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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a charming mystery novel by Alan Bradley. Set in an English village in 1950, it's narrated by its amateur sleuth, the precocious eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the third daughter of an absent-minded widower. The result is somewhat as if Miss Marple crossed with Nancy Drew, with an infectious dose of British humor.

Flavia is constantly at odds with her two older sisters. The book opens with her trussed up in the closet, the work of her siblings, but she extricates herself and plots revenge the best way she knows how--chemistry. It seems that Flavia has a passion for the subject, with a full laboratory and a more than passing acquaintance with the periodic table (at one point she corrects a chart hanging in the classroom at a boys' school--but I get ahead of myself). She injects poison ivy into her sister's lipstick, which eventually makes her lips look like a "mandrill's South Pole."

These high jinks are interrupted, though, when two things happen fast upon one another: a dead jack snipe is left on the de Luce's doorstep, a postage stamp impaled on its beak, and then a stranger turns up dead in the cucumber patch. Flavia is there in time to hear his mysterious last word--"Vale."

The inquisitive Flavia is on the case, especially after her father is arrested for the crime. She manages to uncover a plot involving the exceedingly rare Penny Black, the first postage stamp, bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria. In doing this she gets under the feet of Inspector Hewitt, who views her interference with equal parts bemusement and annoyance.

Bradley has created a wonderful voice in Flavia--I understand it's the first in a series. The novel could be fully enjoyed by a juvenile reader (particularly girls into chemistry), but it's equally a pleasure for adults, as Flavia is a terrific companion. I open the book at random and find a typical passage: "Not to too dramatic about it, that night I slept the sleep of the damned. I dreamt of turrets and craggy ledges where the windswept rain blew in from the ocean with the odor of violets. A pale woman in Elizabethan dress stood beside my bed and whispered in my ear that the bells would ring. An old salt in an oilcloth jacket sat atop a piling, mending nets with an awl, while far out at sea a tiny aeroplane winged its way towards the setting sun."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine, a film directed by Derek Cianfrance, who is also among the film's screenwriters, is an anatomy of a relationship, viewed from its sunny beginning and it's ignominious end. As such, it's well done, particularly the two lead performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. But as I left the theater, I really couldn't form a convincing opinion of whether I liked it or not. I suppose my biggest concern was what Cianfrance was trying to say.

Of course, not every movie needs a message; profundity is not required for an enjoyable two hours at the movie. But this film, rendered as carefully as a highly-detailed dollhouse, cries out for it. What Cianfrance seems to have done, whether he intended it or not, is created the blueprint for every relationship. Is he really saying that no matter how sweet the beginning, the end comes sour?

The story follows two lines. There's the present, which kicks things off, as a young girl has lost her dog. Her father (Gosling) helps her look for it. Later we meet the mother, who is a medical technician of some sort. They attend the child's school recital, but not before the canine is discovered, which taps a wellspring of grief. Gosling suggests the two drop off the kid at his grampa's and spend the night in a cheesy sex-theme motel--they end up in the "Future Room," which Gosling says looks the "inside of a robot's vagina."

This is cut with a flashback as to how the two meet (there is no title cards that say something like, "Five years earlier;" I was able to judge what time we were in by the state of Gosling's hairline). We learn that Gosling, a high-school dropout, was working for a moving company, taking extra-care with an elderly customer being moved into a nursing home. While there he meets Williams, who is visiting her grandmother. Through sheer persistence, and a rousing rendition of "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love," he wins her, though she is having a hard time ending a relationship with a bruising college wrestler.

Again, all of this is fine for what it is. Both actors create moving characters, Williams especially. She is a bit more interesting, as she is given more background. We see her overbearing father, and hear about how she likes college. She also shines in a scene in which she goes to an abortion clinic. Gosling has one scene, while having dinner with Williams' family, that delves into his background, but I found I never really understood his character, or beyond that, what destroys the relationship. A scene in which he drunkenly shows up at Williams' job seems out of nowhere, a showy bit of acting that has no basis in what has come before.

I think the problem is that there is no middle in this film. We see the beginning, we see the end, but I at least didn't understand what came in between, and that is the most important part. What went wrong with this couple? I'm not sure.

A few other things--this film can be surprising funny (especially Gosling, whose goofy charm is on full display in the flashback scenes). Also, that the MPAA gave this film an NC-17 rating (for a scene in which Gosling goes down on Williams) should be another nail in the coffin of that increasingly obsolete ratings board.

My grade for Blue Valentine: B-.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Socked in my snow on Monday, I had the perfect way to pass a housebound day--a three-and-a-half hour epic film, Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, and released in 1960.

Dealing with events leading up to the founding of Israel in 1948, Exodus is very typical of films from the period--self-important and made on a grand scale. Rambling around in there might have been a great film, but Preminger, never one to be a model of subtlety, was not interested in the less-is-more theory.

The script, by Dalton Trumbo, betrays what might have been, especially in the film's first section, which details a group of Jewish refugees who have been detained in Cyprus. The history is this: European Jews who wanted to relocate to Palestine were kept from doing so by the British, who did not wish to make trouble with the Arabs there. But there was already a Jewish presence in Palestine, who were working to make a homeland. They were largely in two groups: the Haganah, and the radical Irgun, who were labeled terrorists for blowing up British installations.

Paul Newman starred as a daring member of the Haganah. Posing as a British officer, he managed to get over 600 Jews aboard a ship in Cyprus, intending to take them to Palestine. He is blocked from leaving the harbor, but those aboard go on a hunger strike, and eventually they succeed.

The rest of the film deals with a jailbreak, and then, following the U.N. vote to create Israel, an attack by Arabs against a kibbutz.

As I type this, I realize that this sounds more exciting than the film itself. Part of the problem is a clumsy structure. We are introduced to events in the film by an American character, a widow played by Eva Marie Saint. She visits Cyprus to pay a call on the British general who was friends with her husband, and ends up getting involved when she befriends a Jewish girl who she wishes to adopt. Saint's character frequently mentions that she feels like an outsider, which is exactly what she is. There are many scenes that Saint seems like a person who has wandered into frame accidentally. I almost laughed out loud at the end, when she's holding a gun.

Also in the cast is Sal Mineo, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a radical young Jew. His nomination surely stems from a scene in which, under interrogation by the Irgun, he admits what he did during his imprisonment at Auschwitz.

Viewed through the lens of fifty years hindsight, the casting is the most interesting aspect of this film. Mineo was Italian. Newman's father was Jewish, although he looked anything but, while Jill Haworth, who played the young girl, was British and looked positively Nordic. Trumbo's script was thus able to play off of assumptions of how Jews were supposed to look. There's a scene in the film when Newman, while posing as a British officer, mocks a casually anti-Semitic major, played by Peter Lawford, who tells him that he can spot a Jew immediately. Newman, playing along, says that he can even smell them.

But the film doesn't do any favors for Arabs, when it casts John Derek as an Arab. It recalls the days when guys like Jeff Chandler played Indians.

Today I imagine that the longest lasting legacy of Exodus is the instantly recognizable theme music by Ernest Gold, which won the Oscar.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whatever Happened to Thora Birch?

About ten years ago, Thora Birch was a young actress on the come. She had a memorable supporting role in the Oscar-winning Best Picture, American Beauty, and then two years later gave an assured performance in Ghost World, my favorite film of 2001. She was not yet twenty, and stardom seemed assured.

But what happened? I haven't had much call to think about her since then. Last week she was in the news for being fired from an off-Broadway production of Dracula (too bad, if she were in it I'd go to see it). The published reason for her dismissal was the cast and crew's response to the overzealousness of her father, who is also her manager. Both of her parents were actors in adult films, including Deep Throat. I don't think I knew that, although I remember the controversy surrounding her topless scene in American Beauty, which was only possible because her parents gave permission.

That story got me thinking about Thora, whom I've admired more for "second-brain" reasons than anything else. So I Netflixed some of her recent films--she has not stopped working--and am sad to report that she is now a fixture mostly in straight-to-DVD horror films. Ghost World seems an era ago.

Slingshot, from 2005, features Birch in a supporting role. The main roles are played by David Arquette and Balthazar Getty. They are a couple of grifters who roll into an affluent community in Connecticut, hoping to seduce rich women and then steal from them. Birch plays the daughter of one of the targeted women, whom Getty falls in love with, making Arquette jealous. The film is odious from start to finish, with no sympathetic characters.

Train, from 2006, is well-made trash. Basically Hostel on a train, Birch is one of a group of college athletes on tour in Eastern Europe (apparently this region of the world is full of sadistic torturers). They end up on a train that is really a rolling organ-trafficking outfit, as Birch's pals are caught and cut open, their organs given to wealthy recipients. I find it hard to believe that anyone would be given a heart after it was ripped from someone's chest by the greasy hands of a maniacal butcher, but that's just me. The film does have high production standards, given its limited budget, but anyone who enjoys this sort of torture-porn needs psychological help.

Deadline is also fairly well made, an atmospheric ghost story starring Brittany Murphy, in one of her last roles. She plays a screenwriter who is getting over being assaulted by her boyfriend. Of course she takes refuge in a large old house in the middle of nowhere. Soon she finds videotapes made by a young couple who lived there before, with the wife being played by Birch. It becomes apparent that Birch was murdered by her jealous husband, and her ghost is guiding Murphy toward the truth. The story is pretty skimpy, and doesn't really fill out the ninety-minute running time, but it's got some good scares.

Dark Corners is perhaps the worst of her films, an awful-looking psychological thriller that recalls the otherwise forgettable Demi Moore film Passion of Mind. Birch plays two roles--a pretty blonde woman who has a wonderful life. She has dreams, though, in which she's a brunette who leads a squalid life as a mortician. But which one is real, and which one is the dream? Unfortunately, I didn't care, and the ending made no sense. It's an ugly, ugly film, made without any discernible skill.

Finally there's Winter of Frozen Dreams, which is about a real-life crime supposedly committed in Wisconsin about thirty years ago. It's based on a novel, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone was interested in this case--it's deadly dull. Birch plays a woman who seems to seduce lonely men and murders them to get their life insurance, but no one in this film is very interesting, and there's nothing clever about her, or even sinister.

Birch's performance in this film may be the key to why she's been reduced to the straight-to-DVD ghetto--she's not a very good actress. Whatever Terry Zwigoff got out of her in Ghost World is missing in these films. She has a tendency to keep everything bottled up, delivering her lines with little smirks, as if letting the audience know she's above this crap. If I were casting a movie and looked at these films as an audition, I wouldn't cast her.

It's easy for me, though, sitting here in my house, to dump on someone like Thora Birch, who's out there working steadily. Most actors make choices based on wanting to pay their mortgage and put food on the table. To castigate them for "bad choices" seems to me petty and childish. As Birch puts it on her Web site:

"Someone asked me if I'd like to be in a film that get's a theatrical release. LOL Been there, done that, and guess what, they all end up on the home viewing shelve

"In all seriousness, the answer would be sure, of course, who doesn't? But, that's not going to change how I navigate my own life or career, which are two interconnected realms.

"See, the way the industry views it, as an actress, ideally I should be prepared to cut off my hands, feet, and tits in order to get a cameo in a Judd Apatow, or Scott Rudin film. Call me a defiant rebel, I just can't bring myself to actually behave in a manner that would signify that that was my outlook on things. I don't have time to be desperate. Do things bother me? Am I unsatisfied? Of course.....but I'm in line on that one; my ticket number is 2,987,874,000 out of 6 bil."

Reading that took some of the starch out of my sails. If I were a struggling actor, and I got an offer to do Train, I'd probably leap at it with both feet, and do my very best, with all the effort I would give a performance in Hamlet.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is an impeccably made bit of crowd-pleasing, middlebrow entertainment, the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, albeit for the Anglophilic college graduate. That being said, I don't want to suggest that this in any way means it's not a smashing time at the movies. The King's Speech is not challenging, daring cinema, but for what it is it couldn't be much better.

At it's heart, The King's Speech is an old-fashioned buddy movie, odd-couple variety. One half is the Duke of York, second son to King George V, who is not expected to become king, and thankfully so, because he is afflicted with a stammer. On the other hand is Lionel Logue, an Australian immigrant and speech therapist, an eccentric who loves Shakespeare and has funny ideas about how to cure his patients.

After seeing several official, knighted doctors, the Duke (known as Bertie to his family), sees Logue, after his patient wife Elizabeth arranges it. Of course they are like chalk and cheese at first, as Logue insists on calling each other by first names (something the Duke does not care for). But of course Logue gets results, and soon they are working together well. But when Bertie's brother, who becomes king upon the death of their father, insists on marrying a divorced woman, a distinct no-no, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

I've noticed that many reviews of this film basically say that this film is much better than the critic expected. I suppose that's because it has all the trappings of a typical, Oscar-bait, Masterpiece Theater-type entertainment. It's exceedingly British, with all the costumes and sets that that entails. We have locations like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Balmoral, and the costumes, by Jenny Beavan, along with the muted photography by Danny Cohen, perfectly represent the 1930s time period. But what kicks this film up a notch is the human emotion that bubbles to the surface. I credit this to a perceptive script by Danny Seidler, and two first-class performances, by Colin Firth as Bertie and Geoffrey Rush as Logue.

The role of Bertie is an actor's dream--one must get the speech impediment, and then not let that overwhelm the character. Firth, who might as well compose his Oscar speech now, manages that in spades. He is a prickly fellow, given to snapping (he says a temper is one of his many faults). The psychology of the character is glibly presented--Rush seemingly manages to get to his problem in five minutes of conversation (it was a mean nanny and an overbearing father, you see), but if one overlooks the Psychology 101 aspects, the humanity of a man who has the world on his shoulders is beautifully displayed.

Rush has an easier part, technically. He has all the good lines and the audience instantly likes him--we all like the man who does things differently (there's a great moment near the end when he sits in King Edward's chair--the one where British monarchs are crowned, and says "I don't care how many assholes have sat in this chair"). But Rush, given some shading by Seidler's script, brings the man to life more than one might expect. We get a key scene when he auditions for Richard III at a local theater group and is basically insulted for being too old and too Australian. His scenes at home with his wife (Jennifer Ehle) and sons also are well used.

The third piece in this film is Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth. It is perhaps understandable that this woman, who lived to be 102 and was beloved by the public, is portrayed as the epitome of British stiff upper-lip (it brings to mind Hitler's quote, that she was "the most dangerous woman in Europe," based on her popularity and usefulness in propaganda). If the role isn't exactly completely developed, Bonham Carter is eminently likeable in the role.

Also making small but effective appearances are Michael Gambon as the old king, Guy Pearce as David (who would briefly be Edward VIII), and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The abdicated king, who would later be Duke of Windsor, is a largely reviled figure in history, but Pearce, along with the script, cuts him some slack (there are a few veiled references to his Nazi appeasement).

The film climaxes with an audacious move--Firth gives, in its entirety, the speech that King George gave on the occasion of declaring war on Germany. It's well over five minutes, and Tom Hooper, who directs, manages to invest the scene with a great deal of well-earned pathos. I must admit that while I was sitting there, thinking how it was all extremely sentimental, that I found I was also very moved.

My grade for The King's Speech: A-.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Black Swan

I was blown away by Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which is right up there with The Social Network and Toy Story 3 for my choices as best film of 2010 (I've still got some more to see). It manages to be both visually beautiful and disturbingly scary; it's as if Wes Craven and PBS Great Performances were mixed together.

This film is very much a companion piece to Aronofsky's film of two years ago, The Wrestler. Both films detail the physical and emotional torment that a certain kind of performer goes through. But while The Wrestler's Randy "the Ram" Robinson is struggling to hang on to his career, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is at the onset of hers. She is a member of the chorus at a New York ballet company when the director (Vincent Cassel) taps her to play the lead in a production of Swan Lake. The catch--he wants her to play both parts: the virginal White Swan, and the seductive and evil Black Swan.

Portman's Nina isn't particularly emotionally healthy at the beginning of the film. She's infantilized by her grasping mother (Barbara Hershey), her bedroom full of stuffed animals. She's sexually frigid, something that gives Cassel pause about casting her as the Black Swan (he advises her to masturbate). But as Nina struggles to get into the role, and worries about the ambition of another company member (Mila Kunis), she starts to exhibit certain physical characteristics--scratches on her back, bleeding fingers, webbed toes. It seems that she is undergoing the same problem that Odette in Swan Lake is going through--she's turning into a swan.

All through the film we're not quite sure what we are seeing. Is it all in Nina's mind? Is the doppelganger she sees around the city real, or is it just Kunis? And what's with all the reflective surfaces? They exist in almost every scene, whether they are the ubiquitous mirrors of a ballet rehearsal studio, a typical bathroom, or the windows of a subway car, Nina is always looking at herself, and occasionally what she sees doesn't comport to physical law.

I am no balletomane--I've been to the ballet once, to see Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (a favorite of mine)--but after seeing Black Swan I'm keen to go, and of course I have to see Swan Lake (right now both New York City ballet companies are mounting productions of The Nutcracker, of course). Having spent more than a few years in a theatrical arena, the scenes of backstage skulduggery ring true (Winona Ryder briefly and vividly appears as the once-great star who's tossed out like yesterday's newspaper). The physical stuff of a ballerina also seems authentic--the split toenails, the eating disorders, the balance of muscular strength and emotional fragility.

As Nina cracks up, we are led to the opening night performance, which for my money is the sequence of the year. The direction, editing (by Andrew Weisblum), and photography (by Matthew Libitique) are top-notch. The culmination is a tour de force of music and imagery, and my palms were sweaty with suspense, a rare thing for this jaded movie-goer.

Portman, who is certain to be Oscar-nominated for her role, gives a bravura performance. As with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, she throws her body into the part. But as with Rourke, there's more to it than that--Portman must have been a wreck after going through this film, as almost every emotion was tapped to the core. I think of one moment in particular, when she calls her mother to tell her she's gotten the part of Swan Queen--her face is a perfect picture of joy, given way to tears. It's a magnificent performance.

All of the cast are excellent. Hershey, her face a rictus of plastic surgery, is eerily controlling, while Kunis, Cassel, and Ryder all excel (Ryder's role of the has-been seems almost cruel in its real-life parallels).

My greatest take-away from this film is that it's more than just about one ballerina's psychological breakdown. Anyone who has taken the stage in any form can empathize--there's a certain terror involved, whether one is telling jokes, acting, or playing guitar. Nina's quest for perfection, and to please her director and audience, is an impulse as old as theater and dance itself, and is exquisitely rendered here by Aronofsky.

My grade for Black Swan: A

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Santa Baby

My favorite contemporary Christmas song is "Santa Baby," written by Joan Javits (niece of Senator Jacob), Fred Ebb, and Philip Springer. A lot of people, to judge by some brief Internet research, hate this song, presumably because a gold digger making a plea to Santa as if he were a sugar daddy isn't exactly the spirit of Christmas, but I am completely amused by it, and think it's also a well constructed song.

I especially like the internal rhymes, which are almost Sondheimian in their structure. Consider the line: "Santa baby, I'm filling my stocking with a duplex, and checks/Sign your 'X' on the line/Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight." The way duplex, checks, and then the "X" rhyme is pretty clever, I think.

The song has been covered numerous times, but Eartha Kitt had the first version, which most people prefer. But I like the one Madonna did for the benefit album of Christmas songs for the Special Olympics. Kitt's version is very stately, almost too respectful, while Madonna gives the song a kick with her Betty Boop voice (complete with "boop-doop-ee-doop"). But what I really appreciate about the song is the Nelson Riddle-like orchestration, which takes me to an era of cocktails, fedoras, and cardigan sweaters.

By comparison, note the charmless Taylor Swift countrified version, which has no playfulness and worse, no sexuality.

Because sexuality is what gives this song its sauce. Aside from "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause," I can't think of a commonly heard Christmas song that alludes to it. And while that is certainly a turn-off to many, it makes me think fondly of another Christmas tradition--the Santa cartoons in Playboy. For years, every December issue is chock full of cartoons depicting Santa as a horny old goat. Many hate these cartoons (I remember Bill Maher, of all people, expressing his displeasure) but I love them. There's a certain impishness about them that amuses me, and I like to think that Santa is getting his fair share.

Hopefully Santa got some last night, and I hope all of you get what you want this Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit

I must admit that I was leery upon hearing that Joel and Ethan Coen's next film was to be True Grit, which was made into a film forty-one years ago and earned John Wayne his only Oscar in the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn. The Coens' only previous remake, The Ladykillers, is their worst film, and I couldn't imagine why they were keen on resurrecting this story.

I am therefore glad to report that this True Grit is a fine film, one of the best of the year, and an improvement in every way on the 1969 Wayne film (which was directed by Henry Hathaway). By means of comparison, I took advantage of the airing of that film on Turner Classic Movies the night before I saw the new film, the first chance I had to see it in many years. I also read the book, but alas I was only about twelve when I did, so it is not exactly fresh in my mind.

The story is a simple one. Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl, seeks vengeance for the murder of her father by a hired hand, Tom Chaney. Since Chaney has escaped into Indian Territory (what we know today as Oklahoma), she is forced to hire a U.S. Marshal privately to catch him. When she asks the local sheriff in Fort Smith who the best marshal is, he gives her three names, but she chooses the one he says is the "meanest"--Rooster Cogburn.

Also trailing Chaney is a fancy Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who joins them on their quest. Mattie, headstrong as the day is long, insists on traveling with him, and the two men ultimately acquiesce. Cogburn learns that Chaney is running with an outlaw he is also after, Ned Pepper, and things lead to their conclusion with Mattie getting her revenge, and Cogburn having an epic showdown with Pepper.

The two films differ occasionally in plot. The Coens choose not to show Frank Ross being murdered, and in their film Cogburn and LaBoeuf split up, while in the Hathaway version they always remain teamed. But the biggest difference is one of tone. The Hathaway is a standard Western that says nothing about the world outside its purview, while I found the Coen film to be much richer, much darker, and, most importantly, much better directed, written, and acted. I was glad to see that my favorite line from the first line is repeated, when Cogburn calls out Pepper, yelling, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!"

The biggest question someone may ask is who is better as Cogburn, Wayne or Jeff Bridges? It's apples and oranges, really. Wayne was playing Wayne, for the most part. He could be a good actor, especially when John Ford or Howard Hawks was directing him, but here he's his old irascible self. Bridges, who has no heroic reputation to uphold, is freer to depict the warts of the character, and in fact is shown drinking far more than Wayne was (if I recall correctly, Wayne remains sober throughout the manhunt). Bridges is more submerged in the role, adopting a gruff voice that is unlike his own.

In other roles, Hailee Steinfeld is terrific as Mattie. Her opposite number, Kim Darby, was an adult when she played the role, so I appreciated the age-appropriate Steinfeld, who makes her film debut. We get the stubbornness of the girl, but when he is in danger we get more of a full effect how young and untested she is.

A one-hundred-percent upgrade is seen in the role of LaBoeuf. He was played abysmally by singing star Glen Campbell in the original version, who to my knowledge never made another movie. The Coens cast an actual actor, and a good one, in Matt Damon, who makes the character even more supercilious (by casting an actual child as Mattie, it makes his line about wanting to steal a kiss from her even more creepy).

The villains are played by Josh Brolin, who makes Chaney a one-note doofus (he was played by Jeff Corey originally) and Barry Pepper replaces Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper, and comes close to equalling the great Duvall.

The Coens' dialogue is a tricky proposition to discuss. It is rich, but it is also so erudite as to come close to self-parody. Westerns and gangster films tend to have characters who speak in a kind of arch, contractionless patter that makes it sound as if they had memorized the dictionary. I think of when Pepper tells Mattie, "You do not varnish your opinion." I guess even outlaws had a measure of book learnin' back then. At least Cogburn, we are told, can't spell.

I should also add that the photography by Roger Deakins is gorgeous.

The film, unlike the Hathaway version, has an elegiac tone that is de rigeur in Westerns these days, with a coda that takes place years after the fact, with outlaws Cole Younger and Frank James making cameo appearances in a Wild West show. It's an ending that recalls the last images of Unforgiven, which gave its lead character Will Munny, a mythic quality. I suppose that's only fitting, as the Wild West is the American equivalent of Olympus.

My grade for True Grit: A-

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best American Short Stories 2010

When it comes to short stories, I have a particular like. I tend to enjoy stories that are funny, and that have a plot arc. Those stories that are meditative and in which not much happens don't do much for me.

As one would imagine, the latest volume of Best American Short Stories (a series that goes back over thirty years) has some stories that I thought were wonderful and some that I thought were ho-hum, and one that I could not make heads or tails of. I give guest editor Richard Russo credit for making his selection broad enough in scope so as to seem all the same. I know I would be tempted to.

There are twenty stories here, arranged in alphabetical order by author. One of my favorites led things off, "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched," by Steve Almond, a comic tale of a psychologist who is treating a professional poker player. Another favorite is "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," by Rebecca Makai, about a Coleridge scholar who finds herself cursed after she shoots an albatross, and "The Cowboy Tango," a gorgeous story by Maggie Shipstead about unrequited love on a dude ranch.

In the next tier I would add these stories with exceptionally long titles: Danielle Evans' "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go," concerning a veteran who forms an attachment to an old girlfriend's daughter, "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer," by Brendan Matthews, which has the bonus of being narrated by a clown, and Karen Russell's "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach," which carries some of the magic realism that most of her work has.

Joshua Ferris' "The Valetudinarian," about an elderly man getting the gift of a prostitute for his birthday, starts promisingly, but I found that it fell apart at the end. "All Boy," by Lori Ostlund, which details a young homosexual boy and his closeted father, has its moments, but seems overly precious to me. Kevin Moffett's "Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events" is a bit of a mind-bender, with the story about a short-story writer and all the rules of writing, which Moffett proceeds to break, one by one.

The stories I didn't care for include Charles Baxter's "The Cousins" and Jim Shepard's "The Netherlands Lives With Water," a cautionary tale about the effects of global warming. It may have been because I read this story before going to bed, but I had no idea what was happening in it, although I perk up at the pornographic elements of it.

I solidly enjoyed a good three-quarters of the stories, though, so it was well worth the investment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

After seeing the 1960 film Spartacus, I was interested in seeing the recent television series based on the same story. Spartacus: Blood and Sand aired on the Starz network, whatever that is, and it's cheesy good fun, with over-the-top violence and sex.

The Spartacus story has many versions, and this one picks and chooses elements to suit its needs. Here we have Andy Whitfield as a Thracian warrior who, along with his men, join the Roman auxiliary to ward off an attack from a common enemy. They get screwed over by the Romans, though, and he ends up in a gladiator camp, his wife sold into slavery. He is named Spartacus, after a Thracian king (a conceit throughout the series is that we never learn his real name).

Whitfield puts up with all sorts of indignities while being trained as a gladiator, but he puts up with it because the lanista (the owner of the camp) promises him that as long as he proves loyal, he will look for his wife. The lanista is played by John Hannah with thorough hamminess, while his wife is played by Lucy Lawless. The two scheme to get ahead, buttering up luminaries while simultaneously working to defeat their enemies. The last few episodes are great fun as revenge is taken and we build to the ultimate slave rebellion that we all know is coming.

The other plot line is Whitfield's rivalry with the champion, Crixus (Manu Bennett), who has embraced his slavery and the glory of the arena. He ends up following in love with a slave girl, and slowly has his eyes opened that Whitfield is not his enemy, but a potential brother. The moment in the last episode when the two team up is quite thrilling.

I must admit that the first few episodes had some tough sledding, getting used to the overly stylized visuals (it looks like a graphic novel), with an over-emphasis on spurting blood, slow-motion action, and dialogue that recalls the old sandal-and-toga epics of the 1950s. Once I got used to it, though, it started being fun, and the gladiatorial battles were very well done. Because it's cable, the violence was more graphic than usual, with beheadings, disembowlments, and dismemberment--fun for the whole family.

The greatest thing about Spartacus: Blood and Sand is all the nudity. There is plenty of it, and appeals to three different demographic groups: men (there are scores of gorgeous women, many of them slaves, which ignites all sorts of fantasies); women (the gladiators are gorgeous, sculpted hunks wearing little more than loincloths); and gay men (see the appeal to women, plus the way the men are oiled for battle, plus full-frontal male nudity). At times it gets close to soft-core porn status, with naked bodies humping against each other. Gotta love it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The 8th Day

The winner of the Adult Video News Best Film of 2009 was The 8th Day, an impressively elaborate production that as, with most "prestige" porn productions these days, misses the boat on why people watch adult films. The people who made this have done a nice job--the production values are almost equivalent to something you might see at three A.M. on Cinemax--but for those who like their porn sexy, you might want to look elsewhere.

The film concerns Kayden Kross (pictured above) as a young woman who awakens from suspended animation. She emerges into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Over the course of the film she discovers that her father, a scientist, was responsible for setting off the "big burn" that destroyed almost all of humanity. She teams up with Amber Rayne and heads toward the kingdom of the local prince, who preaches an anti-technology message, even though he privately enjoys all the comforts of electricity.

The sex scenes come in two familiar types: the goth-punk and the Roman orgy. In the former, the performers wear combat boots and ripped clothing and have sex in dirty alleys. In the latter, characters wear toga-like outfits and have group sex under tents. I favor the latter, as no woman looks sexy to me wearing combat boots. There is also the bizarre scene of Tori Black, Bree Olson, and Poppy Morgan having a girl-girl-girl scene while howling like feral cats, their bodies smeared with paint. Not for me.

Supposedly the adult film industry makes money hand over fist, but I'm baffled with the economics on something like this. The 8th Day comes in a four-disc package. The movie itself, which is over four hours, takes up two discs, and there are two discs of extras, including a two-hour "making of" documentary, which I guess is lavish self-congratulation. Do they really sell enough of these to make a profit? I'm guessing the film's budget was close to a million dollars.

Kross is a lovely woman, but she does not possess the acting ability to even manage this part. Rayne, who reminds me of Susan Saint James, is a little better, and Kylie Ireland, who is one of the producers, makes a too-brief appearance.

I can see why this thing would win awards, but I didn't find it nearly as sexy as many films that cost a fraction of the budget.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wolf Hall

The reign of Henry VIII has been endlessly fascinating to novelists, and Hilary Mantel, in her Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, has found a different approach. Her protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, who has long been a character in novels and films about Henry, but usually as something of a villain, particularly when it comes to the story of Thomas More. In Mantel's hands, Cromwell becomes a witty, almost cuddly figure, perhaps not a man for all seasons, but one who is genuinely good company.

Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, a soldier of fortune, and then a lawyer, began his rise to the court as an adviser to Cardinal Wolsey. When the Cardinal fell out of favor (he was arrested after failing to secure an annulment from the Pope for Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon) Cromwell, somewhat amazingly, was not tainted, and instead moved over to advise the king himself. He is a shrewd and political creature--late in the book the King tells him, "I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of the realm...Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom."

The story of Wolf Hall (Mantel is writing a sequel, and those who know history know that Cromwell does not come to a good end) starts with the Cardinal's fall, and goes through Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn and then the trial and execution of More. Mantel etches some vivid characterizations, especially Anne--her meetings with Cromwell have dialogue that dances. More comes off as odd and sadistic--his torture of heretics is vividly described. Anne's sister, Mary (having seen The Other Boleyn Girl I pictured Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary), Jane Seymour (who begins this tale as a lady-in-waiting) and the ruthless Duke of Norfolk are all brightly-painted characters. I loved this description of Norfolk: "The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe head, his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs' bones."

One notes that the prose is in the present tense; Mantel spins her yarn as if if were a thriller, or if Raymond Chandler had tackled the subject. It lends an urgency to the proceedings, and at times the pace is taut. But on other occasions the writing is so dense that I had read a half a page and realized I didn't know who was speaking or what about. Despite a helpful list of characters at the front of the book, I had trouble keeping everyone straight. I probably only got about seventy-five percent of the book, but what I did get was so rewarding that I found the equation satisfactory.

The greatest strength of the book is Mantel's rendering of Cromwell. His humanity sings from the pages--the passages covering the quick deaths of his wife and daughters from "sweating sickness" are heartbreaking. He comes across as the kind of advisor that any of us would like to have--loyal and witty. But for those who revere St. Thomas More, this may not be the book for you. Consider what Cromwell tells him: "A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr's gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don't try to make this simple. You know I have respected you? You know I have respected you since I was a child? I would rather see my only son dead, I would rather see them cut off his head, than see you refuse this oath, and give comfort to every enemy of England."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fighter

I pretty much hated David O. Russell's last film, I Heart Huckabees, which I found to be self-indulgent twaddle. For The Fighter, a conventionally-structured sports drama, he came in as a hired hand, and shows some amazing chops as a visual stylist, particularly in scenes taking place in the boxing ring, a familiar place in movies over the many years. But I was less impressed with the drama outside the ring.

The film is the story of Micky Ward and his family. A boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, he is managed by his mother, trained by his brother, and lovingly rooted on by his seven sisters. Sounds pretty good, but the mother (Melissa Leo) is near psychotic, the brother is a crack addict, and the sisters are a seven-headed hydra.

But Micky relies on his family, even after they urge him to fight a boxer outweighing him by twenty pounds. He loses, which sets him back in his quest for the championship. He begins to date a bartender (Amy Adams), who makes him see his family in a different light, and along with his other trainer, a sensible police officer, decides to try it a different way.

Though Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg, is at the center of the film, it's the satellites around him that reflect most of the light, particularly his brother Dicky, played by Christian Bale. Also a fighter, who spends his life trying to relive the glory of knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, he has delusions about making a comeback, and lives vicariously through his brother. A loose-limbed motor-mouth, Bale plays Dicky as a kind of pathetic clown. It was as if Bale had watched episodes of Seinfeld and modeled his performance on Cosmo Kramer. Not only does he display some oddly endearing physical comedy, but he has some of Kramer's wacky get-rich schemes, like trying to convince some Cambodians to invest in a pyramid scheme. One of the Cambodians, who speaks little English, can only say, "You rip us off!"

During the first part of the film, which Russell stages as a film-within-a-film being made by an HBO documentary crew, I felt at sea, as the images and characters come by in a hurlyburly. I can appreciate that this tactic was used in order to better express exposition, but I found it to have a distancing effect, and I had a sour taste in my mouth--I really did not like these people. It was only when the film calmed down and settled on Wahlberg and Adams (with Bale in jail) that I got into the groove. I was very impressed with Adams, who I've hoped would take on a role opposite her princesses and nuns, and she delivers with the foul-mouthed woman who takes a strong stance against the women in Wahlberg's family. I admired the character, and I admired the way Adams inhabited her.

The weakest character in the film is that of Micky. I don't blame Wahlberg, who seems right in the part (he shows off some great guns), but the script, which doesn't seem interested in him. We know Adams loves him, and we know he has an ex-wife who hates him, but we're not sure why. He just sort of floats through the movie, a cypher who is unable to break with his family. The antics of Bale, Leo, and the steely performance of Adams just leaves him in the dust.

The film also suffers from an uncomfortable shifting in tone. It's frequently very funny, such as the rough-and-tumble sass of the sisters, and Bale's repeated attempts to escape his mother by jumping out the window of a crackhouse into a garbage bin. But I didn't think they meshed well with what came before and after.

By the film's final act, though, when Bale's character turned a corner in his rehabilitation and made a selfless decision, the film began to grow on me. A scene set in prison, while he watches the movie made about him and finally figures out it's about crack addiction, is moving. The final boxing match, in which Wahlberg goes to London to fight for the title, was thrillingly presented. My only quibble is the superfluous use of boxing commentary by Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant--they were telling us nothing that we weren't already seeing.

The Fighter is solid entertainment, and has a gifted performance by Amy Adams, but I don't think it's a top-tier film. It will probably get a nomination for a Best Picture Oscar, but I don't think it's that good.

My grade for The Fighter: B

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Inherit the Wind

1960 had the requisite Stanley Kramer message picture--Inherit the Wind, which was based on a hit play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Loosely based on the Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925, it was fictionalized and skewed into an attack on McCarthyism. Though it has some fine acting, it's something of a relic now, though easy to watch.

In this telling, a high school biology teacher in a southern town (the real town was Dayton, Tennessee), Bert Cates (Dick York) teaches evolution, a violation of state law. He is arrested and brought to trial, which makes the town both heroic to the religiously zealous and a laughing-stock to big cities. A reporter for the Baltimore paper (played by Gene Kelly and based on H.L. Mencken) recruits the country's most famous advocate, Henry Drummond (a stand-in for Clarence Darrow, and played by Spencer Tracy). Volunteering to prosecute is Matthew Harrison Brady (substituting for William Jennings Bryan and played by Fredric March), a populist politician (he lost presidential races three times) and firm believer in the literal truth of the Bible.

As I read about the events of the real trial, I was interested to see how the film differed. Scopes violated the law (although he wasn't sure he really did teach evolution) as a test-case sponsored by the ACLU. Darrow and Bryan were only parts of large teams of lawyers. The ACLU is never mentioned in the film. I'm not sure if the friendship between Drummond and Brady--it seems the former campaigned for the latter--was based on truth, but it does give an appreciated bit of complexity and creates a welcome gray area.

The problem with the film is that it feels like preaching to the converted. The religious are made out as cardboard villains, which is pretty easy. The truth of evolution is never really pinned down (the judge, Harry Morgan, wouldn't allow any of Drummond's expert witnesses), as I believe Lawrence and Lee considered that settled matter by the 1950s, and were interested in making a statement about freedom of thought, which had been so shattered by the Red Scare. They might be amazed that evolution is once again a subject for debate, when almost all Republican presidential candidates say they don't believe in it. What would Clarence Darrow have made of intelligent design?

The film's big moment is when Drummond puts Brady on the stand as an expert witness on the Bible, which amazingly really happened. This is like going to a concert and waiting for the band's big hit, and when it comes you stand and dance. Tracy and March were both well on in years, but they had lost none of their power, and Tracy milks his talent for all its worth, as he attempts to show how the Bible can't really be literally true--how do you measure a day, when there is no sun? Where did Cain's wife come from? March, although wearing some unfortunate makeup, stands toe to toe with him, but as in real life, the exchange kills him (Bryan died a few days after the trial ended).

Many of the other scenes in the film creak with artificiality, particularly those involving York's fiancee, who is also the daughter of the fire-and-brimstone town minister. In a perfect world, this film would be notable only for Tracy's fine performance, but sadly, it still needs to be seen by some people. Evolution, people, is a fact, not a theory.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I've always considered A Charlie Brown Christmas, along with Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to be the best of the animated Christmas specials. But last week I read a blogger on Deadspin go off on it, titling his post, "Fuck You, Charlie Brown." It seems the fellow showed it to his kid, who promptly got depressed.

Last night it aired on ABC and I watched it again for the umpteenth time, and it is true that this special, which first aired in 1965, is not typical fare. It begins with Charlie Brown frankly admitting his depression, despite it being the festive season. I can't imagine a child character ever copped to being depressed on TV before--did Beaver Cleaver, Ricky Nelson, or any of the Anderson kids ever need a shrink?

But the Peanuts comic strip was always above the heads of most children, appealing to those who had evolved past the stages of infancy. For its nearly fifty-year run, it was a miniature philosophy course, touching on basic human desires in the small world of children. Whether it was Charlie Brown's unrequited love for the Little Red-Haired Girl, his inability to kick a football or win a baseball game, Linus' attachment to his security blanket, or Snoopy's rich fantasy life, Peanuts came close to the abyss in its humor, but always gently.

Charles Schulz clearly did not favor the commercialism, or even the secularism, of Christmas. Charlie Brown's search for the perfect tree had more meaning back then, when garishly colored aluminum trees were popular--I don't think anyone uses them anymore, and real trees are favored by those who have the space, money, and time. But certainly the crass commercialism of the holiday has only gotten worse, as the Christmas season is now an economic factor more than anything.

As for the secularism, as a nonbeliever one might think I disdain the special's call for putting the Christ back in Christmas, exemplified by Linus' touching recital of Chapter 2 of The Gospel of Luke, explaining to Charlie Brown that that's what Christmas is all about. On the contrary, I find it bold and necessary. If it is a Christmas special, a holiday celebrated by Christians to celebrate the birth of their messiah, then why not remind people of that? It does not have anything to do with a certain brand of conservative screaming about the "war on Christmas," which basically is a protest of merchants trying to acknowledge the diversity of their customers by substituting the word "holiday" instead of "Christmas," which I find completely appropriate.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is also very funny. I've gathered my favorite lines: Lucy, revealing that what she really wants for Christmas is real estate, or asking Charlie Brown in her guise as sidewalk-stand psychiatrist if he's a pantophobe--suffering from a fear of everything ("That's it!" he shouts); Sally, asking for help in writing a letter to Santa Clause, asking him to note the size and color of each item, and then declaring, "All I want is what's coming to me. All I want is my fair share;" Charlie Brown noting that the hygiene-challenged Pigpen may be covered in soil trod upon by Nebuchadnezzar; or Shermie, assigned to be a shepherd in the Christmas play, bemoaning, "Every year it's the same thing, every year I'm a shepherd." And I haven't even mentioned (till now) the great music by Vince Guaraldi.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, depressing? I can't imagine how it could be read that way, unless viewed by a child with ADD and completely ill-equipped for self-reflection.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Dead Hand

The Dead Hand, by David E. Hoffman, is the Pulitzer-Prize winning look at the last stages of the Cold War, and it's as fascinating as it is scary. It seems that while we were all asleep in our beds, the world has come close to annihilation more than a few times, sometimes from flocks of geese being taken for nuclear missiles.

I love reading history of times I lived through, because it takes me back to what I was doing at the time. This one starts with the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president, and whatever one thinks of him, it's hard to argue that his actions, as well as his persona, brought the Cold War to an end, and helped end the Soviet Union. Hoffman frequently describes him as a man who is able to hold more than belief in his head at the same time; he was an ardent anti-Communist (his "evil empire" speech snarled relations with the Soviets), but he also had a pipe dream about the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Hoffman also takes us nimbly through the succession of ancient Soviet General Secretaries, who started dying at an alarming rate. Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko, and then finally the relatively young and vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev, who, though he only led the Soviets for five years, may have had more of an impact on recent world history than anyone. As Hoffman puts it, "Gorbachev did not set out to change the world, but rather to save his country. In the end, he did not save his country but may have saved the world."

Gorbachev's twin aims--glasnost and perestroika--energized arms reduction talks, and Hoffman's chapter on the summit with Reagan in Reykjavik is thrilling. It seems that the two men came thisclose to an incredible achievement, but the sticking point was one word--laboratory--in regard to Reagan's SDI ("Star Wars") weapons shield. Of course, SDI was never built. This chapter is almost as good as the incredibly lucid account of the shooting down of the Korea Airlines commercial jet in 1983, which is definitively identified here as an unfortunate accident.

The scariest parts of the book deal with biological and chemical weapons. Amazingly, the U.S. is blameless in all this. Nixon ended those programs in 1969, but the Soviets didn't believe it, and thus continued, even during Gorbachev's reign, and even beyond, when the Soviet Union broke up and the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, claimed to have stopped them. It's all chilling stuff--anthrax, plague, smallpox, all being developed as weapons, and with innocent bystanders suffering when experiments went awry. In 1979 in Sverdlosk 69 people died in an anthrax outbreak. Of course, there was also Chernobyl, which Hoffman covers in detail.

Besides the biological weapons, there was also the problem of all the nukes in a post-Soviet world. Hoffman spends one of his last chapters in a gripping narrative about how the U.S. raced to relieve Kazakhstan of a large pile of uranium--before the Iranians could by it. As Hoffman puts it, " some places the former Soviet Union was turning into a Home Depot of enriched uranium and plutonium, with shoppers cruising up and down the aisles."

The heart of Hoffman's research is interviews with those involved, including Gorbachev. But even more are those accounts from the Soviet scientists who worked on the deadly programs, and ended up seeing the light (and defecting to the West). At times the names come so fast and consonant-rich than I gave up telling one from another, but their stories still resonated. I especially found this passage moving: "The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of seven decades of a failed ideology, hypermilitization and rigid central controls. It left behind 6,623 nuclear warheads on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, 2,760 nuclear warheads on sea-based missiles, 822 nuclear bombs on planes and 150 warheads deployed on cruise missiles, as well as perhaps another 15,000 tactical nuclear warheads scattered in depots, trains and warehouses. It left behind at least 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, including millions of shells filled with nerve gas so deadly that one drop would kill a human being. It left behind tons of anthrax bacteria spores...and perhaps as much as 20 metric tons of smallpox in weapons, as well as pathogens the world had never known...It left behind hundreds of thousands of workers who knew the secrets, and who were now embittered, dispirited, and, in some cases, down to their last sack of potatoes."

By the way, the title refers to a procedure that ensured, if the Soviet command were wiped out, a nuclear response would still be launched, even if no one were left alive to ignite it. It was an example of reality following art, as it was a real-life example of the Doomsday Machine from Dr. Strangelove.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Milk of Sorrow

The Milk of Sorrow, which I'm pretty sure is the first Peruvian film I've ever seen, is the last of last year's nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film that I've seen (the others were Ajami, Un Prophete, The Secret in Their Eyes, and The White Ribbon). It tells what seems like a simple tale but is magnified by its folklore elements into a metaphor for something far greater. As such, I don't think it fully succeeds, but I enjoyed parts of it.

The central character is Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman suffering from the title disease. It seems her mother was raped during a civil war, and passed her fear onto her daughter through her breast milk. She also taught her to extemporaneously create songs--the opening features the old woman singing about her rape, and how her attackers forced her to eat her husband's penis.

So Fausta lives in perpetual fear. She won't walk alone, and even when she does, won't stray far from walls, for fear of being taken by lost souls. And, this is a doozy, she has stuffed a potato up her vagina to ward off rapists. Every once in while she has to reach insider herself with scissors to clip off the potato's eyes.

As the movie begins the old lady dies, but the family has no money to bury her. Her uncle wants the corpse gone before his daughter's wedding. Fausta takes a job as a domestic for a concert pianist to earn money, who takes a liking to her when she hears her sing. She also strikes up a friendship with the gardener, but she wonders why he doesn't plant potatoes in the garden.

The film, directed by Claudia Llosa, is frequently visually arresting, whether it's a shot of plates at a wedding, a burning piano, a ridiculously long set of stairs going up a mountain, two women picking pearls up off a floor, or the last shot, a flowering potato. But I wonder how much of this film went completely over my head because of cultural differences. Is the title malady something that the Peruvian people really believe exist, or was it made up for the film? I would ask the same about the potato trick. Knowing more about Peru's political history might have helped, too.

I'm willing to assign much of the blame for my lackluster response to my own shortcomings, as the film is lovely to look at, and has a nice, hypnotic pace. Solier makes the most of a tough performance, as most of the time she is impassive, presumably out of this inherited terror, but at the end, when the character unburdens herself of it, she responds ably during the emotional scenes.

Of the five films, none of them completely bowled me over, so I would have probably voted for the eventual winner, The Secret of Their Eyes.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Butterfield 8

The ceremony for the 1960 Oscars was basically the Elizabeth Taylor show. The megastar had a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, and showed up for the awards bearing a tracheotomy scar. Her win was such a foregone conclusion that only one of her competitors, Greer Garson, bothered to show up. Indeed she won, for her performance in Butterfield 8.

Ironically, she didn't want to do the movie and hated it. "I still say it stinks," she said, after someone mentioned its success. Her hatred seemed to be two-pronged: her existing contract with MGM required her to do it; and her role as a husband-stealer may have cut too close to the bone, as she had recently gone through scandal when Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for her.

The film, directed by Daniel Mann, is tawdry. Taylor is Gloria Wandrous (a great name), a "model" who is the mistress of Laurence Harvey, a self-loathing business executive. When he leaves $250 behind for her one morning, she is enraged and steals his wife's mink coat. All through the film we are told that she is not a prostitute, but this seems to be a sleight of hand that was indicative of the times (Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's was another example); a woman of easy virtue that doesn't call herself a prostitute, but certainly offers her body up for monetary favors notwithstanding.

Taylor has a childhood platonic friend (played by Fisher), and a mother (Mildred Dunnock) who refuses to see her for what she is (Taylor later yells at her, "I'm the slut of all time!"). We get a speech, late in the film, during which Taylor explains how she was molested by her mother's boyfriend when she was thirteen, and adds, "I loved it!"

I love a good movie about sleazy sex, but Butterfield 8 is not one of them. It tries to have it both ways--she's a slut, but she's misunderstood, and Harvey is a cad, but he really is a good guy. The roles must have been difficult to play, because they both have to change emotions on a dime, without any particular rhyme or reason. Another tough part is Harvey's wife, (Dina Merrill), a woman who, even after confronted with Harvey's infidelity, swears her love for him. This was the kind of woman The Feminine Mystique was written for.

I was mostly interested in the obsolete facets of 1960 life, especially the phone number of the title. I have faint memories of the days when telephone exchanges were used, but in this film they also could be used as an answering service. As a parlor game with friends, try thinking of films that would have completely different plots if they were set in the era of cell phones. Butterfield 8 is one of them.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Little Big Man

This month contains the fortieth anniversary of an old favorite of mine, Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. It's one of those movies that I share an affection for with my father. After watching it yesterday I called him up and we went over some of the great lines of the film, like "My heart soars like a hawk," "It is a good day to die," and "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't."

Those lines are all spoken by Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne chief. He steals the movie from Dustin Hoffman, who appears in every scene as Jack Crabb, who led a picaresque life through the Old West. When we first see him he's 121-years old (Hoffman wears some pretty nifty makeup and speaks in a rasp he got by screaming for an hour or two). He's being interviewed in an old-age home by a historian (William Hickey) on Crabb's life spent living among the Plains Indians. When Hickey suggests that Crabb's stories about Custer and the Little Bighorn are "tall tales," Crabb sets the record straight.

His parent killed by Pawnee while crossing the plains, Crabb is taken in by the Cheyenne, and comes to know Old Lodge Skins as "grandfather." But over the years he moves back and forth from Indians to whites, never quite fitting in with either. He spends some time in the home of a minister and his horny wife (Faye Dunaway), apprentices to a snake-oil salesman (Martin Balsam), and tries his hands at being a gunfighter, known as The Soda-Pop Kid, when he meets Wild Bill Hickok.

Then he gets married to a Swedish woman and opens a store, but when it goes out of business the couple head further west. She is kidnapped by Indians and he becomes a mountain man, looking for her. Eventually he is accepted back into the Cheyenne, and figures he will stay there, married to four women, until the camp is wiped out by Custer's Seventh Cavalry (a historical amalgamation of the Battle of Washita and the Sand Creek Massacre). Seeking revenge, Crabb takes a job with Custer as a scout, and is present at the Last Stand.

Little Big Man works on two levels: as a panoramic popular history of the Old West, and as something unique to 1970. It is without a doubt meant to depict parallels to Vietnam, with the indigenous represented as true and good and the white man as interloper. It also completes the gradual process that film Westerns were taking toward changing attitudes regarding Indians. By 1970, with this film and Soldier Blue, the Indians were the sympathetic heroes, and the white soldiers the bad guys. Richard Mulligan's portrayal of Custer is as a pure villain--vain and insane. Custer's legacy as a hero had been nurtured by his widow, who lived until the 1930s, but by the time of this film it was completely gone.

This film also came at a time when the American Indian was romanticized, perhaps too much so, by the counterculture. Old Lodge Skins, as a great a character as he is, is sort of the Indian version of the twinkly Irishman--a font of aphorisms and avuncular charm. We don't actually see much of him leading his people, mostly he offers pithy advice to Crabb.

Little Big Man walks a fine line. It is a telling of the tragedy of the attempted genocide of a people, but is also a comedy. Penn, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, paints using a broad brush, with characters popping up in remarkable coincidences for comic effect.

In the years that followed, there have been many more films about the Indian wars, and they have made Little Big Man seem a little quaint. But it still has a lovely gentle humor and warmth to it, and is far less pretentious than something like Dances With Wolves.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tiny Furniture

That period following college graduation, when one returns to the nest, can last from a few months to a lifetime, and is difficult for all concerned. I know I went through it, and if I was anything like the character in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, I'd like to apologize to my family.

Dunham, who writes and directs, stars as Aura. She's fresh back from a film theory degree earned at a college in Ohio (Dunham went to Oberlin), nursing a broken heart, to move back in to her mother's vast apartment somewhere in lower Manhattan. Her mother is a celebrated and eccentric photographer, who mostly indulges Aura but occasionally gets mad (like when Aura's friends drink all her wine). Aura's younger sister, a high school prodigy (she wins a prize for poetry, despite having no respect for the art form), resents her big sister's return, especially having turned Aura's bedroom into her "special place."

Aura, describing her state as "post-grad delirium," is absolutely adrift. She gets a job as a hostess in a restaurant, and falls in cahoots with an old friend, Charlotte, a boozy rich kid who seems to have wandered in from Gossip Girl. She is attracted to two different men. One of them is, Jed, a video artist who has gotten some fame for posting clips to YouTube of himself as the "Nietschzian Cowboy," and another is the sous chef at the restaurant. She likes him even though he has a girlfriend and admits to fancying Japanese "tentacle rape" porn.

Overall I liked Tiny Furniture, mostly for the sparkling dialogue. The script is littered with bon mots, and it was lovely seeing a film populated with intelligent, witty people. I need to see it again just to jot down some of the lines, which come fast and heavy.

But Tiny Furniture does suffer from some first-filmitis. Dunham, in a move that may have been out of economic necessity but smacks of narcissistic nepotism, cast her own mother and sister in those roles (her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer). Mostly this works okay, as neither woman is an accomplished performer, but they don't embarrass themselves, either. Simmons mostly has to express a combination of bemusement and annoyance with Dunham, which is probably true-to-life.

The film's greatest flaw becomes all-too apparent in the final third, when the charm of the lead character starts deflating like an air mattress one of the characters tries to sleep on. Her immaturity and self-absorption exasperated this viewer. I started to side with the mother, and was hoping she'd kick Aura out to the curb. I'm guessing that this is very close to autobiography, and Dunham attempted to avoid making herself look too wonderful and overcompensated, ending up with a portrait of a pampered, pretentious woman-child.

But I don't want to be too hard on this film. The writing glistens, and though the film is not visually interesting, Dunham directs with a nice touch. I should also add that if Dunham had attempted to make this film with Hollywood money, a condition would certainly have been that she not play the lead role. She is not, by Hollywood standards, beautiful (though by regular person standards, she's not unattractive). Throughout the film she shows herself off in underwear and, in one long shot, nude. It's as if Dunham were making a statement about how Hollywood has warped our view of women's bodies.

My grade for Tiny Furniture: B

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Sundowners

The fifth nominee for Best Picture of 1960 was The Sundowners, a genial but bland entertainment from the estimable Fred Zinneman, who made for more interesting Best Pictures nominees High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and The Nun's Story. This one is a big-looking film that really has very little to say, and is for people who don't want much from their movie-going experience.

Set in Australia, Robert Mitchum, with an accent that comes and goes, is a drover who doesn't like to stay in one place too long (the title refers to people who constantly follow the sun, and have no permanent home). Deborah Kerr is his long-suffering wife, and Michael Anderson his teenage son. They long for some roots, and have an eye on a farm for sale, but know it's a long shot to get Mitchum to change his ways.

Kerr does convince Mitchum to at least settle in a frontier town to take a temporary sheep-shearing job. They are joined by Peter Ustinov as a sardonic Englishman, in the kind of role Ustinov specialized in.

During the course of the film we get episodes involving a brush fire, a sheep-shearing contest, the birth of a baby, and a horse race. None of it adds up to much--there seems to be little at stake, and aside from some moments during the fire, no one is in any danger.

Kerr, who was Oscar-nominated, works hard to inject some life into this thing, and she's very good. Also nominated was Glynis Johns as a bubbly innkeeper and Ustinov's love interest. Mitchum seems bored by the whole thing. There is nothing objectionable about this film, but there's nothing excellent about it, either. It just kind of sits there.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Oscar Predictions 2010, First Round

Next week the Golden Globe nominations are announced and the onslaught of critic's awards commences, so it's a good time to get my first round of predictions on the record. Of course, with so many Oscarphiles publishing their picks, it's just a matter of consolidating everyone else's thoughts. In this Internet age, there are few surprises when it comes to Oscar nominations, and thus few bold predictions.


Locks: The King's Speech, The Social Network, Inception, Toy Story 3

Safe Bets: True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours

That leaves three slots. I'm going to go with Black Swan, despite some critical potshots, because it seems to have created a cultural buzz (the reference on 30 Rock last night was hysterical), and has done good box office. I'm also going to guess, in a bit of wishful thinking, that Winter's Bone gets in. Finally, I think that only one of the Eastern Massachusetts blue collar films gets in, and that will be The Fighter, not The Town.

Also Possible: Another Year, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole, The Way Back


Locks: David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

Safe Bets: Christopher Nolan (Inception), Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)

That leaves, in my view, Danny Boyle (127 Hours) and Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) fighting it out for the last spot. I'll go with Aronofsky.

Also Possible: Lisa Chodolenko (The Kids Are All Right), David O. Russell (The Fighter), Mike Leigh (Another Year)


Locks: Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours)

Safe Bets: Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Robert Duvall (Get Low)

The fifth spot should go to either Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) or Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine). I think Eisenberg will get it, but I wouldn't be shocked by a snub.

Also possible: Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter)


Locks: Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Safe Bet: Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)

The remaining two nominees should come from three actresses: Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Lesley Manville (Another Year), and Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right). Manville is supposed to very impressive in what some call a supporting performance, and the Academy has been kind to Mike Leigh films, but I'm going with the redheads, Kidman and Moore.

Also Possible: Sally Hawkins (Made in Dagenham), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)


Locks: Christian Bale (The Fighter), Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

Safe Bets: Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)

The last spot is tough to figure. It could be Matt Damon for True Grit, Justin Timberlake or Armie Hammer for The Social Network, or Bill Murray for Get Low, but I'm going to go with Jeremy Renner for The Town, the kind of performance that often gets Oscar plaudits.

Also possible: Ed Harris (The Way Back), Michael Douglas (Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps). Never count out sentiment.


Lock: Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)

Safe Bets: Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Lots of possibilities for the last two slots. I'm going to go with Amy Adams (The Fighter), who seems to be an Academy favorite, and, in a bit of a surprise, Sissy Spacek (Get Low).

Also Possible: Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole), Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), Miranda Richardson (Made in Dagenham)

The landscape will no doubt shift over the next six weeks, and I'll have my final predictions before the Oscar nominations are announced on January 25th.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sons and Lovers

Nominated for Best Picture of 1960, Sons and Lovers was adapted from the novel by D.H. Lawrence. Like Elmer Gantry, it only covers a portion of the book, this time the last half, the story of Paul Morel, a dreamy would-be artist growing up in a dreary town in the English midlands before World War I.

Paul, played by Dean Stockwell, hopes to be a painter, and is devoted to his mother, Wendy Hiller. His father, Trevor Howard, is an uncouth coal miner. Howard and Hiller are frequently at odds, and though Howard is often drunk and abusive, one senses that he's not equipped to do any real damage. But when he locks Hiller out of the house one night, Stockwell decides he can't act on a local patron's offer to send him to art school in London--he won't leave his mother alone.

Hiller's apron strings are tight on Stockwell, but the lad does have lovers. He is good friends with a local girl, Heather Sears, who is so indoctrinated by her mother's fierce religiosity that she can't let her sexual inhibitions go. Stockwell takes her virginity, but understands that for her, love can only be spiritual, not physical. He then falls into a relationship with a married but separated woman, the icily beautiful Mary Ure. She has a problem with him--he's too attached to his mother, and she can sense it.

This is a handsome film. Directed by Jack Cardiff, it's shot in moody black and white by Freddie Francis, who won an Oscar for it. The screenplay is elegantly composed, and there doesn't seem to be a wasted moment or wrong shot. But the problem at the heart of this film is the character of Paul--he's a bastard, really. You just want to shake him. He treats Sears dreadfully, and his relationship with his mother is a little twisted. She's got a part to play in that, too (when Howard accuses of her smothering him and ruining his life, the truth comes crashing down on her), but Stockwell has the stuff to grow up--he just chooses not to.

Howard was nominated for Best Actor in what was really a supporting performance, and Ure was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. As I was watching the film something nagged at me--have I read Sons and Lovers? I took a D.H. Lawrence class in college and know I read at least one of his novels (the professor was merciful and mostly assigned short stories). You know you're old when you can't remember whether you've read a book or not, even while watching the film adaptation.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

John Lennon

Thirty years ago tonight, I learned about the death of John Lennon from Howard Cosell. That's the common refrain by many. It was toward the end of the Monday Night Football game (Miami vs. New England), and ABC News had verified the singer's death, and passed it along to the truck covering the game. This morning I heard the fascinating bit of tape of Cosell consulting with his boothmates on whether to go public with the information. Cosell, in an uncharacteristic nod to restraint, thought it wasn't the right time or place, but Frank Gifford talked him into it.

I watching in my dorm room in college. I don't why I was watching the game--did I really watch Monday Night Football to its completion in those days? I rarely watch it now. But I was, and when Cosell made the announcement I remember bolting upright in bed. What did I do next? I don't precisely remember, but there was no CNN yet to turn to--none of the other TV networks had the story yet. I think I turned on the radio, to WNEW, the classic rock station. They were all over the story, the DJs breathless and uncomprehending.

Of course I was devastated. John Lennon remains one of my idols, despite his warts. The death was so senseless, so unnecessary, that it still boggles the mind. What hurt even more was that the man finally seemed to be happy. He and Yoko Ono had just released a great new album, Double Fantasy, and he loved living in New York City. Assassinations were supposed to be the stuff of political figures, not rock stars. To this day, though, I can't help but feel sorry for his murderer, Mark Chapman, who was insane.

Forty years ago this month Lennon released his first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It's still a remarkable work, full of incendiary power. It fully explores the everlasting hole in his psyche--his relationship, or lack of one, with his mother. The album opens, after the dirgeful tolling of bells, with "Mother," and the line "Mother, you had me, but I never had you." For good measure, the album closes with the brief "My Mummy's Dead." The man had issues, and chewed over them in public.

In addition to great songs like "Love," "Well, Well, Well," "Isolation," and the searing "Working Class Hero," the penultimate song, "God," is one of the most affecting I think he ever wrote. It starts with, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." Then he recites a litany of things he doesn't believe in: magic, Jesus, Buddha, Yoga, Elvis, Beatles, ending with "I just believe in me, Yoko and me." In a nod to Beatles fans distraught about the end of the group, he closes with "I was the Walrus, but now I'm John. And so, dear friends, you'll just to have to carry on. The dream is over."

On the Saturday following Lennon's death a public memorial was held for him in Central Park, just across the street from his residence, on a spot today known as Strawberry Fields and marked with a mosaic inscribed with the word "Imagine." I did not attend, and I wonder why I didn't. But I listened on WNEW, and after a ten-minute period of silence (it was odd "listening" to a moment of silence on the radio) they played "God." Tears.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Elmer Gantry

The novel Elmer Gantry, written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927, caused a sensation. It was a huge bestseller, but earned condemnation from religious leaders for its cynical portrayal of a huckster preacher. The film, released in 1960 and one of the nominees for Best Picture, toned down the rhetoric some. It made the title character more complex, and didn't paint religion as being entirely corrupt. But I would imagine it was still pretty hot stuff, given the time period.

Burt Lancaster starred, and he won the Oscar for Best Actor. It's a performance that's completely over the top, but necessarily so, because this guy has no subtlety, he's always on. His way of laughing--throwing his head back as if it were on a pivot, and flashing what seem like a hundred teeth, was mimicked by comedians, but is essential to the character.

When we first see him, he's an appliance salesman, somewhere in the plains, telling dirty jokes and getting drunk. He lives on the margins, traveling like a hobo in boxcars. But when he stumbles upon a tent-revival meeting featuring a charismatic evangelist (Jean Simmons) he's intrigued. He maneuvers to gain her good graces, and ends up part of the act.

What I found interesting about Lancaster's performance, as well as in the script by Richard Brooks (who also directs), is that Gantry's motives are never spelled out. Sure, he's a con man at heart, but we can never really be sure that he doesn't believe what he's saying when he's preaching to the assembled. It is clear that he falls genuinely in love with Simmons. But as to his ultimate goal--we don't know what it is. Perhaps he doesn't, either.

Lancaster vies for Simmons' attention with her business partner, played coolly by Dean Jagger. The show is being covered by a cynical, atheist reporter (Arthur Kennedy), who seems modeled on H.L. Mencken. Kennedy and Lancaster are at odds, (Kennedy tells Lancaster that he fits right in at the revival, because "every circus needs a clown") but have a mutual respect for each other. When a prostitute from Lancaster's past (Oscar-winner Shirley Jones) frames Lancaster with incriminating photos, Kennedy turns them down for his newspaper.

Elmer Gantry is richly entertaining. It's a little long at two-and-a-half hours (and told only about half of the story from the book), but never dull. The colors are gaudy, keeping with the sordid underbelly of the plot, and the acting, not just by Lancaster, is done at full tilt. Jones, who was known for wholesome musical roles like Oklahoma!, overdoes it as the wronged fallen woman, but I thought Simmons found a good balance in her role, which was modeled after the real-life evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

If anyone objects to this film on moral grounds, it may be because it basically says that religion, just like toasters or vacuum cleaners, is a commodity that needs to be sold. One key scene has a group of ministers debating the benefit of tent revivals, knocking them as entertainment. The town businessman, who sees dollar signs in his eyes, says that there is no difference between the two.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

"These are dark times," is the opening line of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the first part of the last tale in the worldwide phenomenon. The words are spoken by Bill Nighy, and he isn't kidding. This is unrelentingly grim and joyless, and requires a glossary of Harry Potter terms and characters to keep up.

The melancholy tone is struck early, when the three heroes of the film all go into hiding. Hermione (Emma Watson), goes so far as to magically remove herself from the memory of her parents. Harry's horrible aunt and uncle, usually mocked, are shown packing up and leaving their home.

The reason: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is almost fully restored to power, and he's after them. He has highly-placed spies in the government, and soon the whole place has the look of the set of "Springtime for Hitler" (the parallels to Nazism, with the discussion of "pure-bloods," seem cheap and obvious). Harry, Hermione, and Ron are searching for horcruxes--pieces of Voldemort's soul--so they can destroy them and thus him. Voldemort, in addition to trying to kill Harry, is after one of the title objects--an all-powerful wand (incidentally, let me go into copy-editor mode to point out that in my dictionary, "hallow" is only a verb, not a noun).

Amidst all this searching, the kids bounce from one wintry U.K. location to the next, looking haggard and getting on each other's nerves (Ron understandably has had enough of being the sidekick). The film has no scenes at Hogwarts, thus no teachers (aside from a lamentably brief appearance by Alan Rickman as Snape), no quidditch, no moving paintings. I appreciate what the author, J.K. Rowling, was trying to do--childhood ends, and adulthood can suck. But I'm not sure it makes for good cinema, except for those who have read the books and know the arcana.

And there's a lot of arcana. I read the first four books, and have seen all the films (but only once each), and I struggled to keep up. It took me a while to remember what a "mudblood" is: a wizard born from Muggle parents--if you don't know what a Muggle is, you have no hope. I couldn't keep the Death-Eaters straight from the Snatches, and then, at the end, I was surprised to see John Hurt show up. Who was he supposed to be? My mind went back and ran through all the British character actors who have been in these films--was he one of them? Once home I checked and yes, he was in the first film, but how was I supposed to remember that? That was almost ten years ago.

I stopped seeing these films in theaters after the fourth one because they were groaning under the weight of detail. Last year I saw the two I had missed on DVD, but enjoyed Half-Blood Prince so much that I was stoked for this one. But I was disappointed. I felt excluded, as if it were the Harry Potter Fan Club, and outsiders could just fend for themselves. But above all, this film is just no fun.

My grade for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: C-.