Follow by Email

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars is a decent sci-fi film that, unfortunately, calls to mind better sci-fi films. Directed by Brian DePalma (whatever happened to him?) this film was made in 2000 and didn't make much of an impact.

Set in the year 2020, which looks pretty much like today, the film is about the first manned mission to Mars. The four-person crew finds some sort of energy source, which freaks out and kills three of them, leaving only Don Cheadle alive. A rescue crew sets out for him, but because it takes six months to get there, they aren't sure he'll be alive when they arrive.

The rescue crew is made up of Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Gary Sinise, and Jerry O'Connell. Robbins and Nielsen are married, while Sinise is still mourning his wife, who was supposed to accompany him but died of cancer. Watching Sinise play wistful sadness for two hours is not pleasant.

There's a fairly tense sequence in which one of the crew ends up stranded, floating in space, his comrades trying to reach him. Other than that, there's very little suspense, more of a sense of awe as we wait to see why there's a giant face carved on the Mars surface.

The ending, which is too reliant on special effects, has direct links to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I would imagine much of this film would set astrophysicists' eyes rolling, but the suggestion that Mars had a technologically-advanced civilization before Earth even had life is ludicrous. Mars and Earth formed roughly at the same time, if you believe in the Big Bang (and why wouldn't you), so there just wasn't time for Mars to be millions of years ahead of Earth. But, of course, it is science-fiction.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The In-Laws

When Peter Falk died last week, I thought first of a good friend, who adored him. She believes she was the only teenage girl who had a crush on Columbo. We were discussing his most famous film roles. I mentioned The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire, and his participation in the films of John Cassavetes. He was nominated for an Oscar twice for Best Supporting Actor for Murder, Inc. and A Pocketful of Miracles, two movies that are little-remembered today. He had a small role in one of my favorite comedies, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But my friend had the definitive answer. "Serpentine!"

She was referring to the 1979 comedy The In-Laws, which I hadn't seen since it first opened but have fond memories of. I watched it again the other day and laughed out loud several times. It really is one of the better pure comedies of the last fifty years.

The In-Laws is a particular genre of comedy--the mismatched buddy films. Another example is Midnight Run. It's when two characters who hardly know each other and either dislike or irritate each other are forced to act together to defeat a common opponent.

Falk is paired with Alan Arkin, who plays a mild-mannered dentist, Sheldon Kornpett (dentist is the go-to profession for meek, law-abiding characters). Arkin's daughter is marrying Falk's son, but they haven't met until two days before the wedding. We are led to believe Falk is some sort of criminal, as the film opens with a robbery of a U.S. Treasury truck for engraving blocks for $500 bills. Falk, making dinner conversation, tells some real whoppers, like seeing children carried off by "tse-tse flies the size of eagles," leaving Arkin staring incredulously. Then Falk hides one of the engravings in Arkin's basement.

It turns out Falk is a CIA agent, and gets Arkin involved in a plot to destroy the Western economies. Arkin gets shot at and then flown to a Carribean island, where he and Falk are again shot at, and meet a wacky general, lovely played by Richard Libertini (he has a Senor Wences painted on his hand).

Written by Andrew Bergman and directed by Arthur Hiller, The In-Laws utilizes the best work of the two leads: Arkin, for his wide-eyed panic (there's a terrific scene where he yells at Falk in a New York City diner), and Falk for his chatty obsequiousness, which was part of his toolkit while playing Columbo. The way the two played off each other was simply genius, and it's too bad they didn't make a series of movies.

The "serpentine" reference refers to when Falk tells Arkin how to avoid gunfire--by running in a serpentine patter. Arkin forgets to do so, and Falk yells, "Serpentine!" so Arkin goes back into range and dutifully runs the way Falk has told him to. Funny stuff.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Answer Man

I had to stew on The Answer Man for a while to sort out what I thought of it. I knew I didn't like it, but I wasn't quite sure why. Then it occurred to me--it's heart is in the right place, but it's incredibly obvious.

Jeff Daniels plays the author of a world-famous bestseller, a spiritual tome that purports to be answers to life's persistent questions, supplied by God. Let me say that again--Daniels has written a book claiming he communicates with God, and millions of people have taken it face value.

He's a recluse, though, and acquires a Salinger-like mystique. People assume he's some mystic, but in reality he's a foul-mouthed misanthrope. It isn't until two people come into his life that he discovers that though he has helped millions of people, he can't help himself. Get out your hankies!

The two people are Lou Taylor Pucci, a bookstore owner who struggles with alcoholism, and Lauren Graham as a chiropractor who fixes Daniels' back and steals his heart. It doesn't take a high IQ to figure out that they will fall in love, problems will arise, and he will have to change his ways and become a caring person. This script could have been written by a computer program.

The ending, in particular, is incredibly predictable. I won't spoil it, but Daniels insinuates he has a big secret, which he reveals it at the end. Let me say one more time--he claims to talk to God, and no one questions this.

The actors are appealing and work hard, but there are no real characters here. Daniels is all over the map, and he's playing a familiar type. I love Graham in The Gilmore Girls, but aside from Bad Santa her movie choices have been a list of clunkers. I'd love to see her in a really good role.

The director is John Hindman, who probably has some interesting things to say about spirituality and twelve-step programs, but he doesn't in this film.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Beginners

Beginners is a film that walks a tightrope, always threatening to topple into an abyss of preciousness and mawkishness, but it never does. It wobbles a bit, but for whatever minor sins it commits, it had me at the beginning, for the sublimely absurd moment of a man giving a dog a tour of his home, including showing him the bathroom.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, who previously made Thumbsucker, another pretty good movie that could have been an indie nightmare, Beginners is about a man weighed down by sadness, which is not exactly the kind of story that goes over well in pitch meetings. Ewan McGregor is Oliver who, as the film begins, is dealing with his father's death. We learn, in flashback, that his father (Christopher Plummer), was a closeted gay man who only comes out after his wife dies.

The current storyline for McGregor is his relationship with a French actress, Melanie Laurent, that is one of the most bracingly honest depictions of a fledgling romance that I've seen in quite some time. This, even though they spend their first night together with her not speaking, due to laryngitis (they meet at a costume party, where McGregor is dressed as Sigmund Freud--how Freudian). McGregor and Laurent and the writing all exquisitely present an authentic example of how people become instantly enamored with each other.

The film bounces back and forth between McGregor's last days with his father, who has embraced his homosexuality by finding a much younger lover and working for the gay rights movement, the relationship with Laurent, and a few far-too fleeting scenes of a young Oliver with his eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller), which could be expanded into a movie I would like to see. McGregor is also an artist of some sort, designing a CD package for a band called The Sads, which prompts him to draw a cartoon history of sadness.

All of this is framed in voiceover narration by McGregor, who moves around in time by showing us images from the years in question. This flirts with being too cute, but Mills holds the line. He also gets nervy by having the dog, an adorable Jack Russell terrier, speak in the form of subtitles. (His first line is "I can recognize 150 words, but I cannot talk"). This is the kind of thing that sounds terrible on paper but is actually very funny, and gives the film a likable weirdness that gets it past all the gloominess that surround the characters.

In an interesting coincidence, I saw this film on one of the biggest weekends in recent gay history--a gay pride weekend that was all the more sweeter after the passage of the gay-marriage bill in New York. However, the issue of Plummer's gayness, which is prominent in the trailer, doesn't seem to really matter. McGregor is surprised, but it's not an issue for him, and it isn't in the movie, either. It's really almost superfluous, other than to depict a man who, at the age of 75, is finally being who he really is.

Beginners is a sweet, melancholy little movie, with good performances all around (although I look forward to the DVD with subtitles so I can actually find out some of the things Laurent said that I couldn't make out). And, depending on how things shake out, Plummer may be in the running for an Academy Award nomination.

My grade for Beginners: B+.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Last Stand

Yesterday, June 25th, was the anniversary of one of the most famous events in American history: Custer's defeat at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the U.S., as news reached the general public just as they were celebrating the centennial of the nation and, as author Nathaniel Philbrick points out in his book, The Last Stand, it was as much a last stand for the Indians as it was for Custer's battalion.

A lot has been written about this topic. I once listened to a lecture on the history of the American West and the professor pointed out that two events gained more attention that any others--Custer's Last Stand and the Alamo (ironically, two massive defeats for Americans). The Little Bighorn certainly has had more written about it than any other event occuring in the American frontier, so one wonders what Philbrick was thinking when he set about writing yet another volume. It turns out his version is lively and authoritative, and told me some things I didn't know before.

Philbrick hones in on the few weeks leading up to the battle, when Custer was hunting for the Indian encampment. His opponent on the other side was Sitting Bull, who gets as much ink as the "young and charismatic popinjay" Custer. I found Sitting Bull to be the more interesting character, as he was a very sensible man, in addition to being very brave and having a high tolerance of pain (he endured "sun dances," which required him to be hung from hooks that pierced his skin). Sitting Bull also had some amazingly prophetic visions.

As Custer moves toward his fate, Philbrick fills us in on some the background, but avoids a detailed biography of the two main figures, instead providing more information on the campaign itself and the other officers under Custer. Two of the most significant are Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen, and scholars have been arguing about the actions of these two for quite some time. Custer's superior officer, General Terry, also comes in for some blame.

Most often Custer's Last Stand is viewed as a tale of hubris by a vainglorious and arrogant soldier (he was already thinking about running for president--that year). Philbrick doesn't dissuade us of that view. He points out that Custer underestimated the numbers of his opponent, and his foolish decision to split his force in the face of a larger enemy. But there's plenty of blame to go around. Reno comes in for some particular venom, as he had a chance to over-run the village in the initial attack, but held off. Philbrick ascribes some of Reno's mistakes to the fact that he was drunk.

Through it all, though, Philbrick maintains that Custer could have won the battle. He made a last ditch effort to capture Indian women and children to serve as hostages. Philbrick writes, "Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool. But as Sitting Bull, Runs the Enemy, and many other Lakota and Cheyenne realized that day, he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career."

It's not hard to read any account of this battle and not feel bad for the Indians. Custer thoughtlessly desecrated a Lakota grave site on his march to Montana, which may have added to his bad karma. But certainly the end was near for the Indian way of life, and Sitting Bull realized this. He favored a pick-and-choose way of assimilation. He also knew that the greater threat to their lifestyle was the loss of the buffalo rather than the military. Sitting Bull knew that his people would have to compromise or face starvation.

Philbrick's account of the battle itself is thrilling. Reno's charge failed, and his men retreated for their lives. Benteen lost track of Custer, and was angry (he had it in for Custer from the beginning) that Custer didn't come to Reno's aid, when Custer was wondering where Benteen was. Philbrick points out that any description of what occurred on Last Stand Hill is dubious, as there are no accounts by any white men, and the Indian accounts differ. Some say Custer was hit early, others believe he fought until the very end. What Philbrick can say is that Custer's brother Tom was one of the last to fall, and he was badly mutilated (his head was pounded to the thickness of a human hand). He also may have helped his brother out with a mercy killing--Custer had two gunshot wounds: in the chest and in the temple. Perhaps Tom, who died beside him, dispatched him with a merciful head shot.

The bodies of the soldiers were badly mutilated, mainly by the women of the tribes who remembered the horrible massacre at the Battle of Sand Creek. Custer's ears were punctured, so he would be able to hear better in the afterlife. His genitals were also mutilated. Some of the men couldn't be identified. "Sittin Bull, One bull claimed, insisted that the Hunkpapa stay away from the dead on Last Stand Hill. One Bull also said his uncle predicted that for failure to comply with the wishes of the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka, the Lakota would forever, 'covet white people's belongings' and ultimately 'starve at [the] white man's door.' This victory, great as it was, had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Imperfectionists

There's been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the fate of the newspaper. While Tom Rachman does not directly address that issue in his lovely novel The Imperfectionists, I felt the issue hovering over the action like a gathering storm cloud.

The setting is a shabby English-language newspaper based in Rome, kind of a third-rate International Herald Tribune. Rachman tells his story in a series of inter-connected chapters that each feature an employee of the paper (or, in one instance, a reader). These chapters range from the comic to the tragic, sometimes inside one chapter. I guess the term for it is serio-comic, or it could just be called life.

There is full range of characters--the driven editor-in-chief, Kathleen Solson; the news editor, Cameron Menzies, who is amazingly married to a young and beautiful woman; the bitter and lonely copy editor; the lazy obituary writer who experiences a life-changing moment; and the bumptious corrections editor who delights in calling his underlings nitwits.

The funniest chapter belongs to a potential stringer in Cairo, a young man who decided to give up studying primatology and become a journalist, even though he knows nothing about it. He ends up being bulldozed by a professional foreign correspondent who ends up taking his laptop and his house keys. The most surreal chapter involves the reader, a bit of a sci-fi section where the woman takes several weeks to read each paper, cover to cover, and thus is several years behind in the news. Since she has no other news source, she lives in a kind of time warp, not knowing current events except those that occurred a decade earlier.

The prose is crisp and deliciously-rendered. I turned down a corner on a couple of passages, but here is the opening of the chapter on the bitter copy editor, Ruby Zaga: "The jerks took her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It's amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then. 'Pricks,' she mutters. She should just quit. Hand in her resignation. Never set foot in the place again. Leave these idiots in the dirt." As a copy editor myself, that is spot-on, folks.

Interspersed among the chapters are snippets of the history of the paper, and the books ends with the ineffectual grandson of the founder as publisher, who's avoidance of business issues shrouds the ending in a bleak layer of pessimism. As his older brother tells him, "You don't even have a website. How can you expect revenue without a Web presence?"

I have no idea if the newspaper will last. I expect they will through my lifetime, which is good, because there's nothing like handling actual newsprint. The Imperfectionists understands that feeling, and pays tribute to it, however melancholically.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Defendor

The glut of superhero films over the last few decades has spawned a subgenre--the superhero-without-superpowers film. We've had Kick-Ass and Super (which I haven't seen yet) and then there's Defendor, a Canadian film that was released last year. I had never heard of it until searching Netflix for Kat Dennings films, and after seeing it it deserved a better fate than obscurity.

Woody Harrelson stars as a man who is politely called "slow." He works for a road crew in a crime-ridden city. At night he puts on a German war helmet, black clothing, paints on an eye mask, duct-tapes a "D" onto his chest, carries a trench club, and fights crime. We don't get an origin story, but his tale is revealed in flashback while being evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist.

Defendor is less about vigilantism than it is a clear-eyed look at mental illness. Harrelson's psychosis is palpable--he puts on the garb of a superhero, the kind he has worshipped since before he could read--to escape from his dreary life. For not having powers, or even being all that physically fit, he employs some clever tactics, such as throwing marbles or using wasps (he should have called himself Wasp-Man). But when he crosses a corrupt cop (Elias Koteas), which in turn gets him involved with a Serbian drug lord, he's in over his head.

Frankly, I was expecting a straight-to-DVD-quality film but I was both impressed and moved by Defendor. Dennings plays a hooker who Harrelson takes under his wing--that's a cliche, but Dennings invests more than the character is worth. Writer and director Peter Stebbings has also made a visually interesting film (Harrelson's helmet has a video camera attached, a problem in this day and age when he has trouble buying blank videocassettes).

Though Harrelson's character is the center of the film, vigilantism is a theme. Defendor says more about the subject than the overwrought Watchmen, and is a buried treasure that deserves to be seen by more people, particularly those who like to think about superheroes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chicken Run

From 2000, Chicken Run was the first feature-length film from Aardman Productions, best known for Nick Park's wonderful "Wallace and Gromit" films. A charming, if slight, tale, it's sure to please fans of World War II P.O.W. movies and vegetarians alike.

Set on the Tweedy farm somewhere in England, the hens live in a precarious situation. Thankfully, at the outset, it's strictly an egg farm, but if a hen's production drops off, she becomes the Tweedy's dinner.

One of the hens, Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) yearns to break free of the farm. She attempts escape several times, but Mr. Tweedy, though not very bright, always manages to catch her, and throw her into solitary (we get one reference to The Great Escape by her enduring her imprisonment throwing a ball against a wall).

She's just about given up hope when a cocky rooster (redundant?) voiced by Mel Gibson arrives. Ginger thinks he can fly, and hopes that he will teach them to fly over the fence and to freedom. This becomes even more imperative when the diabolical Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson) decides that the sluggish profit of eggs can be multiplied by a huge machine that will turn her fowl into chicken pot pies.

Chicken Run is fun without being brilliant, and is not as good as the Wallace and Gromit feature. It's still amazing to look at the claymation techniques and not be amazed about how much work went into it, and chickens, let's face it, are inherently funny. Most of the humor is droll and not laugh-out-loud, such as the hen coop having the number "17" scrawled on it (certainly a reference to another P.O.W. film, Stalag 17).

It is weird to see Mel Gibson in the DVD extras and remember there was a time when he was thought of as a genial movie star and not a nut.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Daydream Nation

It's clear the first-time writer-director Michael Goldbach harbors an affection for the venerable indie-rock band Sonic Youth. Not only does the title share its name with their critically-acclaimed album, but the lead male character is named Thurston, certainly an homage to Sonic Youth's lead guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore. But unlike Sonic Youth's brittle, noise-rock style, Daydream Nation the film is more like a cinematic version of emo-rock.

Kat Dennings plays a high-school girl who has moved from a big city to a small town for her senior year in high school. Right away I was irritated because this is all explained to us in voiceover. She tells us how hated she is by the other kids in the school, but we never see any of it. In fact, she goes to a party early on, where she meets Thurston (Reece Thompson), a fucked-up stoner who hangs with a bunch of kids who will smoke anything, from weed to kitchen-cleaning products.

Out of boredom, Dennings seduces an English teacher (Josh Lucas), who resists her at first out of professional decorum, but once enmeshed, becomes obsessed with her. He's kind of a cliche--the teacher working on a novel, which was much better done by Paul Giamatti in Sideways. When Dennings starts to respond to Thompson's awkward advances, Lucas goes crazy and tries to break them up.

Somewhere in here is a decent high-school story, a well-trod ground in movies, but it gets cluttered by too much business. There's a fatal car crash, a wild party, and even a serial killer, which lends what I'm sure Goldbach intended to be a Richard Kelly element but instead just makes the whole thing disjointed.

Dennings is an appealing young actress, and she knows a nice character arc, her sarcasm whittled away to reveal a soft inner core. Andie MacDowell, as Thompson's mother, also has some nice moments.

But Daydream Nation plays like a film school thesis, with a rough-draft script. If I were producing this film I would have suggested to Goldbach that he completely cut every bit of the voiceover--he might have found that it wasn't necessary.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Tree of Life

The title of The Tree of Life is a common motif in most world religions--all of life is interconnected. That is why, I suspect, that Terence Malick, in his long-awaited film, attempts to tie the somewhat insignificant-seeming tale of a Texas family in the 1950s to the creation of the universe. The film is certainly not for the average moviegoer--there were walkouts and grumblings during the screening I saw. I'm not certain what it was all about, but I was never bored and frequently transfixed.

The film's opening dialogue is a voiceover by the mother of the family (Jessica Chastain) distinguishing between the "way of grace and the way of nature." She is of the way of grace, while her husband (Brad Pitt) is of the way of nature. He will attempt to teach their three sons the notion of survival of the fittest, making them tough. When he over-reacts at the middle child for speaking at the dinner table, she protests, and he tells her that she is always undermining him.

The eldest son, Jack (in a remarkable juvenile performance by Hunter McCracken) rebels against his father, even though he admits he's more like him than his mother. When Pitt is away on a long business trip Jacks participates in antisocial behavior, like petty vandalism and animal abuse (he straps a frog to a rocket and shoots it into the sky, which I must admit is something that kids that I hung with did when I lived in Texas, although we had the decency to put the amphibian in a small capsule). There's a great moment when Jack comes across his father working underneath the family car, with only a jack standing between him and mortality. The boy looks at the jack, fantasizes, and moves on, and then in a voiceover says, "Please God. Kill him."

All of this sounds pretty normal, right? A simple, family drama? Well, early in the film Malick makes either a daring or foolhardy move, depending on your point of view. He embarks on about a twenty-minute history of the universe, starting with the big bang. He takes through the Earth's volcanic stages, the creation of water, and even a scene involving dinosaurs. Tellingly, that scene involves one dinosaur committing an act of grace toward another dinosaur. It was during this scene I was reminded of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Malick's seemed to have more purpose. All of it is lovingly rendered by the cinematographer, Emmanuel Luzbecki and the five credited editors.

There's another aspect to the film that doesn't work so well. Sean Penn appears as the grown-up Jack, working as an architect in a modern city. This is the first time Malick has ever set a film in the modern day, and he seems jumpy, as if he wandered into the ladies' room by mistake and wants to get out as fast as possible. Sure enough he puts Penn in a dream-like desert surrounding, presumably in some sort of reminiscence about his childhood and the death of his brother (we learn about the death at the outset of the film, but we never know how he dies).

The Penn sequences take the film into an area that I can't defend. The ending, set on a beach, has all the characters of the film together. It reminded me both of the end of Fellini's 8 1/2, though without humor, and the beginning of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, with Allen's film-within-a-film ending with all the movie's characters gathered at a landfill. But that was a parody of pretentious, self-indulgent filmmaking, and for those who claim Malick's film is just that, well, you may have a point.

But despite these flights of weirdness, I found The Tree of Life enthralling. The scenes of the family are so good, so attentively detailed. I loved Pitt's performance as the wound-too-tight dad, who dreamed of becoming a musician but ends up adrift in business. The scenes between the boys are spot-on, and richly evoke a time of innocence and danger (they play with BB guns, light sockets, and run into clouds of DDT).

Another motif working through the film is the Book of Job. A church sermon during the film is on that book of the Bible, and Malick opens the film with an epigraph of God's admonishment to Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" What does this all mean? I'm not quite sure, but may be in line with a portion of the Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner bit in "The 2,000-Year-Old Man," when Brooks tells Reiner how man first started believing in God. I'm paraphrasing: "There was a guy named Phil who was the biggest and meanest guy, and bossed everybody around. Then, one day, Phil was struck by lightning. We realized that there's something bigger than Phil."

My grade for The Tree of Life: A-.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Tourist

When it was released last December, I was looking forward to seeing The Tourist, but bad reviews scared me away. This was a good thing, because it turns out the film is a real dud. It features two megastars, but they display an astounding lack of chemistry.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for the excellent The Lives of Others, makes his Hollywood money grab and falls flat. Supposedly a stylish take on the spy thriller, The Tourist instead is a muddle, with a couple of obligatory twists, one of which, while clever, makes no logical sense.

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are the stars. He's a meek math teacher on a train from France to Venice. She's the girlfriend of an international thief, being trailed by Interpol in the hope of leading them to him. She spots Depp on the train and pretends he's the thief, though he doesn't know it. He's dazzled by her, and she feels guilty about putting him in danger.

There's the requisite action scenes--a chase across the rooftops of Venice, and of course, a boat chase through the canals, but none of it seems right. Jolie has never looked more ravishing, but frankly I'm tired of seeing her in action roles like this. I realize they fund her charitable works, but I'd like to see her do meatier stuff with a lower payday. Depp is almost completely at a loss trying to play a nebbish, hiding his matinee idol status behind a disheveled, mumbling character.

The twist at the end gives us some of the reasons behind this, but I'm still not convinced. The Tourist is a sluggish, pointless exercise, and only succeeds at being a commercial for Venice tourism, but when has that ever been necessary?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Deadwood

It's a mystery why it's taken me so long to get around to watching the HBO series Deadwood, since it's a subject I'm fascinated by, and it's gotten almost universally good reviews. I just finished watching the first season, and it's among the best television I've ever seen.

The show is set in Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, in the summer of 1876. Custer has just been defeated at the Little Bighorn, and gold fever has consumed the Black Hills, which is Indian land, given to them by treaty with the U.S. government. Of course, once gold was discovered, treaties weren't worth the paper they were printed on, and people of all sort, mostly the dregs of society, poured in.

At the time Deadwood was more a camp than a town. Ruling the roost is Al Swearingen (Ian McShane), the owner of the saloon in town. He doesn't prospect for gold--he takes the money of the prospectors, selling them booze, dope, and women. He's a fearsome character, with a foul mouth, an iron fist, and a keen sense of survival.

Two newcomers in town upset the balance. One of them is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who is the hero of the show. A former marshal from Montana, he and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), have come to Deadwood to open a hardware store. Bullock wants no part of being a lawman again, but his character arc over the course of the season--his sense of moral duty as well as a violent temper--assures the viewer that it's only a matter of time before he wears the tin star.

The other newcomer is Wild Bill Hickok, the legendary gunmen. Played magnificently by Keith Carradine, Wild Bill has outlived his time, and wants to do nothing but play poker. He's caretaken by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and fawned over by "Calamity" Jane Cannary (Robin Weigert), an uncouth woman who's more at home with cowboys than the fairer aspects of her sex.

All of these people were real. Series creator David Milch takes some liberties--Utter, in fact, was a bit of a dandy, not the slovenly fellow that appears--but much of it is accurate. Anyone with a knowledge of history knows that Hickok will not last long, and even keener fanciers of the Old West know that the pathetic Jack McCall (Garrett Dillahunt) is the man who will do him in. McCall is constantly getting Hickok's goat, and asks him, "How stupid do you think I am?" Wild Bill replies, "I don't know. I just met you."

Several other plot threads weave their way through the series. Jane takes care of a young Swedish girl who is the only survivor of a massacre; she ultimately comes under the care of Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), who has come to Deadwood with her dilettante husband, who has bought a gold claim. A rival saloon-keeper (Powers Boothe) comes to town, along with a madam (Kim Dickens) and a gambling expert (Ricky Jay). There's a smallpox epidemic and the suffering of a minister (Ray McKinnon) who develops a brain tumor.

Through the entire series several themes emerge. Foremost is the sense of community. Deadwood is a lawless town--since it is on Indian land it is illegal for any white people to be there. Even so, there is a sense of order. Though someone may be shot at any moment, there's a struggle between good and evil, with good somehow having a tendency to triumph. Despite the nefarious intentions of some, especially Swearingen, the essential decency of people seems to triumph every time.

Though Swearingen is ostensibly a villain, he's much more complex than that, and the writing and McShane's brilliant performance make him fascinating. He's out for himself, that's for sure, but he's not against doing the right thing. The first season culminates with him killing someone in an act of mercy, answering the prayer of the town's doctor (Brad Dourif), another great character. Doc Cochran was a doctor during the Civil War who has seen plenty of horrors, and he performs his duties (a lot of which are tending to the gynecological need of the whores) with purpose and compassion.

Another great character is hotel-owner E.B. Farnum, played by William Sanderson, who is something of a buffoon, but with a sophisticated vocabulary. He's Swearingen's stooge, but privately bristles at playing the role of henchman, and longs to make riches on his own. He has a terrific monologue while scrubbing a bloodstain off the floor of one his hotel rooms, in which he tells off Swearingen--not to his face, of course.

The series got a lot of notoriety for its excessive profanity--there were 43 uses of some variation of "fuck" in the first hour--and linguists debated whether the word "cocksucker" was in use at that time (it's the only English word that the lord of Chinatown knows). But this is not a Western that is subject to the Hays Code or the romanticism of the Hollywood Western. It's more in line with the revisionist history of Patricia Limerick, who debunked the gallantry of the West of historians like Jackson Turner. This Old West was dirty and foul, with almost all of the women working as whores. There was dust and mud and horseshit everywhere, and violence was random and frequent. It was a microcosm of America, in a way.

Everyone involved with this series is to be congratulated.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Room

As someone who has dabbled with writing fiction, I know that if an idea crossed my mind to write a novel narrated by a 5-year-old boy, I would do my best to quash it. That Emily Donoghue's Room is so amazingly good and that it is narrated by a boy of that age isn't the only thing distinctive about it, though.

Jack is the narrator of our tale. He has lived his entire life in an 11 foot square room with his mother. We eventually learn that she was kidnapped seven years earlier and has been locked up in modified garden shed by her captor, who is also Jack's father. Jack knows him as "Old Nick," who provides minimal comforts, which Jack calls "sundaytreats."

Jack thinks the entire world is in that room. He personalizes the objects in the room, and they are identified as proper nouns, like Rug and Table and Lamp. They have a television, but Jack doesn't grasp that there's anything outside of Room--what's on TV is fictional. He refers to the different channels as "planets," and they have no connection to his reality. When his mother decides to level with him he's amazed that he's been deceived.

I can't discuss the last half of the book, as I read the book not knowing what would happen and I wouldn't want anyone else to, either. But the book touches upon the essence of consciousness--for Jack, the room is a universe, and there is no outside. Each of us creates our own universe, on a larger scale, but still with its limits. Ma wants to be free, to see her parents again, to go back to her old life, but Jack is afraid to leave the comforts of Room, not realizing it's a prison.

The book wouldn't succeed without the great voice of Jack. He thinks like a 5-year-old, but he's smarter than most. Some of what he thinks is hilariously funny, because he takes everything literally. When a woman calls him a doll, he thinks, "Why she call me a doll?" He's still being breast-fed--his mother never saw the point in stopping--and he indicates he wants feeding by saying "I want some," and is a connoisseur between the left and the right. By the end you really don't want the book to be over--you want to know what will become of him.

One wonders if Donoghue was inspired by the real-life case of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11 and bore two children to her captor.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Operation Mincemeat

Many years ago I read a book called The Man Who Never Was, by Ewen Montagu, about an espionage operation during World War II. A corpse washed ashore with secret papers that misled the Germans about invasion plans. The corpse had been given an identity, but the man never really existed.

That book has remained in print ever since it was published in the 1950s, but Ben Macintyre has written the complete story, called Operation Mincemeat, named after the code name of the operation. Montagu, one of the key intelligence officers involved in the deception, left some things out of his story. Most importantly, he left out the true identity of the corpse, which wasn't discovered until very recently.

After the Allies defeated the Axis in North Africa, the next step was Europe. The natural point of invasion was Sicily, but the problem was the Germans knew that, too. How to get the Germans to think the invasion might be somewhere else? One of the intelligence agents, Ian Fleming, had read a novel by a not-very-good mystery writer who used a plot of a phony person. Fleming presented the idea, which percolated among the intelligence community. Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley hatched the plan, which gained acceptance from Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower. First they had to find a body.

Macintyre reveals that it was Welsh man named Glyndwr Martin, a poor soul who presumably killed himself with rat poison. The British government appropriated the body (quite illegally) and set about creating a new identity of an officer named William Martin. They created a whole life for him, including parents and a fiancee. The plan was to have the body wash ashore, presumably drowned after an airplane crash, in Spain with classified documents that would suggest to whomever found him that the Allies were using Sicily as a decoy--they really planned to invade in Greece and Sardinia.

Macintyre covers the steps involved. He introduces us not only to the British participants, including an Admiral who was the basis for "M" in Fleming's James Bond novels (and the man who was the basis for "Q" as well) but also their German counterparts, including a gullible officer who swallowed the deception hook, line and sinker, and another one who Macintyre believes knew it was a phony, but said nothing because he was secretly acting against the Nazis.

It's a fascinating story, and certainly the case can be made that without Operation Mincemeat, a invasion of Southern Europe would have far more difficult (the Allies, partially under George Patton, took Sicily with minimal casualties).

Macintyre spins a great yarn, and has a droll touch. When discussing how "William Martin's" death was reported in the Times, he writes, "The Times was the place important people wanted to be seen dead in, and it is not possible to be deader than in the death columns of Britain's most venerable newspaper...This, however, was the first time in the newspaper's history that a person was formally pronounced dead without ever having been alive."

Then, when discussing the film version of Montagu's book, in which Montagu played a small role: "This was a wonderfully surreal moment: the real Montagu addressing his fictional persona, in a work of filmic fiction, based on reality, which had originated in fiction."

Lovers of spy thrillers and World War II history will eat this up with a spoon, as will Anglophiles, as the British come off as smart and the Germans buffoons (except for Joseph Goebbels, who smelled a rat right away). The writing is distinctly for the general reader, and is a real page turner. Macintyre doesn't say so, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that the plot was an inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's film North by Northwest, in that it's about a spy who doesn't exist.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Spy Game

Spy Game, a 2001 film directed by Tony Scott, is slickly made, looks good, and has some decent acting. But I had almost no reaction watching it--it was like watching people pass by my window. I had nothing invested in the characters, and the attempt to build suspense was technically proficient, but emotionally hollow.

As the film begins, Brad Pitt attempts to break a mysterious prisoner out of a Chinese prison. He's caught, and revealed to be an American spy. He will be executed in 24 hours. The CIA calls in his old boss, Robert Redford, for information about him. Through a series of flashbacks, Redford relates how he recruited Pitt and some of the missions they went on (to indicate Pitt as a younger man, they give him mussed hair).

It dawns on Redford that the CIA is eager to leave Pitt out to dry, and he works stealthily to maneuver around the brass and rescue him, all from inside the CIA headquarters. There's another agent (Stephen Dillane) who has some sort of beef against Redford, and is the cliche of the bureaucratic prick. Oh, and did I mention this all happens on Redford's last day of employment?

The concept of rogue agents is an interesting, albeit overworked theme in spy films, but this one just didn't grab me. Redford is engaging, as the once master spy turned office jockey, and the tricks he plays to get around Dillane are mildly amusing (it's unclear why Dillane hates him so much, but I guess it's just because he's the bureaucratic prick). But there's a romance between Pitt and an aid worker (Catherine McCormack) that doesn't work, which is a problem, because she's the prisoner.

Like most of Tony Scott's work, Spy Game looks expensive (it's set in about a jillion countries and has all sorts of military hardware) but lacks a beating heart. It's kind of a snore.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Stranger

There are some who think that Orson Welles' Citizen Kane used many techniques that would become common in film noir, namely the use of light and shadow. Citizen Kane did not have a film noir plot, but Welles would end up making films in the noir mold, such as The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and The Stranger, from 1946.

The Stranger fits sort of sideways in the noir category. It's not in a urban setting, and it's not hard-boiled. The characters are well-to-do and educated, and the central crime is not about a small-time robbery--instead it's the biggest crime of the 20th century. But it is a noir film, because the main character is the villain, while the hero is shoved aside to the periphery.

Welles stars as a Nazi war criminal--we are told he was the architect of the death camps--posing as a mild-mannered professor in a bucolic New England town. He's being hunted by Edward G. Robinson and his task force, but they have no idea where he is, until his old colleague, who has suddenly found religion, tracks him down, with agents following him. The colleague leads Robinson to the small Connecticut town, but he loses him before he can pinpoint the Nazi's precise whereabouts. Welles, realizing what's happened, murders his old assistant and starts sweating it out.

This film is a masterpiece of tension. After a certain point, Welles knows Robinson is looking for him and Robinson knows Welles is his man (after a remark about Marx not being German, but a Jew--who else would think that way?) Welles, in order to blend in to the American upper-class, has married the daughter of a Supreme Court justice (Loretta Young), and he creates a cover story about being blackmailed by the brother of an ex-lover. Robinson has to convince her that she's in danger, but she backs her husband--until the end, of course.

The film has masterful Welles' touches, such as his repeated use of close-ups of smoking pipes, and his use of a clock tower in the town's church. Robinson tells people that Welles was almost completely unknown to authorities, except for one thing--his obsession with clocks. Need I tell you that the climax of the film takes place in the clock tower?

The Stranger is also notable for it being the first film to actual film from the death camps. Robinson shows the film of piles of bodies and a gas chamber to Young to show her the man she married. It's a powerful scene as we watch her, the reflected images flickering across her astonished face.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Rose Tattoo

Continuing my series on the plays of Tennesse Williams, I turn to his 1951 play, The Rose Tattoo. I have never seen it performed, nor have I seen the film version which won Anna Magnani a Best Actress Oscar, but I read the play last night and have a few comments.

To start with, it must have been something of a surprise for audiences accustomed to Williams' searing dramas, for The Rose Tattoo is something of an opera buffa, a sex comedy, with characters that are almost caricatures of Sicilians. Williams spent a lot of time in Sicily, and no doubt there are Sicilians who are overly dramatic and whose lives revolve the statue of Our Lady in their houses, but in this day and age I couldn't help but feel it was an ethic stereotype. It is funny, though.

The play is about Serafina, who lives with her husband and daughter in a small town on the Gulf Coast. Her husband, Rosario delle Rose (the play is so full of rose imagery that we are reminded again that Williams' sister was named Rose), is a truck driver. He usually hauls bananas, but does some work for the mob and ends up getting killed,

Serafina is devastated, and spends the next three years in an almost perpetual state of dishevelment. Against the wishes of the local priest, she keeps her husband's ashes in an urn in the house. Her daughter Rosa is ready to graduate high school, and has met a sailor at a school dance, but Serafina wants to keep her away from men. There's a wonderful scene where Serafina meets the sailor, Jack, and learns that he is possibly the only chaste sailor in the entire U.S. Fleet. When he kneels to the Madonna statue and promises he will not touch Rosa, Serafina is satisfied.

The title comes from the body art on Rosario's chest, which she momentarily saw on her own chest when she conceived. Serafina and her husband had a healthy sex life, but when she learns from a pair of busybodies that he may have cheated on her, she starts to unravel. She meets another truck driver, a younger man named Alvaro, and after a halting one-day courtship, goes to bed with him (in an effort to woo her, he also gets a rose tattoo on his chest). He's almost pathological in his pursuit of her, but she takes a while to warm to his advances. I loved this little exchange:

Alvaro: I bought this suit to get married in four years ago.
Serafina: But didn't get married?
Alvaro: I give her, the girl, a zircon instead of a diamond. She had it examined. The door was slammed in my face.
Serafina: I think maybe I'd do the same thing myself.
Alvaro: Buy the zircon?
Serafina: No, slam the door.

Magnani was offered the part for Broadway, but was not confident enough in her English and passed. Maureen Stapleton took the role, and Eli Wallach played Alvaro. It won the Tony that year for best play.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Do You Know

James L. Brooks' How Do You Know was a critical and financial flop, and mystified grammarians for its lack of a question mark in the title. Curious to see how bad it could be, I took a look, and while not a disaster it's an odd film, certainly not up to Brooks' past reputation. Of course, he has a spotty record, with an I'll Do Anything for every Terms of Endearment.

One thing Brooks does in all his films is bend over backwards to get that lump in the throat. How Do You Know is a romance between characters who have each hit rock bottom. Reese Witherspoon is an Olympic softball player who has been cut from the team, and she realizes her athlete days are over. Paul Rudd is a businessman working for his overbearing father (Jack Nicholson), and ends up the target of a federal investigation for fraud.

Witherspoon is in a relationship with a sweet but narcissistic pro baseball player, Owen Wilson. She seems to barely tolerate him, but moves in with him anyway. Wilson is very appealing here, as Brooks lets his puppy-dog nature go into overdrive, and Wilson nails it. He's vain and womanizing, but also immensely likable.

The problem with this film is that though the actors are working hard, they all seem to be in different movies. Witherspoon and Rudd's scenes are almost surreal, as they talk past each other and at times seem as if they're not even in the same room. Rudd, an actor I like, is just too pathetic here, and along with Wilson the quota for puppy-dog behavior is exceeded.

Nicholson wheezes his way through his role so much that you could be concerned with his health.

There's just nothing about this film that struck me as authentic. No one convinced me they were an actual human being, just a collection of character traits. The screenplay seemed to be a first draft, with random lines and scenes that didn't add up to anything.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Patti Smith

While reading Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her early life and relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I listened to her music incessantly. I have five of Smith's albums: Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, Dream of Life, and Gone Again. Only the last one, though, do I have on CD. In order to get a comprehensive overview of her work, I picked up a two-disc anthology titled Land, and that's what I've listening to.

Smith, considered the "Godmother of Punk," emerged in the mid-'70s in New York City as a poet/punk rocker. Her first album, Horses, garnered her much attention. She gained a lot of attention after appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1976, when she and her group performed a cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria," which she fused with a poem of her own called "Oath." The song begins, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." The show aired the night before Easter, but since she went on after midnight, she was technically performing the song on Easter morning. Believe it or not, people actually paid attention to that sort of thing back then.

Smith's version of "Gloria" is a masterpiece, a hybrid of punk and classic rock that 35 years later still gets my blood pumping. But she had many great songs during that era, and on Land they flow from one to the other: "Dancing Barefoot," the Native-American influenced "Ghost Dance," "Pissing in a River," (which is more beautiful and powerful than any song with the word "pissing" in the title has a right to be), and "Free Money." Her biggest hit was co-written with Bruce Springsteen, "Because the Night," which is about as perfect a pop song as you can get.

After a hiatus she returned with the album "Dream of Life" in 1988, which contains the anthemic "People Have the Power," which is a great song, only it's a shame that Tea Party has co-opted that message. My only regret about the Land collection is that it doesn't contain the gorgeous tribute to her son, "Jackson's Song," which is on that album. From Gone Again, Land contains the eerie "Summer Cannibals."

Smith, in the liner notes, describes the structure of Land: "Disc One -- you have chosen for me. Disc Two -- has been chosen for you." Thus the second disc contains demo tracks, live performances, and some oddities. Smith can always surprise--"Come Back Little Sheba" sounds like an old Appalachian folk tune. Generally spoken-word poetry is not my cup of tea, but "Spell" is a heartfelt tribute to the Beats (she was friends with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs). To really keep us guessing, the second disc has a bonus track of Smith singing "Tomorrow," from Annie, which she dedicates to her mother. It's one of the best versions of that song I've heard.

Patti Smith created a lasting legacy. She was one of the major influences on Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and merged the poetic sensibility of Rimbaud and Baudelaire with the grinding sound of CBGB's punk. Her voice, deep and precise, rounded out vowels as if the existence of Earth depended on it, which gives an urgency to her vocals that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck even today.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

Brian DePalma made Hitchcockian films, Woody Allen made Bergmanesque films, and now J.J. Abrams has made a Spiebergian (Spielbergesque?) film, Super 8. The difference is that Spielberg himself has his fingerprints all over it, as he is one of the producers.

If this film isn't as good as Spielberg's best, it's a blast, and if I were 13 I would have loved it even more, as it speaks to the kind of kid I was then, just like the kids in this movie, who are into monster magazines and making models (the site of a jar of Testor's model paint gave me a Proustian rush). It's set in 1979, which was my era, and I very much enjoyed the world that Abrams creates, down to the soundtrack and that a sheriff thinks a Walk-Man is a slippery slope to bad teen behavior.

The film is a hybrid of a childhood adventure and a monster movie--it's like Stand By Me with aliens. A group of kids, led by the rotund Charles (Riley Griffiths), are working on a super 8 film for a festival. His best friend is Joe (Joel Courtney), who has recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. His father, the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), is distant, and wants to send Joe to baseball camp for six weeks, because "it's what we both need."

Joe wants to stay and help Charles, and is delighted when he learns that his crush, Alice (Elle Fanning) is going to be in the movie. Like Joe, Alice is without a mother (a classic Disney tactic), and her father (Ron Eldard) is a drunk who's in and out of trouble with the law. While out filming in the middle of the night at a train station, the kids witness a horrific train crash, when a pickup truck purposely drives into the oncoming train. Their camera records a key bit of information, and they end up trying to outwit the Air Force and their parents to figure out just what's causing all the weird stuff going on in their town.

I won't reveal too much more, but I will say there's a monster involved, and in a classic Spielberg move, you don't see much of him until the end (perhaps this all stems from the happy accident of Bruce the Shark's mechanical problems in Jaws). The monster stuff isn't nearly as interesting as the kids, and having the government be the bogeyman is a tired plot device.

But I loved the interaction between the kids, who are all good, particularly Courtney, Griffiths, and Fanning (who would be any 13-year-old boy's crush). I don't want to sound sexist, but this is really a boy's film, from a male perspective, and Fanning's character is a bit of a dream come true. It reminds me that Spielberg's original title for E.T. was A Boy's Life--this thing is dripping with the stuff that boys love, or at least did once upon a time.

The ending of the film does not exactly hold together. Like the film that Charles is making, some plot points get glided over. There's a rather easy escape by a character from military custody, and when Joe and the creature meet face to face there's some maudlin dialogue that seems straight out of a comic book. But this isn't the kind of movie to spend too much time saying, "Wait a minute." Instead it's a movie about impressions, and drinking in the world of the film. I loved the look of the thing, especially the little Ohio town. I was kind of disappointed that they didn't include a neighborhood movie theater with Alien on the marquee--it came out that summer.

Do stay through the credits, when Charles' film is shown in its entirety, and has lots of laughs. Then stay and listen to the Knack sing "My Sharona," and if you're old enough, have a flashback.

My grade for Super 8: B+

Friday, June 10, 2011

Jim Northrup


Jim Northrup died the other day, at the age of 71. He wasn't a great ballplayer, and unless you're a long-time Detroit Tigers fan you wouldn't know who he was. But when I was a kid, attending tons of games at Tiger Stadium, he was one of my favorite players. He always seemed to hit a home run whenever we went to the game.

He also made a key play in one of the best games I've ever been to. My brother and father and I have been reminiscing about it via e-mail the last couple of days, as we all remember some details. I was only eleven, but some of it is still fresh in my mind. I found the box score online to fill in the rest.

It was July 1, 1972. The Tigers and Orioles were battling for American League East title. Two of the best pitchers in the game, Dave McNally for the O's and Mickey Lolich for the Tigers, were on the mound. Al Kaline, the grand old man of the Tigers, hit a home run in the seventh inning, and the Tigers added another run in the eighth. It could have been more, but Northrup, in the game as a pinch runner, got picked off second base by Doyle Alexander.

Northrup received some catcalls when he stayed in the game, replacing Willie Horton in left for the ninth inning. Lolich was still on the mound (complete games were much more routine in those days). With one out he walked Brooks Robinson, who was pinch-run for by Tom Shopay. Dave Johnson was up, and hit a long fly ball to left. Northrup hoisted himself above the Tiger Stadium fence and hauled the ball in, then fired back into the infield. Shopay was doubled off first, and the game was over.

Northrup had an unspectacular but interesting career. He had a penchant for grand slams--in 1968 he hit four in the regular season, two of them coming on consecutive at-bats and three in one week. He also hit a grand slam in the World Series that year, in game six. But it was in game seven that he had what may have been the biggest hit in Tiger history (pictured above).

The Tigers were facing the Cardinals. The Cards had gone up three games to one, but Detroit won the next two, forcing a game seven. The Tigers had been unable to beat the Cards' ace, Bob Gibson. Lolich, going on two days' rest, pitched for Detroit. In the seventh, with no score and two on, Northrup hit a drive to centerfield. Curt Flood lost the ball for second, and initially moved in. He had to go back and to his right, and in the process stumbled slightly. The ball fell over his head, and Northrup ended up with a two-run triple. It was all the Tigers would need as they would win 4-1 and take the Series.

As I think about it, it's hard to argue that it's not the most important hit in the team's history. They have won only one other game seven--in 1945 against the Cubs--and that game was a laugher. Goose Goslin had a two-out, ninth-inning Series-winning hit against the Cubs in '35, but that was in game six. Al Kaline's hit in game five of the '68 Series, when the Tigers' backs were against the wall, was key, but the Tigers still had two more games to win. And Kirk Gibson's home run against Goose Gossage in the '84 Series was certainly dramatic, but it was in game five.

So Jim Northrup, may he rest in peace, has the biggest hit in Tigers history, says I. He certainly brings back a lot of great memories of my days going to games in green Tiger Stadium, where you could get a good seat at reasonable prices. Those were the days.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Seventh Victim

The last of the nine horror films Val Lewton made for RKO that I'll be writing about is The Seventh Victim, made in 1943, and directed by Mark Robson. It's more noir than horror, and as with the other Lewton pictures, there is less out-and-out frights than there is a fascination with death. Lewton's comment about this film's message was "death is good."

The film stars Kim Hunter, in her film debut, as a young woman in a private school. Her older sister has paid her tuition, but the headmistress tells her they haven't heard from her sister. Hunter decides to go to New York to find her, and ends up in a creepy mystery, meeting some nice people but also an assortment of weirdos, especially her sister's former partner in a beauty salon. She eventually meets her sister's boyfriend, played by Hugh Beaumont (who would go on to be Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver--ironically his name in this film is Gregory Ward).

Together with Beaumont, a moony poet (Erford Gage) and an enigmatic psychiatrist (Tom Conway, in another effectively disturbing performance for Lewton), the hunt is on for the sister. Conway knows where she is, but plays it coy. Eventually she turns up, looking like Morticia Addams. (She was played by Jean Brooks, who had quite a disturbing life story, if you care to look it up). Brooks is the kind of woman who rents a separate room and keeps a noose hanging in it, to comfort her knowing she has a place to go to die.

I won't say too much more about the plot, because as the first half unwinds one really has no idea where it's going. The solution isn't quite as entertaining as the mystery, but the film ends on a very existential note, as Brooks goes to that room with the noose, while a dying woman in the next room goes out on the town for one last fling.

The Seventh Victim is full of light and shadow that help classify it as noir, and is also, for a B-film, a remarkably sophisticated commentary on life and death.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Purple Rose of Cairo

After seeing and enjoying Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris so much, I pulled off my shelf the film of his it most reminded me of, The Purple Rose of Cairo, which I hadn't seen in ages. It still charms the pants off me.

Allen had shifted to a different period (dare I call it his "Rose" period), where he had made pictures that weren't necessarily about contemporary neurotic New Yorkers, and were more fantasy-oriented, such as A Midsummer-Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, and Broadway Danny Rose, which wasn't a fantasy but had the structure of a tall tale. The Purple Roses of Cairo, if memory serves me correctly, was the first comedy directed by Allen that he didn't appear in.

Set in the depths of the Great Depression in New Jersey, the film is the story of movie-mad Cecilia, played by Allen's then muse, Mia Farrow, in perhaps her best performance in the many films she made with him. She's a waitress, and a bad one, because all she can do is talk or daydream about the movies. She's married to a lout (Danny Aiello), but escapes her dreary life by attending the new movie every week at the Jewel, where she knows the manager and ticket-seller on a first-name basis.

Things go bad for Farrow when she finds that Aiello is cheating and she gets fired from her job. In total despair, she sits through three showings of a new film, called The Purple Rose of Cairo, which seems to be about New York swells who befriend an archaeologist in an Egyptian tomb. She's already seen the film twice before, so she notices when the archaeologist, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), changes his lines and directly addresses her: "You must really love this picture."

Daniels comes off the screen and into real-life, a trick first accomplished by Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Junior. But Allen has totally thought out the implications of the fantasy. Baxter knows anything that was written into his character, but doesn't have real money and doesn't know what happens after kissing, because in the movies there's a fade-out.

Meanwhile, the characters left in the movie have to vamp. This is where most of the laughs come from, with great actors like Deborah Rush, Van Johnson, Edward Hermann and Zoe Caldwell getting in a lot of zingers. When the producer of the film is notified, he summons Gil Shepherd, the actor who played Baxter (also played by Daniels), to fix this mess, lest he thereafter be considered "difficult."

Daniels is terrific in both roles. Michael Keaton had started the film, but Allen let him go because he thought he was too contemporary. His turn as Baxter is lovely, a bright-eyed Galahad who immediately falls in love with Farrow and will defend her honor because "courage is written into my character." I adored a scene in which a hooker, Dianne Wiest, picks him up and takes him to her brothel, where he so charms them with his gallantry that they offer him a freebie, which of course he turns down, because he is in love with Farrow.

Allen keeps the zest going throughout the picture. There aren't a lot of out-and-out gags in the film, although when the character of the maitre 'd is told that everything goes, he decides he'll do what he always wanted to do--tap dance. When Baxter brings Cecilia into his world, there is some funny stuff when the woman that Baxter is supposed to marry (Karen Akers) sees him with another woman. The best line is probably when Farrow says, "I've met a great guy. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."

This is Allen's valentine to the movies, and boy does that shine through. He's historically accurate, as well, as the motion picture industry did not suffer during the depression, presumably because people needed something to cheer them up. The film's bittersweet ending, which has a tear-streaked Farrow succumbing to the sublime "Cheek to Cheek" scene in Top Hat, says it all, and was repeated, in a different context, in Allen's next picture, Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen realizes life is worth living while watching the Marx Brothers. Allen has it right--the movies are that important.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Ghost Ship

Val Lewton produced and Mark Robson directed The Ghost Ship, from 1943, which isn't really a horror film but more of a study in psychotic behavior, owing a lot to other literary sources that depict tyrannical ship captains (but came before The Caine Mutiny).

Richard Dix is Captain Stone, who helms a cargo ship. He personally chooses Russell Wade to his third officer, because he has a similar background. Wade likes his new boss, but as time goes on he realizes something isn't quite right with Dix, who is obsessed with authority. He has a theory that because the safety of the crew is his responsibility, he also has complete authority over their life and death.

It comes to a head when a crewman (Lawrence Tierney, whom I didn't recognize) is accidentally killed in a chain locker. Wade thinks it's murder, but when he reports Stone to the shipping company, he's cleared and Wade quits. But he ends up back on the ship, fearing for his life.

The film, a slim 68 minutes, builds slowly, but as with all the Lewton films I've seen, has an almost undefinable sense of dread. The last act, with Wade trying to convince the rest of the crew of the captain's murderous attentions, is first rate, with a mute sailor (Skelton Knaggs) playing a key role.

The Ghost Ship was pulled from release after a copyright suit, and was little seen for fifty years. It's not one of the best of the Lewton films, but it has its moments and is worth a look.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is classified as a "young adult" novel, and it is written in the style that young adults, kids from about twelve to sixteen, appreciate most. But it's become popular with adults, too, proving that a good story transcends generations.

The story is a familiar one to anyone who's seen the Japanese film Battle Royale. In a dystopian future, teenagers are put into a vast arena and forced to battle to the death until there's only one left. I've read that Collins was inspired by flipping between reality TV shows and footage from the Iraq war, but the similarities with the film seem hard to dismiss.

But The Hunger Games is better than Battle Royale, in that the rules and background of the contest have been better thought out. In fact, the first third or so of the book is consumed with the lead up to the games. We are told that the nation of Panem rose from the ashes of what was North America. It is carved into twelve districts, and to show that the government will tolerate no dissent, each district must present two teens to participate in the games. District 12, located in Appalachia, is coal-mining and hunting territory. Katniss Everdeen, our 16-year-old heroine, who is an expert with a bow and arrow, ends up as the female "tribute" from there, while Peeta, a baker's son, is the male tribute.

The preparation chapters start to get a little too detailed, but Collins slyly equates the barbarity of the contest with the frivolity of reality TV--the contestants are handed over to stylists, and interviewed for TV. The entire games will be televised, and the winner will be feted for the rest of their lives.

Once the games start, the book gets really good. Katniss narrates, so there isn't a ton of suspense about who will win, but instead in how it happens. Also, as with Battle Royale, a romance between Katniss and Peeta will complicate things. I liked that Collins is not so much obsessed with the savagery, and that it's mostly implied. Many deaths are accomplished by out-thinking the opponent, rather than simple brute strength. A sequence involving killer wasps is particularly clever.

This is the first book of a trilogy, and I'll be sure to read the next two books. I'm also looking forward to the movie. Since I knew that Jennifer Lawrence was playing Katniss, I couldn't help but picture her while reading the book, but I refrained from seeing who was playing the other characters until I finished. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Here's what I liked about X-Men: First Class: Michael Fassbender's charismatic performance, and a plethora of attractive actresses (Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, and January Jones, even if Jones can't act). Here's what I didn't like about the movie: almost everything else.

I can usually tell when a movie isn't working for me by how often I check my watch, and I was checking it almost every ten minutes. This film was a dull slog, and is actually worse than Brett Ratner's third installment, which makes it the worst of the lot. It's bad for different reasons, though--it's just plain boring.

I haven't been overwhelmed by any of the X-Men films, and to take away the one breakaway star of those films (as he was in the comics) Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, is a fatal misstep (he appears in a very short, amusing cameo). First Class is full of so much exposition, so much "who are you and what is your power" that the director and screenwriters almost forgot to include any action scenes.

This is a prequel, an explanation of how Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr (James McAvoy and Fassbender) became acquainted as allies, and then became enemies under the names Professor X and Magneto. Some other familiar X-Men are on hand, such as Beast, Mystique, Emma Frost and several others who, while doing some Wikipedia work, I see all exist in the Marvel Universe. But like X3, there are so many of these dang mutants, some of them with vague powers, that it all becomes a blur.

The action is set in 1962, and the villain is Sebastian Shaw, a powerful mutant played by Kevin Bacon, chewing the scenery as if he were the baddie in a bad James Bond film. He is able to manipulate the Americans and Russians into the Cuban missile crisis, in the hopes that normal people wipe each other out and leave the Earth to mutants. It seems like a badly-thought out plan, and I couldn't help but wonder where he was getting his money to build his own custom submarine.

Fassbender and McAvoy team up to stop him, and the climax at the blockade line around Cuba has some nice suspense, as does the final showdown between Fassbender and Bacon. But it's a long wait to get there, with a lot of empty "be who you are" stuff. I've always maintained that the writers of the X-Men comic books were substituting mutants for homosexuals, and that was reinforced by hearing Hank McCoy (who becomes the Beast), say about his mutantism, "You didn't ask, I didn't tell."

Some of the special effects work, but some of them are unbelievably cheesy. The Beast's makeup is atrocious, and he looks like someone in a bad blue werewolf Halloween costume.

Fassbender is terrific, though, and I continue to be impressed by his presence. He would make a great James Bond. I did wonder, though, why a man from Eastern Europe has an Irish accent.

My grade for X-Men: First Class: D+

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Pauline Kael wrote of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, "I watched this movie almost purring with pleasure." That's how I feel about Midnight in Paris, the director's latest film, which owes a great deal to Purple (which I thought was the best film of 1985), as well as his short humor pieces such as "A Twenties Memory" and "The Kugelmass Episode."

Allen has always displayed an affection for fantasy, especially when it allows characters to interact with those of literature or history. The Purple Rose of Cairo had a movie character come off the screen and into the real world of the 1930s, while "The Kugelmass Episode" saw a middle-aged literature professor, through the aid of a magician's cabinet, insert himself into the novel Madame Bovary, where he wooed the title character. Now Allen's fascination with Paris in the '20s (the subject of "A Twenties Memory, in which Allen is constantly being punched in the mouth by Ernest Hemingway) is brought to the screen.

The "Woody Allen" character in Midnight in Paris is played by Owen Wilson, who is a screenwriter on holiday in the French capital with his fiancee, Rachel MacAdams. Wilson is trying to write a novel, considering himself a hack screenwriter. MacAdams parents' are visiting, and she wants to do touristy things and shop, while Wilson is enraptured by the romance of the city. To get us going, Allen, along with cinematographer Darius Khondji, starts the film with a lovely morning-to-night montage of beautiful scenes of the city, as he did with New York in the opening of Manhattan.

Wilson loves the city so much that it grates on MacAdams, who says she could never live outside the U.S. We quickly realize these two aren't an ideal match, and if there's a flaw in the film it's that it's hard to imagine how these two ever got together. Allen tries to have each character say something nice about the other, but MacAdams comes off as a villain.

Wilson, to get away from MacAdams and her overly-pedantic teacher friend (Michael Sheen, in a dead-on performance) wanders the streets. As the chimes ring midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up in front of him, and he is urged to get in. Without any explanation, he is transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, and he slowly realizes it when he recognizes Cole Porter and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. One of the charms of this film is how readily Wilson accepts what's going on, and adapts to his situation. Later, he will tell Man Ray what's going--that he inhabits two worlds, and Man Ray will tell him that it sounds perfectly normal. "But you're a surrealist," Wilson protests.

Wilson returns to the present after a while, but he learns how to return night after night. He meets Ernest Hemingway, who takes him to Gertrude Stein's salon. She agrees to read his book, and while there he meets Pablo Picasso and his mistress (Marion Cotillard, in the only fictional character of the long-ago Paris sequences. Picasso had many mistresses, but a woman named Adriana was not one of them). Wilson and Cotillard are attracted to one another, but she tells him she would like to live in the Paris of the 1890s, La Belle Epoque.

Like a Swiss watch the the theme emerges--that nostalgia, which Sheen boorishly says is a form of denial of the present, is not all its cracked up to be. Everyone has a time they think is a golden age, only the people living in that age don't think it's so great. It's a time-oriented version of "the grass is always greener." Cotillard tells Wilson she thinks her time is boring, and he can't believe it.

This film is manna for humanities majors. The packed house I saw it with gave out gasps of recognition laughter every time they figured out who a person was, such as Adrien Brody's cameo as Salvador Dali. In a way, it's a form of self-congratulation, that the audience "gets" what Allen is joking about and can feel smart about it. There are many inside jokes, my favorites being a reference about Djuna Barnes leading while dancing (she was a well-known Lesbian) and Wilson pitching a plot to Luis Bunuel about a dinner party not being able to leave the room (Bunuel would make that movie in the 1970s--The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).

But if there's a lot of name-dropping in Midnight in Paris it's perfectly acceptable, as the film is too whimsical to take seriously but instead a continuous delight. I would have never thought Wilson would be right for an Allen film, but he is perfect, not doing an Allen impersonation (like Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity) but keeping his own shaggy-dog persona while reading lines that one can imagine Allen saying.

As for the rest of the cast, there are many delights. Tom Hiddleston makes a fine Fitzgerald (from Loki to F. Scott Fitzgerald--what a spring for Mr. Hiddleston) and Corey Stoll has fun with Hemingway, speaking the terse, simple prose that Hemingway is known for. "Who wants to fight!" he exclaims at one point. Kathy Bates is a natural for Gertrude Stein, and Brody's brief turn as Dali is as surreal as that artist's works. His key word is "rhinoceros."

After more than a decade of hit-and-mostly-miss for Allen, I think Midnight in Paris is his best film since Bullets Over Broadway, and it's fine to have him back at the top of his game.

My grade for Midnight in Paris: A.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Just Kids

Patti Smith was a major figure in 1970s rock, a punk poetess who recorded emotionally raw records (more about her music in an upcoming post). She is also a terrific memoirist, as her book Just Kids, about her younger days, specifically her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award.

I found it charming, if at times a little too sprinkled with pixie dust. There is also a tremendous amount of name-dropping, but that is to be excused because it seems that the New York City Smith lived in the late 60s and early 70s was a small village of Bohemians who constantly traveled in the same circles. On one night at her local hangout, the El Quixote, she spots Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Jim Hendrix. She meets and befriends Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Sam Shepard (with whom she would have a short romance and co-write the play Cowboy Mouth). She would hang out at Max's Kansas City, and end up playing gigs with Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. It was like a long magic carpet ride.

But if Smith makes that time sound magical, she doesn't cover up the hardships. She grew up in South Jersey, took the train to New York with no money and ended up meeting Mapplethorpe, a struggling artist. They would work menial jobs, Smith mostly in bookstores, and shared artistic aspirations. Smith displays an almost obsessive hero worship, especially for poets like Blake, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire (she will refer to days as being "Rimbaud's birthday," and went to Paris just to stay in a hotel he lived in). She also had a keen music sense, worshipping Bob Dylan and The Doors. I found her description of attending a Doors concert interesting: "I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Morrison, that I could do that."

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived in near poverty, sharing grilled cheese sandwiches. They moved into the legendary Chelsea Hotel. There's a wonderful moment where they go to the Whitney Museum, but only have the money for one to go inside. Mapplethorpe tells Smith to go in, because they will be exhibited there soon. It was at the Whitney that Mapplethorpe's notorious exhibit would be staged, which I had the privilege to see.

For as punk as Smith appeared in her earliest musical incarnations, she turns out to be quite the family person, tied to her parents and siblings. She reveals a very soft, sensitive side, and you can feel the confusion she must have felt when Mapplethorpe came to realize he was homosexual. She also writes well about her eventual evolution from a poet to a rock star, where she eventually plays a gig that had none other than Boy Dylan in the audience, and she would have a song hit number 13 on the charts ("Because the Night," a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen). Mapplethorpe chided her, "You became famous before me!"

But I found the greatest strength of the book her ability to capture the zeitgeist of a time and place--New York during the hippie-to-punk Warhol years. Consider this lovely paragraph: "I spent the evening checking out the action on St. Mark's Place. Long-haired boys scatting around in striped bell-bottoms and used military jackets flanked with girls wrapped in tie-dye. There were flyers papering the streets announcing the coming of Paul Butterfield and Country Joe and the Fish. 'White Rabbit' was blaring from the open doors of the Electric Circus. The air was heavy with unstable chemicals, mold, and the earthy stench of hashish. The fat of candles burned, great tears of wax spilling onto the sidewalk."

Smith ends her own story as she releases her first album, but jumps ahead to Mapplethorpe's struggle and then death from AIDS in 1989. It's hard to keep a dry eye while reading it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Leopard Man

After the success of Cat People, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur reteamed in 1943 for another film featuring a jungle cat. In fact, the same black leopard was used in this film as the previous one. However, there is no suggestion of a human-feline hybrid in The Leopard Man.

Set in a small New Mexico town, Dennis O'Keefe stars as a theatrical agent. His client and girlfriend, Jean Brooks, is being upstaged by a Spanish dancer (Margo) in her nightclub act. In order to give her some publicity, he rents a leopard from the local "Leopard Man," a Native American, and has Brooks start her act by bringing it on stage on a leash. Margo, not to be outdone, scares the cat with her castanets, and it breaks free.

A young girl is killed by the cat, and a hunt is mounted for it, as Brooks and O'Keefe feel guilty. Then another woman is killed after being locked in a cemetery. She appears to have been mauled by a leopard, but O'Keefe thinks it may be a man who is trying to make it look like a leopard.

The film, shot on an extremely low budget, looks great, and as usual for Lewton, the effects of shadows and shot manipulation are superb. However, the story is a little limp, as there is really only one suspect. As with all of Lewton's films, the killing is done off screen, so the effect is strongest in the imagination, running counter to today's theory of fully-displayed gore.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Summer and Smoke

Coming after the megahits The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke was seen as something of a disappointment for Tennessee Williams, running only 102 performances in 1948. A revival in 1952 off-Broadway (one of the first plays to establish a vibrant off-Broadway theater) starring Geraldine Page was a success, and the play has since been considered in the upper tier of Williams' work.

I have never seen a stage or film adaptation of the play, but I did read it last night. It has certain familiar Williams themes, such a vulnerable female lead character who is sexually frustrated. The play also trades heavily on the clash between spirituality and science.

The main character is Alma Winemiller. She has long had an attraction for Johnny Buchanan--the play opens with a prologue when they are ten-year-old children in which he is angry with her for giving him a box of handkerchiefs. She only wanted him to help him; he was embarrassed. Sixteen years later, in the year 1916, Alma is a spinster living with her minister father and her crazy mother, while Johnny has followed his father's footsteps and become a doctor, but is known around town (Glorious Hills, Mississippi) for being a drunkard and womanizer.

Alma is attracted to him, but is not willing to sleep with him. They have a night out at a casino on the lake and when he offers to get a room she is angry with him. He keeps time with a loose woman (and a Mexican woman, to boot) and Alma is torn between disgust and attraction. She keeps telling him "Alma" is Spanish for "soul," but he asks to look at the anatomy chart in his office and point out where the soul is. (The working title of the play was "The Chart of Anatomy").

He tells her she has a doppelganger--a duplicate--somewhere roaming around, and eventually the two swap positions. She becomes more sexually aggressive, but is stunned when he tells her he didn't really want to sleep with her the night at the casino. Instead he gets engaged to a teen-aged girl and is ready to settle into a life of respectability. The play ends with Alma throwing herself at a traveling salesman, presumably for a one-night stand.

Summer and Smoke is full of the vagaries of Southern society, but I found Williams was quite hard on Alma. She's a put-upon character, what with her daffy mother (who has a penchant for stealing hats) and her dueling emotions towards Johnny. There's also a bit of gun play that seems unnecessary. But the play, for 1948, is pretty frank about the sex and the human body, and I would like to see it performed. It's not up to the level of the two plays that came before it, but it's fascinating none-the-less.

Williams revised it in the 1960s under the title The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, which I'll get around to reading and comparing sometime later this year.