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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

David Lynch and the Reagan Assassination Attempt

It was thirty years ago today that an assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan. I have a very vivid recollection of that day, and David Lynch plays a part.

I was a sophomore in college, and wrote for the school paper in the Arts section. That afternoon David Lynch was scheduled to give a talk, and I was covering it. I had just recently seen his film The Elephant Man, and I was thinking about a question to ask (even though I hadn't seen, nor have I yet, Eraserhead). For whatever reason the talk was cancelled, so I headed back to my dorm room. There were a few snow flurries falling. I went into my bedroom, but I heard some guys in the suite room talking. One of them was a guy named Joe Bova, who didn't live with us but was always there hanging out. I hadn't turned the TV on, so when I heard snippets of conversation about someone being shot I immediately entered the conversation and learned that President Reagan was the victim.

"Is he dead?" was, I believe, my response. Now it must be told that I have never been an admirer of Ronald Reagan's, and harbor the liberal belief that this country really started going to hell during his administration. I'd like to think I wasn't wishing him dead, but instead realizing that he was a likely victim of the famous (to nerds at least) "Zero Factor." From 1840 to 1960, every president elected in a year ending in zero died in office: William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, Kennedy. Certainly Reagan, who set the record for oldest man elected to the presidency, and seventy years old at the time of the shooting, would never make it out his presidency alive. Of course he survived and lived for more than twenty more years.

Reagan would break the Zero Factor, seemingly for good (George W. Bush's closest brush with death came at the hands of a pretzel lodged in his windpipe). The assassination attempt, thankfully the last on an American president so far, was a brief media whirlwind. Alexander Haig jumped constitutional ladders by declaring himself in charge, and then the made-for-TV drama of the shooter John Hinckley's obsession with Jodie Foster unfolded, which Stephen Sondheim included in his musical, Assassins.

The Academy Awards, scheduled for that night, was postponed for one night (news reports had to rub it in that Reagan had never won an Oscar--he was never even nominated). The NCAA basketball championship was held, though: Indiana, led by Isiah Thomas, defeated North Carolina. In those years the Oscars and the NCAA finals were always held on the same night, creating agita for those who fancied both. I'll never forget Elliout Gould's appearance on the 1976 Oscar show. He came out and said, "Indiana, 86-68." This final was galling to me, as the Hoosiers had beaten Michigan, my favorite team.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the attempt on Reagan's life was the wounding of press secretary James Brady, which would lead a movement to attempt to make it harder to buy a handgun. Strides have been made, though not enough.

So there it is. Thirty years later, and when I think of this event in American history I think of David Lynch, who I still haven't met.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Uninvited

The Uninvited was a classic film from 1944, one of the best ghost movies ever made. The Uninvited from 2009, directed by The Guard Brothers, isn't nearly as good, and the title has nothing to do with the film, but it's not a bad little thriller, with the requisite twist.

Adapted from a Korean film, The Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited has Emily Browning starring as a young woman recently released from a mental hospital following her mother's death in a fire (combine this with Sucker Punch, and she's getting typecast). Her father, David Strathairn, has started a relationship with the nurse who cared for her mother (Elizabeth Banks).

Browning, who sees ghosts of her mother and of some mysterious children, confides in her sister, Arielle Kebbel, that she suspects that Banks killed their mother, and is now plotting to do them in, too.

The direction is solid without being too caught up in tricks. The twist caught me by surprise, but others more familiar with the genre may guess it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Losers

Whew, that was a stinker. The Losers, directed by Sylvain White, is based on a comic book, and those responsible make no effort to elevate it beyond the page. It's a cartoon, through and through.

The title group are five soldiers who participate in black ops. They are in Bolivia to pinpoint a drug dealer's lair for an airstrike, but when they see children inside they try to countermand the orders. A mysterious voice on the other end named Max defies them, and the kids are killed, and the Losers are assumed dead.

Unable to get back to the States, the Losers hang out in Bolivia, when they are contacted by a beautiful and spirited woman (Zoe Saldana), who offers them a chance to get back at Max.

I hated a lot about this movie. The simple notion of them being highly-trained mercenaries, but with a soft spot for children, had me rolling my eyes. But I was totally gone after the head Loser, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, met Saldana. She had an offer for him, but instead they engaged in a full knockdown, drag-out fight, which ended up burning down his hotel. This kind of casual regard to violence, where nobody really gets hurt (one character is shot in both legs yet is still able to walk) seems offensive to me.

Then there's the horrible direction by White. He includes, perhaps because there was a gun to his head, the familiar shot of the Losers walking abreast toward the camera, in slow motion. I would have thought by now that would only be in a parody. Maybe the whole movie was a parody, and I just didn't know it.

The character of Max, played by Jason Patric, is another misstep. He's supposed to be a CIA agent, but he's interested in buying weapon systems. He has a man thrown off a roof in Dubai, and then kills a woman holding a parasol over his head because she momentarily slips. We get it, he's a real bad guy, but there's absolutely nothing about him that rings true.

If someone wants to make a movie from a comic book, I suggest that they try to take what is good about the comic and translate it to the screen, but leaving behind the idiocies of comic books that don't work in movies. The Losers makes no effort to do so.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Ask

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, is a familiar kind of novel--it details the unraveling of a man, as his professional and personal lives crash around him. All the while, though, he dazzles us with his reflections on the culture of his time, and though his faults are numerous and apparent, we can't help but like him.

Lipsyte's protagonist is Milo Burke, who works for a New York college in the development office, which basically means he solicits donors. These potential donors are referred to as "asks," and their donations as "gives." But, as the book begins, he tells off the spoiled daughter of one of the donors and is fired. An old college friend, Purdy Stuart, now wealthy, offers him a chance of redemption, but to do it he has to do something a little shady--act as the go-between Purdy and his grown son from a long-ago relationship, a son he would like to keep hidden from his wife. This son turns out to be an Iraqi war vet with two artificial legs and a serious chip on his shoulder.

I loved The Ask on one level, and that is the virtuosic use of language. Where the book was wanting was its story. I wasn't really propelled forward by the plot, and at times Milo was so pathetic it was hard to really care about him. There was a section when he was walking his young son toward an impromptu lunch meeting with his wife, where he was describing how happy he was, that you knew the boom was about to fall. Sure enough, boom! he sees his wife with another man.

But there are paragraphs that absolutely sing, especially those that perfectly capture a certain way of life. I liked this one, about New York salad bars: "The schizophrenic glee with which you could load your plastic shell with spinach salad, pork fried rice, turkey with cranberry, chicken with pesto, curried yams, clams casino, bread sticks, and yogurt, pay for it by the pound, this farm feed for human animals in black pantsuits and pleated chinos, aminals whose enclosure included the entire island of Manhattan, this sensation I treasured deeply, greasily."

And I don't know if I've read anything so short that summed up the current state of television viewing: "We jumped from pundit to pundit, then on to basketball, Albanian cooking, endangered voles, America's Top Topiary Designers, America's Toughest Back-up Generators, The Amazing Class Struggle, the catfish channel, a show called, simply, Airstrikes!"

There's a long passage in which Milo pitches an idea for a reality show where accomplished chefs prepare last meals for death-row inmates. The woman, an old acquaintance from college, listens to his idea and then off the top of her head crafts what the show would be like. The writing is breathtaking, the satire scathing. I wouldn't be surprised to see this show on the air within the year.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sucker Punch

My choice of movie this weekend came down to two: Certified Copy, an art film by a celebrated Iranian director, set in Italy and starring a French actress, which has received glowing reviews, or Sucker Punch, a film by a largely disparaged director, which has gotten terrible reviews. It was a debate between my intellectual self and my prurient self. Guess which self won?

I did not expect much from Sucker Punch. I've seen Zack Snyder's last two films, 300 and Watchmen, and was impressed by neither. But my imp of the perverse drove me to see it, and I think I have finally figured out why. It's not just that it stars five actresses that can be described as "hotties," but that it has all the structure and thematic flourishes of porn. If you take this script and replace the fighting scenes with hardcore sex, nothing would be out of place.

This is Snyder's first original screenplay, but put the "original" in quotes, because Sucker Punch is a stew of various other films, such as Moulin Rouge!, Shutter Island, and Kill Bill, just to name a few, and since those films borrow from yet more films, Sucker Punch is a palimpsest of about a hundred different movies. It also is heavily influenced by Japanese anime and video games, and though Snyder has made millions as a movie director, I humbly suggest he hang that up and simply design video games, which would be better for all of us.

I didn't despise Sucker Punch; it's far too interesting visually to be dismissed outright, but lordy is it stupid. The plot concerns a young woman (Emily Browning) who has just lost her mother. Her stepfather is a horrible man, and in a brief prologue we see how she has been committed to an institution (Lennox House for the Mentally Insane--is their any other kind of insane besides mental?) Once there we realize she's in for a bad time--the stepfather has made a deal with the head orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized.

The film then pulls an Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz gambit and presents an alternate or dream state, where Browning, called Babydoll, is not in a mental ward but in a fancy bordello. The orderly is the pimp, and the head doctor (Carla Gugino) is a madame. Browning and four fellow courtesans, who also have pornish names (Sweet Pea, Blondie, etc.) decide they are going to escape with the help of some kind of guru, played by Scott Glenn presumably because David Carradine died and couldn't do it.

As I write this I realize how dopey it sounds, and believe me, it is that dopey. Browning and her friends are able to visit Glenn when she dances--ah, fuck it, I'll stop trying to explain. Suffice it to say that Glenn tells her she needs four things, and each of those things are achievable in a video-game style level, defeating a certain type of obstacle in a familiar milieu: Shogun Japan, World War I Steampunk, Tolkien-style fantasy land, etc. You may find yourself reaching for a joystick while watching this film.

Through it all, the girls are dressed in trampy clothes. They are hookers, after all. This is not disagreeable to me, but it is offensive. I'm sure all involved with this film would say that they are presenting a feminist manifesto--women have to fight to free themselves from the shackles of male tyranny, yada yada yada, but in doing so they have made a movie that is catnip for the raincoat crowd. Like I said, this film could be turned into porno without changing a word of the script.

A lot of reviews have commented on Snyder's visual style, with some going so far as to call him an auteur. Well, I suppose Ed Wood was an auteur, too. Having a style doesn't make somebody a genius. Sucker Punch is at times gorgeous--I give the credit to cinematographer Larry Chong. The problem is one of degree. Snyder would seem not to have the words nuance, restraint, or subtlety in his vocabulary. For example, there is a character of a cook who is supposed to be repellent. Instead of giving him a few disgusting traits, we get the works--he's fat, has bad skin, wears a dingy uniform, has piggish features, and eats a greasy sandwich. He might has well have worn a sign that said "Pig" on it. Snyder, in the three films of his that I've seen, talks down to his audience, assuming they won't understand anything unless he spells it out, underlines it, and italicizes it. This goes for his use of music, too. I wrote of this is my review of Watchmen, and he's back at it again here, too, using classic rock songs as if he thought he was doing it for the first time. I was appalled at how he used the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" (not their version, but sung by Allison Mosshart).

I suppose I should comment on the actors, although there really isn't acting here, just striking of attitudes. Abbie Cornish, as Sweet Pea, fares best, as a woman resistant to Browning's escape plan. I couldn't help but feel she was trying to tell us all that she wanted out of the movie. As for Glenn, after a long distinguished career, it's a bit wince-inducing to watch him here, especially when he has to say lines like, "Don't write a check with your mouth that your ass can't cash."

One shudders at the thought of what Snyder will do to Superman.

My grade for Sucker Punch: D

Friday, March 25, 2011

National Velvet

As I mentioned in my entry on Elizabeth Taylor, I had never seen her star-making role in National Velvet. Tonight I took a look and, for the most part, I was charmed.

Made in 1944, when Taylor was twelve and already preternaturally beautiful, National Velvet is a classic of a familiar type of story--the girl and her horse. She plays Velvet Brown, the irrepressible daughter of a butcher in a seaside English town. A local man buys a horse that is too wild, and ends up raffling it off. Of course Taylor wins it, much to the consternation of her father, Donald Crisp.

But her mother, Ann Revere, was a swimming champion in her younger days (she swam the Channel), and encourages Taylor's dream of entering her horse, which she calls Pie, in the Grand National, a steeplechase that seems pretty dangerous to me.

She's helped by a traveling young man played by Mickey Rooney. His father was Revere's swimming coach, and at first he is interested in robbing the family, but is touched by their kindness and, more importantly, Taylor's belief in him. You see, he was once a jockey, but had a bad spill. Well, you can figure out the rest.

Oddly, the big race scene at the end is the most uninteresting part of the film. Rooney is set up as having his great moment of redemption, but instead Taylor impersonates a man and rides the horse herself, which means she will be disqualified even if she does win. Thus the film becomes about something other than winning prize money, which struck me as a little too dreamy.

Revere won an Oscar for one of the saintliest mother roles you're likely to see, and Crisp is great, too. The best scenes are the ones in which they try to rule over a brood of four children, which include a freckle-faced boy who carries around a bottle full of insects and another daughter that moons over boys (played by Angela Lansbury).

While Taylor are gone, Lansbury and Rooney are still with us. In fact, talk of Taylor being the "last movie star" is only true in certain respects. Really, Rooney is the only link to a part of Hollywood's past. I believe he is the last actor left who starred in silent films.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Let the Sideshow Begin

The campaign for the Republican nomination heated up a bit this week. Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, announced his candidacy, or rather, as these things go, announced the formation of an exploratory committee, which I guess is the same thing. Pawlenty seems like a reasonable person, for a Republican, although he's certainly pandering to the Tea Party fanatics. I think the country could survive four years of him at the helm.

Far more interesting and comic are the presumed candidacies of Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann. Trump, making noises about running, probably won't when it comes down to it, because he would have to disclose his financial situation. This stopped Howard Stern in his run for New York governor twenty years and will certainly stop Trump, because it would mean revealing he has less money than he says he does.

But before that happens he's playing the part, promoting his fading reality show and the possibility of his being president, as if the two were the same thing. He got into it with Whoopi Goldberg over Barack Obama's birthplace, a kind of surreal moment that makes one think back to the early days of the Republic. What would James Madison have made of it?

I'm hard-pressed to understand why anyone would vote for as repellent a figure as Donald Trump. Yes, he's made a lot of money, so what? The President of the United States is not a businessman--he can't fire Congress. There are a lot of people, the Rotarian type, who equate the two, thinking if someone can multiply the already large amount of money they were bequeathed, it qualifies them to run the free world. But there has to be more than that. I'm not a big one on character, but it seems to me that Trump has almost none. The tag that Spy magazine layed on him years ago, "Short-fingered vulgarian," still seems to be apropos.

But I do hope he lasts into some debates, for he would increase their entertainment value exponentially. That will also be the best part of Bachmann's candidacy. She has become famous mostly for going on news shows and making bizarre, outlandish claims that the Fox-News junkies lap up. Her litany of cuckoo statements is too long to list here; the latest had her stating that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire (an honest mistake, I'm sure). My favorite was her coming out against the Census, wondering if the information would be used to round up citizens and put them into camps like we did with the Japanese in World War II. My hope was that all of her constituents would refuse to fill out their forms, and thus Minnesota would lose a congressional seat--hers.

Bachmann could be a factor in the race. The religious nuts hold a large sway in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the first three contests. She could come across as the more responsible Sarah Palin, and get 20 percent of a vote. She's extremely conservative on all the hot-button issues, and even once belonged to a church that viewed the Pope as the Antichrist.

From here on the left, it's easy to view Bachmann as crazy, but if she's crazy so are a lot of Americans, and a lot of them vote. I don't see a way she could get the nomination, let alone be elected, and for that we can all thank whatever God we pray to. But the early debates are shaping up to be much more entertaining than any of Donald Trump's TV shows. Trump, Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Huckabee, Romney. Poor boring Tim Pawlenty may just fade into the background.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

As has been written by many people today, Elizabeth Taylor was one of the last of a certain type of movie star. A commenter on one Website noted that of the 50 top stars AFI named in 1999, only five are still living: Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Sidney Poitier, and Shirley Temple. Perhaps only Bacall recalls the kind of blackglama glamour of Hollywood's heydey, but she never dominated the entertainment news like Elizabeth Taylor did.

I suppose one's impression of Taylor depends on one's age. Those under thirty probably know the name, but may have no idea of the kind of star she was. People over sixty-five will remember her at the height of her fame, when, from about 1950 to the late 1960s she was perhaps the most famous and talked about female celebrity in the world. For those in my age bracket, we remember her as someone our parents knew about, but we only knew from that reflection. My earliest memory of her was when the cover of Life magazine featured her on the cover because it was her fortieth birthday. This would have been 1972, when her career as an actress was largely over but her life as a legend was just entering another phase.

In 1972 I hadn't seen any of her movies, but I probably knew she was a movie star and was married to Richard Burton. Since then I've seen some of her movies, of course, but not that many. In fact, due to my recent tradition of taking a look at the top films from fifty years ago, I've seen three of her more celebrated films for the first time: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Suddenly, Last Summer; and Butterfield 8. Those constitute about half of all the Taylor films I've seen. I've never seen National Velvet, A Place in the Sun (both are at the top of my Netflix queue), Cleopatra, (her most iconic role) or any of her many films with Richard Burton except for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by all accounts her best film and her best performance. Oh, and I also saw Giant. I think that's about it.

From what I've seen, and I don't mean to be disrespectful, but Taylor was not a brilliant actress. A great star, yes. Her roles seem to blend into one, and as one writer pointed out, she didn't disappear into the character, the character disappeared into her. Only in Virginia Woolf, when she played the blowsy Martha, did she shed the Taylor persona and show glimpses of what she might have been capable of. Perhaps that just didn't interest her. From the mid-seventies on she pretty much ceased being a working actress, though looking over her filmography I see she did more than I remembered her doing. Unfortunately her last film role will remain The Flintstones, but she did also provide the voice for Maggie Simpson.

Despite her absence from the screen for most of the last thirty-five years of her life, she was always the quintessential Hollywood star. Her many marriages, her brushes with death, her friendship with Michael Jackson, her becoming the butt of Joan Rivers jokes, her admirable early work on behalf of HIV/AIDS research, all meshed to create someone so larger than life that it's hard to believe she wasn't concocted by a feverish writer.

When old-timers say that there aren't movie stars like there were in the old days, that's half bullshit. Of course there are stars now, and fifty years from now people will be saying they don't make them like George Clooney or Nicole Kidman anymore. But there is a certain cache that stars from before the advent of cable television, the Internet, and our fractured attention spans possess. It's easy to compare "Brangelina" with "Liz & Dick," but only in a matter of degrees. The swirl of gossip surrounding their courtship during Cleopatra, or the perceived theft of Eddie Fisher by Taylor from Debbie Reynolds, dwarfs anything in the tabloid media today. Stars were viewed far less cynically than they are today, more as Olympians than fodder for our Schadenfreude.

Elizabeth Taylor was ethereally beautiful, and she made a lot out of that. She was the stuff of late-night talk-show hosts routines, but she also did a lot of good. If she wasn't the greatest actress of her era, I do think her son is correct in saying that she made the world a better place.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beeswax

Andrew Bujalski, much to his consternation I'm sure, is regarded as the "godfather of mumblecore." Mumblecore being a kind of low-budget film, usually made by and concerning middle-class white kids just after college, with dialogue that sounds improvised.

His third film, Beeswax, is in the mumblecore mode, but somewhat more ambitious. For one thing, at the heart of the film lies a business dispute, which could make this the mumblecore version of The Social Network. But most of the tropes are there--the dialogue that is halting and imprecise, the amateur actors, the sets that look like they were hastily slapped together, the slacker vibe.

Beeswax concerns twin sisters, who are played by twin sisters--Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. Tilly, who is wheelchair bound,plays, Jeanie, a wheelchair-bound character, buti that is not central to the plot, it just is, which makes this a refreshing thing. She's the co-owner of a vintage clothing shop in Austin, Texas. Her partner, who has little to do with the business, wants out, which makes Jeanine anxious. She turns to a sort-of boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student, to help out.

Maggie Hatcher is Lauren, who kind of drifts through life. She is interested in teaching, and gets an offer to go to Nairobi. Her character isn't nearly as defined or interesting as Tilly's.

Other people drift in and out of the movie, sometimes identified, sometimes not. Several scenes begin in mid-conversation, and there's certainly a verisimilitude about the whole project. I ended up liking the film a great deal, although I'm hard pressed to explain why. Tilly's business, which in the grand scheme of things isn't that important, becomes everything as the movie progresses. Less gripping is Maggie's decision to go to Africa, which isn't even resolved when the movie comes to a halt.

Slice of life movies are jarring to watch, because we're used to films having characters who speak in complete sentences and do interesting things. Bujalski's films turn the camera around on ourselves (that is, if we are white twenty- or thirtysomethings in hip college towns) and ask us to decide what's really important in our lives. Most of the time I'm up for that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Flipped

Flipped is a harmless, competently made movie, but while watching brings up a host of questions to the cynical cinephile. For one thing, it's another example of the remarkable decline of Rob Reiner, who was once on the A-list of film directors, but is now making largely insignificant, barely-released films like this one. Secondly, a viewer wonders, just who is the primary audience for this film?

Based on a novel for young adults, Flipped would seem to be a movie for children. But children from what era? I have a hard time believing that children of 2010, the one who text nonstop and have casual oral sex, would identify with the kids in this film, which is based in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I suspect that Flipped is really for adults who were kids back then, as the whole enterprise is wrapped in a gauzy nostalgia, invoking an era when kids climbed trees, families ate dinner together and then all watched shows like Bonanza, and when a nonwhite face was an anomaly.

Flipped is about a boy and a girl who have a long, halting romance. When Bryce (Callan McAuliffe), moves in to his family's new house, he's immediately targeted by the little girl across the street, Juli (Madeline Carroll). She pursues him unrelentingly, much to his embarrassment. By the time they're young teens Juli, who is something of a dreamer like her father (Aidan Quinn), still has feelings for Bryce, but wonders whether he's worth it.

This film would be playing at the multiplex in Robert McKee's hell, because it is dominated by voice-over narration, both by Bryce and Juli. We usually get both sides of the story for a particular plot point, which means several scenes are played twice, from a slightly different point of view. The movie is only about ninety minutes long, but has about half of that time in action. There's nothing especially profound about the narration, it's not even fake-profound, like the narration on the TV show The Wonder Years.

The movie attempts to replicate its time period, but aside from a few songs and the clothing, it doesn't really seem authentic. The cinematography is bathed in nostalgic golden hues, and the town it takes place in is called Mayfield, which was the hometown of Beaver Cleaver. This certainly can't be a coincidence.

The leads are appealing young actors, and also in the cast are recognizable names like Anthony Andrews, as Bryce's father, who is a first-class asshole, with Rebecca DeMornay wasted as his mom. John Mahoney does some nice work as his wise grandfather, without being too twinkly. Penelope Ann Miller plays Juli's mother.

The script, by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman, emphasizes the gooey sweetness of the kids' teen romance, but a harder edge that lurks beneath the surface might have been more interesting--Andrews' character is a simmering example of the angry white man of the Eisenhower era, and a subplot involving Quinn's mentally handicapped brother emerges abruptly and just as quickly disappears. Flipped, while a paean to a time gone by, could have been more interesting.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Indolence

Indolence is a beautiful word; it flows musically off the tongue. Of course it's not a very desirable trait--it's really a synonym for laziness, a word that carries a more negative connotation. Another synonym is sloth, which is one of the seven deadly sins.

But indolence is a word that suggests a different kind of inactivity than laziness does. The painting above, titled "Indolence," by Guillaume Seignac, is a typical image that comes up when I do a search of images for indolence. It suggests a kind of peaceful state of being, the one where you have nothing that needs to be done and this gives a person a great deal of pleasure. There's certainly a sexual connotation as well--if this woman were going to break a sweat, it would only be having a nice roll in the hay.

I bring this topic up because indolence is a key part of my personality. It forms a great deal of who I am. I look at hugely successful people, those go-getters who never rest until they get what they want, as some kind of aliens. I am not one of them. I have always been a person who preferred to do as little as possible. Though I wouldn't characterize myself as a failure, I am certainly not as successful as I could have been. And I blame indolence.

But I also sort of embrace my indolence. It has an intellectual cache, after all. John Keats wrote on "Ode on Indolence," and it was a theme among most of the romantic poets. The scholar Willard Spiegelman's book on them is called Majestic Indolence. It's a kind of intellectual snobbery, to be sure, as these guys who didn't have to work could afford to spend their days in languor in the meadow, while most people worked their fingers to the bone to provide for their families, but if we had the choice, wouldn't we rather be in the meadow, writing poetry?

My father had his seventieth birthday a few days ago and when I spoke to him we got a little philosophical. He still works, mostly I think because he needs to financially, but he put a positive spin on it, saying that it is probably going to make him live longer. He said if he wasn't working he'd just sit in his chair eating and watching TV. And he's right, studies show that when you have something to live for, like a job, it adds years to your life.

But oh, I would love to not have to work. I buy lottery tickets when the jackpot gets big and fantasize about how I would quit working forever. I could find many ways to keep my mind occupied, without having to deal with the politics and bullshit of a job. I don't know where the seed was planted in my head, but I've never reconciled myself to the fundamental need to work. It's not like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but somewhere along the line I've come to feel like a rich person trapped in the body of a middle-class one. I just keep daydreaming about the day when my true self will emerge, with enough money to allow me to do anything I want, which may be absolutely nothing.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of Gods and Men

When the Oscar nominations were announced for the most recent Best Foreign Film award, the one left out that caused the most hue and cry was Of Gods and Men, from France, directed by Xavier Beauvois. It did win the Cesar for Best Film. I've just seen it and can testify that I liked it better than the two nominees I saw, Dogtooth and Biutiful. It's a quiet, contemplative film about the power of faith and the tense intermingling of religions in the modern world.

The film is set in a monastery in Algeria in 1996. Eight men live there, most of them old, and they tend to their crops and give medical aid to the villagers. The monks and Muslims have lived in harmony for generations, but a new strain of Islam has taken hold in the area. The old-time Muslims, who regularly meet with the monks, bemoan the situation, pointing out that the Koran forbids one man from killing his brother. "They haven't even read the Koran," one village elder complains.

The monks are led by Christian, Lambert Wilson, while the doctoring is done by Luc (Michael Lonsdale), who is in his eighties. The others are less defined, but over the course of the film we can fill in certain gaps, even if by use of the imagination. One looks like he might have had a life as a tough guy, while another speaks of his life as a plumber and volunteer fireman back in France.

The local officials urge the brothers to avail themselves of military protection, because the terrorism has ramped up. They refuse, and one night are visited a brigade of extremists. It happens to be Christmas night, and Wilson manages to avoid bloodshed, even establishing a mutual respect. Later the extremists bring a wounded man for help, and the brothers give it to him, determining they will give aid to anyone, regardless of affiliation.

This gets them in trouble with the Army, and the brothers are now between a rock and a hard place. A few suggest leaving the monastery behind, but in the end they decide to stay, mainly out of their strong faith. As for their ultimate fate, well, it's a true story, so you may have heard, but I won't spoil it here.

The first thing I noticed about the film was the lack of a music soundtrack. All of the music heard is practical, and it's mostly chants, or the ringing of the prayer bells. The film is quiet and slow, but never boring, and maintains both a tension and a sense of wonderment. I've always been intrigued by monastic life--the lack of desire for material possession is the exact opposite of the way I lead my consumerist life, and it's something that might be good for me, except for my being a nonbeliever. And I wouldn't care for the celibacy, either.

There's one scene at the end of the film in which Beauvois takes a risk and goes kind of Hollywood. The brothers gather for a kind of Last Supper, breaking out the wine and a tape-player, and they break bread to the accompaniment of Swan Lake. The camera moves from face to face, and tears stream down their faces. I see that critics have responded both positively and negatively to the scene. I liked it (and what a year for Tchaikovsky's ballet this year at the cinema), but I certainly recognize how nakedly manipulative it is.

I would imagine the best audience for Of Gods and Men would be an audience of the faithful, especially Catholics. The monks are never presented as anything but noble, although each our allowed their frailties. The film is also very positive toward Islam, clearly delineating the good guys from the bad. The only bit of cynicism we get is when Lonsdale quotes Pascal, who said: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

My grade for Of Gods and Men: A-.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Unstoppable

As pure popcorn entertainment, Unstoppable is really terrific. Yes, the screenplay could have been written by a software program, but the action is, well, unstoppable, and Denzel Washington wears his role like a comfortable old coat.

It probably helps that I was in the right frame of mind for this. I needed escapism, and Unstoppable gave it it to me. Directed by Tony Scott with the precision of a master carpenter (a character in the film constantly harps on precision, perhaps he was Scott's stand-in), the film gets rolling, literally, almost immediately, and stops about ninety minutes later when the train does.

Of course it's about a train. A careless railroad employee (played amusingly by Ethan Suplee, the dimwitted brother from My Name Is Earl) makes just enough mistakes to allow a thirty-nine car freight train to head off, unmanned, and without the proper breaks set. We then get a series of cliches that, depending on your current level of cynicism and/or taste, will either make you throw stuff at the screen or simply chuckle.

To start, there's a train full of schoolchildren that is directly in the train's path. Then we find out that there are several cars full of a toxic, combustible chemical. The head of the railyard is a principled woman (Eva Mendes), who butts heads with her corporate supervisor, a corpulent hatchet-man (Kevin Meany).

Meanwhile, our heroes are aboard another train, and they are introduced in the most obvious way possible. Denzel Washington is the veteran, who we later find out has only three weeks to go until forced retirement. Chris Pine is the rookie, who is resented by the others because he's in the union and they assume he got his job through nepotism. If that weren't enough, Washington is the widowed father of two Hooters' waitresses, and Pine is going through a rough patch with his wife. Both will end up making a heroic decision to try to save the city of Stanton (presumably a stand in for Pittsburgh) from getting hit by a "guided missile the size of the Chrysler Building."

Okay, so this thing doesn't stretch artistic boundaries. But damn it's fun. Washington and Pine have great chemistry together, and I liked Mendes, too. Lew Temple is a hoot as a pony-tailed welder who ends up helping save the day. And the action--whew! It really propels forward, just like the train, which is almost like a character. I could have done less with the all the news coverage--of course we get Washington's daughters and Pine's watching, their hearts in their throats--but Scott always goes back to the trains.

Unstoppable, I read, was based on an actual incident, and though dramatized a bit more than it actually happened (no one actually jumped out of a truck going seventy-five miles an hour onto an equally fast-moving train cab) it's close enough for comfort.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cleopatra

Everybody's heard of Cleopatra. As Stacy Schiff points out in her biography, she is "among the most famous women to have lived." Some of us probably know a few things about her, such as that she consorted with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, was written about by Plutarch and Shakespeare, and has been the subject of more than one Hollywood film (when asked to play the part, Claudette Colbert was asked by Cecil B. DeMille, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?")

Schiff, in trying to get behind the legend, bristles at that kind of characterization. She is highly admiring of her subject, and lays out a case of how she has been ignored for being a great queen, and instead painted as some kind of harlot. Schiff writes, "The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty."

Cleopatra, of course, was the ruler of Egypt, the last person to rule as a pharaoh. But she was not Egyptian. She was a Ptolemy, descended from the first of that name, Alexander the Great's sidekick, a Macedonian who stayed behind in Egypt and started a dynasty. Schiff is to be admired for keeping Cleopatra's family tree straight, considering they had a habit of marrying siblings. Cleopatra herself married two of her brothers, though they issued no offspring (Schiff presents that they were celibate marriages). She had both of those brothers, as well as her two sisters, killed.

She was the richest person on the Mediterranean, and one modern economist estimates that she was one of the ten richest people of all time, a claim that's hard to justify. She did have a fling with Julius Caesar, and bore him a son that he acknowledged. What I didn't know is that she was in Rome when he was assassinated, and beat a hasty retreat.

Schiff covers, briefly but vividly, what happened in Rome after that. It's hard to write about Antony's funeral oration without thinking of "Friends, Romans, countrymen," but Schiff soldiers on. Antony at first was teamed with Caesar's successor, his grand-nephew Octavian, in defeating the conspirators and consolidating power. Then Antony and Cleopatra teamed up.

They would be together for more than ten years, though Antony was married for most of that time. (Even after divorcing, he couldn't marry Cleopatra because Roman law forbade him from marrying a non-Roman). There years were productive. They had three children, and he conquered lands using her navy, amassing quite an empire on the eastern Mediterranean.

Schiff, who points out that even in her own time Cleopatra was the subject of gossip, writes like a person who has grabbed your elbow at a party and tells you the wildest story. She has great fun at times. A colorful section on King Herod of Judea details some of the worst in-law problems you've ever heard, and she has great sport with Antony. In writing about Cicero, the great Roman orator, she says, "Sometimes it indeed seemed as if there were only ten women in Rome. And in Cicero's view, Mark Antony had slept with every one of them."

Things ended rather badly, though, as many of us know. Antony and Octavian eventually opposed each other, and it ended at the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra thought she might flee to India or Spain and start all over again. But it wasn't to be. Antony did himself in. Schiff again gets in a dig after telling us that he ran a sword through his midsection but didn't die right away: "It was somehow typical of Antony to leave the job half-done."

Octavian was keen to keep Cleopatra alive and keep the citizens of Alexandria happy, but she outwitted him. Schiff calls the story about the asp "the cherry tree of ancient history;" apparently she was something of a maven on poisons, and wouldn't have entrusted her fate to a wild animal.

Octavian, who went on to be Augustus Caesar, annexed Egypt, and thus Cleopatra was the last pharaoh. She has certainly lived on in the cultural landscape. Schiff can hardly resist dropping the name of Elizabeth Taylor. This passage, about her arrival in Tarsus to visit Antony, is typical: "She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances--the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; Henry IV, Charles Lindbergh, Charles de Gaulle, into Paris; Howard Carter into King Tut's tomb; the Beatles onto Ed Sullivan's stage--Cleopatra's alone lifts off the page into iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Waste Land

Another of the nominees for the most recent Oscar for Best Documentary Feature was Waste Land, Lucy Walker's film about art and the indomitable human spirit, set in one of the last places any of us would want to go--a garbage dump.

The film follows celebrated Brazilian artist Vik Nuniz (we are introduced to him as he appears on a talk show, just to prove that he's famous) as he tackles his next project--to create portraits of the workers at a vast landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. These workers, who sift through the mountains of garbage to find recyclable materials, which they then sell, turn out to be a kind of fascinating group. They're organized, for one thing, and say that they're proud of what they do.

But as the film goes on, the "catadores" change in our estimation. Nuniz, as he includes them in the process, must be careful, as he is putting them into the limelight, but after it's over they'll have to decide whether they want to continue working in garbage. Nuniz's wife worries that it will mess with their heads; Nuniz is unapologetic.

The film drags a bit until the creating of the art begins. It's then that the workers, as well as the viewing audience, starts to appreciate what's going on. Nuniz takes photos and then magnifies and projects them onto the floor of a hangar-sized studio. The workers themselves then place objects they've found in the dump on top of the photo. A few, such as the one depicted in the poster, represent famous paintings in history.

It would take a hard heart not to share the excitement of the workers as their work earns thousands of dollars (Nuniz donated it all back to the workers' organization). Tiaos Santos, the president of their organization, goes to London to witness the auction of his painting (he's the Marat in the reproduction of the David). When he watches the photo fetch $50,000 he's overwhelmed.

It's interesting that two of this year's nominees were about modern art. Exit Through the Gift Shop sees art as a kind of goof, but Waste Land sees its transformative power. It would make a good double feature.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The House on 92nd Street

The House on 92nd Street, a film from 1945, was included in a boxed set of Twentieth-Century Fox films called "Fox Noir." The problem is, it's not a noir film, as even the expert providing commentary points out. It's an example of how the term noir is misunderstood and misused to confuse consumers.

It's not a bad film, it's just not noir. The film is about how the FBI smashes a ring of Nazi agents in New York City during the war. It was produced by Louis De Rochemont, who made the March of Time newsreels, and the film is notable for its documentary aspects. De Rochemont was able to secure the participation of the FBI, which allowed him to film in its buildings and use its employees as extras--even J. Edgar Hoover makes a cameo.

The story is based on true events of how the FBI used a mole, an American student who was recruited by the Nazis, to capture a slew of operatives in the U.S. Willam Eythe stars as the student, and Lloyd Nolan is an FBI agent.

So why isn't this noir? As I mentioned in my review of The Naked City, films that take the point of the view of the legal authority are not noir, not unless the authority in question is operating outside of the law. The protagonists in this film, both Eythe and Nolan, are true blue Americans, with nothing nagging at the their consciences or their souls. They are really just cutout figures, with no internal lives on display. The film is a big tip of the hat to the FBI, and practically crawls up Hoover's ass.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, it has nice moments. Eythe's character is really kind of dumb (but not as dumb as the Nazis, who entrust a huge amount of their intelligence gathering to someone they recruit out of Ohio), and we keep expecting him to get found out by his German handlers. Eventually they do, but of course they are foiled by the FBI. There's also a nice scene in which a physicist (Gene Lockhart) working on the atomic bomb project is fingered as providing the Germans secrets.

Given that this film came out only a short amount of time after the war ended, it's not a surprise that it takes no chances and everything is in stark black and white. Just don't call it noir.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Thousand Cuts

I don't know if I've recently read a book as unrelentingly grim as A Thousand Cuts, by Simon Lelic (well, not since I read Box 21 last fall). The latter was about the trafficking of prostitutes, this one is a much more immediate and universal topic--school bullying.

There is a difference here, though. Lelic has structured his book around a crime, but it's a teacher taking a gun and shooting up a school assembly. Detective Inspector Lucia May investigates the case, and as she interviews witnesses (alternating chapters feature the voices of the witnesses, unadorned) she finds that the teacher was himself bullied.

Two parallels run alongside the case. At the same school, a young boy is mercilessly teased and beaten to the point of suicide. May comes to blame the school and its arrogant headmaster for both crimes, for ignoring the signs. The second parallel is May's own torment at the hands of a colleague who sexually harasses her.

The book is polemical and who can disagree with the author's point? But I have some reservations. It appears that the book is set in England, but I was never completely sure, and I also assume it's set in the present. Therefore I have a hard time believing a school could so blithely ignore bullying to the point of a child going to a hospital. More unbelievable is that May has no recourse to the sexual harassment. I only have American standards to go by, but no one could get away with that kind of treatment here, especially in a public service job.

Beyond that, the book is so heavy in its grief and outrage that it was very unpleasant to read. Lelic never allows his prose to breathe--every character seems to be at the edge of despair, if not over it, except for the guy who sexually harasses May, and he's a caricature. At one point he sends her an envelope full of pubic hair. Now tell me, how many women would receive that and not turn the guy in, especially if she was a policewoman?

Lastly, there's no real mystery to this book. We simply read through to see if the characters set up as monsters get any justice, and the filler is just not compelling enough to make it a good read.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

When I saw advertising for The Adjustment Bureau, the thing that bothered me the most was why are the guys who control our fate dressed like extras from Mad Men? (One of them, John Slattery, is an actual Mad Men cast member). Do the guys who control people in the Middle East where white robes? When they did this back in olden times did they wear togas, or powdered wigs? And what's with the hats?

It turns out that the hats actually mean something, and it seems that George Nolfi, who wrote and directed the picture, has anticipated my concerns and run with them, giving the picture a sense of humor that heightens it considerably. What could have been a tired, bloated Twilight Zone episode is instead a fairly enjoyable adventure that may actually have you thinking as you walk out of the theater.

Matt Damon plays a candidate for the U.S. Senate. His campaign is derailed by an indiscretion from his past (frankly, it's not realistic that he would be torpedoed by it, not today). Right before he makes his concession speech, he meets Emily Blunt, who inspires him to toss aside his scripted speech and make off-the-cuff remarks that make him popular all over again.

A few years later he runs into Blunt again on a bus. We learn that he's not supposed to have met her again, though. It turns out that one of those guys in hats, Anthony Mackie, dozed a bit before he was supposed to make Damon spill his coffee.

In some rather lengthy exposition, Damon is informed by Slattery, who runs the crew of these guys, that they make sure the "plan" is adhered to. The plan is written by the "Chairman," who we are led to believe is another name for God. The hat squad are sort-of angels, or, as Mackie calls them, case workers. They are extremely concerned that Damon never see Blunt again, as it would mess up an especially important plan.

Of course, this being the movies, Damon does not go quietly. He continues to search for Blunt, and when he finds her again he is able to elude Slattery's attempts to stop him. A heavier hitter hat guy (Terence Stamp) is brought in, and he levels with Damon as to the importance of the plan. Damon accedes, but something nags at him and, in the grand tradition of Hollywood, fights fate to win the girl of his dreams.

The film was adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick, which I'm sure wasn't quite so romantic. I've seen other stories like this, that tell us that those inexplicable times when we misplace our keys are moments when these adjusters are fixing the imbalances in life. It can be viewed as a religious way of looking at things--we have guardian angels who are watching over us--or an extremly paranoid way of viewing things. It's a fascinating topic though--do we have free will? According to this film, we don't. When humans had free will it led to the Dark Ages and World War II.

Damon, who is more and more becoming the thinking man's movie star, is very appealing in the lead role. Blunt has less to do, and didn't strike me as the woman you would go all the way to God to try to win, but that's just me. The direction and cinematography are quite good, especially the climactic chase scene, in which Damon makes use of a series of doorways that allow him to move through Manhattan very, very quickly (it all has to do with the hats).

This isn't a great film, but it's easy to take and I like a movie that anticipates an objection and then addresses it. It makes me feel smarter than I am.

My grade for The Adjustment Bureau: B+

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Red Desert

When I reviewed the films of Michelangelo Antonioni a few years ago I mentioned that the fourth of a tetralogy of films featuring Monica Vitti was not available on DVD. Now it is. Red Desert was Antonioni's first film in color and, as such, it is really an experiment in the use of color and sound. I can't pretend to know what it all means, and while it isn't exactly action-packed, it's interesting.

Antonioni got the idea for the film while visiting Ravenna, a seaside Italian town. He'd been there a hundred times before, but on this visit he realized how industry had changed the landscape. Antonioni is quick to point out he is not against industry or progress, instead feeling that the images of industry have their own particular beauty. I'm not sure beauty is the word I'd use, but his images are striking.

Vitti plays the wife of the manager of a chemical plant. She has recently attempted to commit suicide, and throughout the film she struggles to fit into the modern world. She has a young son (his favorite toy, pointedly, is a robot). Visiting the plant is Richard Harris as a man looking to recruit workers to South America. He and Vitti spend a lot of time together, and she finds that she is able to open up to him more effectively than her husband.

I can't really detail much more of the plot, I'm not sure there really is a plot. There is a long middle section that has a group of married couples having a kind of love-in in a seaside shack, and there quite a few shots of ships, sometimes seeming to sail across land. I think the story is really beside the point, as Antonioni instead speaks with color. Much of the film is monochromatic--he went so far as to paint trees to make them more gray--but at times the color red is so prominent that it screams out at us. I'm reminded of someone who gets a new camera for Christmas and tries out all the different bells and whistles.

There is also an unusual use of sound. Antonioni uses a lot of electronic noise, some of which is common to science-fiction films. There is also the periodic use of an opera singer hitting some high notes which at times make it sound like she's being murdered.

I didn't hate this film, or find it boring, but I would be resistant to calling it great or a classic. As usual with his films, it holds characters at an arm's length, not asking us to care about them, but instead regarding them like zoo animals.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Whirlpool

Whirlpool is a 1949 film by Otto Preminger that has some moderate value as a psychological thriller. Where it really excels in is two supporting performances, by Jose Ferrer and Charles Bickford.

Gene Tierney stars as the wife of an affluent psychologist, Richard Conte. As the film begins she's caught shoplifting at a fancy department store. Ferrer, who recognizes her, steps in and tells the store management who she is and that she's no doubt a kleptomaniac. They let her go.

In exchange for keeping her indiscretion secret, Ferrer asks that he be allowed to treat her. He's a sort of astrologist/hypnotist, and he has an oily charm that works wonders on society women. She agrees, ashamed of her condition, and Ferrer hypnotizes her in such a way so that she's framed for a murder.

Bickford is the no-nonsense police detective working on the case. Conte, believing his wife is innocent, appeals to him to see past the circumstantial, sure that Ferrer is behind it.

The film has the mistrust of psychiatry that many films of the period do (another Fox film from the period, Nightmare Alley, to mention one). Although Conte is presented as heroic, Ferrer is so devious and sinister that, even though he's clearly identified as not a doctor, the whole therapist role is besmirched.

Preminger's direction is crisp and on the whole, uninteresting. It's lit like TV, not like noir. Tierney, certainly a stunning woman, doesn't have much to offer in this role. She never has a hair out of place, even when she's under arrest for murder. The film could have made do with more edges, more mess.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Republican D-List

I read yesterday that the first debate for the Republican nomination for president will be at the Reagan Library on May 2nd. The burning question is, who will be there? As of now there are no major candidates who have officially announced, though there are lots of suspects. It's starting to look like the Republican version of some horrible reality show that only attracts D-listers.

I've been reading articles, mostly from the liberal press, that many Republicans have come to the conclusion that Barack Obama is unbeatable in 2012. That is why some heavy-hitters and up-and-comers, like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, and John Thune, are passing, biding their time for 2016, and recognizing that running in 2012 is a fool's errand. That leaves the field to a large percentage of quixotic crusaders and crackpots, like Herman Cain, the found of Godfather's Pizza (and I believe the only person to officially announce his candidacy), Buddy Roemer, a one-time Louisiana congressman who hasn't held elective office in over twenty years, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who once equated homosexuality with bestiality, and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich is not a fringe candidate, in that he is a well-known name. He has been a factor in Republican politics since early in the Reagan years, and then of course Speaker of the House and now a TV-windbag and prolific author of, among other things, alternate histories. Gingrich seems ready to announce his candidacy, but is there any scenario that would have him as the nominee?

For one thing, Gingrich has values problems. He left one wife while she was dying in a cancer ward, and is an admitted adulterer, which might not be the problem it used to be but considering Gingrich's crusade against Bill Clinton seems like a deal-breaker. Secondly, Gingrich is not a warm and fuzzy person--his negatives would be hard to eradicate, as he comes across like a mean teacher. It would appear his candidacy is simply a way for him to keep his name in the news and sell books.

So, who will the nominee be? Usually the Republican Party plays the game of "Who's Next in Line," which would mean Mitt Romney, who seems a certainty to run. Other names of candidates who would seem to have a chance would be Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, and, of course, Sarah Palin, but the jury is out on whether the last two will even run.

Romney seems like the establishment choice, though he has his obstacles. A notorious flip-flopper and panderer, Romney is also incredibly bland. It's hard to imagine the populace being swept into a passion for voting for him.

It will be fascinating to see what role the Tea Party has, as this is the first presidential election cycle to occur following their crest. A reasonable candidate, like Mitch Daniels, would have a great chance of beating Obama, but his less-than-rabid stance on social issues (and his reluctance to run) would seem to nix his chances. Some think that Pawlenty will be the alternative to the been-there, done-that Romney, but Pawlenty is not much more exciting than Romney.

Democrats can feel good surveying the potential Republican candidates, but there is always the chance that the economy could once again slide, or some foreign misadventure (like Libya) could suddenly drop Obama's approval rating. If that happens, some Republicans may rue that they sat this one out, and the country may end up with a D-lister as president.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Inside Job

The winner of the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature was Inside Job, which I saw last night. It's a very good film, and I suppose my highest praise for it is that I felt like I actually understood what caused the financial collapse, something that had eluded me before now.

Written and directed by Charles Ferguson, who made a similarly sharp film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, No End in Sight, Inside Job takes the view that everything started to go bad when deregulation of the financial services industry started under Reagan. Ferguson is not partisan in his blame--Clinton comes in for a heap of it as well. What really gores Ferguson's ox seems to be the incestuous relationship of investment banks and government--when top men from the various banks end up as Secretary of Treasury, not a lot of reform is going to get done.

Ferguson lays out how the trap was sprung. It used to be that a mortgage lender expected the home-buyer to pay them back, but now they bundle those mortgages together and sell them to investment banks, and in turn are then sold as investment opportunities. This encouraged the predatory lending of subprime loans to people who couldn't afford to pay them back. Despite the high risk of these loans, rating agencies like Moody's, who get paid by the investment banks, gave them high ratings. When the loans weren't repaid, insurers like AIG went belly-up, and those who invested in them, like pension funds for government employees, lost their savings.

The culprit fingered here is the unquenchable greed of the executives at these companies, who ruined their outfits but still walked away with millions of dollars (as Ferguson pointed out in his Oscar acceptance speech, no one has gone to jail for this). The investment banker became less concerned with his customer than with making money, sometimes even making money when his customer lost money. There's some great footage of these guys being grilled in Congressional hearings, but even then they seem unable to realize what they did was wrong.

Be warned, though, this film is not objective. Ferguson interviews a handful of those who represent the pro-deregulation wing of economics and they are set up like fools. Also, whenever a particular person is painted as a villain (Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, etc.) we get a title card ominously stating that that person refused to be interviewed for the film. A closing shot of the Statue of Liberty also layers it on a little thick.

But there is some really valuable stuff here. I was impressed, or should I say disturbed, by the notion that academia and the financial industry were in bed together, with professors being paid as board members and then influencing future generations of economic thought with their beliefs. The film concludes with the disappointing news that Obama has done little to reform anything, and one expert explains this is because we have "a Wall Street government." It's high time Timothy Geitner was let go and someone without Wall Street provenance was installed at Treasury.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Band of Outsiders


After the Cinemascope and Technicolor of Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard made the much more gritty and black and white Band of Outsiders in 1964. Like his debut film, Breathless, it's something of an homage to American B-pictures, with numerous references to pop culture, both high and lowbrow, from T.S. Eliot to Loopy de Loop.

Based on an American crime novel, the story, what little of it there is, concerns two criminals, Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey). They are in an English class with Odile (Anna Karina), and she tells them that a man staying in the house with her and her aunt has a large stack of money. The two men get the idea to steal it, but before they do they each try to romance Karina.

Band of Outsiders is considered by many to be Godard's best film; or at least his most accessible. It's the only one of his films to be on Time's list of best 100 films. It has a certain cache among filmmakers--Quentin Tarantino named his production company after the French title, A Band Apart. One can certainly see the influence the film had on subsequent movies like Pulp Fiction.

The first time I saw Band of Outsiders I was charmed, but this second viewing left me a little bored. Maybe it was the cold medication I'm on, but I got frustrated with the way Godard dithered. The plot moves in herks and jerks, filling in the space with little moments that are fine unto themselves but don't really add up to much. There's a long scene in which the teacher of the English class reads from Romeo and Juliet, and there's a funny moment when Franz suggests they have a moment of silence, and the entire soundtrack goes silent for a while.

The two most famous scenes are probably the dance number, pictured above, when the three do an improvisational "Madison," which certainly influenced Tarantino, and a scene in which the three of them attempt to set the record for running through the Louvre.

When Godard finally gets around to the robbery, it's comic, as these are two inept bandits. Watching them move around in their fedoras, black stockings over their faces, kind of upends the notion of "cool," and one suspects that Godard is having himself a laugh at this characters' expense.

Still, Band of Outsiders is an iconic film, one that has a breezy kind of charm and insouciance.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Rango

Rango is the first animated feature from Industrial Light and Magic, and as many recent animated features are, it has two levels of appeal: one for the kiddies, and one for adults. The kids around me at the well-attended matinee seemed to have fun during the slapstick and chase scenes, which I found to be fairly standard, but the adults may have had more fun. Especially adults, like me, who have a deep interest in and knowledge of movie history.

Directed by Gore Verbinski and written by John Logan (who also wrote Gladiator and The Aviator), Rango is full of references to other movies. You could make a game of it. Invite a bunch of friends over and shout out every time you are reminded of another film. Just in the first few minutes there are perhaps a half-dozen, from The Odd Couple to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Most of the references are from Westerns. Rango is a send-up of the Spaghetti western, complete with a faux Ennio Morricone score (by Hans Zimmer) and an appearance by the panchoed Man with No Name (voiced by Timothy Olyphant, who does a wicked Clint Eastwood). And so there are many samplings of Westerns throughout movie history, from the classics like High Noon and Shane, to the comic with Cat Ballou.

Though there's a lot of sampling, Rango still has the feel of an original, even if a description seems familiar. Johnny Depp voices the title character, a chameleon who lives in a terrarium. He has an overactive imagination, creating plays with the props in his habitat (a toy fish, half a doll, a dead insect). After a sudden event he finds himself alone by the side of a desert road, and after consulting with a quixotic Armadillo, he ends up in a nearby town, called Dirt. Realizing he can invent himself as whatever he wants to be, he decides to call himself Rango, a gunslinger par excellence.

He's made sheriff by the corrupt mayor (who is specifically modeled on John Huston from Chinatown), and discovers that there's something fishy going on with the water supply. In the time-honored tradition of both Westerns and animated films, the hero must dig deep to find his self worth, facing off against both his fear and a rattlesnake.

I warmed to this film as it went along. As I mentioned I didn't find the action sequences especially inventive, but I liked the witty dialogue (this may be the only animated film that uses the phrase "paradigm shift") and the reverential attitude toward other films. Also, the film uses well-known celebrity voices but gets the money's worth, particularly Depp, who I think expresses more emotion and versatility than in any of his live-action performances.

The animation is also top-notch, with the various creatures looking great. I think the key to Rango's look is the mismatching of the size of his eyes and the little crook in his neck. I also liked a blind mole voiced by Harry Dean Stanton a spider undertaker. One thing the animators had fun with is making the characters' teeth absolutely hideous.

My grade for Rango: B

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Freedom

I read Jonathan Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, and while impressed with its virtuosity I was let down by the aridness of its characters. But in Freedom his prose is bursting with humanity. This is a tale of life in contemporary America that breathes with life, and will have the reader firmly enmeshed in the rich details of its characters.

Freedom manages to be both epic in scale and fiercely intimate. The focus is only on a handful of characters--one family, the Berglunds, and a lifelong friend of theirs. But in this one family Franzen has created a representation of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century, even while reaching back to the 1970s and beyond.

The Berglunds are Walter and Patty, and when the book begins they are typical liberal suburbanites in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter works for 3M, Patty is a stay-at-home mom and ex-college basketball star. They have two kids, a daughter Jessica and a son Joey. Things start to go wrong when the high-school aged Joey, who is coddled by his mother and at odds with his father, moves in with his girlfriend's family.

Walter takes a job in Washington with a group that is trying to save a songbird called the cerulean warbler. To do this they propose allowing a coal mining outfit to blast the top of a mountain in West Virginia, and then sealing off the land as a nature preserve. Joey, who drifts into the philosophy of a Young Republican, seeks to make money with a shady outfit selling old equipment to the U.S. army. Both Walter and Joey end up in cahoots with a nefarious Halliburton-like contractor.

Meanwhile, Patty spirals into depression, as her marriage withers. She is wracked with a nagging love for Walter's college friend, a rock musician named Richard Katz, and the two succumb to lust in a vacation home in northern Minnesota. She pours out her story in the form of an autobiography (told in the third person) to her therapist, in which she details how she met both Richard and Walter in her days as a roundballer for the University of Minnesota.

I'm just scratching the surface in attempting to sum up the plot of this book. There is also Joey's trip to Patagonia with the beautiful sister of his college roommate; the relationship between Walter and his much younger, Asian Indian assistant Lalitha and Patty's crazy, heroin-addicted college friend Eliza. The prose is both rich and fluid, like the best of the British doorstop novels of the nineteenth century. This book calls out for an adaptation by Masterpiece Theater.

There's so much to admire here that one must take a step back to fully recognize what Franzen is saying. Take for instance the title. Kick off your reading group discussion by asking why did he call it Freedom? The word appears throughout the text in almost all of its dictionary meanings. I think back to how the word was distorted during the Bush presidency at the height of the Iraq war, when enemies of the administration were called enemies of freedom. But it also touches on the freedom between men and women--can one be free in marriage? Or is it about the basic personal freedom that each individual strives for on a daily basis?

If you get too much of a headache pondering all that, just enjoy the writing. The characters are so vivid. Walter is a pill, a man obsessed with liberal politics, especially overpopulation of humans and the eradication of songbirds. I loved this passage: "In Walter's view, there was no greater force for evil in the world, no more compelling cause for despair about humanity and the amazing planet it had been given, than the Catholic Church, although, admittedly, the Siamese-twin fundamentalism of Bush and bin Laden were running a close second these days. He couldn't see a church or a REAL MEN LOVE JESUS sign or a fish symbol on a car without his chest tightening with anger. In a place like West Virginia, this meant he got angry pretty much every time he ventured into daylight, which no doubt contributed to his road rage."

The character of Richard Katz is also a brilliant creation--Franzen knows his rock and roll, and he uses Katz to voice abuse on the music industry. He gives an interview to a young blogger than does a nice job of damning the entire business. Franzen writes of Katz's music: "...on to their next gig, in Madison, and then on to releasing further wryly titled records that a certain kind of critic and about five thousand other people in the world liked to listen to, and doing small venue gigs attended by scruffy, well-educated white guys who were no longer as young as they used to be."

Franzen also writes some fantastic dialogue here. There's an argument between Walter and Patty that is as good as anything that's been heard on the stage, and a brilliant section that has Walter trying to persuade a neighbor to keep her cat indoors so it won't kill birds.

But above all it's the characters who make Freedom such a good read. It's a rare treat to finish a book and be saddened because time spent with the characters is over. These people were more than words on the page--they really live in the imagination.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Contempt

Continuing my sporadic look at the films of Jean-Luc Godard, I turn to his sixth film, and one of his more celebrated. Contempt (Le M├ępris), was made in 1963, and was a curious combination of the aggressively experimental Godard with the mercenary interests of big-time producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine. It as at once both commercial and anticommercial.

The first thing to consider about Contempt is how visually stunning it is. In fact, I would rate it right up there among all the films I've seen in terms of look alone. On this latest viewing, I hardly noticed the story at all, and was just slack-jawed at Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard's use of framing, lighting, and camera movement. Every shot is bliss. It also contains one of the best and most ingenious uses of a female sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot.

Contempt is a story told in three acts. It is about the dissolution of a marriage, as told against the backdrop of the movie business. It is about artistic prostitution, the difficulties of translation and adaptation, and the juxtaposition of classicism and modernism.

The first part of the story is set at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. A film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey is being made. The director is Fritz Lang, the great German director. He is played by Fritz Lang. As it is described, he is playing a director named Fritz Lang, but is not necessarily playing himself. The producer is an American vulgarian (a stereotype common in European films), Jack Palance. He is like a walking erection, prone to fits of anger and volatility. While watching rushes of the film he focuses on a scene in which a nude Penelope frolics in the sea. Palance does everything but oink while watching. He complains that the film on screen is not what is in the script, and hurls a film can like a discus. Lang jokes that he has finally discovered Greek culture.

Michel Piccoli is a screenwriter hired to do rewrites. He is married to Bardot, once a simple typist. Palance makes it all too clear that Piccoli is being hired because he has a beautiful wife, and a quid pro quo is expected. Piccoli, who is not sure whether he wants to write movies, detective fiction, or plays, is tantalized by the money, and urges Bardot to accompany him to the shoot in Capri, in effect pimping her.

The second act, which is really quite extraordinary, is a Strindbergian pas de deux between Piccoli and Bardot in their apartment. Godard uses the camera like a voyeur, planting the camera in a distant room, watching the two actors move from space to space like caged panthers. They argue, each take a bath, sit on the toilet, and effectively end their marriage. The takes are extremely long, sometimes as long as three or four minutes, and the effect is galvanizing. He called it a "tragedy in long-shots," a reference to Chaplin's comment that, "Tragedy is in closeup, comedy in long-shots." At one point the two sit at opposite ends of a table, with a light in between them. Godard pans the camera back and forth, as if at a tennis match, from one fact to the other, the light going on and off intermittently. Although the camera does not always point to the person speaking.

Finally, the third act is on Capri, and the stunning Cinemascope takes the breath away (Godard gets a bite at the hand that feeds him, by having Lang say, "Cinemascope is not for people. It's for snakes and funerals.") He makes excellent use of the Casa Malaparte, a burnt-orange house that rests atop a cliff jutting out to the sea, with a wedge-shaped staircase running from ground-level to the roof.

In Capri, Bardot will break with Piccoli and go to Palance. We get the beautiful shot of their parting, with her swimming away, Piccoli seated on the rugged shoreline. She and Palace will come to a bad end, though, dying in a traffic accident. Godard chooses not to show the accident, only the aftermath, where the two are posed in the car, which is wedged between the wheels of a tanker truck, like a photograph by Cindy Sherman.

Contempt is such a feast for the eyes that it can take more than one viewing to appreciate all that it has to offer. Consider the Lumiere quotation that is on the wall in the Cinecitta screening room: "Cinema is an invention with no future." Or the movie posters that line the walls on the studio streetfront: Psycho, Hatari, and Godard's own Vivre Sa Vie, which is itself about prostitution.

Where the film is most mischievous is its use of Bardot. She was the reason the film was able to be made, though her salary was half of the film's budget. The producers insisted on her doing nude scenes, and Godard obliged, but the sex is intellectual in nature (though it certainly stokes my libido). An early scene has Bardot and Piccoli lounging in bed, her magnificent derriere naked for the world to see. She asks him if he loves her various body parts--feet, ankles, knees, thighs, and so is reduced to a litany of parts, not a complete person. In the apartment scene, even while she's telling him how contemptuous she is of him, she is photographed like a Playboy centerfold model, slipping into a black bob wig (perhaps a reference to the contemporary film Cleopatra), stalking through the rooms wearing only a towel. Godard puts her in a bathtub, but she is reading a book of film criticism about Lang. Later, on the roof of the Casa Malaparte on Capri, she sunbathes nude, but a paperbook book is strategically placed on her bottom. Godard gave them nudity, but the sex is on his terms.

I've got a lot of Godard films yet to watch, but it would be hard to top Contempt as his greatest technical achievement, a film of great beauty, mystery, and intellect.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Fish Tank

Fish Tank, a 2009 film by Andrea Arnold, has a familiar template. The misunderstood teen, which goes back to at least Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel and surely farther back, is on furious display here. We meet 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), and in the first few minutes of the film she gets in a fight with some other girls (head-butting one into a broken nose), swills booze from a liter bottle, and gets in a profanity-laced argument with her mother (Kierston Waering).

I was resistant to the film at first, finding that it was loading things too heavily. Waering is a monstrous mother who has almost no sympathetic qualities, and when Jarvis spots a horse and tries to free it I felt hit over the head by the metaphor. But eventually I started to like both Mia and the film.

The central plot point of the film is the relationship between Mia and her mother's latest boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), who tries to befriend Jarvis and her younger sister. He takes them on an outing and lends his videocamera to Jarvis for use in a dance audition. As viewers we can see where this all going, but the film still takes an interesting time in getting there. Following the inevitable seduction, Jarvis finds something out about Fassbender and takes revenge, in a scene that is both fraught with peril and melodrama. I wasn't sure to what extremes Arnold would take her protagonist, and the result was pretty searing.

Jarvis is a nonprofessional who was discovered arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. She's in every scene, often followed by a tracking camera as she's in motion, almost trying to run out of the frame. It's a gutsy, emotionally raw performance. I have no idea if Jarvis has any future in the profession (to date it's her only film), but she's mesmerizing.

Fassbender, an actor on the rise (I predict he'll be Oscar-nominated within a year or two) has a tough role and pulls it off with aplomb. He has to be both likable and slimy, and is both in spades.

The film is set in Essex, which seems to be a part of England that no tourists go to. Jarvis lives in a kind of lower-middle-class squalor that is familiar to films of this miserabilist bent. There's an unnerving scene of the younger sister smoking and drinking, and the complete lack of parental attention that Waering gives her children is gut-wrenching.

A big part of the film is its music. Jarvis and her friends are all into hip-hop, and she likes to go into an abandoned apartment where she practices her moves, complete with urban shrugs. Two songs resonate: Bobby Womack's cover version of "California Dreamin'," which links Jarvis and Fassbender, and then the Nas' "Life's a Bitch and Then You Die," which calls out over the closing credits like a cry for help.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Charlie Chan

I have never read a Charlie Chan book or seen a Charlie Chan movie (except for the Neil Simon mystery spoof Murder By Death, in which the Chinese detective is played by Englishman Peter Sellers), but I was interested in reading Yunte Huang's comprehensive study of the fictional sleuth and his inspiration, a Honolulu policeman named Chang Apana.

Huang, a scholar born in China but now living and teaching in America, covers quite a few bases in his book. He starts with a brief biography of Apana, who was born in Hawaii, moved to China as a boy, and then returned for good, where he became a celebrated detective, using a bullwhip to corral the bad guys. The legend has it that an Ohio-born, Harvard-educated writer, Earl Derr Biggers, read about one of his exploits and got the idea to write a novel featuring a wise, inscrutable Chinese detective: Charlie Chan.

Huang gives us Biggers' story, as well as the development of his wildly popular creation as a movie character. There were silent films made, starring Asian actors, but they were unsuccessful. It wasn't until the talkies, and a Swedish actor named Warner Oland took the role, that he became a household name. Fox Pictures churned them out, as many as four a year, and made Oland a rich man, even though he ended up a hopeless alcoholic and dead at 57.

The part was taken over by an American actor, Sidney Toler, and then another, Roland Winters, before the series died out in 1949 (the very same year that Mao's revolt succeeded in making China red). But he persisted in American culture, featured in board games, radio programs, comic books, and a Saturday-morning cartoon series.

Huang's book also branches off into many other topics. The book is a brisk 297 pages, but only about half is directly about Charlie Chan. He discusses the history of Hawaii, Chinese immigration into America, the character of Fu Manchu (the dark side of Orientalism), and includes a long chapter on the Massie case of 1931, in which a white woman falsely accused a gang of Hawaiian men of raping her. They were let go after a hung jury, but one of them was murdered by Massie's mother, and she was represented by Clarence Darrow. It's a fascinating tale, but only tangentially involved with the subject at hand.

I might have been annoyed by Huang's frequent off-topic forays, especially when he starts writing about movies that simply have the world "China" in the title, but he's a wonderful raconteur, and I didn't mind. I liked that he frequently got personal, describing being a student in Alabama and working at a Chinese restaurant, and his epilogue, in which he hunts down the grave of Apana, is poignant.

The best parts of the book are about Chan and what he means to American society and Asian Americans in particular. Though I've never read the books or seen the movies, I know who he is--a kindly and sage detective who speaks in fortune-cookie aphorisms. Huang has collected them, and here are a few: "Mind, like parachute, only function when open," "Talk cannot cook rice," "Too late to dig well when honorable house is on fire," and "Advice after mistake is like medicine after dead man's funeral."

Huang clearly has affection for the character, but recognizes the anger the character inspires in Asians. He does point out that at the time, the character was popular in China--here was a virtuous, positive character, never mind that he wasn't played by an actual Chinese person. Keye Luke, who for years played Chan's Number One Son, dismisses criticism, citing he was a "Chinese hero."

But during the 1960s, when racial pride was exerting itself in all ethnicities in America, a streak of political correctness submerged Charlie Chan. Not too long ago a push to ban his films from being aired on television succeeded on the Fox Movie Channel, which then relented from counter arguments. Huang seems a little miffed at the consternation, writing: "When some people complain about Charlie Chan's deferential docility, especially in the presence of white men, they have simply underestimated the real strength of his character. Chan is a peculiar American brand of trickster prevalent in ethnic literature and incarnated by Mark Twain's Huck Finn and Herman Melville's Confidence Man (curiously named China Aster). It is a legend that also includes Jim Crow, the Bunker brothers, Al Jolson's Jazz Singer, and Stepin Fetchit and his numerous step-chillun. All these characters are indeed rooted in the toxic soil of racism, but racism has made their tongues only sharper, their art more lethally potent. This undeniable fact, insulting and sobering, has uniquely identified America."