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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Tenth Inning

Ken Burns' mammoth film on baseball debuted during the horrible strike of 1994. I remember at the time enjoying it, especially considering those were dark days for the game. It reminded me, as sportswriter Howard Bryant says in the follow-up film, The Tenth Inning, that "the game is bigger than the players, the owners, steroids, and money."

Burns and his co-director, Lynn Novick, have picked up the story from the end of their last film. As usual with Burns, he has structured it in the form of a narrative, using people from the game as characters. It turns out that for this film, Barry Bonds will be the central figure. He is both hero, antihero, and villain, depending on when we see him and what our attitude is.

The film starts with background on Bonds, especially on his father, Bobby, who felt he was mistreated in the majors. Then, after the nasty business of the strike, we get a profile of Cal Ripken, who helped turn things around for baseball. We get a look at the re-emergence of the New York Yankees under Joe Torre as skipper. There's also a segment on the rapidly expanding number of Latin players in the game.

Then we get a glorious reconstruction of the summer of '98, in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Even though this has now been irrevocably tainted by what we all know, it's still a thrill to relive the excitement that this chase brought to the game. Even if it a sham of sorts, it was essential to reviving the interest in the game after the lingering smell of the labor dispute.

Part two covers the steroid business in all of its ugliness. There is the contradiction, though, that through all of this the game increased in popularity. Apparently fans are willing to overlook players cheating to win much more than they are the escalation of player salaries (in the 1970s, the average major-leaguer made three times the average salary, while today it is fifty times). I'll admit that during all this I was skeptical and willing to give players the benefit of the doubt, figuring that taking a pill couldn't help you hit a ball better. But the numbers just don't lie.

It's interesting that those Burns uses as interview subjects are sympathetic to players on this issue. Comedian Chris Rock, in his only bit of face-time, asks "If you could take a pill to do your job better, wouldn't you? If you could take a pill and make Spielberg money, wouldn't you?" I'm not sure I would, frankly. I get tired of the sanctimony of baseball writers on this issue, considering they are likely boozers and dopers, too, but Burns seems a bit too eager to give players a pass.

A good chuck of the second half is on the rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, which has been both good and bad for baseball. Good, in that it puts fannies in the seats and eyeballs to the tube, but bad in that it seems that these are the only two teams that the media pays attention to. We get close examinations of the Boston heartbreak in the '03 league championship, when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long and Aaron Boone ended it with a walk-off homer, and then the '04 Boston miracle. Burns in a Red Sox fan, so we might understand this indulgence. It's great to see that again--the Dave Roberts steal, the Ortiz homer, and then the Johnny Damon grand slam that iced it.

Finally we return to Bonds, and his chase of Hank Aaron. Bob Costas described it as "joyless," and Bryant can't recall what he was doing when Bonds broke the record. It had none of the excitement of previous records falling, as everyone suspected Bonds of using PEDs. I suppose this will linger until someone who plays his entire career during the post-steroid, drug-testing era, breaks that record. While watching, I had to be reminded how many homers Bonds ended up with, 762. That I didn't know that readily is indicative of something, as numbers like 714 and 755 were as well known to me as my phone number.

Overall the film was well worth watching. Yes, it gets a bit syrupy, but I'm the sort who thinks baseball is worthy of that kind of sentimentalization. Burns' interview subjects lay it on thick, particularly Mike Barnicle, while others, like Bryant and writer Marcos Breton are much more clear-eyed. Thomas Boswell, who has been one of the great sportswriters for a long time now, actually brings up Keats' tribute to William Shakespeare in baseball's use of negative capability. I can only imagine how that played with some fans, who are tired of the overlay of literary patina on a game that is played by men who don't know who Keats is.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dinnertime with ESPN

I watch a lot of ESPN, many more minutes than are equivalent to my sports fanaticism. I think this is mostly because it makes a good background, the kind of thing I can put on and wander in and out of the room. I watch it in the morning, because those network morning shows are like fingernails on the blackboard, and because the all-news channels depress me these days (please, more stories about kooky Tea Party candidates).

I also put ESPN on when I get home from work. They have a block of shows that are kind of a hybrid of sports talk-radio and game show, and have done their best to make sportswriters TV stars, which is a dubious gambit. In many ways these shows appeal to the lowest common denominator, but I watch anyway. It beats the news.

One of the shows is Around the Horn, which is a game show of sorts. Four sportswriters from various parts of the country debate sports issues in sound bites, and their arguments are scored by the toothsome host, Tony Reali. He does this with joysticks, and the sportswriters, who are not present, are on big TV screens. It's all very high-tech, but the content is frequently stupid.

I tune in, despite the show's drawbacks, because it does give me a thumbnail look at the sports news of the day. There are also some writers who are thoughtful and don't come off like barking seals, especially Kevin Blackistone, Bob Ryan, Jackie McMullan, Tim Cowlishaw and J.A. Adande. They are off-set by the sanctimonious Bill Plaschke and the buffoonish Woody Paige, who is the kind of guy who would wear a lampshade at a party. He uses props and makes bad puns, and is about as witty as a pair of Chattering Teeth. The worst guest, however, is not on anymore. Jay Mariotti, a cynical tool who until recently wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, played the part of the show's asshole, and he suited it all too well. He has been banished from the airwaves after being arrested after a domestic disturbance.

This cacophony is followed by the almost as loud Pardon the Interruption, which is easier to take. There are only two voices--the co-hosts, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon, former columnists for the Washington Post. Theydiscuss the sports news of the day in brief segments, sometimes interview a guest (for no more than five minutes), and then play some sort of game. Kornheiser is the kvetch, a comedian of sorts who knows more about American Idol than many sports, while Wilbon plays the part of Chicago tough guy, frequently talking about who he would give beat-downs (usually they are sports mascots). These guys have magnificent chemistry, and while one gets the impression that Kornheiser doesn't actually watch much sports, they're both knowledgeable about the major sports, and give lip service to the minor ones.

The problem comes when these two are off, which is often. In the summer they have Johnny Carson-like vacation schedules. If replaced by the aforementioned Bob Ryan, I'm fine with it, but the usual guest-host is the swarthy Dan Le Betard, who acts as if he were dropped on his head as an infant. I'm mystified why anyone would him on television.

Kornheiser spent a few years on Monday Night Football, to mixed results. I don't watch MNF, so I can't speak to his abilities on that show, but he's a hoot for a half-hour while I'm eating my dinner.

There are few other shows on the network during the afternoon. Jim Rome has a show at 4:30, which I'm not home in time for. When I wasn't working I would tune in, but he's hard to take. A macho guy with a booming voice, Rome has a radio show in L.A. and notoriously baited former Rams' quarterback Jim Everett by calling him "Chrissie" (as in Chris Evert, get it?) He's mellowed over the years, but still is the kind of pompous blowhard who is way too impressed with himself.

Then there's Sports Nation, which is on at all different times during the day. It's the dumbest show of the lot, geared toward a kind of frat-boy mentality (they have a live audience that sounds drunk). All of their segments center around polls taken, which makes it like Family Feud. I like half of the hosts--Michelle Beadle, adorable and a genuine sports fan, can be on my TV 24 hours a day, but Colin Cowherd, another sports radio douchebag, should be exiled post-haste. I can't stand this guy, and everything he says comes off as bitter and sarcastic. He earned by enmity when, before the NCAA men's basketball finals, he said he was rooting for Duke. That's bad enough, but it was because, he said, he'd never heard of Butler. Gee, I know it's a small school, but they've consistently been factors in the NCAA tournament for the last couple of years. Anyone who says that either doesn't his ass from his elbow or his just yakking to hear his head roar. I vote for both.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ajami

Ajami was one of the films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film last year, and as I put the DVD into my player I had the rare pleasure of not having any idea what the movie was about, eschewing reading the summary on the Netflix envelope. As a result, I enjoyed how the dense storyline unfolded, although I'm sure my lack of knowledge of the political situation in Israel hindered my full understanding of the events.

The film was co-directed by Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, a Jewish Israeli, and is named after a neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa. Although Arabic is the predominant language, there is also a lot of Hebrew spoken, but of course that is no apparent to my ears. Helpfully, the subtitles indicated what language was being spoken.

There are several intersecting plots, and the film uses chapters to shift focus from one character to another. The stories all have to do with a kind of criminal lifestyle. At the outset, a boy fixing his car is gunned down by men on a motorcycle, mistaken for someone else. A restaurant owner, being shaken down for protection money, shoots someone in a connected family. This ignites a vendetta (or whatever the Arabic word for that is), and a young man named Omar tries goes to his boss, a Christian restaurant owner, to try to broker peace. It is unknown to the Christian man that Omar has eyes for his daughter.

Meanwhile, another restaurant employee, Malek, is in the city illegally (here is where some of my ignorance hurts--I didn't understand where he was from and what restrictions there were on travel). His mother ends up in the hospital needing an expensive operation. Another storyline involves the restaurant's cook, who has taken up with a Jewish girlfriend. From the Jewish perspective, we follow the events around a Jewish policeman, who has a missing brother.

The script is nonlinear, and we see sometimes see events more than once, from different points of view and with more information. A second viewing would bring out even more appreciation. For example, I was unaware of that the restaurant owner and his daughter were Christian until near the end of the film, when he forbade her from seeing Omar because of the differences in their religion. Was this mentioned earlier in the film, and I just missed it, or was it deliberately withheld?

Most of the cast are Ajami locals and nonprofessionals, which helps give the film a documentary feel. I admired the film, but aside from a moment at the very end, when several strands are wrapped together in a powerful moment, I wasn't overly moved by it. It doesn't take a particular political stand, which is admirable, but then again because it doesn't it's hard to know what's at stake for the characters.

I've now seen four of the five nominated films from 2009, with only the Peruvian film, The Milk of Sorrow, remaining. I hope it will released on DVD soon.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Easy A

"John Hughes did not direct my life," says Olive Pendergast, played by Emma Stone, in Easy A. This is true. Unfortunately, her life has been directed by Will Gluck, without any discernible visual style. But there are plenty of references to John Hughes films--there are even clips from them. This is almost always a bad idea, as it reminds people of better movies. If you show me a clip of Ferris Bueller's Day Off I'm only going to wish I was watching that movie instead of this one.

Easy A would like to be a modern Hughes film, but it's lacking. It gets off to a bad start with plot points that don't add up. Stone, to get out of going camping with her best friend's family, lies about having a date. Then, when her friend asks her if they "did it," Stone, for no apparent reason, says they did. She is overheard by the school's religious zealot (Amanda Bynes), and all of a sudden the students are looking at her differently. This just doesn't make sense--Stone told us she's almost anonymous at the school, and it's highly unlikely that in the year 2010, in an age when it's common for middle-school kids to be having oral sex, that one anonymous girl losing her virginity would be a cause celebre.

This threw me off for a while, and I struggled to get with the flow of the film. It didn't help that the school didn't seem authentic--it was a movie school, peopled not by real kids but types. Stone's parents, the fine actors Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, were twinkly folks who also didn't seem authentic, and the school principal was oddly portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, who seemed to have wandered in from another movie.

The film does start to right its ship about halfway in, when Stone starts a small business of letting guys say they slept with her, though they didn't. She's paid in store gift-cards, or, in one case, a coupon to Bed, Bath & Beyond. She embraces her increasingly bad reputation by wearing a red A on her hooker outfits (the class is studying The Scarlet Letter, wouldn't you know, but she's not committing adultery--shouldn't she wear an F for fornication?). But the rumors intensify, especially when Bynes' Jesus freak boyfriend comes down with chlamydia. This creates an opportunity for the movie's funniest line, when the boy is shipped off to his grandparents: "The only thing worse than chlamydia is Florida."

All of this might have worked in a film that was set in a time period when the sexualization of teenage girls wasn't common. But, I think the filmmakers wanted to make a point about the spreading of rumors on social networking sites, but this is only skimmed, and it doesn't get terribly serious. The film does have a message for young girls, if they look hard enough. Interestingly the script is pretty hard on the religious kids, painting them as hypocrites. I don't think this will be a big hit with the evangelical crowd.

There's been a lot of talk about how this film is Stone's star-making role, and she is very good. She works very hard--Gluck might have made it a little easier for her by creating characters around her who could help her out a bit. She shows a nice flair for comedy, and is very easy to root for. There have been comparisons made to Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but that movie was much better than this one, and I would be loathe, given Silverstone's career since then, to hang that on anyone.

My grade for Easy A: C-.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Suburbs

To come out with a concept album, in this day and age of downloaded songs, seems like a willful thumb in the eye of the music zeitgeist. Yet Arcade Fire has done just that, crafting a thoughtful, nostalgic suite of songs concerning growing up in the suburbs. It is called, simply, The Suburbs.

When I say nostalgic, I mean it in the original definition of the word, which was a mental disorder. The narrators of these songs is indelibly marked by his childhood in the soul-deadening suburbs. He has a fond recollection--the first line of the first track is "In the suburbs I learned to drive," but more often that not the weight of his upbringing seems to crush him. A line from "Wasted Hours" goes, "You watch the life you're living disappear, and now I see, we're still kids in buses, longing to be free." He even goes further in "Deep Blue," ascribing the inevitable collapse of civilization to the suburbs: "We watched the end of the century, compressed on a tiny screen. A dead star collapsing and we could see that something was ending. Are you through pretending, we saw the signs in the suburbs?"

Musically the album starts with a jaunty, juke-joint piano sound, and the first four songs are up-tempo. But after a while the music settles into a dirge-like rhythm that begins to wear on the listener. That is, until the last full song, called "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," which is by far the most dynamic song of the collection. It is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel (specifically "Solsbury Hill") and early '80s synth-pop. It is the only song on the record that has a lead vocal by Regine Chassagne (the others are sung by Win Butler), and she positively soars. The lyrics are both elegiac and joyous, as she lets us know that everyone around her has tried to stifle her creativity, but she will prevail. "Living in the sprawl, the dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains and there's no end in sight. I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!"

That song, as does "Sprawl I (Flatland)" makes reference to an incident in both the male and female singers lives, when they ride bikes to park after dark and are surprised by cops. In "Sprawl I," the singer recalls the policeman asking him, "The last defender of the sprawl said, 'Where do you kids live?' Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth, I've been searching every corner of the Earth."

There are similarities to their last album, Neon Bible, though that record was much richer musically. They do break out the church organ so commonly used on that record in the song "Rococo," but otherwise The Suburbs is made up of songs that tend to blend into one another. They are still primarily working in minor keys, though, and the effect is not one that inspires finger-snapping.

The suburbs have taken a beating in literature almost since their inception following World War II, and it's well-trod ground. But Arcade Fire, to their credit, have given the topic a different spin. The recurring image of kids riding bikes by the manicured lawns in the twilight is quite evocative. Overall this is a fine record, and "Sprawl II" is a song that I will be putting in my CD player and hitting the repeat button.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Big Nothing

Big Nothing, a 2006 film by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, reminded me of Thomas Hobbes' quote: it's brutish, nasty, and short. It's the kind of film made by people who have seen a lot of films of it's kind, but doesn't manage to elevate itself above the conventions of the genre. It's far too clever for its own good.

David Schwimmer stars (that in itself is a warning sign--the dude doesn't have great taste in film projects) as a sad-sack writer who is forced to take a job at an Internet call-center (already this seems archaic--are there any call-centers that aren't in Bangalore?) and meets Simon Pegg. Both need money, and Pegg has an idea--they'll use server records to blackmail someone who has been to child-porn Websites.

They think they have a foolproof plan, but of course everything goes wrong. It starts with a third member, Alice Eve, and then extends to their choice of victim--a reverend. Why they would think a reverend could get his hands on $200,000 in one day is beyond me.

The caper-gone-wrong genre is long and illustrious, and Big Nothing tries its little heart out, with numerous twists and people who might be dead but aren't, but the cartoonish tone is very off-putting and unpleasant. Though the film is less than ninety minutes long it seemed longer, and I had no interest in any of the characters early on.

I liked two things about it: The songs, some of them by The Eels, create more atmosphere than the script does, and I appreciated that an FBI agent (played by John Polito) is named Chester Hymes. Chester Himes was a crime writer who most memorably wrote Cotton Comes to Harlem. That's a nice shout-out in a film that doesn't deserve his mention.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Broken Teaglass

In the thousands of mystery novels written over the years, I'm going to venture that none of them ever featured, as their amateur sleuths, a pair of lexicographers. But Emily Arsenault has ingeniously set her mystery, The Broken Teaglass, in the offices of a dictionary publisher. It's a wise move--fans of mysteries tend to be fans of words in general, the type of people who read dictionaries for pleasure, and for them this book is catnip.

It's not really a whodunit, though, but more of a melancholy puzzle. Billy, a recent and directionless college graduate, gets a job at Samuelson, a preeminent dictionary publisher, in Claxon, Massachusetts. This is clearly modeled on Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass, made more evident when I looked in the front of a Merriam-Webster dictionary at work and found Arsenault's name in the credits. Clearly she followed the dictum of "write what you know."

Billy is a kind of wayward soul. He works as a "definer," but he is want to utter words like "Allrighty," and "yup." He befriends the feisty Mona, and together they uncover a mystery. It seems that dictionaries keep files of citations on every single word. Editors read a wide range of publications to find various uses of words, and file them away for when they are defined. The editors call them "cits." Billy and Mona, quite accidentally, find that there are cits that are plucked from a novel called The Broken Teaglass. But the cits are abnormally long, and seem to have been written by someone who worked at the dictionary. Then Mona discovers there is no novel by that name, and the cits, once they find more of them, may be a confession to a murder.

As I said, there's not much of a revelation in the book, it's more of a character study. Our heroes are never in any peril--the crime was committed fifteen years earlier. In some ways it reminded me of the The Daughter of Time, which had an invalid solving the murders of the Princes in the Tower that was hung on Richard III, centuries after they were committed.

But if the book doesn't offer a standard detective-novel plot, it also doesn't have the cliches, either, and gives a fresh take on the mystery novel. It is also impossible to read this book without consulting a dictionary. Did you know that the words "nerd," "nebbish," and "maven" were all coined within a few years of each other?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Crossing Over

Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue in the U.S. right now, inciting emotional responses from both sides. It's the perfect time for a thoughtful film on the topic, and Crossing Over, which was came and went without a sound last year, is certainly thoughtful. I think it is also weighted down by its solemnity.

Reminiscent of Crash, the Wayne Kramer film is a quilt of stories about a wide variety of immigrants, both legal and non. Harrison Ford is a immigration officer who has the misfortune of having an conscience. After a raid on a clothing manufacturer, a young Mexican woman pleads with him to see to her child; he ends up driving the boy all the way back to his grandparents in Mexico. His partner (Cliff Curtis), an Iranian, is celebrating his father's naturalization, but is ashamed of his sister's slatternly behavior.

Elsewhere, an Australian would-be actress (Alice Eve), her visitor's visa expired, ends up prostituting herself for a green card to a sleazy official (Ray Liotta). His wife, Ashley Judd, is an immigration attorney, who gets involved with a family of Muslims who are threatened with deportation when their teenage daughter writes a paper expressing sympathy for the 9/11 hijackers.

There's a lot going on here, and that doesn't include a young Korean boy who is pressured to join a gang of criminals, and a British musician, Jim Sturgess, who tries to get a work permit by feigning being a Jewish scholar. May of the characters end up intersecting, a la Crash, but unlike that film there's less of a singular purpose. Kramer seems to be throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and without the light touch he exhibited in his much better film, The Cooler.

But there's some daring writing in Crossing Over. I've always suspected that much of the hatred of illegal immigrants is racial in nature, but this film does look at blonde, blue-eyed immigrants like Eve as being part of the entire picture. Her story, as sickening as it is, doesn't match the story of the Muslim girl (Summer Bashil), which brings up the issue of the Islamic cultural center and the Islamophobia it has inspired. Instead of depicting her as a peaceable Muslim, Kramer takes the ballsy approach of introducing her while she's reading her paper before the class, her head covered, and indicating that while she doesn't condone the actions of the hijackers, she understands. She is shouted down with epithets, and frankly, if I were a high school student, the xenophobic part of my brain might be inflamed. It reminds me of films about the blacklist era in which an innocent person is falsely perceived as being a communist--why not go all the way and make the character an actual communist? The reaction to Bashil as a character--is she sympathetic or not--give this film some badly needed juice.

Crossing Over is an admirable and intelligent film, but it was missing something. I know Crash is largely reviled by certain film fans, despite its Oscar win, and while I agree it was overrated, I thought it was still pretty good. That film had a sense of magic about it in having the characters wander through the landscape, but Crossing Over, despite a few moments that highlight unexpected compassion, lacks that.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

She's Out of My League

Although purportedly a comedy, I was left depressed by She's Out of My League. To start with, I didn't find it funny, but beyond that I was disheartened by its slick production values and a cavalcade of unappealing characters. Perhaps the film's worst crime is one of attitude: The film, on it's face, would seem to be constructed to appeal to the typical Maxim reader, but it takes the easy way out and slides gelatinously into a cliche-ridden romantic comedy.

The premise is that an average guy, played by Jay Baruchel, meets a beautiful woman, who inexplicably wants to date him. She's played by Alice Eve. Baruchel's friends, an assortment of losers who work with him at the airport, either cheer him on or, in the case of a fellow called Stainer, jealously try to dissuade him, saying that he's a "five" and she's a "hard ten," and that there are rules about jumping two places. This Seinfeldian dialogue seems about twenty years out of place.

If Baruchel's friends are a sorry bunch (and it doesn't seem like they would be friends), his family is depicted as a stereotypical clan of white-trash yahoos. Of course they like NASCAR, Japanese game shows, and Branson, Missouri, and are aggressively uncouth. Not only do they seem about as real as leprechauns, they are vaguely insulting to the Scotch-Irish. It's like depicting a black family loving watermelon.

Anyway, Baruchel can't believe his good luck, especially since Eve is a character out of a man's dreams. Her imperfection is that she has one webbed toe. I wonder how Eve, an appealing actress, played this character. I imagine that she has a notebook full of backstory and all her likes and dislikes, but none of it made it into the movie. Of course she and Baruchel have their conflict--at one point he jizzes in his pants, and his lack of self-esteem threatens to doom the relationship. As if.

I think the moment I hated the most was when his dorky friend helps him shave his balls. Yes, you read that right. I'm not a typical guy's guy, but I would venture to speculate that this would never, ever happen, and I never want to see something like this again.

The film tries to be a gross-out comedy and also a date-film, and succeeds at neither. I would imagine women would not like this film, as the female characters are either goddesses or shrill harpies. I will give the film credit for one thing--since the characters work for TSA at the airport, it makes the thoroughly cliched "will the character get to the airport and stop the other character from leaving on a plane" scene work a little easier.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Raymond Carver

The tenth and last book of The New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2009 is Raymond Carver, an exhaustively researched biography of the writer of short stories and poems by Carol Sklenicka. Earlier this year I read another literary biography, Cheever, and his story has some eerie parallels with Carver's. In fact, the two both appear in each other's biographies, as they were briefly close friends while Carver was a student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and Cheever was a teacher.

Both were acclaimed short story writers, perhaps the greatest two American practitioners of the century, and both became degenerate alcoholics. But both cleaned up their acts, reached rapprochement with their children, and received high acclaim. They also both died of cancer, Carver at the far too young age of 50.

As with Cheever, I came to this book largely unfamiliar with the subject. To my knowledge I've never read a word of Carver--the only way I know him is the Robert Altman film Short Cuts, which dramatizes a number of his stories. I am interested in reading more, though. To many, he was the Anton Chekhov of America.

Carver was born in Oregon and raised in Yakima, Washington, and then kicked around northern California. Sklenicka's greatest skill exhibited in this book is her capturing a sense of place, and she really needed it, because Carver was itinerant, to put it mildly. He and his wife, Maryann, (they married as teenagers) and two children moved about constantly. Sklenicka paints vivid portraits of small towns in California, and places as disparate as El Paso, Vermont, and Israel. The life the Carvers led was precarious, as they were frequently broke, but there's a certain vicarious thrill to the lifestyle of writers of literary fiction, most of whom go from college to college for teaching jobs, hoping to sell to small magazines, waiting for the big break.

Carver's break came when his friend Gordon Lish became fiction editor at Esquire. He championed Carver's stories, and was his first outlet to the greater public. But the relationship with Lish was complicated, and Sklenicka details the pain involved in the publication of Carver's collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in which Lish took previously published stories and practically rewrote them.

Eventually Carver would hit the big time and outgrow Lish's protection, which Lish seemed to resent. Carver hitched his wagon to another editor, Gary Fisketjon, who started the Vintage Contemporary line of paperback originals. Carver's Cathedral was the first of that imprint (Jay McInerny, who was a student of Carver's, was second with Bright Lights, Big City). Oh, how I remember those books, which I read when I was in my early twenties and imagined myself getting one of them published. Some consolation--Carver was in his forties before he earned a significant income.

In fact, Carver, for all his early misery, ended up leading something of a charmed last act. He received an award that made my eyes bug out: the Strauss Living Award, which paid him $3,500 a year for five years, on the condition that he not hold a full-time job (this was early 80s money). After his long, tempestuous marriage with Maryann (on their second honeymoon he clubbed her with a wine bottle) he found happiness with poet Tess Gallagher. He never won a Pulitzer, but he was generally conceded to be a master of the short story.

He never wrote a novel, though he talked about it often. Many categorize him as a minimalist, though Sklenicka expertly expands upon that definition. Most of his stories are about marriage and its difficulties, with characters down on their luck. One Atlantic Monthly subscriber, after reading a Carver story, wrote and asked why someone like him should care about Carver's characters.

The book is also full of life concerning the writing community. Everyone seemed to know everyone. In addition to Cheever, almost every major writer of the 60s, 70s, and 80s makes a cameo. Carver studied under the legendary John Gardner while at Chico State, and became good friends with Richard Ford. But perhaps my favorite story was when Carver, while teaching at UC-Santa Cruz, invited dipsomaniacal poet Charles Bukowski for a visit. It went about as one might expect. A colleague remembered: "Bukowski, drinking everything in sight, muttered, bragged, cursed, and, getting drunker by the minute, grabbed the girls and mashed his whiskery face against theirs, or shot his hand to the crotch of their jeans or down their blouses...girls screamed and ran from the house...more cerebral students sat back and stared straight ahead, probably stoned...Ray started drinking."

Raymond Carver was not an easy man to admire. In addition to his drunkenness and spouse abuse, he seemed to have a complete disregard for financial responsibility. He was once tried for defrauding the state of California by collecting unemployment benefits while actually employed. As Sklenicka quoted Carver: "'You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a thief. Or a liar," Carver said later. As the bottom of his alcoholism sank lower and lower, he had become all of those things." Yet, as this book comes to its touching conclusion, one can't help feel sympathy for the man, although I imagine there are some that would have tired of his antics a few hundred pages earlier.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town

The last decade seems to have seen a flowering of crime films that are set in Boston. Mystic River, The Departed, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island all are set in the Hub City, with the requisite "pahk ya cah in Hahvahd Yahd" accents. This "Beantown Noir" proliferation is due to a number of reasons, perhaps most due to the cinematic-ready books of Dennis Lehane, who penned the source of three of these films. But the other is Ben Affleck, who directed Gone, Baby, Gone and now returns with The Town.

I think it all started with Affleck and Matt Damon writing Good Will Hunting. While not a crime film, it was the first of the recent films that depict Boston has the hardscrabble town of broken blue-collar dreams. Once the province of New York City neighborhoods, it now seems that if you want to make a film about the beaten down men of a certain type, you go to Boston.

Affleck stars in The Town as well as directs (and co-writes the screenplay), and his character isn't much different than the one in Good Will Hunting. He is a laborer for a sand and gravel company, but the big difference is that Doug Macray is also a bank robber. We are told at the outset that a blue-collar neighborhood of Boston, Charlestown, is a hotbed of bank and armored car thieves, who learn the business at their father's knee.

The Town is a fine film, but doesn't stray much from standard structure. Affleck's character will, through the love of a good woman, come to doubt his criminal ways and want to leave the city of his birth. In doing this he will be at odds with his childhood friend and colleague, who is a violent psychopath. He will want to leave the business, but be forced into one last job that will go disastrously wrong. Though all of this is familiar, it's well done.

Each of the film's three acts feature a robbery. The first finds Affleck's crew hitting a bank wearing fright masks. I was taken out of the film a bit because it seems to me that professional bank robbers wouldn't wear masks that would severely limit peripheral vision. They take the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) as hostage, and learn that she lives in their neighborhood. Affleck, attracted to her, stalks her to see what she knows, and ends up seducing her. His buddy (Jeremy Renner) isn't so sentimental, and when he finds out that the two have become a couple he is dubious, to say the least.

Renner is a character long familiar to movie audiences, the second banana with the vicious streak. Perhaps best typified by Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, the character has its limitations, as it's easy to figure he likely won't make it out of the film alive, and there will be a continual struggle between the protagonist and the character who represents the protagonist's childhood connections. But Renner does well with the character, and I loved the moment when Affleck tells Renner they are going to go hurt some people. "What car we gonna take?" Renner asks, without batting an eye.

The relationship between Affleck and Renner is complicated by Renner's sister (Blake Lively), a single young woman with drug and alcohol problems and a child. She and Affleck had a relationship, but he says the child is not his.

This is all established in the film's first third, and I found it to be solid but nothing special. It was only during the second robbery that the film kicks into a second gear. The crew, now wearing nun costumes (with much larger eye-holes) end up chased through the narrow one-way streets of Boston by the police. Affleck and his editor work magic. Car chases are so prevalent that it's something special when there's one that really grabs my attention.

The film then heads toward the inevitable big job. The local crime boss, a florist menacingly played by Pete Postlethwaite, has an insider at Fenway Park. This is sort of akin to Danny Ocean and his men hitting the Bellagio in Vegas. The use of the actual Fenway Park for this scene adds an immeasurable amount of authenticity that makes the scene thrum with electricity. It's no shock to anyone who has seen a movie before that something will go wrong, but it's a terrific climax nonetheless.

The acting by all hands is excellent. Hall is an intriguing actress to watch, and she has a difficult task,--she has to sell her love for Affleck, even after certain facts come to light. Lively, playing a character about as opposite of her role on Gossip Girl as possible, is quite good, as is Jon Hamm as an FBI agent who somehow manages to always have five-o-clock-shadow. Chris Cooper has one scene has Affleck's incarcerated father, and he knocks it over the Green Monster. My only problem was with understanding the Boston accents. To the film's credit, though, the word "wicked" is never uttered.

My grade for The Town: B+

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Zombie Strippers

When a movie is called Zombie Strippers, and the lead actress is a porno star, the bar isn't set very high. You know there will be lots of bloody makeup effects and lots of nudity, and this film delivers on both counts. You can also expect that it will have its tongue firmly in cheek, and that's true, too. But as an added bonus, the film is full of references that make it seem as if it were written by a grad student.

The writer, as well as director, photographer, and editor, is Jay Lee, and it's clear that he has done a little reading. Believe it or not, Zombie Strippers is something of an adaptation of Rhinoceros, the play by Eugene Ionesco. Don't let that frighten you off, though, as the parallels are only there if you want to look for them.

Set in 2012, we learn that George W. Bush has been elected to his fourth term and a Constitutional amendment banning public nudity has been passed (Christine O'Donnell must have won that Senate seat). In a lab in Sartre, Nebraska (grad student reference number 1), an experiment in reanimating dead soldiers goes awry. Some soldiers come in to clean up the trouble (the way to stop a zombie in this film is to remove their medulla oblongata, which is most simply accomplished by obliterating its head by gunfire) but one soldier gets bitten and escapes, ending up in a strip club. The soldier attacks the lead dancer (Jenna Jameson), and since the club is illegal, the owner (Robert Englund) decides not to call the police, but instead just chains up the increasing number of zombies. This pays off, as the customers prefer the zombie dancers to the living ones, even though when they go off for lap dances they end up getting eaten.

This is where the Rhinoceros business comes in (the club is called the Rhino, and Englund's character is Ian Essko). In that play, the characters turned into rhinos, a metaphor for conformity, whether it be to communist, fascism, or what have you. So here the strippers, one by one, choose to turn undead to either increase their tips or just go with the flow. It's headier than the usual trashploitation picture, but it certainly doesn't get in the way of the boobs and the fake blood. Rest easy that not too many minutes go by without one of the strippers showing nipple, with Jameson, the most successful adult-film actress of all time, logging in the most time.

Jameson, who once upon a time was a cute, dewy young woman with natural breasts, has used her considerable earnings to fund plastic surgeons. Even before the first bit of zombie makeup is applied, the extensive nipping and tucking on her face has already given her a slightly monstrous look. I will give her this, though--her acting is perfectly respectable, given the surroundings. She may not be ready for Medea, but has comic timing. The best laugh of the film belongs to her, when, after being turned into a zombie, she returns to her volume of Nietzsche, and says, "Now this makes sense." The joke might have been funnier had she been reading Kierkegaard, but let's not quibble.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Deconstructing Harry

I was taking a look at the free offerings on my Comcast On Demand system and saw that Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen's 1997 film, was available for viewing. I hadn't seen it since it was first released, so I took another look at it. When compared to the great Allen films, it comes up short, but in the long view it's an above-average example of his work, and in many ways was the last of its kind--Allen as the neurotic intellectual, struggling to make sense of life, the universe, and women.

The film mainly parrots the form of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, but as if written by Philip Roth. Allen is Harry Block, a novelist who is suspiciously similar to Roth, in that he is perceived as a self-hating Jew that writes scabrous fiction about sexual hostility. Allen is set to receive an honor at the college he was expelled from, but has no one to go with. He ends up with a prostitute and his nine-year-old son, whom he kidnaps, and sets out for upstate New York. Along the way he visits his sister, and also see flashbacks of his life, both as they really happened and as they appeared, thinly disguised, in his fiction.

The film is a bit jarring. It is edited with jump cuts--the opening scene, with Judy Davis getting out of a cab, keeps repeating as if the film were stuttering. Allen's closing lines explain this, as he says of his character that his life is disjointed, but for the most part this seems like an indulgent affectation. Also, the language is particularly caustic. I believe it was the first time that Allen's dialogue was full of vulgarisms. In that scene, Davis calls Allen a "motherfucker" repeatedly, and he calls her a "meshuggeneh cunt." It's like hearing your grandparents swear.

The film is also more overtly sexual than Allen usually is. In the first depiction of one of Block's stories, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is on her knees miming oral sex to Richard Benjamin (a telling performance, given that Benjamin is probably best known as being an avatar of Roth in the film versions of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint). Allen's character is also a lover of whores, and the character of Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), who eventually accompanies him on his trip, is dressed in trashy hooker garb. It is unfortunate that Allen, who rarely has black characters in his films, chooses to represent the race with such a caricature.

But that aside, this film is often funny, and scathingly so. For all of Allen's characters of this type, from Alvy Singer in Annie Hall to Isaac Davis in Manhattan to Micky Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters, Harry Block is the most unabashedly honest. Many quirks are familiar, such as an antipathy to religion and a preference for science: "Between air conditioning and the Pope, I'll take air conditioning." In the scene with his sister (Caroline Aaron), and her orthodox husband (Eric Bogosian), Block pours out his disdain for religions, summing them up as clubs that teach people who to hate.

The film also takes aim at women. Most of them in this film, from Davis to Kirstie Alley as one of his ex-wives to Amy Irving as another, are shown as mean-spirited harpies. This could be chalked up to simple misogyny, but perhaps Allen is showing us how miserable his main character is. In a scene in which Alley, a psychologist, discovers Allen has been sleeping with one of her patients, he turns it around to suggest that he did that because her patients are the only women he meets.

The film's most inspired set-piece is his visit to Hell, where Billy Crystal rules. In the elevator down, we hear the floors called out: "Seventh floor--right-wing extremists, serial killers, lawyers who appear on television." The music is Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," and there's a certain pleasure in seeing the normally smarmy Crystal, a pale copy of old-style Catskills comedians, talking about how sleeping with blind women is great because "they're so grateful."

One thing about Allen's films--actors love to be in them, and this one has numerous cameos by big stars and those on the rise. Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Tobey Maguire, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci all appear. There are blink-and-you-miss them appearances by Paul Giamatti and Jennifer Garner. Allen has never wanted for star-wattage in his casts.

But Deconstructing Harry was really the end of an era. As seen by his output of the 2000s, it was his last fully successful comedy before the onslaught of films that appeared to be made from old scripts he dusted off, like Small-Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Hollywood Ending. He has had a few good films since then, such as the drama Match Point and the more unusual, for him, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But the days of him starring as the Woody Allen persona that has enlivened so many classic films are gone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Crimean War was a conflict in the 1850s between England and Russia. The Russians had attacked Turkey, mostly to gain control of the Dardanelles. England and France responded, siding with the Muslim Turks against the Christian Russians, mostly because the Russians complicated their route to the Indian subcontinent. Today it is largely remembered for two things--Florence Nightengale, and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The charge took place at the Battle of Balaclava, on the Crimean peninsula, which is modern-day Ukraine. It was not a wise tactical decision. Richard Slotkin, in an essay in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, writes: "The order was vaguely worded, the staff officer who delivered it was angry and impatient, and the commanders of the cavalry (Lords Lucan and Cardigan) were so incompetent as to be unable to interpret it properly."

Six-hundred mounted soldiers rode straight into a valley, surrounded on three sides by Russian artillery. They were routed. After reading it about in the Times of London, Alfred Lord Tennyson quickly wrote a poem that would forever immortalize the battle. Some of the lines are familiar to almost everyone:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why
Their's but to do or die

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley'd and thunder'd

Two films have been made about the incident, and they couldn't be more different, and are perfect snapshots of the attitudes about war of the time they were made. The Hollywood version of 1936, starring Errol Flynn, has almost no historical accuracy. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Lives of the Bengal Lancers. It seemed that any film about swashbuckling in India was popular. The little detail of the Crimea not being in India didn't stop them. Flynn plays a British captain stationed in India. He is friends with an Emir from "Suristan" (probably Afghanistan) and saves his life on trip. But, being from a darker race, the Emir turns out to be treacherous, and massacres the residents of a British fort, including women and children (one boy is played by Our Gang performer Scotty Beckett). Flynn escapes, along with his fiancee (Olivia DeHavilland).

Later Flynn is assigned to take part in the Crimean War, and we are led to believe that he defies orders and attacks the Russians because the Emir is with them. This attack will distract the Russians so that the British can capture the city of Sebastapol. So, instead of being a moment of colossal incompetence and arrogance, the whole thing was really one of selfless courage. As Bill Cosby used to say, "Riiiight!"

While watching the film I wondered whether I had the right movie, as the actors don't even make it to Crimea until the last fifteen minutes. Much of it concerned a romantic triangle, with Flynn and his brother, Patric Knowles, vying for DeHavilland's hand. Curtiz, normally a fine director, doesn't show any skill here, and the film is dull as it is unhistorical.

The other film is from 1968, directed by Tony Richardson, and is very typical of films of the era. There were all sorts of films, whether set in the Crimean War or the American West, that were thinly veiled condemnations of the Vietnam War. This one was also an attack on the British class system. The generals--Trevor Howard as Cardigan, Harry Andrews as Lucan, and John Gielgud as Lord Raglan--are depicted as the kind of twits mocked later in Monty Python sketches. It is pointed out that at that time, men could buy commissions as officers. Gielgud says at one point that he thinks if it will be a sad moment when the troops are officered by men who know what they are doing. "It smacks of murder," he says.

Howard's portrayal of Cardigan is vicious. In the film he is vain, obstinate, pompous and foolish. He is at odds with Captain Nolan (David Hemmings), who has served with distinction in India. Howard is so prejudiced that he calls Hemmings an Indian simply because he's been there. Nolan was the man who carried Raglan's order to Cardigan and Lucan, but here he is seen to be the only sane voice in the army, and he is the first to fall in the charge.

Richardson's direction is full of 1960s affectations, such as the dialogue from a scene starting before the previous scene has concluded, and some amusing animation, done in the style of Punch cartoons. I found the film, though dated, to be drolly amusing, and the final scene, where the generals look out at the devastation and argue about who should get the blame, to be timeless.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Survivor: Nicaragua

I spent last night visiting the trailer park in my soul, watching three solid hours of reality TV. First up was the premiere of the 21st season of Survivor, this time set in Nicaragua. What's notable about this season is that one of the contestants is ex-football coach Jimmy Johnson, who is the first real celebrity to appear on the show. There has been a lot of chatter and jokes about it, the latter mostly consisting of how he would handle life without a hair dryer.

As one would imagine, he dominated the first episode. All of his fellow contestants recognized him, and he was honest about his reasons for playing--he loves the show, and wanted the adventure. He has no illusions that he would win, since the winner is chosen by a jury of the losing contestants, and they know he's already a multimillionaire. When asked advice about who to vote out, he said it should be the weakest player, and then named them. One of them, he said, was himself.

He wasn't voted out, but I don't think he'll last long. He appeared to be completely ass-whupped by the first night, nearly coughing up a lung. He's sixty-six, after all. This year's gimmick is that one team is made up of over-40s and the other is under-30s, so he doesn't stick out as the old guy, but he is the oldest player nonetheless. Once he's gone, and I figure it will by episode three or four, the show should calm down and we'll get to know the other people.

This was followed by the two-hour season finale of Big Brother. The three finalists were testosterone-laden lunkheads who had been part of an alliance called the Brigade (although they spelled it the "bra-gade" for some reason). This made the final a little anticlimactic, as they were all friendly to each other. Enzo, the Jersey guy stereotype with the "fuhgeddaboutit" accent and ever-present fedora, was voted out, and you could tell he was stung, as he works two full-time jobs and said he could have used the money (which makes one wonder how he could take an entire summer off). That left Hayden, a college student, against Lane, an oil-rig salesman (during the course of the show he confessed his job is for his father's company, and that mostly he takes clients out golfing). Hayden won, and I think he deserved it. Even though he's basically a male bimbo with bangs hanging down past his eyebrows, he seemed like a decent sort.

I was kind of rooting for Britney, the former beauty queen from Arkansas. Her Mean Girls persona was tempered by a pretty sharp wit, and she looked damned delectable in her outfits all summer (especially her swimsuit). She ended up winning the "America's Favorite"--$25,000, as voted on by the viewers. This was announced at the end of the show, but there was enough time to see her nemesis, Rachel, looking profoundly disgusted.

When I think of how many IQ points I lose by watching these shows I take solace in the fact that there is a world of reality shows I wouldn't be caught dead watching, like The Bachelor, or The Hills, or Jersey Shore. I do have some self respect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The 41-Year-Old Virgin


It was striking to read the headlines this morning concerning the unlikely primary win of Christine O'Donnell in the Republican election for Senator from Delaware. It was all about the crestfallen reaction of Republicans, and glee from Democrats. O'Donnell, riding the crest of an endorsement from Sarah Palin, patron saint of the Tea Party faithful, defeated long-time Delaware congressman and former governor Mike Castle, and the reverberations are shaking the walls of the political punditry.

O'Donnell is another in a long line of Tea Party winners, each one seemingly more bizarre than the other. I thought Sharron Angle of Nevada was the prize-winning booby, but O'Donnell is in the hunt. She has stated an opinion that too much money government money is spent on AIDS research, and also may be the only candidate of recent memory to have a stated position on masturbation (she's against it--does this mean she'll make it illegal to buy personal lube without a permit?) Because she's never been married, we can assume that this attractive 41-year-old woman is a virgin. If elected, she probably would be the first of that status to be seated in that august chamber, at least since James Buchanan.

Republicans are upset because Castle would have been an easy winner in the general election. Delaware is a generally blue state, and the seat was recently occupied for two generations by Joe Biden, so a G.O.P. pick up would have been quite a coup. Polls indicate, though, that O'Donnell will lose to Democratic candidate Chris Coons, so she will get no money from the Republican National Committee. Even Karl Rove is piqued, lashing out at her. O'Donnell responded that his accusations are "unfactual," reminding everyone why Palin endorsed her.

This would seem to be good news for Democrats, but be careful for what one wishes for. Yes, she's a loon, but if she wins she could be just another in one of the most bizarre classes of Senators in ages. One recalls the class of 1980, who turned a large minority into a majority on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. Such lesser lights as Mack Mattingly, Jeremiah Denton, John East, Paula Hawkins, and the king of dim bulbs, Dan Quayle, swept into office. Many were ushered out in 1986, but they did enough damage to make their mark.

While O'Donnell will likely lose, Tea Party nutjobs such as Rand Paul, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, and, god forbid, Angle, could win. The key to avoiding this disaster is turn out. If every registered Democrat would get off their fanny and vote, the country will be spared this reactionary assault. But we keep hearing that Democrats are losing the "enthusiasm gap." Jesus Christmas! Do Democrats really want to watch the Senate turn into some kind of Fox News circus? Vote!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Civil War

It was twenty years ago this month that Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War debuted on PBS. It was received with almost universal acclaim, and to this day remains one of the most monumental achievements in television history. Every once in a while, usually during pledge drives, PBS stations will run it again, and I'll tune in for a while. But I hadn't seen it all the way through since it first aired, so I picked up a used copy from Amazon and recently did just that.

It's hard to reinforce just how great this film is. Burns has taken a subject so huge--more than one of his experts says the Civil War was the defining event in American history--and manages to be so comprehensive, touching on all the major battles, the presidencies of Lincoln and Davis, the personalities of the generals, and what life was like for both the common soldiers and the civilians. I know there have been a few quibbles--the campaign in the far west in goes almost completely unmentioned, some think Joshua Chamberlain of Maine was inordinately praised, and Burns takes the stance, rightly in my opinion, that the war was above all about slavery--but one can't ignore the majesty and breathtaking scope of his canvas.

The Burns touch has come to be well-known and parodied. His technique of panning slowly across still photographs has come to be known as "the Burns Effect" in editing software. But it's so superior to the use of actor re-enactments, which are common on the more shoddily produced documentaries common to the History Channel. He also made great use of music. The sound of "Battle Cry of Freedom" being played slowly on piano never failed to move me, and then there's the theme music, "Ashokan Farewell," composed by Jay Ungar. Ironically, it's the only music in the film that is not period, but it's haunting melody is a perfect accompaniment to the subject at hand.

Then there is the narration, by historian David McCullough. He's not an actor, but his crisp delivery made him the perfect choice. The other voices: Sam Waterston as Lincoln, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman, George Plimpton's plummy voice as New York Wall Street man George Templeton Strong, and the sorrowful cadence of George Black as Robert E. Lee, all perfect. And, of course, the film briefly made a star of Shelby Foote, whose folksy wisdom was as endearing as it was informative. It's hard to pick my favorite moment of his, but it might have been when he told Nathan Bedford Forrest's granddaughter that he thought the war produced two true geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and her grandfather. She paused and said, "You know we don't think too much of Mr. Lincoln down here."

Burns' greatest achievement was making the film play as a narrative, much like Foote's three-volume magnum opus. The principles are characters in a story. His use of the diaries of foot soldiers on both sides--Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island and Sam Watkins of Tennessee, are great counter-balances to the stories of the generals. And it plays like a suspenseful movie. Will the Union overcome the incompetence of their early commanders (George McClellan comes off badly, as usual) and manage to beat the geniuses Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee? At times I doubted it, even though I knew better. The second half of the film, as with the war, then focuses on Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, who were generals in a modern sense, waging total war on the countryside. "War is all hell," Sherman said.

It all comes back to slavery. Perhaps the most trenchant comment comes from historian Barbara Fields, who says that the single event that caused the war was the founders drafting a constitution that permitted slavery. On the penumbra of this film is the experience of southern blacks, who are freed in 1863, and their northern brethren, who ultimately don the uniform of the Union and fight admirably.

Also moving are the film clips that Burns uses to frame his 608-minute film--the footage of reunions of the Gettysburg veterans, including one in 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle. The old vets meet again at the Angle, where they once met after Pickett's Charge, but now, white-bearded, hard of hearing, and stooped of shoulder, they shook hands in brotherhood. As the film says, the Civil War defined what America was. We were born after the Revolution, but it took a civil war to decide just what the meaning of freedom was. To understand America, one must understand the Civil War, and this film goes a long way in helping one do that.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Animal Kingdom

When a film uses criminals as its protagonists, something else is usually at work. The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface, or the Warner Brothers gangster pictures of the 1930s and 1940s almost always were using the criminal underworld as some sort of commentary on society at large. It's a difficult to trick to pull off, because though we may view such characters with vicarious excitement, most of us ultimately are disgusted with antisocial behavior, so there has to be more at work.

Animal Kingdom, a film by David Michôd, falls short of that. The story of a family of crooks in modern-day Australia, it's a decently made film, with some suspenseful moments and some vivid characterizations. But by the time it was nearing its end I wondered to myself just why I was being presented with this. The family just isn't interesting enough to make me care, nor is there any kind of over-arching theme, except maybe that if you think your family is horrible, get a load of this one.

The film starts with J watching a game show on TV while seated next to his mother. It soon is revealed that his mother is in the middle of a heroin overdose. As EMTs work on her, J can hardly tear his eyes away from the TV. The mother dies, so, as he is only 17, he turns to his grandmother, who takes him in, though she and J's mother had been estranged for years. He is then reunited with his uncles, who are a band of bank robbers, but are now lying low, under scrutiny from the police, who have no compunction with killing them in cold blood.

We then see the struggle as J is lured into the criminal world, but still tries to keep some semblance of a normal life, mostly through his girlfriend. His uncles are a mixed lot: Barry is the thoughtful one, who has invested in the stock market; Craig is a tightly-wound fellow who is dealing drugs; Darren is the baby who mostly follows his brothers' leads, and then there's the eldest, Andrew, nicknamed "Pope," who is the most murderous. They are welcoming of J, but also see him as a potential ally, as when they enlist him to steal a car for a nefarious purpose.

As far as I could tell, the family depicted here were their own band of thieves--they have no connection to organized crime. Aside from still pictures during the opening credits, we don't see them commit any robberies, it's all implied, mostly from voice-over by J. I don't want to get all Robert McKee, but if you can't lay out exposition any other way but voice-over, you have a problem with your film. It's unclear how successful they were as thieves, or what kind of scale they terrorized the citizenry, but they are all living comfortably in suburban homes.

Ruling over this roost is the mother, called Smurf for some reason (perhaps because of her diminutive size). She is part Ma Barker, part Jocasta (her kisses linger on her son's lips just a bit too long), and is expertly played by Jacki Weaver. There is a moment when she decides that a family member must "go away," and it's chilling. But those moments are few and far between.

The cast is unknown to American audiences, except for Guy Pearce as a dogged police detective (I understand that Weaver is well known to Australians). I must admit that I had trouble with some of the dialogue due to accents--a second view of a DVD with subtitles may clear some things up for me. But I'm not inclined to give it a second look, because I just didn't get that wrapped up in the story. I think this is due to two reasons--the Brown family weren't that remarkable, either as people or as crooks, and J (played by James Frecheville) is such an inarticulate dolt that it was painful to watch. Either Frecheville is a brilliant actor, or he was thumped in the head with a two-by-four before each take.

My grade for Animal Kingdom: C+.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Coast Is Never Clear

The song over the closing credits of Youth in Revolt sounded familiar, so I waited through to the music credits to see what it was. It's a song called "Popular Mechanics for Lovers," by a band named Beulah. I realized I have a CD by Beulah, so I dug it up and saw that that very song is on the CD, The Coast Is Never Clear. I hadn't listened to the album in ages, probably not since shortly after I bought it, but I remember liking it, so I put in in the CD player and gave it a listen. Then I looked up Beulah up on Wikipedia, and found that they have long broke up. I also saw that the CD in question was released on September 11, the very day I was not listening to it. September 11, 2001.

I have no memory of how I came to learn about Beulah, or where and when I bought the record--wait, if I go to Amazon I see that I purchased it on through them on January 30, 2002--but I do remember that their sound was much like The Shins, whose Oh, Inverted World was released the same year. The Shins have gone on to much later acclaim (after all, they got a shout out from Natalie Portman's character in Garden State) while Beulah slipped into obscurity. But The Coast Is Never Clear is a terrific record, full of catchy pop hooks. It's only on closer examination that the strangeness of the record is evident.

"Popular Mechanics for Lovers" is a perfect choice for Youth in Revolt. It's a perfectly constructed pop song about a guy who loves a girl but is in rivalry with someone else: "Just because he loves you too/He would never take a bullet for you/Don’t believe a word he says/He would never cut his heart out for you." These are the words of any typical teenage boy who pines over an unattainable girl in the dark of his room, and the overly dramatic nature of the lines are understandable. But the other songs on this album, though they sound just as sunny and cheerful, have a much more malignant lyrical content.

There is no lyric sheet accompanying the disc, but I've checked the lyrics online, and after several spins the import of them has seeped through. The album, with its pessimistic title, starts with "Hello Resolven," which has a fairy-tale gloss, with "Wake up the king, wake up the queen," but then the last verse switches to "Kill off the king, kill off the queen, everybody laugh, everybody sing." The second song, ominously titled "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill," is very sunny, complete with a flute, but the lyrics appear to be about the singer's friend who was in a horrific car crash, and includes the line: "Don't know about God, but I believe in you."

The album continues in this vein. "Gene Autry," the song named after the singing cowboy of yore, includes the refrain, "Everybody drowns, sad and lonely." By the time the record is over you want to give the singer a hug.

Despite the dichotomy of music and lyrics, The Coast Is Never Clear is a fine album. I'm glad I had the occasion to resurrect it out of my collection.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Michael Cera is an actor who has carved out a niche in films these past few years, and may end up to be indicative of the era for his portrayals of ectomorphic, sensitive, virginal young men. He is so tied to this image that when he plays something different--his Scott Pilgrim is nothing like his sensitive lad of Superbad--that everyone seems to think they'rItalice one and the same. A screening of his films could sum up the first decade of the 2000s.

And that includes Youth in Revolt, the film from earlier this year that didn't do much at the box office, but is a cheery, wickedly irreverent souffle of a film that has Cera at his most ectomorphic (he appears in not one, but two scenes in just his boxers), sensitive (his character loves Frank Sinatra and classic European films) and virginal (no explanation necessary).

He plays Nick Twisp, a perfect name for the Cera persona, an overly intelligent teenager who lives with his single mom, a harried woman in a relationship with the dubious Zack Galifinakis. Cera, in his arch voice, crafted no doubt from too much reading and not enough time spent playing outdoors, asks her if this is just puppy love. When Galifinakis needs to flee town after fleecing some sailors on a used car, the family decamps to a trailer park in northern California, where Cera meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). It is love at first sight.

Doubleday, a wise-beyond-her-years girl who enjoys toying with Cera's affections, turns out to be something other than I expected. She has a perfect boyfriend (wisely, director Miguel Arteta withholds him until the end of the film, when he matches our expectations), and I thought the film would play out with Cera pursuing her. Instead, she succumbs to Cera's charms almost immediately. This is perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment to nerds everywhere, but I didn't mind it, and could almost believe that she was so eager to leave behind the oppression of her uber-Christian parents that she found Cera's moony awkwardness appealing.

Cera is enlisted to try and get kicked out of his house so he can move permanently to Doubleday's town, and to do this he creates an alter-ego, Francois Dillinger, a chain-smoking sophisticate with a David Niven moustache and a disregard for social convention. Guided by his id, Cera manages to start a fire in downtown Berkeley, and then uses Francois' influence to seduce Doubleday, using such lines as "I want to wrap your legs around your head and wear you like the crown you are," and "I want to tickle your bellybutton from the inside." I doubt these lines would work on any sentient woman anywhere, but it's nice to think that they would.

Of course, Cera will eventually rebel against Francois, much as Woody Allen, mentored by the spirit of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, ultimately finds that he is capable of winning the girl by being himself. There's more than a little Allen in the script, by Gustin Nash, which has erudite dialogue (though too much voice-over, betraying its novel origins). The busy and colorful direction by Arteta masks that the characters are little more than cartoons--a few animated scenes drive this point home--but a few supporting characters were pretty interesting. I liked Cera's friend, the British-accented Adhir Kalyan. When he hears about Doubleday's prep-school roommate, who is promiscuous, he is immediately smitten, sight unseen. This seems just about right.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Oscar 2010 Forecast: Best Actress


This year sees a bounty of Best Actress possibilities. A typical year will struggle to come up with five nominees in movies that the casual viewer will have even heard of, let alone seen, but I can easily come up with a dozen possibilities, most of them in high profile films. Whereas in a usual year an actress from an indie or foreign-language film will sneak in, that may not be necessary this year. Of course, even with the many stars in the mix, that doesn't preclude the possibility of an indie darling from making the grade. And, in a departure, there is no Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, or Kate Winslet pictures in sight.


Here is my absurdly early predictions for the five nominees, plus a host of alternates that I will list to hedge my bets. In alphabetical order:

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right: The interesting aspect of this nomination is whither Julianne Moore? There hasn't been two actresses nominated in this category in the same film since Davis and Sarandon in Thelma and Louise, and it's likely that one of them will be pushed toward the Supporting Actress category. Moore's part is larger, and she has the requisite big scenes, but all the talk has been about Bening. Both have are Oscar-less, but I think Bening is seen as the more aggrieved party. My guess is that only Bening will be nominated from this film in this category.

Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs: An appealing young actress, and I just learned she'll be playing a woman with a disease. Please, this is a done deal!

Diane Lane, Secretariat: As with my prediction for this film for Best Picture, it all depends on whether it's actually any good. Or, as with The Blind Side, whether it's good as judged by the middlebrow, and makes a box-office killing. Diane Lane is no Sandra Bullock when it comes to putting fannies in the seats, but the role seems ideal for earning at least a Golden Globe nomination.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone: This is wishful thinking, I realize, and gives me an excuse to run the above picture, which show Miss Laurence out of the uniform of parka and wool cap she wears in the picture. Oscar is very fond of nominating ingenues in this category, and in a typical year she'd stand a much better chance, but what the hell, I'll roll the dice. I've got no money on it.

Natalie Portman, Black Swan: The best chance to take the award away from Bening. The critical acclaim is pretty loud, and Portman has the glamour to back it. The role may be too Grand Guignol for her to actually win, but that's another conversation. Seems like she's got a nomination sewn up.
If any of these five are missing, the nominees should come from this list:

Naomi Watts, Fair Game
Hilary Swank, Conviction--she has beaten Bening twice, but there's no way she's winning a third Oscar. Besides, the trailer makes this film look like a glorified TV movie.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole--Kidman's star has been on the wane, but she plays the mother of a dead child, which sounds like Oscar bait.
Lesley Manville, Another Year--Unclear if this is a lead or supporting performance. Mike Leigh films have gotten nominations in the past, though an expected one for Sally Hawkins didn't happen.
Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go
Robin Wright, The Conspirator
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Tilda Swinton, I Am Love--the kind of performance that could sneak in in a weak year.
Reese Witherspoon, How Do You Know--with Jim Brooks, you never know
Julia Roberts, Eat Pray Love--won't happen.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Broken Boy Soldiers

I was in Princeton Record Exchange to pick up the new Arcade Fire CD (which I will discuss here when I've heard it all the way through) and I thought I'd pick up something as well. I happened upon the "R" bin, and saw The Raconteurs' 2006 CD Broken Boy Soldiers. As a tried and true admirer of Jack White, I hadn't yet explored this project of his, so I snatched up a copy. I've been listening to it for four days straight.

The album has ten songs, and they're all gems. I've been struggling to decide just how to describe their sound, and I have a feeling I will fail. At times it sounds like one of the best records of 1969. The closing song, "Blue Veins," seems like a lost Led Zeppelin recording, with Robert Plant-like vocals. "Intimate Secretary" has a kind of bemused nature that sounds as if a bong were in the vicinity of the composer, while "Yellow Sun" recalls those days of hippies in leather vests holed up in the woods.

But the sound of the record also has more modern intonations, particularly in the title track, which I think is the strongest. The guitar work is especially good, and makes me recall how Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had a fire going during a recording session to give his musicians the sense of hellfire. You can almost imagine the studio burning down to the ground as The Raconteurs perform this song.

All of the song have ridiculously pleasing hooks. The opener, "Steady, As She Goes," gets trapped in the head with only one listen, as does "Store Bought Bones," which has some pretty nifty percussion by Patrick Keeler and a Doors-like organ solo, and the ballad "Together," which is a gently melody but has the strongest lyric message: "You want everything to be just like the stories you read, but never write. You've got to learn to live and live and learn. You've got to learn to give and wait your turn, or you'll get burned." Otherwise the lyrics aren't especially trenchant, in fact they're downright homely. In "Steady, As She Goes," White sings, "Find yourself a girl and settle down, live a simple life, in a quiet town." This isn't exactly the rock and roll message. He sounds like someone's mother.

This album just reinforces my belief that there's no more exciting artist working in rock music today than Jack White. It's also comforting to know that rock and roll is still being made. It seems to be in short supply these days.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lark and Termite

It's instructive that Jayne Anne Phillips uses an epigraph from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury before her novel, Lark and Termite. Faulkner, in his "tale told by an idiot," uses a mentally handicapped character to observe portions of the sordid Compson family story. Phillips also uses a narrator who can not express himself in the normal fashion, but the story told is not nearly as gothic as Faulkner's.

Told from a variety of viewpoints, Lark and Termite is the story of two siblings in 1959. Lark, a seventeen-year-old girl, cares for her younger brother, who was born hydroencephaletic and with spina bifida, so he can not talk or walk. They are raised by their aunt Nonie, a waitress, and they all live in a small town in West Virginia. Lark and Termite share the same mother, but their fathers are different. Lark doesn't know who hers is, but Termite's was a soldier who was killed in Korea.

That soldier, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia, is one of the focal points of the story, as he gets pinned down by friendly fire while helping refugees. This is intertwined with a momentous day nine years later, when a flash flood hits the small town, and Lark discovers her parentage and the fate of her mother.

Lark and Termite is a curious combination of styles. On the one hand, it is very literary, as one would expect a book that echoes back to Faulkner might be. The language is very ornate, particularly those sections that are from Termite's point of view, as he perceives things in sounds and images rather than words. The sections of the book in Korea are also very vividly rendered, but in swaths rather than precise language.

On the other hand, those sections narrated by Lark and Nonie are far more traditional, and at times reach into melodrama. I wouldn't call it cheap melodrama, but it's on the sudsy side. The portions that deal with the flood are very suspenseful, but I almost couldn't believe it when the book, which heretofore had been high-toned, went for the ploy of a character finding her own birth certificate and seeing who her father was. There's also the death of a character that, though emotionally satisfying, seems an easy way out. I suppose it was inevitable, once looked back upon, but a bit eye-rolling nonetheless.

I did find Lark to be a wonderful character. Many of these characters are trapped--Termite is so named, Lark says, "I think he's in himself like a termite's in a wall." Lark, though willingly, will always be caring for Termite. Nonie is in a long-term relationship with Charlie, the owner of the restaurant where she works, but they can never marry as long as his mother is alive. These characters are so fatalistic that it can be oppressive to read about them, but they have good humor. There are some folksy lines like, "Giving a person like Lola the looks she had was like giving a baby two fistfuls of dynamite," or "A person would feel sorry for Gladdy if she wasn't so hard to feel sorry for."

But then there are times when the book veers into magic realism. We don't quite know what the albino social worker is all about, or the connection between Lark and Termite's mother and an orange cat that is always around. This takes the book a little too far into preciousness. I wanted more of the simplicity of the story that Lark was telling. In fact, an entire book of just her voice might have been better.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov's last play, but it was the first that I knew, studying it in my freshman year of college. Over the years I've come across it many times, seeing it twice in production. Chekhov called it a comedy, but it is, of couse, not quite that simple, and has an overwhelming sense of melancholy.

The play is heavy with symbolism, mostly dealing with the past, present and future of Russia. Lyubov, an aristocrat, left her estate in Russia five years earlier, grieving over the drowning death of her son. She returns when the estate is in danger of foreclosure. Her brother, Leonid, a well-meaning but head-in-the-clouds type (he is constantly playing an imaginary game of billiards) is no help. She has her youngest daughter, Anya, in tow, and hopes that she marries a rich man. Her adopted daughter, Varya, who tends to dress like a nun, is the head housekeeper.

Varya is waiting for a proposal from Lopakhin, who was once a serf on Lyubov's estate. He has become quite wealthy, and has a suggestion for her on how to keep her land--lease it out for summer cottages. But this would mean the chopping down of her beloved cherry orchard, which to her represents her lost childhood. But in the grand scheme of things, it represents a way of life that is dying. Leonid scoffs at Lopakhin's suggestion--the cherry orchard is mentioned in the encyclopedia!

Lopakhin represents a certain kind of future for Russia. The serfs were a class of people who were owned as slaves, but were given their freedom in 1861 and allowed to own their own land and make money. But another side of Russia's future is embodied in Trofimov, the tutor, a perpetual student and a proto-Bolshevik. He tells Lopakhin what he thinks of him: "You're a wealthy man, and before long you'll be millionaire; and in so far as a wild beast is necessary because it devours everything in its path and so converts one kind of matter into another, you are necessary also."

Trofimov then has a long speech condemning the upper class, and by 1917 his words would become gospel: "Here in Russia, very few people have started to work. Nearly all the members of the intelligentsia that I know care for nothing, do nothing, and are still incapable of work." He then tells Anya, whom he loves: "The whole world of Russia is our orchard. The earth is great and beautiful and there are many, many wonderful planes on it. Just think, Anya: your grandfather, your great-grandfather, and all your forefathers were serf owners--they owned living souls. Don't you see human beings gazing at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree-trunk, don't you hear voices? They owned living souls--and it has perverted you all, those who came before you, and you who are living now, so that your mother, your uncle and even you yourself no longer realize that you're living in debt, at other people's expense, at the expense of people you don't admit further than your kitchen."

There are certain parallels to the situation during Reconstruction in the American South that has led directors to set the play there, with black actors playing Lopakhin. It's an easy leap, but not entirely a correct one, as we find out when Lopakhin buys the cherry orchard at auction. No ex-slave, in one generation, could have possibly become rich enough and or had the power to buy the plantation on which he toiled, as the powers that be made sure of that.

The scene in which Lopakhin announces his purchase is my favorite of the play. He is such a great character--a man who knows all of these people, but will always be an outsider. He is told that he should marry Varya, but really he is in lovewith Lyubov, and he does the thing that destroys her. When he finally says that he will propose to Varya he can't do it. Instead, he has the cherry orchard fall to the ax. He tells everyone how he outbid someone else at a ball, and he is drunk, both from cognac and from realizing an impossible dream. But by buying the land he seems to have given up on any sense of personal happiness.

Lyubov and her brother are maddening characters--they are like children, who are repeatedly told that they will lose their land but do nothing to prevent it. Leonid keeps saying he's a man of the 80s (1880s, that is), and Lyubov is happy to allow her servants to dote on her. One of them is Firs, an ancient fellow who, when freed back in '61, thought it was a terrible thing, and refused to accept freedom. He is the last character on stage, left alone when the house is abandoned, the sound of the ax is in the distance. He putters across stage, mumbles, and then dies, with a sound intoning, which Firs said he heard before when the serfs were freed. I love Chekhov's description of it: "Suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away."

That's a specific description, but the sound has varied in the productions I've seen. Just recently I watched two on a DVD from the BBC. One was from 1962, with Peggy Ashcroft as Lyubov and John Gielgud as Leonid. Judi Dench was Anya and Ian Holm was Trofimov. The sound in this production, which was very good, was more like a chime. The DVD also had a production from 1981, this time with Dench as Lyubov, and the sound was more like I imagined--a guitar string snapping, perhaps.

This is a beautiful play, full of characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves. If you ever see that a college or local theater group is putting on it, I urge you to see it.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The American

It was something of a pleasure to see Anton Corbijn's The American, because in this day and age of hurlyburly on the screen, this is one of the most quiet and thoughtful films one can find in a multiplex. It's as if an art house film had disguised itself and attempted to pass as a Hollywood blockbuster. It's lovely to look at, and George Clooney gives an excellent, and atypical performance. However, my praise only goes so far, as the film over does it on being coy.

Clooney is the mysterious Jack, or is it Edward? Everything about the advanced word of this film indicates he's a hit man, but that's not spelled out in the film, as we never see him actually assassinate anyone. We do know he's handy with a gun, as the opening scene, in snowy Sweden, has him come under attack from two gunmen. He escapes to Rome, and his contact, a leather-faced man played by Johan Leysen, points him to small town in Abruzzo, and Clooney hides out, using the profession of photographer as cover.

Leysen gives him a job, but it's to make a custom weapon for a beautiful assassin (Thekla Reuten). Long, languorous scenes are spent as Clooney crafts the weapon. He tells the local priest that he's no good with machines, but that is clearly a lie, as he has a gift for munitions.

He forms an attachment with a local prostitute (Violante Placido), but when another Swede shows up trying to kill him, he becomes suspicious of her, mainly because she carries a gun in her bag, but maybe he should be because she falls in love with him--a plot development which is a cliche and a basic male fantasy. Both she and Reklen call him Mr. Butterfly--Placido because of a tattoo. Maybe he was a big fan of the Steve McQueen film, Papillon.

This is an extraordinarily quiet film, with minimal music and long stretches of absolute silence. It also plays very close to the vest in giving away information. This is a choice of Corbijn and his screenwriter, Rowan Joffe, not a mistake, but one that requires a greater bit of focus than we're used to, and I must admit that in the last act of the film I was running out of patience. The climax of the film took me a while to understand, and doesn't give any answers as to why Swedes were after him at all, but instead ends with a bit of poignant symbolism.

Since George Clooney is credited as a producer of this film, one can't help but wonder if it was all calculated on his part. As I said, this is not a typical role for him--his gunman lacks the twinkle we expect from Clooney, and there are many scenes of him, shirtless, doing push-ups and pull-ups. He's well known for having a vacation home in Italy, so perhaps this project was a way for him to try to change his image, spend some additional time in beautiful Italian mountains, and get to have some pretty steamy sex scenes with a hot Italian chick. Not a bad workday, and the result is a pretty good film that is geared toward thinking adults, the ADD-afflicted teenagers be damned.