat. He's donating the bat to the Hall for exhibit. One wonders what some of the older players on the stage thought of this interlude. Willie Mays, who is mentioned in the song, seemed oblivious.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Showgirls

Showgirls, released in 1995, is a notoriously bad movie, the kind of movie that becomes a cult classic because it so bad. I hadn't seen it before yesterday, and I'm hear to tell you that yes, it is that bad, but if you watch it in the right frame of mind, like with a bunch of witty friends and lots of alcohol or cannabis, you could have a good time.

What is the movie about? The short answer is tits. There are lots of tits on display, more than a Girls Gone Wild video. But the film is about as sexy as a ham sandwich, and includes one of the most laughably ludicrous sex scenes on celluloid. The longer answer is that it's All About Eve set in a Las Vegas topless revue, with a scheming stripper trying to make it to the top of the show business world, no matter who she steps on along the way.

Elizabeth Berkley stars as Nomi, who we meet hitching to Vegas. She gets her belongings stolen, but is taken in by a stranger who works as a costumier for Goddess, a big, kitschy topless revue at the Stardust. Berkley toils at the Cheetah, a strip joint, where she is nightly harassed by the oily manager (Robert Davi). The star of Goddess (Gina Gershon), is attracted to and intrigued by Berkley, as is the Stardust's entertainment director, Kyle MacLachlan. This is especially so after Berkley gives him an all-nude lap dance.

Berkley gets hired by Goddess and there's all sorts of backstabbing between the dancers. Berkley and Gershon lock horns. A dancer (Glenn Plummer) tries to romance Berkley and get her to perform in his show, but she spurns him for MacLachlan, and those two have sex in a pool, where Berkley appears to be having an epileptic fit.

The film, directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, was a follow-up to their big hit Basic Instinct. It was a sensation at the time, especially when Berkley, known only for her role on a children's sit-com, was cast in the lead role. The result was a bomb of monumental proportions. It was rated NC-17, and remains one of the few so rated films to received wide release. The script is full of howlers, such as when Gershon, who manages to come through this unscathed says, "I love nice tits," or when Davi tells Berkley of her new job, "It must be nice not to have anyone come on you."

Berkley fares worst. You almost feel sorry for her, as the role is clearly beyond her talents. She's all attitude and bravado, without a shred of nuance. The result is a protagonist who is most unpleasant, and I kept rooting for her to get her comeuppance, which I don't think was intended. MacLachlan, with a ridiculous forelock of hair hanging over one eye, also comes off badly, and Alan Rachins chews scenery as the taskmaster show director.

The film did go on to be a big hit in home video, and today is sort of a midnight talk-back movie, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That is the only forum in which I would recommend it be seen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Darker Domain

A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid, is a well-written mystery set in modern day that reflects on the miner's strike that rocked Great Britain in 1984. Though not overly political, the author does allow some shots to be taken, particularly at Margaret Thatcher, through the mouths of some of her characters.

There are two mysteries at play here. One involves a miner, Mick Prentice, who went missing during the strike. Everyone, including his family, assumed he went south to join scabs, and wrote him off. But his daughter, now grown, has a son that needs a marrow transplant and is hoping to track her father down. DI Karen Pirie, a detective in the cold cases department of the Fife, Scotland, constabulary, takes her case.

Pirie is also presented with a much more sensational case, a twenty-year-old kidnapping. The daughter of the local business titan and her baby son were kidnapped and held for ransom. The daughter died and the baby went missing. A journalist on vacation in Tuscany, Bel Richmond, finds a piece of evidence that she turns over to the titan, Brodie Grant, who requests Pirie get on the case. Investigating separately and at odds, Pirie and Richmond get to the bottom of the kidnapping.

McDermid tells the story with frequent use of flashbacks, prefacing each section with the date and location, a helpful aid. She also is a nimble writer, providing just enough pop culture references without overdoing it. Pirie is not a typical heroine--she's admittedly dumpy, though harbors a crush on her partner, Phil Parhatka, and a disdain for her boss, who is unaffectionately called the "Macaroon." The character of Grant is bit more obvious, the absurdly rich man who is used to getting his way, but McDermid gives him extra dimensions.

The one element of the book that is strained is that of course Pirie's two cases will end up becoming intertwined. This is understood, given the genre of the book, and there's a certain satisfaction in patiently waiting to see how that will happen. I read the last fifty pages or so in a blur, as the mysteries resolved and justice, in a sense, is done. For fans of British detective novels, I highly recommend A Darker Domain.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lulu on the Bridge

I haven't read any of Paul Auster's fiction, but I have seen a number of the films of his screenplays, including Smoke and The Music of Chance, both intriguing and somewhat hallucinatory. His sole directorial effort, 1998's Lulu on the Bridge, made its way to the top of my Netflix queue and, not knowing anything about it, I was rewarded with an absorbing, mysterious film.

Harvey Keitel stars as a jazz saxophonist who is shot on stage by a crazed man. He loses a lung, and therefore is unable to play music again. He figures his life has lost its meaning, but after going to a dinner party at his ex-wife's, he finds a dead body on the street. He finds on the body two things--a napkin with a phone number on it and a small box containing a stone. The phone number belongs to a waitress, Mira Sorvino, and the stone has magical properties. Keitel and Sorvino, drawn together by the stone, embark on a romance, but there are sinister forces who want the stone back.

It's interesting that I saw this one day after Inception, because Lulu on the Bridge is a better example of the mysterious property of dreams. Lulu on the Bridge is like a dream--simulating real life, but with an air of the uncanny. Characters behave differently, and some things are accepted at face value, while the truth of the situation may be gnawing from within. This film defies expectations, and can not be predicted.

The title refers to the character Louise Brooks played in Pandora's Box, a classic silent film by G.W. Pabst. Sorvino' character is an actress who has landed a part in a remake (the director is played by Vanessa Redgrave). I'm not sure what Auster's intention was to connect his story to that of Lulu's, but it's got me interested in checking out Pandora's Box.

Also in the cast is Willem Dafoe, as another mysterious character. He has a long, fascinating scene with Keitel in which in interrogates the latter about his childhood. It's terrific and spooky.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Louis D. Brandeis

As the vote nears on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, I just finished a biography of the man who once held the seat she is likely to occupy, Louis D. Brandeis. In the history of the law in the United States, he is a giant.

The book, by Melvin I. Urofsky, is something of a doorstop, measuring at over seven hundred pages, not counting notes. But for the most part it is accessible to the general reader. Urofsky is an expert on Brandeis, having edited his letters and written extensively about a subject that was close to Brandeis, Zionism. Urofsky clearly admires his subject, but also takes him to task on things he did that would today be lapses in judicial ethics.

Urofsky structures his book around Brandeis' four careers: lawyer, reformer, Zionist, Supreme Court justice. Though he is best known for the latter position today, he had a full life before that--his nomination to the Court doesn't come until page 430. Brandeis, the son of immigrants from Prague, went to Harvard Law School and established a thriving practice in Boston. He pioneered the concept of pro bono work--he took nothing for any work he did for the public sector. He worked extensively on savings bank life insurance, and was against monopolies. His over-riding philosophy concerned the "curse of bigness," bigness in both business and government.

He argued cases before the Supreme Court, perhaps none so important as Muller v. Oregon, which argued that a state could pass laws limiting the amount of hours workers could work. There was a whole series of cases during that time that determined whether the government could step in and tell a private business how they could operate, in terms of child labor, minimum wage, or a cap on hours. Brandeis thought this was a power the government had, and his brief in Muller was a landmark on the subject.

Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the court in 1916. He was the first Jew to be nominated, and his confirmation was not easy, but not necessarily because of his religion. He probably would have a tough time being nominated today, and many of the buzz words are the same--notably judicial restraint. Brandies believed very strongly in judicial restraint, in that the court should give deference to the legislature, but he also believed the Constitution was a "living" document, which still rankles conservative original intentists today.

Brandeis was confirmed and quickly allied with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Throughout the twenties they authored many important opinions, but mostly as dissents. The most lasting were in the area of civil liberties, freedom of speech, and the right of privacy, which hadn't really existed before. Brandeis called it "the right to be let alone." Over the generations many of his dissents have become accepted law.

Urofsky also covers the tension during the FDR years, when a solid bloc of conservative justices ruled many aspects of the New Deal unconstitutional. Brandeis supported many of these laws, but was aghast when Roosevelt unveiled his court-packing plan, which would have added a justice for every current one over seventy years of age. That plan was scotched, but Roosevelt would win out eventually, though, being able to replace all those conservative justices.

My favorite parts of the book deal with the workings of the Court and the palace intrigue that goes on within the chamber walls. Brandeis ended up working with William Howard Taft, who opposed his nomination, when Taft became Chief Justice (Taft believed all decisions should be unanimous, and was frequently apoplectic when Brandeis and Holmes didn't play along). There is also the curious case of Justice James McReynolds, who was so anti-Semitic that he wouldn't have anything to do with Brandeis, even to the point of not sitting next to him during the official court photograph.

There are portions of the book that didn't grab me, but those are my own prejudices, not due to the author. I still don't quite understand what savings bank life insurance is, and the several chapters on Zionism, while I'm sure interesting to a certain segment of the population, didn't do much for me.

Brandeis served until 1939, and was replaced by William O. Douglas, who was in turn replaced by John Paul Stevens, who is now being replaced by Elena Kagan. She has big shoes to fill.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Inception

I've got to hand to the suits at Warner Brothers--Inception may be the most intricately plotted movie ever to be unleashed into the multiplex world. I would wager that most of them that read the script couldn't make heads or tails of it, and the most important words were on the cover page: Screenplay by Christopher Nolan. After The Dark Knight made everybody rich, they would have greenlighted his adaptation of the Topeka white pages.

I found much to admire in Inception, and these things are typical Nolan--a great sense of style, stunning photography, state of the art special effects. But I'm the kind of guy who thinks great special effects are a lousy reason to see a movie. Where Inception is lacking is a story that not only is hard to follow, but even if it can be followed one realizes, at the end, that it really wasn't worth following. As with another Nolan picture that I thought was flawed in this way, The Prestige, he has created a terrific puzzle that has very little heart.

I couldn't fully describe the plot even if I tried, but it has to do with entering a person's dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio is an "extractor"--he can enter a person's subconscious through their dreams and learn secrets about that person. He is asked whether the opposite of this, "inception," is possible--that is, to enter a person's dreams and plant an idea. He thinks it can, and takes the job. The target is a businessman, Cillian Murphy.

This might seem to be enough, but Nolan pushes the envelope. He adds the conceit that the dream invaders can go further, to dreams within dreams, like Russian nesting dolls. Thus we have the characters dreaming that they are asleep and having another dream. By the time we're done I counted five levels, each with various characters trying to accomplish things, all while they're asleep. It takes a monumental juggling act to keep it all going, and I tried my best to keep up, but I've got to believe there will be millions of people stumbling out of theaters this weekend mumbling, "What just happened?"

The culprit is the script, which both over explains and also withholds too much information. He uses the familiar gambit of having a new team member brought on board, so they are the surrogate for the audience, getting all the exposition. That person is Ellen Page, who is a college student taught by DiCaprio's mentor (and either his father or father-in-law, I'm not sure which) Michael Caine. She is an "architect," but her valuable skill seems to be drawing mazes, and it's never explained how she applies that skill to what DiCaprio wants. In any event, DiCaprio explains all sorts of rules to her, but there are certain things that are just accepted, such as how the metal briefcases that allow for shared dreaming work, or why another character, played by Tom Hardy, can masquerade as other people inside the dreams. Is this some sort of superpower? Can anyone learn how to do it? He just can.

Inception is full of information overload (and the film seems very long), yet things glide by in a rush, with viewers scrambling to catch up. It isn't helped by having performers with accents. Ken Watanabe is a fine actor, but his accent is thick, and there a few lines where he seemed to be saying something important that I found to be unintelligible. A second viewing with subtitles may clear up some of my problems.

Nolan includes the fanciful conceit that one can be trained to ward off extractors with "antibodies" that look like extras with guns. When they first enter Murphy's dream, the team is beset by machine-gun-toting thugs, and it was then that the Cheap Trick song "Dream Police" started going through my head. There are all sorts of pyrotechnics that I felt made the film routine, especially in a dream in a snow-covered fortress that looked like a bad James Bond film. You would think that with a high concept like this he would have dispensed with the Michael Bay stuff.

There are some effects that are dazzling. A fight scene between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some dream police in a hallway that is unaffected by gravity recalls Fred Astaire's dance in Royal Wedding, and there is that nifty scene seen in the trailer in which a city folds in on itself. But that's just all window dressing. The heart of this film, which I won't give away but involves DiCaprio's ex-wife, Marion Cottillard, just doesn't justify all this effort.

I see that on IMDB this film has already reached number 3 on the all-time great list, which is lunacy. I can only imagine this is the initial view by the fanboy set. I will be interested to see how the casual viewer, who doesn't want to have to think quite this much while munching his popcorn, will effect the ranking.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bound

Before the The Matrix the Wachowski Brothers made an excellent, stylish erotic thriller called Bound. I saw the film when it first came out in 1996, and renewed my acquaintance with it last night on DVD. I was reminded how good it was--expertly crafted and rippling with suspense.

The buzz that surrounded the film upon its release was that the central relationship in the film is a lesbian one. This, of course, prompted some titillation, and the Wachowskis were asked to change the relationship to a heterosexual one, but they refused, rightly reasoning that that story had been done many times. I'm glad they stuck to their guns, because the lesbian element gives the film an extra dimension (as well as generating a pretty hot sex scene).

Gina Gershon stars as an ex-con who is picking up some extra money by renovating an apartment. Next door lives a low-level mobster (Joe Pantoliano) and his girlfriend, Jennifer Tilly. Tilly likes what she sees with Gershon, and seduces her. She also tells Gershon, a thief, about some money that got skimmed by another mobster. The money will be in Pantoliano's possession for one night, before it is turned over to the capo di tutti capo. Gershon and Tilly then hatch a plot to separate Pantoliano from the money.

The film is shot with few characters and mostly in the two apartments, and is a marvel of economy. The Wachowskis do have fun with the angles, and draw fetishistic attention to some of the objects in the film, notably guns and an obsession with liquids, particularly those in the bathroom (a scene of Gershon snaking a drain in the opening sets the stage). The three principles are all good, with Tilly playing on her gun moll persona, Gershon being the tough and silent type, and Pantoliano a Vesuvius of Sicilian bombast. The one image I remembered from originally seeing the film was just as strong this time around--a character lying in their own blood, which slowly mixes with a spilled bucket of white paint. Great stuff.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Book of Eli

I think it may be time to call a halt on the post-apocalyptic road movies. The Book of Eli, directed by the Hughes Brothers, came out this year right on the heels of The Road, which had a very similar storyline. It's planet Earth, after some sort of nuclear war, and times are tough. Real tough. There's lots of cannibalism, soap is hard to come by, and people don't wear a lot of bright colors.

Denzel Washington stars as Eli, and he says he's been walking west for 30 years. It seems to me that someone walking for that long would have been able to criss-cross the continent several times, but he must have made a lot of stops. In this film he stumbles upon a little town run by a despot (Gary Oldman, at his most sinister). It seems that Oldman is in search of a Bible, which are now rare because they were all burned after the war. Washington has one.

The main problem with this film is that it didn't have anything different to say than any number of films that have dealt with the same subject. The Bible angle inserts a lot of spirituality into the mix, but unless you're a Holy Roller it doesn't have much of an impact. There are also a lot of logistical questions--where do they get their fuel? How do they grow food? At the end of the film Washington reaches Alcatraz, which has a set up that defies everything that has come before.

It's not a terrible film--there's some good action, including a shootout at an old house with a pair of old coots (Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon). Washington is his usual, stoically resolute self, and Oldman chews the scenery. Jennifer Beals and Mila Kunis provide the eye candy, though in this setting they're not exactly daisy fresh. The photography, as is mandatory in this type of film, is drained of almost all color. I would recommend this topic be held off-limits unless a filmmaker has something startling new to say.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inside Deep Throat

Two events in June 1972 profoundly changed America: on June 17, a bumbling crew burgled the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate hotel complex. Five days earlier, Deep Throat opened in Times Square. It's not clear which event has the more lasting impact.

Inside Deep Throat, a lively documentary from 2005 by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, covers the history and legacy of the film from A to Z. They have extensive interviews with the director (Gerard Damiano, who is now deceased) and star Harry Reems, plus many members of the crew and lawyers who both prosecuted and defended the film in court. According to the documentarians, it is the most profitable film of all time, costing $25,000 to make and grossing $600 million, but that last number is likely fanciful, since the accounting records are sketchy, to say the least.

Pornographic films, up to that time, were seen in discreet places, normally associated with men in raincoats. To keep in accordance with the law, they had to be "educational," or otherwise have a socially redeeming nature to them. Deep Throat was the first to attempt to marry the production values and narrative structure of mainstream films with pornography, and the result was a sensation. Lines went around the block, and for the first time women felt comfortable going to an X-rated film. Certainly fellatio, which up to that time was something not discussed and not considered an activity performed by respectable women, was all of a sudden an essential part of lovemaking. As one interviewee puts it, it's now an activity that kids don't even consider to be sex.

But the film was also nefarious. The backers of the film were from the Colombo crime family, and their system of distribution wasn't the norm, as many theater owners were shaken down for larger takes than usual (one interviewee was a theater manager in Miami Beach, and as he recounts his experiences his wife hectors him from the other room). Damiano sold his interest in the film, saying he didn't want his legs broken.

The film was also vigorously prosecuted. Amazingly, the film was found to be obscene in New York City, though in other places, from Binghamton, New York to Beverly Hills, it was not. Reems, who had made $250 for starring, was put on trial in Memphis and convicted. He was facing five years in jail but the decision was overturned on appeal.

Deep Throat permanently changed the culture, for good or bad. It ushered in the first wave of "porn chic," which hasn't really left. Of course many decried it, both from the pulpit and from intellectuals. Porn, when it was something rebellious and sinister, may have been more interesting. Of course it's prevalent today, available to anyone within few clicks of a mouse, but many, including Damiano, bemoaned the way porn changed from an art form to just a money making enterprise, as the industry has gone back to the days when a film is just a collection of scenes without plot.

The saddest part of the Deep Throat story is of Linda Lovelace, who was the female star. She was a celebrity for a few years, and then claimed she was forced to do it against her will by her Svengali-like partner, Chuck Traynor. She became an anti-porn advocate and then, unable to find work, went back and posed nude for a magazine at the age of 51. She died in a car accident in 2002. Her sister provides some pointed and trenchant comments about her sad life. I admit that I'm a connoisseur of porn and feel that it should be available to any adult who wants it, but I also believe that performers, especially young women, should not get into the business unless they can handle it. Linda Lovelace clearly could not.

This is a fun film for those interested in the subject. Those who aren't should stay away, as it is rated NC-17, and contains graphic clips from the film in question, particularly those that explain just what deep throat is. There are a wide variety of talking heads, including Normal Mailer, Gore Vidal, Eric Jong, Camille Paglia, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Hugh Hefner and Al Goldstein. It also has a killer soundtrack, with lots of great hits from the seventies, and is narrated by the recently departed Dennis Hopper.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Klute

Although the film's title character is played by Donald Sutherland, it is Jane Fonda's Bree Daniel who is central to the story in Klute, a fine, gritty picture by Alan J. Pakula, released in 1971. Fonda won her first Academy Award for portraying the flinty prostitute who aids a small-town investigator on a missing person case.

The film is a terrific representation of 70s cinema--dark (photographed by Gordon Willis, known as the "prince of darkness") and a bit sleazy--filmed on location in New York, specifically Harlem. The sets and costumes, contemporary at the time, now have a vintage look to them, and you can practically smell the garbage in the streets.

Fonda is a call girl, as prostitutes were called back then. She is linked to a businessman who goes missing, and his friend, a buttoned-down fellow from a small town in Pennsylvania, comes to New York to find him. Fonda, her dialogue sharp and urban, initially balks, but Sutherland, stoic and unyielding, persists. Fonda, her life in jeopardy from the person who may have harmed Sutherland's friend, finally agrees.

We then get a somewhat routine procedural mystery, as Sutherland, with Fonda in tow, tracks down clues. Of course this odd couple eventually forms an attachment, which I didn't buy. The problem is less to do with Fonda--her character is deeply developed--than with Sutherland. His character is defined only by what Fonda thinks of him--we have no idea what he is about otherwise. I think this was intentional, leaving the viewer to fill in gaps, but I'm not entirely sure this is successful.

Fonda is wonderful. She dominates the film, getting a lot of choice scenes, such as those with her pyschologist, when she confesses she'd like to quit the business but is drawn to it because it allows her to be in control and act the part (she would like to become a legitimate actress). Then, at the end of the film, Pakula has her sit still for a two-or-three minute unbroken take in which she listens to a tape of a prostitute being murdered. It's a very powerfully acted scene.

Pakula's direction is top notch, with the camera always just where it should be. The mystery itself isn't much--there's really no suspect but one--instead the film works as a character study and in retrospect as a slice of film history.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Extract

Speaking of bad titles, there's Extract, a film by Mike Judge. Is it a verb, is it a noun (which changes the pronunciation)? In either event, why would anyone want to see a film called Extract?

Judge made one of the sharpest, funniest comedies ever about the soullessness of the workplace, Office Space. Extract returns to the workplace, but it is an anemic follow-up, with only mild humor. The script plays like a rough draft, and there doesn't ever seem to be anything critical at stake in the film. And I'm not sure what Judge was trying to say about modern attitudes about work.

Jason Bateman plays a role that is familiar to him. He's the put-upon owner of a small company that makes food flavorings (the extract of the title). His factory is staffed by a collection of incompetents, and he tells his second-in-command (J.K. Simmons) that he often feels like a babysitter. I'm not sure that it's a good idea to infantilize the American work force--does Judge really think that blue-collar workers are this oafish? The film was released last year, right in the heart of the unemployment crisis, and this is also bad timing.

An industrial accident injures one of his workers, a good old boy played by Clifton Collins Jr., in a sensitive area. A local con artist (Mila Kunis), who trades on her good looks to get what she wants, cozies up to Collins to try to persuade him to sue. This gets the film's most bizarre cameo--Gene Simmons as a personal injury lawyer.

There's also a sub-plot involving Bateman's attempts to have sex with his wife, (a wasted Kristen Wiig), aided by his bartender friend, Ben Affleck. There's nothing terrible about any of this, but it just kinds of lays on the screen, mechanically playing itself out. There are also some elements that defy logic, such as when Simmons meets with Bateman over Collins' settlement. You would think a company, even as small as Bateman's, would have a lawyer present.

I only laughed out loud once, with a gag involving a boorish neighbor played by David Koerchner. Judge has contributed a lot of great humor to pop culture over the last decade or so, but Extract is really lackluster.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Living Out Loud

Living Out Loud, which is not a great title, is a small film in a minor key about loneliness. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, it's also refreshingly honest and without the usual annoying cliches that mar other films of its type.

Holly Hunter stars as a woman who has divorced her philandering husband. She lives in an Upper East Side apartment building, and spends much of her time either talking back to the evening news or listening to music at a jazz club, which features a singer she admires (played by Queen Latifah).

The doorman and elevator operator of her building, Danny DeVito, is a middle-aged man holding in a lot of sorrow and disappointment. The two strike up a friendship, and DeVito feels something more strong for her. The way the two interact is lovingly written, and though DeVito is not the type that usually stars as a lead in a romance, he is very good as a man who has been beaten down but is resolved to make something better of himself.

As for Hunter, I've long enjoyed her work, but she can sometimes be very bad. Here I thought she was terrific. She withholds mysteries about the character, making us wonder just what it is that makes her tick, which makes her that much more interesting. There's a scene in which she hires a masseur to give her an "erotic" massage that is fraught with sexual tension but without being gratuitous.

The script was based on two stories by Anton Chekhov, and has some of the same complex yet universal features that his writing contains.

Friday, July 09, 2010

LeBron's Decision

"What is so fascinating about a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop," asks Janet Margolin, as Woody Allen's shrewish intellectual wife, in Annie Hall. After last night's sorry spectacle airing on ESPN, in which superstar basketball player LeBron James chose the Miami Heat as his new team, the question lingers.

I'm hardly an NBA fan. I used to be a big Pistons fans, back when they were the Bad Boys, and I watched the playoffs with laser-focused intensity. But by the time they won again six years ago I hardly noticed. I don't think I've watched an NBA game from start to finish in over twenty years. But somehow I know what's going on. It's hard not to. I watch ESPN throughout the day (watching the cable-news channels makes me want to slit my wrists) and over the last few weeks the entire network was breathless in its anticipation of what the great LeBron would do. The story also crossed over to all other news outlets, from the evening news to NPR. Everyone, it seems, was interested or had an opinion about what James would do.

To that end, LeBron and the network set up an unprecedented hour of television last night. Pretentiously called "The Decision," it was a prime-time show devoted to something that took three seconds: LeBron announcing with what team he would sign. We were told he would make this announcement within ten minutes of the start of the show, but it was almost nine-thirty before he broke the hearts of everyone in Cleveland and revealed that he would bolt to Miami, where he would join two other superstars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, to form the New York Yankees of the NBA.

As I'm not a fan of the NBA, I don't care where LeBron plays, but I tuned in last night to see how furious the hype machine whirled. It was a doozy. The ESPN announcers and analysts may have been describing the results of a presidential election for all the gravitas they gave it. To their credit, they did not attempt to hide any information--right before the show the panel agreed that it looked like Miami was a done deal--but they certainly couched it in "all indications" and hunches.

The show itself, staged bizarrely in a Boys Club in Greenwich, Connecticut (it's nice that the proceeds of sponsorship went to a charity like the Boys Club, but why Greenwich, the richest per capita town in America?), it soon became apparent that this wasn't some sort of celebration, it was going to be like sitting in a restaurant and realizing that the couple at the next table are breaking up. LeBron, with a look of pained guilt on his face, didn't sound joyous about heading to Miami. Instead he had the look of a man who had just told his significant other that he was leaving her for a younger woman. The only thing missing was him saying, "It's not you, it's me."

The reaction of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was very like a scorned spouse, recalling Beatrice Straight's scene in Network. He lashed out at LeBron, calling him cowardly and burning any bridges right down to the ground. It's hard to knock the sentiment--with James leaving, the Cavaliers instantly become also-rans, and a city that hasn't had many breaks recently is absorbing yet another blow.

The Heat suddenly become a prime contender, although because of the salary cap their roster is top heavy, and the guys at the end of the bench will be minimum-salary guys. I don't know if this strategy will work, but it certainly achieve the short-term goal of filling seats and attracting viewers. LeBron James may get the championships he craves (and it is interesting that a man who seems so narcissistic is willing to join a team with two other stars), but one wonders whether he has hurt his image in the process.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Watching The Princess and the Frog, Disney's first traditionally 2D animated film in five years, only reinforced my admiration for Pixar and its output. This film is certainly acceptable entertainment for small children, but is extremely lightweight and tedious for adults. Seeing it on the heels of a great animated film like Toy Story 3 only makes it seem less impressive.

The story is a familiar one--a young girl from humble origins aspires for something better and ends up a princess. I'm not sure why Disney had such an obsession with princesses over the years--feminist scholars smarter than I am have written extensively about this. Do little girls of today still want to be princesses, especially when the only reasonable means to accomplish it is by marrying a real prince?

The princess in this film is Tiana, who grows up poor in New Orleans. Her mother is a seamstress for a rich white family, and she befriends their daughter, Charlotte, who is really prince-obsessed. When they grow up Charlotte is angling after Prince Naveen, who is visiting from a foreign country at Mardi Gras. Tiana is a waitress, and scrimps and saves in the hopes of owning her own restaurant.

Naveen, a louche fellow who has been cut off by his family, meets Doctor Facilier, a voodoo master who offers to read his fortune. By magical means Naveen is turned into a frog, with the only hope of transformation to kiss a princess. He sees Tiana at a masked ball, and seeing her wear a tiara, assumes she's a princess. He convinces her to kiss him, but because she's not a princess, she turns into a frog, too. Chased by Facilier and his shadowy minions, they escape into the swamp and befriend a jazz-obsessed alligator and a Cajun firefly, who try to help them find a voodoo priestess to change them back into human form.

The film itself is nothing special. The slapstick is for small children, and the message--be true to yourself, or something like that, is banal and simplistic. I frequently found my mind wandering while watching. The songs by Randy Newman are forgettable. The animation is nice, but in this day and age it's hard to wow sophisticated viewers. I was really only dazzled by the scenes that involve Facilier summoning the demons from beyond, in a tune called "Friends on the Other Side."

Instead, I found myself wondering about extraneous things, such as the what's the deal with all the princesses in Disney? Or the issues raised by Tiana's being African American, a first for a lead character in Disney. It's nice to see, but I'm not quite sure that making an African American story wrapped up with voodoo is very sensitive, or making the main character black but then turning her into a frog for most of the story. I was also interested in Naveen's color--he's kind of toffee. I see on Wikipedia that initially he was white, but black groups objected. I guess his medium shade was a compromise.

Bucking the trend with modern animation, the cast is mostly unknowns. John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, and Terrence Howard voice small roles, but Tiana is the relatively unknown Anika Noni Rose.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

First Place!

It's the halfway point of the 2010 baseball season, and amazingly the Detroit Tigers are in first place in American League's Central Division. But it's tight--the Minnesota Twins are a half game back and the Chicago White Sox are a game back. Because of the superior win totals of the teams in the A.L. East, it is very likely that no wild card will come from the Central, meaning the race for the finish should be a good and meaningful one.

Of course it isn't a total shock that the Tigers have a good team this year--last year they made it to a play-in game for the division title (although they blew a seven-game lead in the last month of the season). Most of the team came back, minus key players Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, but they did pick up veteran Johnny Damon and closer Jose Valverde. The starting pitching was very suspect, though, and centerfield and second base was turned over to rookies.

As the season has worn on, manager Jim Leyland seems to have strung together victories with chewing gum and rubber bands. The starting pitching has been pretty bad. Aside from Justin Verlander, who has ten wins, the rest of the staff is below .500 (well, Armando Galarraga is 3-2). Last year's terrific rookie, Rick Porcello, had to be sent down to the minors following several ineffective games. Max Scherzer, picked up from Arizona in the off-season, also spent some time in triple-A, but seems to have righted the ship. Dontrelle Willis, one of the centerpieces of a trade a few years ago with Florida, was finally shipped off to Arizona (who promptly released him).

But somehow the Tigers are overcoming a shaky starting staff. Mostly it's due to timely hitting and a good bullpen. The other part of the Willis trade was Miguel Cabrera, who continues to be worth everything they gave up for him, and is worth the Willis nightmare. Right now he is leading or tied for the lead in the A.L. triple-crown categories, and last night hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie it against the Orioles (Damon would win the game with a round-tripper in the 11th). He seems to have put any personal problems behind him (there was an ugly domestic incident at the conclusion of last season that involved heavy use of alcohol). If the season ended today, he would surely be one of the top contenders for MVP, along with Robinson Cano of the Yankees.

As for the bullpen, Valverde has also proved his worth, converting all but one of his save opportunities. The team received a blow when the fireballing Joel Zumaya, who has been plagued by injuries in his career, seemingly went down for the season with an elbow fracture. During this period before the trading deadline, it would behoove the Tigers to pick up another arm.

The team has also been blessed by rookies. Scott Sizemore, handed the second-base position to replace Polanco, did not pan out, and is back in the minors, replaced by the roving Carlos Guillen, who hadn't played the keystone in a decade. But two others have struck gold. Austin Jackson, who came back from the Yankees as part of the Granderson deal, was plunked into center and in the lead-off position, and though he has tailed off after a hot start is still batting .300 and exhibiting great range in the vast Detroit outfield. But the big surprise has been Brennan Boesch, called up as an injury replacement. He has hit his way into a permanent place in the lineup, and has been A.L. Rookie of the Month for two consecutive months. Hitting .341 with 12 homers, he is right now a front-runner for the Rookie of the Year.

Baseball has been fun this season. The Steven Strasburg phenomenon, the excellent play of surprising teams like the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres, and the notion that the Atlanta Braves may get back in the playoffs for Bobby Cox's last season as manager have made the N.L. exciting, with several teams in the mix in all divisions. The A.L. has a more familiar set of teams in the hunt, but their are races in all divisions there, too. Right now the Yankees have the best record in baseball, which is no surprise, but it could be any of about a dozen teams that could win it all. Compared to a sport like the NBA, which has had only eight teams win the championship in the last 30 years, I really like baseball's unpredictable nature.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost

I've long been interested in seeing Kenneth Branagh's version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. At the time of its release, 2000, Branagh was well established as a fairly bankable interpreter of the Bard. After it was over, his film career was in shambles.

Love's Labour's Lost is an early Shakespeare play and one that is not often performed. It is one of his frothier works, and awfully dated and difficult for modern-day audiences to get all the jokes and puns. Branagh, sensibly, updates the story to Europe on the cusp of World War II, and then takes the extra step of imagining it as a lavish Hollywood musical, complete with sweeping choreography and familiar songs from the great American songbook.

This film received savage reviews, and after its spectacular belly-flop at the box office Miramax shelved a three-picture deal with Branagh. After his debut with Henry V in 1989, he was seen by someone as the new Olivier, but since the turn of the century it has taken some bizarre turns, including an also badly-received (though I kind of liked it) version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He certainly hasn't faded from the scene entirely, though, and will be back with a big-budget adaptation of the Marvel Comics' hero Thor.

As for Love's Labour's Lost, well, I kind of liked it, too. I can certainly see the source of the brickbats. In adapting the play, Branagh cut it mercilessly--only about a quarter of the lines remain. But the story is still there: the King of Navarre and three of his chums decide to devote three years to rigorous academic study, which means no women. Branagh, as Berowne, is not exactly happy with this, and explains that the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) is arriving, conveniently with three friends of her own. The King (Alessandro Nivola), has the Princess and her court camp outside the walls of the palace, but of course each man falls in love with one of the women. There is also some comic business with a pompous Spanish knight (Timothy Spall) and a clown (Nathan Lane).

For those who like Shakespeare, or the old MGM musicals, or both, there is something to admire here, but the admiration may be based on the spirit of the enterprise rather than the execution. It looks lovely; the photography by Alex Thomson is full of vibrant color. The songs are great to listen to, and include tunes by Irving Berlin, George Gerswhin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and many others from the 1930s. There's also some great choreography, most notably in the last number, Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

Yet something is missing. Because the text is so butchered some characters have no development. The actors are hit and miss--Branagh, Lane, Adrian Lester, and Natasha McIlhone are nimble with the text, which makes Alicia Silverstone, who at the time was a big film star, look laughably wanting in comparison. One admires her pluck at tackling the role, but in retrospect it was a mistake. Whenever I see her I'm amazed at how her mouth works furiously to form sounds--it's not a pretty sight. She also struggles in the singing department. Branagh recovered from this film, but Silverstone has not.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the film is the way it ties the action to World War II. Periodically we see scenes shot in newsreel style forwarding the plot, and then, as in Shakespeare, the film ends when Silverstone's father dies and she must return to ascend the throne of France, only in this version it coincides with the fall of France to the Nazis. It was a strange ending for a fizzy Shakespearean comedy, and it's a strange ending here.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Burma VJ

Burma VJ, subtitled Reporting From a Closed Country, was one of the nominees for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at last year's Oscars. It lost to The Cove, and I think it's instructive to look at the differences in the two films and why I think The Cove is a much better film.

So often I think documentaries are judged by their subject matter. Surely the oppressive military junta in Burma, which has killed and imprisoned thousands of citizens over the last twenty years, is a worthwhile subject. But Burma VJ has built-in problems that hindered my engagement. It is told almost entirely through the surreptitious video work of reporters that work for the banned news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). These images were then smuggled out of the country and broadcast around the world, including back into Burma through satellite and on the Internet.

This is an incredibly gutsy thing for these people to be doing, as capture would mean arrest, imprisonment, and torture. But personal courage alone isn't enough to draw the viewer in, at least not this one. The problem is that there is no story here. Documentaries do two things--they impart information, but they should also tell a story. What we have here is roughly ninety minutes of handheld video of street demonstrations, mainly those conducted by Buddhist monks. Some of it is pretty powerful stuff, but it is all objective, and the viewer, unless already familiar with the situation, doesn't have a surrogate in the story.

The director, Anders Ƙstergaard, does take a stab at this, as the film is narrated by "Joshua," the coordinator of the DVB. He is always in shadow, as his identity needs to be protected, and there are scenes reconstructed with him on the phone with his reporters. He is a sympathetic figure, and the danger is certainly palpable, but it just didn't grab me the way a film like The Cove did. Comparing the slaughter of dolphins to the torture of innocent civilians is a useless exercise, but The Cove had a narrative arc that made it seem like a thriller. Burma VJ is like a long news story, and frankly, I found it all a little dull.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Psycho

Warning: this article freely discusses all the surprises that this film contains. I presume that because of the notoriety and acclaim it has received it has imprinted itself on the cinematic subconscious, even for those who haven't seen it.

A few weeks ago Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Psycho, had its fiftieth anniversary, and in that time it was become one of the most iconic films in cinema history, containing perhaps the most famous, most discussed, and most analyzed scene of all time. I picked up a copy of the Universal Legacy DVD, and what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend than with some good old-fashioned American mayhem?

What I can not discuss is how it is to see Psycho for the first time without any preconceived notions. I don't remember when I saw it for the first time, most likely on TV, maybe in the 1970s, but certainly I would have been aware of what was coming. In watching the film over this weekend I tried to imagine what it was like to see it without any inkling of what was to come. Hitchcock, in something of a marketing gimmick, but also with a heap of common sense, did his best to prevent anyone from spilling the beans on the film's many surprises. It was a closed set, the trailer contained no scenes from the film (it consisted of Hitchcock, well familiar to TV audiences, leading a droll tour of the set), there were no previews for critics, and theater managers were encouraged to allow no one to enter the film after it had started (in those days it was common for patrons to show up in the middle of a film, and then stay for the next show to see what they'd missed).

This was necessary, because Psycho takes the viewer on twists and turns that were little anticipated for 1960. The film begins focused on Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. She and her lover, John Gavin, have just had a nooner, and she is lounging in a bra and slip (incredibly racy for 1960). When she returns to her job as a secretary for a real estate office, she is handed $40,000 in cash by a client, with instructions to bank it immediately. Impulsively, she skips town, headed toward Gavin, who will hopefully marry her. Along the way she imagines the shock her crime will cause. She has an encounter with a menacing policeman (reflecting Hitchcock's life-long fear of police) and a tense exchange at a used-car lot. Then, in a rainstorm, she is forced to pull over and take a room at the Bates Motel.

The film is about a third of the way done when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is introduced into the film. Surely audiences were wondering where this was all was going--Perkins, an attractive young man, displays charm and seems attracted to Leigh. Was there going to be a love triangle? The house above the motel, seeming to be designed by Charles Addams or Edward Hopper, looms mysteriously, and there's something about a crazy old mother. And then Perkins spies on Leigh through a peephole in the wall--he's not so charming, after all.

And then--well, the scene. In just about a minute the entire film takes a different course, as does film history. Audiences screamed during Psycho's shower scene. The way the door opens as Leigh, washing away her sins, is oblivious. The pulling aside of the curtain, and then, in about forty-five seconds, fifty different cuts, requiring more than seventy different camera set-ups. It is the greatest use of montage since Potemkin, and typifies how psychology enters the film-going experience. Yes, there is a nude woman involved (a Playboy model stood in for Leigh in any shot that required views below her shoulders) and yes there was knife, but there is no shot of the knife penetrating skin. The horror of the scene is manufactured right inside our minds.

The film has suddenly killed off its star at minute fifty of a 108-minute film. The audience is reeling, and now has fixed on Perkins as the protagonist. He is horrified by what his mother has done, and cleans up after her (one woman in audience, during this scene, commented aloud, "What a good boy.") When he disposes of Leigh's car in the swamp and it momentarily stops, still in plain view, we are worried right along with him.

Soon the film has a new surrogate for the viewer, Leigh's sister, played by Vera Miles, and a private detective, Martin Balsam. His death, viewed from above and as swift and sudden as Leigh's, is in some ways more shocking than hers, and many I've talked to cite this moment as the one that made them jump. And then, when Miles heads toward the house, with a homicidal maniac awaiting, we see the forerunner of the slasher film, as people in audiences actually yelled aloud, "Don't go in the house!"

I've seen this film many times, but found new things to enjoy upon this viewing. I spent more time appreciating those scenes in between the shocks. The scenes while Leigh is driving and then with the cop and the used-car dealer are like waking nightmares, edgy and brittle. The scene between Leigh and Perkins, when he discusses his taxidermy hobby and his mother, is expertly written and acted (the writer was Joseph Stefano, who was quite young at the time), the same for the scene between Balsam and Perkins, when the slick private eye peels back Perkins' obfuscation.

The film was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, which in turn was inspired by the true horror of killer Ed Gein (who also inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs). Stefano changed it quite a bit, most notably the character of Norman, who in the book was pudgy, middle-aged, and bald. Making Norman into something of a leading man (one commenter called him the "Hamlet of serial killers") was a brilliant idea. Stefano, who was inItalic Freudian analysis (which fascinated Hitchcock, who was not much for self-examination) infused the script with several themes, most notably duality, whether it be guilt and innocence, good and evil, or mother and son. This was then represented by Hitchcock primarily with the use of mirrors, and even in color, though it was a black and white movie--Leigh's underwear before her crime was white, after, black.

Hitchcock made the film for under a million dollars, a fifth of his budget for North by Northwest. Cheap horror films were all the rage then, but they were all terrible, and it was his notion to see if a good one could be made given the right talent. He used his television series crew. The studio (the film was a Paramount production, though shot on the Universal lot) wasn't keen on it, and had several concerns about it all along the way. One of the biggest fights was over the use of the word "transvestite." When it was released, critics were lukewarm, perhaps peeved that they had to see the film right along with the great unwashed. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther panned it, but the film was a sensation, prompting long lines and packed houses. It was to become Hitchcock's greatest financial success, and prompted almost immediate critical reappraisals. Crowther ended up putting it on his ten-best list.

The film has its rough edges. I've never been crazy about the opening scene, which seems unnecessarily tawdry and awkwardly paced, and the very ending, with Simon Oakland as the psychiatrist explaining Norman's psychosis is overly didactic. It was, however, necessary for the time period, as having a villain's urges with psychosexual underpinnings was new. Just having Norman be evil wasn't enough, and audiences were not sophisticated enough to know what is now common knowledge. Besides, this leads to the great finish, with Norman's mother's voice in his head, and him staring at the camera, saying he wouldn't hurt a fly, and then the almost subliminal shot of Norman's face dissolving into the skull of his mother. Great stuff. (The next time you watch, look for Ted Knight, later to star on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Norman's guard).

The film has also bequeathed us with many lines that are permanent parts of the lexicon, most of them coming from that dinner scene between Leigh and Perkins: "Mother..she just isn't herself these days," "We all go a little mad sometimes," and "A boy's best friend is his mother." The score, by Bernard Herrmann, was one of the greatest scores of all time, using only strings. It's hard to imagine the film would have half of its power without it. Hitchcock initially wanted to have the shower scene with no music, but Herrmann pressed and Hitchcock agreed, and then doubled Herrmann's salary. The house itself still sits on the Universal lot, and is a big part of the tour.

Psycho, like Breathless of the same year, was a turning point in cinema. It was unlike any horror film that had come before, and has had countless imitators, most of them far more graphic. But Psycho is still better than all of those. Hitchcock had restraints in what he could show, but used those restraints to create more terror than a gallon of fake blood and guts could today.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Lacuna

The only previous work I've read by Barbara Kingsolver before The Lacuna was her novel Pigs in Heaven, which I found to be thoroughly delightful and heartfelt. This novel is strikingly different in tone, and it's a testament to her abilities that she could write a book so different. The differences, though, are not entirely in the positive ledger. The Lacuna is a book strangely lacking in emotion.

A lacuna is a gap in something, whether it be in a shoreline (the word shares an etymology with lagoon) an archive, or even in memory. All of these definitions are explored in the book, which is the story of Harrison Shepherd. He is the son of an American man, who he meets only occasionally, and a Mexican mother, who takes him to her country as a youth, where she will latch on to a series of men. The first section of the book describes his experiences as a boy on an island, where he is haunted by the screams of howler monkeys and tantalized by an underwater cave.

Shepherd will go on to become a cook and all-around assistant to the famous muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. In turn, he will befriend and work as a secretary for Leon Trotsky, the exiled Soviet leader. This is the best section of the book, as the large personalities of these three dominate (it also reminded me of Julie Taymor's film, Frida). After Trotsky's assassination, Shepherd moves to Asheville, North Carolina, and becomes a popular writer of novels set in ancient Mexico. His associations with the aforementioned well-known Communists, though, gets him trouble during the witch-hunting days of the McCarthy era.

The book is a patchwork of different styles--mostly journal entries by Shepherd, or his secretary during his North Carolina days, the redoubtable widow, Violet Brown, or letters written by and to Shepherd. But the huge problem of the book, it's own lacuna, so to speak, is that Shepherd is an undefined character. He's kind of a Zelig, a cypher who pales in comparison to the larger-than-life people around him. He is also incredibly passive--during the latter part of the book, when he is under attack by the FBI and other anti-Communist organizations, he mounts no defense of himself. He is also gay, but this is slipped into the plot so quietly that it really doesn't matter. I was stunned to read this passage, which is toward the end of the book: "What was my childhood disease? Love, I suppose. I was susceptible to contracting great love, suffering the chills and delirium of that pox." Really? Either he is a self-deluded character or I was reading a different book.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Vapid and Hollow Charade


I've been able, due to not being employed (and thank you, Republican asshole senators, for filibustering the extension of unemployment benefits) to watch much of the hearings to confirm Elena Kagan as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As usual, they are alternately fascinating and crushingly boring, but always an example of a strange ritual of theater that happens in the Senate whenever an opening on the court comes up.

Kagan, in 1995, wrote an article in which she took the entire process to task. She had worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Ruth Bader Ginsburg hearings, and in the article she called the process "a vapid and hollow charade," and one of "vacuity and farce." Her point was that the hearings became a kind of kabuki, with senators not really asking questions--instead directing their remarks beyond the nominee, striking poses and seeking to earn points with their constituents. The nominee's role, at least in the post-Bork days, is to reveal as little of their judicial philosophy as possible, disclaiming that they do not want to prejudice themselves against a case or topic that may come before them on the court.

All this is true, and surely Kagan realized those words would be thrown back at her. But I found her testimony to be frank and candid. She said she would not "grade" previous cases, especially those decided by potential colleagues, and would not discuss her personal beliefs on issues that might come before her. She did say that cases that had been decided are settled law, particularly the two recent gun control cases.

As for the senators, they were predictable on both sides. The Republicans, with a scant record left by Kagan to pick through, used smoke and mirrors to try to conjure up a controversy. Kagan's actions as dean of Harvard Law School regarding military recruitment bore intense scrutiny, particularly by Senator Sessions of Alabama, whose petulance bordered on the manic. It seems to me that Kagan was between a rock and a hard place on the issue, and chose to side with the long-standing rules requiring any employer recruiting on campus to sign an anti-discrimination pledge. To cast her as unmilitary seems grandiose and a stretch of logic. There was also some rattling about foreign law and worries about her being a "legal progressive." Kagan, sensibly so, wondered what that meant.

The Democrats did little pressing of the far-left's concern about her views on executive power. Instead they spoke beyond her to criticize some recent decisions by the Roberts court, particularly Citizens United, Ledbetter, and the Exxon punitive damages decision. They seemed to imply that thank god Kagan would not have aligned herself with those decisions, but she could not agree with that thinking (she did argue the Citizens United case as Solicitor General, so presumably she would have voted against the findings of the majority, but you never know).

A few senators either acquitted or embarrassed themselves. I find Arizona's John Kyl to be arrogant, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, while entertaining as a spectacle, proves himself to be a danger to us all. Lindsey Graham took the proper tone of being respectful while disagreeing. As far as Scott Brown, the new hunky senator from Massachusetts goes, I was unimpressed with him. He introduced Kagan, as part of a tradition accorded to the nominee's home senators. He spoke as if rousted from bed at gunpoint.

On the Democratic side, I was again impressed with Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Al Franken of Minnesota. Amy Klobuchar, also of Minnesota, did her usual best to inject levity to the proceedings (last year she asked Sonia Sotomayor if she had watched baseball's all-star game) by jokingly asking Kagan if she had an opinion on the Team Edward/Team Jacob issue in the Twilight movies. "I wish you wouldn't," Kagan replied.

As for Kagan, she seems like a card. She had two great zingers. In an answer to Arlen Specter on televising the Supreme Court, she said she was for it, but that she would have to get her hair done more often. To Graham, who was leading to a discussion of the Christmas-day underwear bomber, she answered his question of where she was on Christmas day thusly: "As with most Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant."

Kagan will be confirmed, but will probably only get a handful of Republican votes, and this is a shame. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake for then Senator Obama and other Democrats to go to the wall on the Roberts and Alito nominations. They were completely qualified nominees, and to expect President Bush to have nominated someone moderate was fanciful. After the Bork hearings, the respect of the Senate for nominees from opposing parties got back to a reasonable peace. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer all received at least ninety yea votes (the exceptional Thomas hearings were another story). As Graham said repeatedly, elections have consequences, and to deny qualified nominees out of political pique serves no one's interests, and instead gums up the judiciary with unfilled seats. It's time the senators on both sides grew up.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Wise Blood

After reading so much of Flannery O'Connor's work recently, I was keen to see the film version of her acclaimed novel Wise Blood, directed by the great John Huston. I've been wanting to see this film since it was released in 1979. Better late than never, I guess.

The opening scenes are brilliant. The credit sequence is in black and white, and features photographs of roadside signs in the deep, rural south, all of them proclaiming the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. A gravestone has a telephone attached to it, and the words underneath read "Jesus Called." The credits themselves are in a child's scrawl, and misspell Huston's first name as "Jhon." Then we see a soldier beside a road, hitching a ride. He is Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), and he is returning to his homestead, which he finds abandoned and overgrown. As the music (adapted by Alex North) mixes "The Tennessee Waltz" and Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," he pokes around the family graveyard. One stone also has a word misspelled--instead of "angel" it says "angle." And Dourif flashes back to his grandfather, a tent-revival preacher (played by Huston himself).

Dourif, finding nothing for him in his hometown, decides to head for city. "I'm going to do some things there," he tells anyone who will listen. "I'm going to do some things I ain't never done before." In his new suit and hat he is mistaken for a preacher, though he despises religion. Arriving at the train station, he jots down a name written on a men's room wall and heads straight for that address, and promptly moves in the with the accommodating whore, who tells him she doesn't mind if he's a preacher, as long as he has four dollars.

This is the world of Flannery O'Connor--the Southern grotesque. Dourif, though despising preachers, ends up preaching on the street himself, creating a church he calls "The Church Without Christ." He has only one acolyte: a mentally disturbed young man (Dan Shor) who has a an obsessive fascination with both apes and a mummified child that is on display at a local museum. Dourif becomes obsessed with a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter (Amy Wright), and despises how they shill for money. When a rival street-preacher (Ned Beatty) begins preaching right next to Dourif, using a similarly-dressed prophet (William Hickey) Dourif takes drastic action.

There is a lot of stuff here. The imagery is striking; wherever Dourif goes, the imprint of Jesus surrounds him. He condemns Jesus, and says there must be a new one, but he is resistant to all that is spiritual. When Shor presents him the mummy as a religious icon, Dourif rejects it. In fact, Dourif pours all of his faith into something that is tangible--a beat-up automobile. When he is told that the radiator won't hold water, he tells the attendant to pour water in there anyway, as apt a metaphor for religious faith as I've heard. When the car ends up failing him, he snaps, and becomes something of an ascetic. His landlady says he should join a "monkery."

I can't fully recommend Wise Blood, though. The problem is that there are so many eccentrics, freaks, and crackpots in the cast of characters that there's no sense of normalcy. The script needed a way in for the audience. When some of these characters bump up against each other it's like taking two random crazy people and watching them interact--they react without any particular rhyme or reason. The film thus becomes an exercise in bizarre behavior, and while intellectually stimulating is dramatically bereft. There are some wonderful set pieces, such as when Shor goes to a movie promotion for a film starring a giant gorilla, but they don't hold together in the center.

Included on this Criterion DVD is a few worthy extras, including an audio recording of O'Connor reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and a PBS special with Bill Moyers interviewing Huston. It was when he was directing Annie, and Moyers is amazed that Huston is able to watch playback on a video monitor. It seems amusing now, as all movies are made this way now.