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Monday, January 31, 2011

Dogtooth

Dogtooth is the first of this year's Academy Award nominees in the Best Foreign Film category that I've had a chance to see, and it's one of the most unusual to get tapped in that category, at least since The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie way back in 1972. The rule of thumb is that the Foreign Film nominees are selected by older members, who have time to see all the films. Well, I don't know about that this year, as Dogtooth is not your father's Foreign Film nominee.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth is a Greek film that defies categorization. It reminded me some of M. Night Shamalyan's The Village, in that the plot concerns children who are raised without the influence of the outside world. But this film is more daring than that one, and leaves out some core properties, such as a motive or method. To my Americanized taste, this rankled a bit, but I can understand how it can be deliciously tantalizing to a more curious audience.

The story follows a family of five: father, mother, and three children (two girls and a boy), who are actually young adults. It becomes clear that they have never left the grounds of their home, conditioned to be afraid of the outside world. The hold that their parents have over them is so severe that they have even been taught the wrong definitions of words: a zombie is a small, yellow flower; a carbine is a beautiful white bird; the saltshaker is called the phone.

The three children spend their days making up games in a kind of perpetual Neverland. The father, who works at a factory, allows only one outsider in--a female security guard, who is paid to provide sexual favors to the boy. But when the guard wants more sexual satisfaction than the boy is willing to provide, she bribes one of the girls to perform cunnilingus on her. This sets in motion the gears of the plot.

In an interview on the DVD, Lanthimos speaks of how he was inspired to make a film that challenged the notions of the definition of family. He has certainly done that here, and the intricacies of the situation are well thought out. But I couldn't help but let my mind being bothered by niggling details. We see that the father has told a co-worker that his wife is paralyzed and does not want to see visitors, but how to explain the missing children? Were they born at home? Does no one else know of their existence? I suspect Lanthimos would say that these details are beside the point, but I was still bothered by them. Above all, I kept wondering at the motive. Simple insanity? A commentary on society at large?

The film also has an overall tone of stasis. Aside from the elder sister, who makes moves to leave, the other characters have no arc and do not change. We also have periodic quick flashes of violence (the one that may be most disturbing involves a cat and some garden shears). Lanthimos says he wants a reaction, whether it be positive or negative.

Dogtooth is also extremely sexual. Unless I miss my guess, a scene involving incest was not simulated, which certainly required the actors to go above and beyond. It's hard to imagine the Academy voters we think of when we think of this category watching this film without disgust, but I guess it's time to reassess those assumptions.

Though Lanthimos wants a strong positive or negative reaction, I'm right down the middle on this film (as is usually the case with me and love-it-or-hate-it films). I admire the filmmaking, but feel the story needed more fleshing out. As it exists, Dogtooth is a conversation piece, not a complete film.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Bridge

The Bridge is, as the subtitle suggests, at the life and rise of Barack Obama, and at times it's a great read. But it is a long book, with several tangents that sometimes seem appropriate and sometimes seems like the author is being paid by the word.

David Remnick, the editor The New Yorker, starts the book with a look at Obama's parents, in particular his father, a man who had several families and ended up embittered and impotent with anger. Obama was determined not to repeat his mistakes. Remnick also details Obama's mother's family, and his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, is presented as a valuable part of Obama's upbringing. I was particularly impressed that Dunham, in an attempt to make sure that Obama connected with his African heritage, connected him with an older black mentor while he was a teenager in Hawaii.

Much of Obama's childhood story is well known today, especially in his own book, Dreams from My Father, but I found this the best part of Remnick's book. Partly this is due to Obama being exactly my age (he is a few months younger), and so I was able to relate to what was going in the culture of America at the time. The chapters about his college years resonated me with, especially this one: "Among Obama's friends--among so many young people going to college in the seventies and eighties--there was a feeling of belatedness, a sense that political activism had lost most of its energy. They had come along too late for the March on Washington, Black Power, the Stonewall riots, the antiwar and women's-liberation demonstrations. Rightly or not, many of them felt they had the desire but not a cause."

The other great part about these early chapters is the almost insane proposition that someone with Obama's background, a middle-class mixed-race boy from Hawaii, who spent a good chunk of his boyhood in Indonesia, could one day be president. Consider when Obama and his black friends in high school used to gather and talk about things: "They even discussed whether there would be a black President in their lifetime--and they decided it wasn't possible."

I was also interested to read about how Obama flipped a switch after his rather lackadaisical early college years, after which he went into his "ascetic" mode, finishing school at Columbia, and working a variety of jobs in New York before moving to Chicago to be a community organizer. The book covers his decision to go to Harvard Law, where he became the first black president of the Law Review, and then going back to Chicago where he started his career in politics.

Remnick goes on a long riff about the history of Chicago politics from the Daley years through the Harold Washington years. Washington was a hero of Obama's, and he thought he might like to be mayor one day. But he ended up on an ill-conceived plan to unseat incumbent Representative Bobby Rush, who was a Black Panther, and failed, which perhaps taught him important lessons (Bill Clinton being turned out of the governor's mansion in Arkansas after one term was equally important for him). We then follow Obama in his run for Senate, in which he had some incredible luck (his first opponent had to withdraw after a sex scandal, and he ended up facing the carpetbagging Alan Keyes, a fringe candidate).

Remnick's chapter on Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, which made him a star, is well covered, as his process of deciding to run for President. The campaign chapters didn't seem to me to cover anything new, and I'm sure there is more than one book that dissects this campaign more thoroughly than Remnick does.

Remnick is clearly an admirer of his subject, and his liberal politics shine through. He scornfully dismisses birthers and those who tried to tie Obama to Bill Ayers. He has some really harsh words about Jerome Corsi, the guy who "Swift Boated" John Kerry but tried and failed to do that to Obama with the book Obama Nation. But he covers the relationship between Obama and Jeremiah Wright with clear eyes, and several times recognizes what is perhaps Obama's greatest flaw--his ego. But, of course, can anyone run for President without having a tremendous ego?

Some of the branches that Remnick takes don't strike me as being as relevant to his story, such as a brief biography of Jesse Jackson, or a detailed description of Frederick Douglass' first visit to Lincoln's White House. It's all interesting, but stops the narrative in its tracks.

The title The Bridge refers to the bridge in Selma, Alabama, in which civil rights protesters, led by Martin Luther King Jr., marched in 1965. John Lewis, who marched on that day, and is now a Congressman from Atlanta, said "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." Reading about the inauguration, when Lewis, the last living man who spoke at the March on Washington in August of 1963, sitting right up front. "Obama [in his office] also displayed a framed cover of Life magazine from March, 1965; it showed a long line of demonstrators, led by John Lewis, about to confront the Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis had signed and framed the cover and had given it to Obama as a gift. Now, at the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached Obama with a sheet of paper and, to mark the occasion, he asked him to sign it. The forty-fourth President of the United States wrote, 'Because of you, John, Barack Obama.'"

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Way Back

One of the more amusing aspects of going to the movies these days is the seemingly endless series of movie production company logos that start each film. It seems no film can get made without at least three or four companies chipping in, and they all get their logos displayed. This is true with Peter Weir's film The Way Back, and the most pertinent entity involved is National Geographic. In many ways, The Way Back is a travelogue thinly disguised as a movie.

The film, which comes with the dreaded tag "Based on True Events," is adapted from a book called The Long Walk, which many people believe was not true. The story concerns a group of escapees from a Soviet gulag during World War II, who walk from Siberia to India for their freedom. The whole notion seems incredible, so finding out it might not be true kind of undercuts the whole thing.

Jim Sturgess stars as a young Polish man who is sentenced to 20 years on trumped up spying charges. He falls in with a group of men, including an inscrutable American who is only known as "Mr. Smith," (Ed Harris) and a career criminal (Colin Farrell). The scenes in the prison are kind of interesting, as the political prisoners steer cleer of the criminals, who run the place. The barter that goes on is imaginative. One man, an artist, trades drawings of naked women for food. Farrell is a cold-hearted killer who murders a man for his sweater.

The escape happens fairly early in the movie. Seven men start out, and we know, because of an ill-conceived title card at the beginning of the film, that not all will make it. Some of the cliches of war prison movies exist. One character is close to blind, which reminded me of Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape.

Eventually they are joined by a teenage girl on the run (Saorsie Ronan), who gives the plot a jump start (she gets the men to open up about their pasts), but her existence seems to be the result of a studio meeting--"Hey, shouldn't we get a pretty girl in there somehow?"

The National Geographic stuff comes through on their travels, which start in the Siberian forests and then into the Gobi desert of Mongolia and finally the Himalayas (the movie was filmed in Bulgaria, Morocco, Pakistan, and India). Some of these scenes are quite striking, such as when they look out upon the desert and realize they've got a long way to go. But other scenes seem kind of pat, such as knowing they are in China when they come to the Great Wall. They find a hole in it (so much for the Great Wall), and seem to cross China into Tibet without incident.

As a director, Weir seems to be relying on the triumph of the human spirit thing rather than dramaturgy. "Look at these men--weren't they admirable?" the film seems to ask, frame after frame. Instead of that, the script might have done better to flesh out the supporting characters. As I read the Wikipedia summary, I see that one of the men was a Latvian priest, which I missed entirely. Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell get fleshed out, with Harris being the most interesting character (and given life by a typically strong Harris performance), but the others are given short shrift.

The Way Back got one Oscar nomination, for Best Makeup, which was deserved. Not only are the travelers faces made up to reflect the ravages of their jury, but so are their feet, bloodied and swollen. Aside from that, a fine performance by Ed Harris, and some stunning scenery, this film doesn't really have a lot to offer.

My grade for The Way Back: C-.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Queen of the Shutouts

It's time for an update on the Princeton Women's Ice Hockey team, and it's been a weird season. The team started out horribly, and after a loss to Yale in early December, in which they out shot the Bulldogs by a three-to-one margin but somehow still managed to lose, the Tigers were 3-10-1, the worst record they've had in the decade-plus that I've been watching them.

But they haven't lost since, and after tonight's victory over St. Lawrence, have won eight in a row. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the turnaround, but the most important can be found between the pipes. Junior goaltender Rachel Weber has six shutouts over the eight games, and has only allowed three goals over that span. With 248 straight minutes without allowing a goal, she smashed the team record and the conference record as well. Her scoreless string is the fourth best of all time.

This is a remarkable series of events, because it seemed that Weber was relegated to benchwarmer. During an exhibition game against McGill University in October, Weber couldn't seem to stop anything, allowing four goals in about ten minutes. She was pulled from the game, and sophomore Cassie Seguin was the starter. But when Seguin sustained an injury, Weber took over. She wasn't great--she has six losses on the year--but after that Yale game she turned it on, and has been immaculate in goal.

Tonight she made the most amazing save I've ever seen at Baker Rink. It was midway through the second period of a scoreless tie. The St. Lawrence player had a rebound on her stick, in the crease, with nothing but net in front of her. Weber was out of position. It would have been a simple task for the Saint player to knock the puck in for a goal, but Weber fell to her side, extending her full five-foot-nine frame. She managed to get a glove on the puck, knocking it away. The Saints seemed stunned, and moments later the Tigers scored, a two-goal swing that basically cinched the game.

Weber has not been alone in her heroics. During the early losses, they couldn't score to save their lives, but have been much sharper of late in putting the puck in the net. They've been led by two freshmen, Olivia Much and Sally Butler, and anchored by senior defender Sasha Sherry, a six-footer who is an intimidating presence on the blueline, and has one of the hardest shots in all of women's hockey.

The Tigers have seven more regular season games, and it's not pie in the sky to think they could run the table. If Weber continues her amazing play, they only need to score one goal to win.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Which Way Home

As the new Oscar nominations are being discussed, it's time to close the book on last year's with the Best Feature Documentary Which Way Home, just released on DVD. It's an unflinching look at the plight of Mexican and Central American children who attempt to get into the United States. It doesn't have a point of view, but it would be difficult to watch this film and then listen to the heartless palaver of the American right-wing about the so-called illegal immigrant menace.

Directed by Rebecca Camissa, the film focuses on a handful of children as they traverse Mexico by train. They don't buy a ticket--they hop freights and sit on top of the cars. The train is called "the Beast," and they are told it can be their best friend or their worst enemy, as more than one child has been killed, either by getting hit by a tunnel, or chewed up underneath the wheels.

Some of the children are from Guatemala and Honduras, and they must first get into Mexico. It was kind of ironic to see that Mexican immigration officials were deporting people out of their country. But Mexico seems to have a much more humane system--they have an agency that does not enforce the law, but instead provides food, water, medical attention, and advice to migrants.

The kids, some of them as young as nine, travel unaccompanied. Some are headed to their parents in the U.S., while others have left their homes, hoping to find better lives. They think of the U.S. as something like the Emerald City, where everything will be fine. One ends up in a detention center, disabused of his dreams, and says that he made a big mistake. But after briefly returning to his family in Guatemala, he ends up trying to get back to the States again. What stories like these tell us is that no matter the hardships these people endure--one figure is that ten percent of those who try to cross the border will fail, and some will die in the desert--they keep coming, because the alternative is worse.

This is a nonfiction film, but it reminded me of William Wyler's movie of the Great Depression, Wild Boys of the Road. The kids in this film are subject to not only exposure in the desert, but corrupt smugglers and cops (who rob the kids of their meager possessions). I couldn't believe that a ten-year old boy was traveling alone across Mexico. When I was ten I could barely cross the street by myself. Then we see a nine-year-old girl who is trying to get to her mother in Minnesota. She is all smiles, but breaks down when she says she just wants to be with her sisters again. At the end of the film we are told her whereabouts are unknown.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Flanking the Opponent


I tuned into the State of the Union address by President Obama without watching the cable-news chatter beforehand (well, I heard a little of it, on MSNBC, as everyone filed into the chamber). I did not stay tuned in to hear the Republican response by Paul Ryan, who apparently is copying the style of Walter Mondale, and attempting to scare the American public, or the Tea Party response by Michele Bachmann, who earlier added to her reputation as one of the most clueless politicians today by her lack of knowledge about slavery and the constitution. Incidentally, the race for most clueless politician is a highly competitive one.

I read some responses to the speech today. It got some bad press from the left, and mostly congratulations from the reasonable conservative crowd, an ever-dwindling cohort personified by the likes of the New York Times' David Brooks. Obama seemed to be speaking to them--for the first and only time in my life, I am comparing Barack Obama to Stonewall Jackson, because it seemed to me that Obama was trying to win the center by a constant series of flanking moves.

This has been a rosy period for Obama. After being repudiated in the November elections, he had a productive lame duck session with Congress, and with his speech at the Tucson memorial last week re-asserted his leadership credentials. The State of the Union speech got high poll numbers, perhaps because it consisted almost entirely of Obama's charm--he didn't really say anything.

The event was distinguished by the attempt for both parties to appear civil. They sat in an integrated fashion, paired up like members of a bridal party. This seemed to dim the pep rally aspects, and kept rudeness at bay--no one yelled "You lie!" this year, and the far-right Supreme Court justices stayed home, so as not to be offended like Alito was last year. I was transfixed by the reactions of John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, sitting over Obama's left shoulder. Obama did his best to make Boehner cry, and seemed to almost succeed, and then got Boehner to applaud over and over again. There were times when you could see the wheels in Boehner's head spinning. Obama would say something, and Boehner would search his memory--"Do I like this? By golly, I do!" and he would reluctantly clap. The first time Boehner didn't clap was when Obama said he wanted to cut subsidies for oil companies (this is where Joe Barton should have shouted something) and then was stone silent when he praised the Patient Protection Act, which only days before the House had voted to repeal.

Obama walked right down the center of the road. He made a few fobs to the left, praising gay soldiers, American Muslims, and the sadly unpassed Dream Act. But mostly he dodged and weaved, saying things that Republicans couldn't get too upset about (although one Congressman, Paul Broun, stayed home and tweeted about Obama being a Marxist). It was Obama the Conciliator, a style of governing which may be what America needs right now. The President was able to get some remarkable legislation passed in his first few years, but now he will have to work with a split Congress and his skills as a compromiser will really come to the fore.

I've been reading a book about Obama (a review will come shortly), and it has always been his way to listen to the other side, going back to his days at the Harvard Law Review. When he was a law professor he had his students read Antonin Scalia, for Pete's sake. The aforementioned Brooks once joked that it must take Obama a long time to order at restaurants, because he must spend a lot of time weighing the relative benefits of meat vs. fish.

But the truth seems to be that Obama knows what he is doing. After recent setbacks his popularity is higher than it's been in months. Aside from lunatic fringe types like Bachmann, Palin, and Gingrich, the Republicans seem to sense that they can work with the man. If the economy continues to improve, he will be re-elected with ease. If it doesn't, he will lose. If it stays the same, his charisma and savvy will likely return him to the White House. He is aided by the continual lack of of a viable Republican candidate. It was at this point four years ago that both Obama and Hillary Clinton had announced their candidacies. I believe the only Republican to officially announce so far is pizza magnate Herman Cain (and it's just an exploratory committee).

As for the meat of the speech, I liked it fine. He didn't wave too many red flags. It's one thing to praise gay soldiers and Muslims, it's another to suggest banning automatic weapons. He also didn't utter the word "unemployment" in his speech, which made it prominent by its omission. He made a good joke about salmon, but didn't mention climate. He was sure high on science and math teachers. I guess the country doesn't need any more English teachers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's Good to Be the King


Oh, how I love Oscar-nomination day. I remember when I had to wait until the following day to get the newspaper to find out who was nominated (or, if in New York, I would see if the nominations were in the now defunct afternoon edition of the Post). It's a different world now, and the nominations are instantly available, with the caterwauling immediately following.

What does it all mean? The King's Speech, which had been laying in the weeds while The Social Network was steamrolling through the critics' organizations awards, is seen by some as the frontrunner, as it got 12 nominations to lead the pack. But I'm not completely sold. It did win the Producer's Guild Award, but if it does not win the DGA (it can't win the WGA, as the writer was not a member), then it's still an open question. If Tom Hooper wins DGA, it's all over.

But one doesn't have to go too far back to find films that had the most nominations get steamrolled. It happened two years ago, when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button got 13, but was defeated by Slumdog Millionaire. The King's Speech, being a period film, has more opportunity for nominations.

But if I were in The Social Network contingent, I'd be worried. It only got one acting nomination (though it did get a Score nomination for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, for their unusual music). The bleating has been that The King's Speech is more of a classic "Oscar"-type film, with a broad, nostalgic appeal, while The Social Network is more tapped into a youthful zeitgeist.

But the Academy is younger than it's ever been, and that was reflected in several nominations, not just the one for Nine Inch Nails. That Javier Bardem got in Best Actor instead of venerated Robert Duvall, or that John Hawkes and Jacki Weaver were nominated for films that were seen by almost no one, indicates that at least the Actor's branch has expanded their field of vision. A few years ago Michael Douglas would have certainly got a nomination (frankly, I think he deserved one for A Solitary Man).

If The King's Speech vs. The Social Network (with True Grit, with ten nominations, as a wild card) should have been the big story, reading the comments on Oscar blogs revealed that the deepest wound was the absence of Christopher Nolan for Inception in the Best Director category. Nolan has been nominated three times for the DGA, but has received no love from the Academy's Director's branch. He was nominated for writing, but his continual absence from this category is certainly puzzling. Inception was also passed by for an Editing nomination, and if anything, Inception had a lot of complicated editing. Clearly the film didn't have deep love in the Academy.

The category that is most competitive (among the major categories) is Best Supporting Actress. Fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit ended up here, though she is the lead, and that is to her benefit. I think she could win, as could either of Melissa Leo or Amy Adams for The Fighter. Sentiment could get Helena Bonham Carter to the podium. I don't see Jacki Weaver winning, but for a category to have four viable winners makes for an interesting race. I'll have more detailed predictions later in the season.

A few fun facts: The Best Song category has some Oscar veterans. Alan Menken picks up his fifteenth nomination (he's won four times), while Randy Newman gets his twentieth (he's only won once). In Best Feature Documentary, Banksy was nominated for his film Exit Through the Gift Shop. He has said he will attend--will it be in a hoodie, with his face pixillated? And it was a good morning for Scott Rudin. He is the producer of two of the best picture nominees, The Social Network and True Grit (I think they both would have been nominated even in a five-nominee year). He's only the second producer to pull that off (Francis Coppola and Fred Roos did it in 1974).

There was an embarrassment of riches for Joel and Ethan Coen, who each got three nominations (for Directing, Writing, and Producing). They have pulled this trick twice, joining Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Jackson, and Oliver Stone (Stanley Kubrick did it three times). However, the Coens' editor/alter ego Roderick Jaynes was sadly left out.

Though there's always something to hate about Oscar nominations, I'm kind of heartened by the greater reach and that there isn't an embarrassing inclusion in the Best Picture category, like last year. For the record, I rank the ten pictures thusly: 1. The Social Network 2. Black Swan 3. Toy Story 4. The King's Speech 5. True Grit 6. Winter's Bone 7. 127 Hours 8. The Fighter 9. The Kids Are All Right 10. Inception

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Straight Story

For some reason it took me over ten years to catch up with The Straight Story, famous for being the most unLynchean of David Lynch's oeuvre. It's a simple tale full of heartland American values, and though that sounds treacly, it is remarkable in its restraint.

Richard Farnsworth, who received an Oscar nomination, stars as Alvin Straight, a retiree living in Iowa. He has trouble walking and seeing, and has long lost his driver's license. He lives with his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), who is mentally challenged. When word comes that his older brother, who lives in Wisconsin, has had a stroke, Farnsworth wants to visit him. How to do it is the question.

Farnsworth ends up rigging his riding lawn mower to a trailer and sets off, at five miles an hour. His first attempt is aborted when the mower gives out, so he buys a John Deere (used, a 1966 model) and tries again. Avoiding the Interstate, he put-puts along, camping by the road at night.

At first I wondered how this film could possibly sustain interest over a near two hours. But it became clear that this was, in a way, a middle-American Odyssey, with the meat of the film the people Farnsworth meets along the way: a teenage runaway, a group of bicyclists, and then, most memorably, when his mower breaks down, some people in a town about sixty miles short of his destination. They are astonished to hear that he has been on his journey for five weeks, and he refuses their offer of driving him the rest of the way. "You're a kind man, talking to a stubborn man," he tells the good Samaritan.

The film is full of small moments that celebrate human goodness. The encounter with the girl is one of them, as is when a fellow World War II vet invites Farnsworth to a bar to have a drink. Farnsworth tells him he doesn't drink anymore, and recalls how he acquired a taste for liquor in France and became mean. The two old men recall the horrors of war, and though over fifty years later, the images of death are still vivid in their memories. At times the cracker-barrel wisdom edges into the precious, but I enjoyed the feeling the movie gave me.

When Farnsworth reaches his brother (Harry Dean Stanton) the result is refreshing low-key but nonetheless extremely moving. I defy anyone to watch it with a dry eye.

This is based on a true story, and one question nags at me: How was he not stopped by the police. Surely a man without a license can't legally drive a lawn mower on a highway, yet we never see him pulled over by a cop.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another Year

Mike Leigh's last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, was an exploration of what makes some people preternaturally happy, while other people seem doomed to wallow in their own misery. This exploration continues in Another Year, which has at its center a married couple who are almost too content to be true, but are surrounded by those who struggle with unhappiness.

A plot summary would make this film sound amazingly quotidian, as its four acts, each taking place in a different season of the same year, don't have a lot of action. Mostly it's the interaction of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who are a happy married couple. What is the secret to their happiness? Well, the film isn't a primer, but it offers clues: they love their jobs, they have a dutiful son (Oliver Maltman), and they have outside interests such as gardening and cooking. What they also seem to have is a knack for collecting friends who are desperately unhappy.

Foremost of these is Mary (Lesley Manville), Sheen's co-worker, who presents a chipper, charming exterior, but in actuality is an emotionally needy person who instantly sucks the energy out of any room. In one scene she arrives at a barbecue and immediately launches into the details of how she bought a car, her conversation flattening everything in its path. Over the course of the film Manville will get drunk, be rude, and have an emotional crisis, but the causes are difficult to pinpoint--indeed, the car will serve as a kind of metaphor for her life. Though her misery seems vague, I think it's authentic--many who are unhappy can't really sum up the cause for it, nor can they supply the solution.

This is exemplified in the opening scenes of the film, when a woman (Imelda Staunton) visits Sheen, who is a counselor. When Sheen asks Staunton how happy she is, on a scale of one to ten, Staunton quickly replies, "One," and when Sheen asks her what could improve that, Staunton blandly answers, "To have a new life." A simple answer, expressing a complicated concept.

As usual, Leigh works with his actors closely. Many of the cast are Leigh veterans, and they work with him over many months, defining their characters and improvising dialogue that ends up as the working script. This creates a remarkable bit of verisimilitude, with naturalistic dialogue and performances. Sheen, for example, as a counselor, tends to speak in platitudes. One wonders if there really could be someone who is such a rock, or if someone could be as eternally patient and cheerful as Broadbent. But even they have their limits in an interesting scene set in the fourth act, Winter, when they attend the funeral of their sister-in-law. She had an errant son, who shows up late and creates crackling tension that seems spot-on in its authenticity.

Another scene that is brilliantly done is when Manville visits. She had been flirting with Maltman, who picks up on it but tries to deflect her interest. When she discovers that he has a girlfriend, she's openly rude to the woman, which creates a kind of uncomfortableness that can be felt in the audience. Manville's performance, which is creating award buzz, is problematic. Technically she's great, as she more than succeeds in presenting a fully realized character, full of tics and mannerisms. The problem is that its a character most of us would cross the street to avoid. Leigh is canny in the way he has the audience's patience with the character ebb as it does with the other characters in the movie.

I'm not sure this film answers the question of why some people are happy and some aren't. Is it genetic or environmental? Is it based on our own choices, or is it based on external circumstances? For instance, if Manville had been able to buy a car that wasn't a lemon, would that have made her any happier? I think the film says otherwise, but it could make for fascinating after-movie conversation.

My grade for Another Year: A-.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wild Grass

Fifty years ago, Alain Resnais directed Last Year at Marienbad, one of the most intriguingly confusing films ever made. At 88 he's still going strong, with 2010's Wild Grass, which made it into the top ten of the Indiewire poll. Like Marienbad, it flirts with our perception of what is real and not, introducing a kind of dreamlike, hallucinatory quality.

The action centers around a man (Andre Dusollier), finding a wallet that was stolen from a woman (Sabine Azema). This triggers something in Dusollier, and though he turns it into the police, he hopes that something will come of it. When Azema calls him to thank him, he then starts stalking her, writing her letters and eventually slashing her tires. She calls the police, but when he stops suddenly she starts obsessing about him, as if his obsession had transferred to her.

Nothing is completely clear about this film, but it was constantly fascinating. I had no idea where it was going, and small details layered upon each other. Azema is a dentist, but with a nimbus of bright-red hair. Dusollier's wife (Anne Consigny) knows of his obsession with Azema, but seems to have no problem with it. And Azema's dental-practice partner (Emmanuelle Devos) is concerned over her friend's situation, but takes time to make out with Dusollier.

The film is also visually stunning. The color scheme and framing are exquisite (I loved a shot with Dusollier in the foreground on top of a ladder, while Matthieu Amalric, as a policeman, was on the ground in the background). A set of a revival-house cinema across the street from a cafe was lovingly rendered (the playing was The Bridges of Toko-Ri, which tied into Azema being a pilot of vintage military aircraft).

I think the film requires multiple viewings to completely suss what it's about, but even after one viewing it captivated me, and I won't quickly forget it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

2010 Oscar Predictions, Round 2

The Oscar nominations will be announced bright and early Tuesday morning, so it's time to post my last gasp at who will get in and who won't. I've been doing this a long time, in one form or another, and it seems to get easier every year, as there are so many nudnicks on the Web just reiterating the same favorites. I would love for there to be a complete bolt-out-of-the-blue surprise.

I'll stick to the ten categories that they will announce on the live presentation, plus one.

Best Picture:

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
The Town
Toy Story 3
True Grit

There are eleven films chasing ten spots, and I'm sorry to say I think Winter's Bone will be left out, due to its minuscule box office. However, if it does get in I think it will knock out 127 Hours, which is being seen as an underachiever.

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception

I'm removing David O. Russell, who was a DGA nominee, and replacing him with the Coens, who were not, just because.

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Robert Duvall, Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

I could be persuaded the Duvall is vulnerable, as he hasn't gotten any precursor nods, but I don't see who would step up to replace him. Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine? Javier Bardem for Biutiful? Maybe Mark Wahlberg for The Fighter. But unlikely. Therefore, he stays.

Best Actress

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Natalie Portman, Black Swan

I'm stubbornly hanging on to the notion that Moore will get Kids a second nod in this category, along with the undeniable Bening. If she doesn't, it will probably be Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine. True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld, in a case of category confusion, could cloud this issue.

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Fighter
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

This is the Oscar blogosphere consensus, with only the possibility of Matt Damon in True Grit breaking in. I'm hoping to hear John Hawkes' name for Winter's Bone.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

These are the SAG nominees. Again, Steinfeld category confusion could wreak havoc. Ordinarily a juvenile is always ghettoized to the realm of supporting, but Keisha Castle-Hughes upended precedent a few years ago, so who knows? Interesting that Kunis has been getting the love instead of Barbara Hershey. Maybe that role cuts too close to the bone of many voters. The spoiler is Jacki Weaver for the highly regarded but little-seen Animal Kingdom.

Best Original Screenplay

Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours
The Social Network
True Grit
Toy Story 3
Winter's Bone

Best Foreign Language Film

Canada (Incendies)
Denmark (In a Better World)
Mexico (Biutiful)
South Africa (Life, Above All)
Sweden (Simple Simon)

Best Animated Feature

How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Two of these are locks, the third is a guessing game. Tangled or even Despicable Me could get in. There seems to be a soft spot for bland, old-fashioned animation mixed with the more inventive.

Best Documentary Feature

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer
Inside Job
Restrepo
The Tillman Story
Waiting for "Superman"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Age of Ophiuchus

Last week there was a kerfuffle about a news item from last week from a college in Minnesota. Because of a wobble in the Earth's axis, the signs of the zodiac don't correspond with the same dates as they did 5,000 years ago, when the zodiac was established. Thus, you may not have been born in the sign you thought you were. For example, under the new chart, I am not a Taurus, but an Aries.

Astrologers are quick to point out that this doesn't change the way they forecast. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on that, but it raises a more important question--are there people who actually take astrology seriously? Faithful readers of this blog know I don't have much tolerance for belief in the supernatural, but at least the major religions of the world, while based on fantastical myths, teach their practitioners (in theory) about how to get along with one's fellow man. What good, exactly, does astrology do, other than providing a momentary distraction while reading the paper in the morning?

I will admit that I have spent money on astrology materials, especially when I was younger. During my lonely moments I sought out anything to figure out who would be right for me--the consensus seemed to be Virgos and Pisceans (but that may have all changed). For those who use astrology as an amusement, I see no harm in it, as long as one realizes it's a large dose of hokum, no more accurate than Tarot cards or crystal balls.

But there are people, normally intelligent people, who believe in this stuff. I used to have a boss who would chalk up weird things to "Mercury's in retrograde," as if a tiny rock millions of miles away could possibly effect human behavior. Others say that their horoscopes are so accurate, or that the description of their sign is spot-on. This, of course, is a trick, and was exposed as such in 1947 by a scientist named Forer. He conducted an experiment, giving subjects a description of themselves that he told them was specifically crafted for them. Only he gave every subject the same description:

"You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life."

Of course all the subjects said that this described them (a 4.26 rating out of 5). But everyone from the Dalai Lama to Jared Lee Loughner would probably say this fit them to a T. It's a trick used by fortune tellers to convince their dupes that they know what they are talking about--generalizing when they appear to be specific. It can work well--I've also thought the general description of Taurus fit me: stubborn, appreciates food and sex. This has gotten me to overlook that Taureans are supposed to be good with money, which I am certainly not.

On its face, astrology should be laughed at. The notion that all of humanity can be divided into twelve personality groups, based on birthday, is foolish. If astrology were true, wouldn't identical twins have the same personalities? They are born at the same time and same place. And furthermore, personality traits based on the constellations themselves are really stupid. Geminis have split personalities, because Gemini is the Twins, right? Well, that the constellation is named Gemini because of how early astronomers viewed those particular stars. It's a purely abstract concept, and has no basis in any reality.

The new chart has restored a lost, thirteenth constellation, Ophiucus (the snake bearer) to the zodiac, while shortening Scorpio to seven days. If this new chart were adopted, Scorpios would become rare indeed, like left-handed redheads.

For those who actually base their life choices on astrology, I hope this news has a confrontational effect, and gets them to wake up. Everyone knows the only real way to forecast the future--Chinese fortune cookies.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Buried

Buried is a film that was completely under my radar until it won a Best Screenplay award from the National Board of Review. I try to keep on top of all the new releases, and for a film to win a fairly prestigious award without me ever hearing of it is unusual, to say the least.

It turns out that Buried is something of a gimmick picture, a cinematic parlor trick, much in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or the much more recent Joel Schumacher film Phone Booth. You see, Buried takes place entirely within a wooden box buried under the earth.

The only actor seen on screen is Ryan Reynolds, who plays a civilian truck driver who has been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents. He has been trussed up and buried, but has a few items to facilitate some interest for us--a lighter, a flashlight, some glowsticks, and most importantly, a cell phone that can actually get a signal.

Reynolds tries calling 911, and gets an operator from Youngstown, Ohio who can't really help. Eventually his captors call him, telling him that unless he comes up with 5 million dollars in a few hours, they will leave him buried. He manages to get through to the State Department, which puts him through to hostage expert who tries to find him.

The film was directed by Roderigo Cortes and written by Chris Sparling. It is a producer's delight--the smallest set imaginable, one costume, and a few props. The script seems like an assignment in a writing class, but manages to maintain interest for its 95-minute running time. A few things prompt eye-rolling, especially when a snake ends up in the box with Reynolds, but there are a few powerful moments. One comes when Reynolds' employer informs him that he's been terminated, so they are not liable for anything. This may seem incredible, but given the shenanigans contractors in the Middle East have been up to, it rings true.

Reynolds is terrific. We can almost see him thinking, trying to figure a way out. Unlike Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, who almost magically got herself out of a similar tight spot, this film adheres to physical laws--you can't swim through dirt. The only other actors are voices on the other end of the line--I congratulated myself for recognizing the voice of ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as the unctuous company representative.

This is a film Edgar Allan Poe would have loved.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alamar

If one is in the right frame of mind, and I was, Alamar is a lovely way to spend 73 minutes. Though strictly speaking a narrative film, it has the feel of a documentary, and some wonderful images of lives lived on a coral reef off the Mexican coast.

What plot there is to Alamar is dispensed quickly. Jorge (Jorge Machado) is a Mexican who has married an Italian woman. They have a son, but the relationship sours and they break up. Before the boy, Natan (Natan Machado Palombini) is to take up permanent residence with his mother, he spends some time with his father and grandfather in a fishing village on the Mexican coast.

For a boy of about six or seven, it's a wonderful vacation. Mostly it's on the water, catching all sorts of sea creatures, from lobster to barracuda. Natan learns to snorkel, and befriends an egret whom he calls Blanquita. His grandfather (Nestor Marin) is a wise old salt, who says that to live on the sea is to live happily. He likes to spend his nights drinking coffee and looking at the stars. Sounds good to me.

Though there is no plot to speak of in this section, the aura of familial bond is powerful. We can feel the love this father has for this boy, and the wonderment that the boy is experiencing as he interacts with nature. The director is Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, and I don't know the background of this (judging by the names, it would seem that the pair are real-life father and son), but whether these are performances or simply behavior matters not.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Secret Sunshine

Secret Sunshine is a Korean film that won awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, but must not have been released in the U.S. until 2010, as it pops up on some best-of lists for that year. I don't know what the wait was for, as it has more Western appeal than many art-house Asian films. But then again, it's a complex, ultimately depressing look at the aftermath of a death of a child.

Unlike Rabbit Hole, the recent American film on the same topic, Secret Sunshine doesn't begin after the fact. We meet Lee Shin-Ae (Joen Do-Yeon), a young widow, who is moving back to her husband's home town (the name of the town is Chinese for "secret sunshine"). She has a son, about six years old, and starts a piano school. She meets some of her neighbors, who are polite but find her a bit odd. That is except for Mr. Kim (Song Kang-Ho), an auto mechanic who gives her a tow on the day she arrives in town. He is captivated by her, and over the course of the film dedicates himself to helping her, even though she shows no sign of reciprocation of feelings. In fact, she often tells him to leave her alone.

As the film wanders along one can sense impending tragedy, as there is a moment of false terror when Joen can't find her son. Soon enough, the boy is kidnapped (Joen had made it sound like she was richer than she was) and found dead.

The rest of the film then covers how she handles the grief. She is drained and stoic at first, which angers her husband's relatives. But soon she is overwhelmed, and she finally accepts the proselytizing advice of a pharmacist across the street and attends a Christian church. She is almost immediately comforted.

At this point I thought I had stumbled into a Christian-themed movie, but there was too much time left, and the film wasn't going to be that easy to figure out. Joen has a crisis of faith, and turns her back on religion, eventually slipping into madness.

The film was directed by Lee Chang-Dong, and it's well-shot. The performance by Jeon, who won an award at Cannes, is extraordinary in its complexity. I found the character of Kim even more interesting, a man who fears he is a loser (he is unmarried at 39, unheard of in Asian society) and though he clearly loves the woman (he even starts to attend church with her) he will not make a move, immobilized.

But as the film wore on (it's 142 minutes) I found it start to get too heavy. The film inflicts so much on the woman that it starts to feel sadistic. The final shot, of Kim helping her cut her hair, suggests some hope, but it was almost too late.

This is an above-average film, though.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mother

My only previous exposure to Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho was the The Host, which was a highly acclaimed monster movie, but I wasn't impressed with. I was greatly impressed with his latest film, Mother, which is a challenging film about maternity.

Kim Hye-Ja is the mother in question. She is given no name in the film other than Mother. She struggles to get by as a seller of medicinal herbs and as an acupuncturist. Her son, played by Won Bin, is mentally challenged, and though he tries to be independent he tends to follow the lead of a dubious friend.

When Bin is arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl, with some damning circumstantial evidence, Kim goes into overdrive trying to clear his name. The story settles into a classic whodunit format, but then at a crucial moment deviates from that path, and becomes something far more interesting, and presents the question: "What would you do for your child?"

Bong, who also wrote the script, has created a wonderfully interesting film on two levels. One is the ethical ramifications of that question, and the other is as visual artist. There is a lot to admire here, from the mysterious opening shot of Kim in a meadow, slowly beginning to dance, to a series of three shots depicting puddling liquid--first urine, then water, then blood. He does this without overplaying his hand and being a show-off, a mark of maturity as a director.

Kim, a well-respected actress in Korea, gives a bravura performance in a movie that Bong wrote just for her. There is a scene in prison, when Bin remembers a moment when he was five and his mother tried to initiate a murder-suicide that just tears your heart out. The closing scene, when Bin hands his mother an incriminating tin, is played far differently, as her face only minimally registers the implications of what she understands her son to know. It's marvelous work in a great film.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Information Officer

The Information Officer is a novel by Mark Mills set in Malta during World War II, which immediately gives it an exotic quality that grabs the reader. I didn't know, for instance, that Malta was the most heavily bombed spot during the entire war.

The book is a hybrid between a war story and a murder mystery. Young girls, called "sherry queens" for their frequenting of bars, are turning up murdered. When one has the bars ripped from a British submariner's uniform clutched in her hand, the local information officer, Major Max Chadwick, gets involved. He is told to back off by his superiors, but in the best tradition of amateur sleuths, he is unable to.

Mills intersperses the efforts by Chadwick with chapters from the killer's perspective. We learn that he feels no emotion, and is also a double-agent for the Germans. The possibilities of who the killer is are limited, but Mills manages to keep things interesting--just when I thought it was too easy to figure out, he threw me a curve.

The book also has some romantic intrigue--Max is sleeping with the wife of a submarine commander (who might be the killer) while romancing a local girl. This seems like padding (the book is a brief 276 pages). More interesting is the authentic-seeming depictions of what life was like on that tiny island during the war.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop

I'm old and stodgy enough that my first reaction to "street art" is to think of them all as vandals. Therefore my guard was up as I began watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, which has at its core the wacky world of street artists, who operate outside the law, leaving their mark on walls, billboards, and trains (one fellow simply squirts a hose of paint on a freight train as it passes by). But by the time I finished the film, I was completely enchanted, as some of these artists are quite clever.

The film is by one of them, who calls himself Banksy, real identity unknown. The film isn't really about him, though. It's mostly to do with Thierry Guetta, a French emigre living in Los Angeles, who turns out to be an endlessly fascinating oddball. For one thing, he has an obsession with videotaping every facet of his life. Secondly, he becomes enamored of street artists, and films then in action, with the supposed goal of making a documentary about them. But it turns out Guetta is not a filmmaker. Instead, he turns to trying street art himself, and much to Banksy's amusement and horror, becomes successful.

This film is very hard to describe, but a lot of fun. The first half or so document Guetta's shadowing of street artists, who are kind of like punks of the art world, often bearing comic-book names like Invader and Zeus. One whom I'm heard of, Shepard Fairey (who created the iconic Obama "Hope" poster) becomes Guetta's subject. But he really wants to meet Banksy, a British street artist who is hard to get a hold of. They finally do meet, and Banksy, who had resisted all attempts to film him, becomes enamored of Thierry. But he does have his reservations, wondering whether he is simply mentally ill.

It is Banksy that gives Exit Through the Gift Shop it's endearing quality. He has the ear of a stand-up comic, wryly taking the whole thing not too seriously. He has a show in L.A. that is attended by the high and mighty, and includes a painted elephant, and when it was mentioned how much he sold some of his art for I understood how he could employ a whole team to conduct his guerrilla art. He also pulls off a stunt I found daring and pointed--he leaves a dummy, dressed like a Guantanamo detainee, tied to a fence by a ride at Disneyland. Guetta films it, of course, and the result is chilling.

When Guetta shows his film to Banksy, made from thousands of hours of videotape, it turns out to be a complete mess, so Banksy decides to make his own film, and to keep Guetta busy he suggests he try his hand at street art. Guetta trades one obsession for another, and ends up renting an abandoned television studio to mount his own show, which is promoted by the alternative press and gets a huge turnout.

Here's where things get even stranger--I actually liked Guetta's art. It's very derivative of Warhol, with silk screens of celebrities in blond wigs, and often juxtaposing modern images with old ones, such as the Mona Lisa wearing an eyepatch, or Queen Victoria in Batman's cowl. But the work had a wit that I found engaging, and if I were an art collector I might have bought a piece of his.

But the other artists seem miffed that Guetta was able to just decide to become an artist and be successful, despite his personality quirks. Banksy mentions that he used to encourage everyone to be an artist, but he said he won't do that anymore. He also says, in regard to summarizing the whole experience, "Maybe it means that art is a joke." It certainly will reinforce views of some that modern art is a crock, but on the other hand, those of us who like modern art will find the whole thing thrilling.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Everyone Else

It's that time when I try and see the films that are ranked high on year-end movie polls that I haven't seen yet. Inevitably they are foreign, and almost always maddeningly slow or obtuse. One such is Everyone Else, a German film directed by Maren Ade. It ranked in the top five of both the Indiewire and Village Voice polls, but I didn't think much of it.

For over two hours we are in the company of a young couple who are vacationing on Sardinia, staying at his family's vacation home. Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) is an effervescent, fun-loving redhead. Chris (Lars Eidinger), is a sullen, self-absorbed architect. They bicker, make love, try to avoid a meddlesome neighbor, but are unsuccessful, so have dinner with him and his wife. Eventually Gitti comes to her senses and decides to leave him, but the end is ambiguous.

The biggest problem I had with this film was the character of Chris. He is, to put it bluntly, an asshole, and mistreats Gitti at almost every turn. While hiking he leaves her behind, he embarrasses her at the dinner with the neighbors, and he won't tell her he loves her. Aside from his Aryan good looks, it's hard to understand why she puts up with him. The ledger is so far to her side that one wonders if Ade was getting back at an old boyfriend.

I also must admit to not quite getting with the film's languorous style. Unlike American films, which are full of exposition, Everyone Else has hardly any. The film is halfway over before we are told that the couple are on Sardinia. In some ways the film seems to have started somewhere in the middle.

Every year it seems there is a film or two that is rhapsodized over by critics that leaves me cold. Everyone Else is one of them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Tudors

With the dozens of films and TV miniseries concerning the reign of Henry VIII, you would think there wouldn't be need for another one, but the Showtime series The Tudors, which debuted in 2007, proves there's room for more, especially when it can include some naughty cable-TV nudity.

I have just finished watching the first season, and while it is historically loose, it has enough in there to satisfy a British history buff. We begin with Henry frustrated that his queen, Katharine of Aragon, has not given him a male heir. Truth be told, since she's older and pious, she really doesn't do it for him anymore. He has plenty of concubines, and if Katharine had given him a son he likely would have remained married to her and England today would still be a Catholic nation.

But she didn't, and Henry looks to the daughter of a nobleman. She's Anne Boleyn, and this season covers Henry's pursuit of her (he didn't have to try hard--her father pushed her towards him) and then subsequent wrangling with the Pope over getting an annulment. It all hinges on whether Katharine, who was married to Henry's brother first, actually slept with that brother. She denies it.

This has been covered in many works of art, including the very recent film The Other Boleyn Girl, reviewed on this site, and the novel Wolf Hall, which I just read. It's interesting to note the differences. In The Tudors, Anne's sister Mary is hardly mentioned, when she actually bore Henry a son, and her mother, who is a prominent character in The Other Boleyn Girl, is omitted entirely. Thomas Cromwell, who has given so much humanity in Wolf Hall, is presented here as an oily myrmidon.

The major character of this season is Cardinal Wolsey, magnificently portrayed by Sam Neill (who once played King Charles II). He is corrupt and wily, and we can always see him thinking ahead. He is against Henry's attempt to divorce, but ties his fortune to making it happen, and when it doesn't go well he is doomed. The scheming of the various figures in the court, including the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, is old-fashioned fun.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as Henry, and he's a vigorous king. Natalie Dormer is Anne Boleyn, and she looks just right, with just the hint of a smirk on her face almost all the time. I was most impressed with a favorite actor of mine, Jeremy Northam, as Sir Thomas More, the pious man who would replace Wolsey as the King's chancellor, and had no tolerance for Protestant reforms. There's a great line in the season finale, when Henry, who knows that he's ready to break with the Pope, asks More, "How many have you burned?" More tells him six, and that they "were all well done." Certainly this is a portent for the second season.

To set the historical record straight: Wolsey did not commit suicide, and the character of Henry's sister Margaret (played by Gabrielle Anwar), is a composite of two sisters. Also, the King's bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, lived until he was a teenager, not dying as a toddler. Time has been telescoped, and I wonder whether Henry really used the gerund "Fucking."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Apollo's Angels

This year I again embark on reading each of the books the New York Times has selected as the ten best of the year, and I start with Apollo's Angels, by Jennifer Homans. One of the reasons I like to do this is because I end up reading about things I otherwise never would have. This book, for example, is on a subject I knew hardly anything about: the history of ballet.

It is a coincidence that I was reading this book when I saw the wonderful film Black Swan, giving me a double-dunking in the waters of ballet. I'm still pretty obtuse about it, but I feel like I know a lot more after reading Homans' thorough history, which is most fascinating when discussing how the spirit of ballet moved from nation to nation: from France to Denmark to Russia to England to the United States. There is a lot of political history mixed in as well, and it's not gratuitous; Homans makes the point that ballet succeeded most in countries with stable government systems.

The art began in France, and flourished during the reign of Louis XIV. It had elements of Italian pantomime, but in that country opera became the dominant art form, while France created what we know today as classic ballet. Homans traces the lives of many key choreographers and dancers, such as Maria Taglioni, who was really the first to typify what we now think of as a ballerina, wearing tulle and hair pulled tight in a bun. The first well-known ballets, La Sylphide and Gisele, were created during this time.

French dancers ended up working in St. Petersburg, where they imported the art to a welcoming culture. Russian ballet at the time was very much influenced by the West; Tchaikovsky's enduring ballets, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake (which still dominate ballet companies today) were distinctly romantic and Western in style.

But then Russians took the art form as their own, and went back to Europe with it. Homans calls Ballet Russes, which was put together by impresario Sergei Diaghiliev and featuring Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the great companies of all time, yet they never performed in Russia. They were distinctly Russian, though, especially when using the music of Igor Stravinsky in the ballets The Firebird and the controversial The Rite of Spring, which caused riots and was only performed eight times.

Following the Russian revolution the Soviets made ballet a national obsession--if Stalin didn't approve, your life may be in danger. Homas writes, "Why ballet? Why did this elegant nineteent-century court art become the cultural centerpiece of a twentieth-century totalitarian state? The answer is complicated, but it had to do above all with ideology. The consequences of the shift from aristocracy and the tsar to revolutionary "workers" and "the people" were deep and lasting. Under Communist rule, the whole purpose of ballet changed. It was no longer enough to entertain or to mirror court hierarchies and styles; ballet had to educate and express "the people"--and it rose to prominence in part because it was thought ideally suited to the tast. Unlike theater, opera, or film, ballet had the virtue of being a Russian performing art that did not require Russian in order to be understood or appreciated. No matter its Imperial roots, it was a universal language accessible to anyone, from barely literate workers to sophisticated foreign ambassadors--and especially (during the Cold War) the Americans.

During the 1950s there was a flowering of British ballet, personified by the superstar Dame Margot Fonteyn, who became famously teamed with the Russian defector Rudolf Nureyev. But Homans titles her last section "The American Century," as two men, both of Russian origin, dominated the scene: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

Homas writes, "Classical ballet was everything America was against. It was a lavish, aristocratic court art, a high--and hierarchical--elite art with no pretense to egalitarianism. It had grown up in societies that believed in nobility, not only of birth but of carriage and character; societies in which artifice and fine manners--so different from America's plainspoken directness--were essential and admired attributes. Worse still, ballet was Catholic in origin and Orthodox in spirit: its magnificence and luxe seemed sharply opposed to America's simpler and sterner Puritan ethic." Yet ballet exploded in popularity during the years after World War II. Homans notes that almost all of the teachers were exiled Russians, but I think even more basic is that it was a period of a boom in the birth-rate and parents needed pastimes for the children. Boys played sports, girls went to dance class. The image of a young girl in tights and ballet slippers seemed American as a boy in a baseball uniform.

Balanchine was the great figure of American ballet, while Robbins flirted with Broadway (he created West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, not too shabby) before returning and staying with ballet. Homans writes at length about their genius, but of course writing can't replace seeing it. Amazingly, Balanchine choreographed 400 ballets, but most of them are "lost"--even a generation ago, there wasn't a good enough system of notation to commit them to posterity.

Homans' most controversial chapter is her last, in which she declares: "I grew up with ballet and have devoted my life to studying, dancing, seeing, and understanding it. I have always loved watching it. When I first began work on this book, I imagined it would end on a positive note. But in recent years I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting. With depressingly few exceptions, performances are dull and lack vitality; theaters feel haunted and audiences seem blase. After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel that ballet is dying." Those are strong words, and Homans has taken some heat for them. I have no idea if she's right or not, but things can change quickly. Will the popularity of Black Swan turn things around? Maybe, maybe not, but I will say that I'm actually interested in attending a performance soon. Hope springs eternal.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vitriol

It's been fascinating following the media coverage of the shooting in Tucson Saturday that killed six and critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Of course, I feel sick about the whole thing, but as I watched coverage in between plays of the football playoffs I couldn't help but be drawn in to the cable news outfits' attempts to wonder what it all means.

The main theme seems to be the disintegrating civility of discourse among those who politically disagree. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik set the tone with an off-the-cuff diatribe during his press conference, in which he blasted radio and TV pundits for ratcheting up the hatred, and called Arizona "the capital, the Mecca of bigotry and prejudice." I applaud his comments, but two days later I wonder whether his words, though basically true, were beside the point.

As of this moment, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, isn't talking. His past has been pored over, and he's been labeled as left-wing and right-wing, a pothead, and a fan of Jimi Hendrix. His YouTube videos indicate a disturbed mind, as he has an obsession with literacy, mind control, and the gold standard. His list of favorite books includes Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto, which seems to indicate that he is either a general fan of anti-authority figures, or just likes to view all sides. He has not, though, been concretely associated with any political group.

I'm sure that Tea Party leaders had their hearts in their throats while they were checking membership rosters, hoping not to find his name, and they didn't. Loughner may be insane, answering to voices in his own head. But if this incident has anything good come out of it, I would welcome the national conversation on the use of violent metaphors in political speech.

We've heard all the examples. Sharron Angle calling for "Second Amendment remedies," which can mean only one thing, really. Sarah Palin's Website using crosshaired gun sights on a map of vulnerable Congressional districts, or her use of the word "reload." Michele Bachmann, calling her political movement "armed and dangerous," or newly-elected Allen West, saying he wanted to make it so his opponent would be afraid to come out of his own house. Conservative commenters are quick to point out that Democrats use the same language, but can there be any doubt that this sort of imagery is predominately used by the right? Democrats are not the party of those obsessed with guns.

I've noticed that when asked to comment, Republicans and conservatives are trying to reinforce Loughner as a garden-variety lunatic, and they might be right. But this climate of hatred, when a vote on healthcare reform earns death threats, is intolerable. Conservative leaders, whether they be Palin or Glenn Beck, who promotes books by John Birchers, have to think before they speak, and vet their rhetoric by imagining the craziest of their listeners taking their words literally. I realize that people like Beck do this to make themselves more entertaining and continue to rake in their millions, but, as Spider-Man was told, "with great power comes great responsibility."

I should add that the vitriolic rhetoric of today's political scene overshadowed the issue that really should have number one: Loughner bought a gun that, during the Clinton administration, was illegal. The law banning it expired, and Congress, too afraid of the NRA, did not extend it. He bought it at a gun show. Loughner was also kicked out of his community college, told not to return without a mental evaluation. Why a man who was deemed too dangerous for community college should be allowed to buy a killing machine is the question we should all be asking.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Rabbit Hole

The death of a child is one of those things that are difficult to wrap our minds around. I find it impossible to approach imagining what a parent in that situation is going through. Any work of art that attempts to tackle the subject is walking a fine line between mawkishness and keen insight, and the viewer can expect a grim experience. I'm heartened that Rabbit Hole, which is directly centered on the topic, practices admirable restraint, avoids the lugubrious and presents what appears to be an honest look at the situation.

This is surprising considering the director is John Cameron Mitchell. His first two films, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, were pansexual fantasias that showed little respect for form and celebrated the messy. It is unfathomable that any character in either of those movies would be, as they are in Rabbit Hole, seen lounging in their suburban home reading a magazine called Wallpaper.

The death of the child in Rabbit Hole has happened eight months before the action of the film begins. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are struggling with it in their own ways. They attend a support group, but Becca doesn't like it, and after making an inappropriate remark to grieving parents whom she calls "god freaks" she stops attending. She seems more interested in removing evidence of her son, who died at age four when chasing a dog into the road. She takes down paintings from the refrigerator, calls for the removal of his car seat, and even suggests selling the house.

Kidman also is prickly around relatives. Her sister, unmarried and immature, announces she's pregnant, and her mother (Dianne Wiest) makes comparisons between Kidman's son and the death of her own son, who died when he was 30 from a drug overdose.

She ends up finding comfort in meeting secretly with the high-school student (Miles Teller), who was behind the wheel of the car who struck her son. He is writing a comic book about parallel universes that gives the film its title (since Lewis Carroll, a rabbit hole has been a metaphor for a portal to a different world). Kidman likes the concept of parallel worlds, and is soothed that, "Somewhere I'm having a good time."

The script was written by David Lindsey-Abaire, based on his Pulitzer-Prize winning play. He has done an admirable job of opening the play up. Though there are many scenes of characters exchanging large amounts of dialogue, at no time does it seem stagey.

Kidman, whose work I've often found to be spotty, turns in one of her strongest performances. Not to be catty, but I found it interesting that one can actually see lines in her forehead in this film, despite her generally plasticized appearance. The character is not easy to embrace--Kidman certainly is known for playing frosty people, but I found her sympathetic nonetheless. A scene where she returns to her old job but finds her colleagues have all left seems out of nowhere, but her subtle work in it ties it into the whole.

Eckhart is also strong, and though he shares screen time the film seems less about him than her. A subplot about his attraction to a fellow group member (Sandra Oh) seems to be a rote addition. I found his most affecting scene to be with the family dog, who had been banished by Kidman for the association with the child's death.

I should also add that Teller, as the young man, gives a very assured performance. He has to carry the guilt around with him (though the accident was not his fault) and I believed every nuance of his performance.

This film clearly isn't for everyone. Films about deep-seated grief are not my first choice, and I saw this film mostly because Kidman is a good bet for an Oscar nomination. But I'm glad I saw it.

My rating for Rabbit Hole: B+

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Rembrandt

Charles Laughton's moving performance highlights Alexander Korda's biopic Rembrandt, a fine film that, after reading the Wikipedia entry on Rembrandt, is also fairly historically accurate. Films about painters, like writers, can be problematic since watching a man put paint to canvas is not in itself thrilling, but this is one of the best of its kind I've seen.

From 1936, Laughton stars as the famous Dutch painter. We first meet him at the height of his fame and fortune, but his beloved wife dies. He then takes a commission to paint a portrait of guild members, and the result scandalizes everyone (the painting, which is today known as "Nightwatch," was in reality very much acclaimed from the beginning). Rembrandt angrily sticks to his artistic principles, which means he soon wallows in poverty.

Meanwhile, his housekeeper, evilly played by Gertrude Lawrence, sinks her hooks into him. Korda uses some horror-film shadows to make her look even worse, and there is the not-so-subtle implication of sexual contact. After a disastrous trip to his father's farm in the country, Rembrandt returns and falls in love with a much younger maid, Elsa Lanchester. Lawrence tries to destroy them, but they live poorly but happily, but when doctors start showing up we know what's going to happen.

Laughton is absolutely brilliant. He looks just like Rembrandt's self-portraits, and captures both the uxoriousness and artistic temperament of the man. He's given many soliloquies, mostly quotations from the Bible, ending with a quotation from King Solomon. I know I'll never look at another painting by Rembrandt again without thinking of this film.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Private Life of Don Juan

Continuing with the three-film Alexander Korda collection, I turn to 1934's The Private Life of Don Juan, which has the distinction of being screen legend Douglas Fairbanks' last film. It is a light comedy, playing on Fairbanks reputation as well as the legend of Don Juan, and the climax has a remarkably astute appraisal of the nature of fame.

We meet the great Spanish lover as he in his middle age. He is in Seville, trying to keep out of the public eye, and not working at seducing any wives. An impostor, though, cuts an erotic swath across the city. His wife (Benita Hume), who longs for his return, is determined to send him to jail for bad debts unless he comes to her. But when the impostor is killed by a jealous husband, Don Juan sees his chance to get away and take some time off.

After watching his own funeral (a splendidly rendered scene by Korda), where women who don't even know him mourn him, he spend time in a provincial backwater as "Captain Mariano," where he clowns around with the locals and manages to seduce a waitress. He is waited on by two devoted servants (if he has bad debts, its unclear how he is paying them). "All girls are different, but all wives are the same," he declares, and we can see where that is going.

When he returns to Seville, no one believes its him. A young dancer whom he seduced (Merle Oberon) says that the real Don Juan was taller and younger. Copies of a dashed-off biography are sold in the square, and a play about him is produced at the theater. It is during a production that he takes to the stage, declaring it all lies, and announces his return. But again, no one believes him, and a sly script incorporates all sorts of truths about the nature of fame and how fleeting it is.

I have seen precious little Fairbanks. It is to be noted that one can see why he was a great silent film star, even this film, made when he was approaching fifty, shows his grace, especially the way he easily hops over railings. But his voice left something to be desired. He sounds less like a great Spanish lover than a businessman from a typical American city.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The General

Among aficionados of silent film comedy, there are Charlie Chaplin people and Buster Keaton people. Being a contrarian at heart, I find myself somewhere in the middle, admiring both men greatly. I haven't seen all of either's works, but of what I have seen I might come a little closer to Keaton, who, as "The Great Stone Face," wrings out the sentimentality that Chaplin feasts on.

On New Year's Eve, I customarily like to watch comedies. After watching Fargo (see below) I put in The General, widely acclaimed as Keaton's best film and by some as one of the greatest films ever made, of any kind. Upon its release in 1926 it was a box-office flop, though Keaton thought it his best, an opinion that the rest of the world came to over time.

Keaton, who directed along with Clyde Bruckman, plays Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in Marietta, Georgia. He has two loves: his girlfriend, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), and his train, which is called The General. In his longish hair and stylish uniform, he cuts quite a figure as the pilots the locomotive, and is esteemed by all in town.

Then the Civil War breaks out. Johnnie tries to enlist, and comically maneuvers his way to first in line. But the recruiting officer refuses him, because he is valuable to the Confederacy as an engineer. In a plot contrivance, no one tells Johnnie this, nor do they tell anybody else, so he is seen as a shirker. Mack tells him she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform.

A year later, he is still running the train. Mack's father is wounded, and she is off to see him, taking The General. But, in a move that has historical background, Union forces steal the train. Johnnie is off in pursuit, though the flatcar full of troops gets separated behind him.

There are a series of brilliantly conceived comic escapades as Keaton doggedly pursues the train thieves, and one marvels today at how it was all done without the help of special effects. Keaton is actually running around on top of that train--there were no stunt men--and at one point climbs onto the cowcatcher holding a railroad tie. He also, earlier in the film and then at the end (with Mack, gamely) sits on top of the coupling ties between the wheels, and as the train moves he moves up and down.

The film works as both a comedy and a pretty good adventure film, with some heart-stopping moments, such as when an actual train crosses a burning bridge and then plummets to the Earth (the remains of the train was a tourist attraction for years). Though Keaton's expression never changes, one can feel the emotion of the moment, as he is both a patriot and a devoted boyfriend, as Mack has been captured by the Union. (Mack didn't make many movies, but she gets involved in some slapstick during their flight from the Union, including getting doused by the water tower).

I've only seen two Keaton features (the other is Steamboat Bill) and am shamed to admit I haven't seen Sherlock Junior. But I have seen some of his shorts--the delightful Cops is included on the DVD I have. That one includes one of the most brilliant comic shots of all time--Keaton, alone, running down a street, pursued by about two-hundred policemen.