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Friday, July 29, 2011

Season of the Witch

Here's a surprise: I didn't hate Season of the Witch, one of the latest examples of the career doldrums of Nicolas Cage. This movie received only a 7 percent positive score from Rotten Tomatoes, but compared to The Sorceror's Apprentice it's a masterpiece. I might have given it some good will because I think it was a good idea for a film, and if a hack like Dominic Sena hadn't been at the helm might have been pretty decent. It also pleases me that everyone I think of the title the old Donovan song of the same name pops into my head.

Cage and Ron Perlman star as two crusaders who are seen in many battles, fighting the Arab infidels for God. After a battle in which women and children are killed, Cage and Perlman desert, and start walking home (presumably to Germany, although it's isn't clear). In the town of Marburg, which has been ravaged by the plague, they are offered clemency in exchange for escorting a young woman who has been accused of being a witch to an abbey, where she will be rendered powerless by some chants from the Key of Solomon.

In a familiar template, Cage, Perlman and a few others escort the woman (Claire Foy), who is caged, across forbidding territory. Of course a few will be picked off along the way, and we wonder whether Foy is actually a witch or not (thousands and thousands of women were executed as witches in Europe, so it wasn't a small problem--of course witchcraft really had nothing to do with it). The climax, while over-heated, was satisfactory.

Where the film suffers is a jokey script (I couldn't believe a film set in the 1300s would have the line, "We're going to need more holy water") and a terrible performance by Cage, who again seems like he wants to be anywhere but where he is. Sena seems to want it both ways--a film that is authentic to the period, but that provides anachronistic laughs. The end result plays like a bunch of middle-aged employees from Medieval Times.

And that's too bad, because somewhere in there was the germ of a good film. It just didn't have the necessary personnel to make it happen.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Strangers on a Train

After Horrible Bosses besmirched the memory of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, I felt the need to see it again. It's a good time for it, as the film turns 60 this summer, and it still seems as fresh as ever. I haven't seen all of Hitchcock's films (an unofficial tally comes up with 18, which is just over half) but I'd put it in my top five of his, along with Notorious, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window.

Strangers on a Train is not thought of as top-tier Hitchcock, but has all of the elements that made him great. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley) and a script that was worked on by Raymond Chandler, the film deals, of course, with murder, but also with Hitchcock's obsession with guilt and innocence, and of a wrong man being accused. It contains several of Hitchcock's most famous shots and set pieces, and has one of the great portrayals of a psychopath in movie history.

For anyone who writes or makes movies, the opening is pure delight. Two men are introduced (with shots of their shoes), and meet on a train. One seems perfectly normal, the other seems a little too friendly and intimate. The latter is Bruno Anthony, played in a performance for the ages by Robert Walker, while the former is the bland Guy Haines, a tennis star, played by Farley Granger (I always thought he looked a lot like Jimmy Stewart, and wondered if he was just a fill-in, but I realize now that Stewart would have been too forceful in the role). Walker knows that Granger is married and seeking a divorce to be married to a senator's daughter (Ruth Roman). He ruminates that a perfect murder would be one in which two men, complete strangers, swapped murders, thus eliminating motive. Granger think he's a nut, but Walker takes Granger's mild acquiescence as a green light.

Thus we have the first set piece, a masterful series of shots in which Walker follows Granger's wife (Laura Elliott) to an amusement park. We know his intention, but the suspense of when and how it will happen percolates. It also includes mordant bits of humor, such as when Walker pops the balloon of a small boy with his cigarette, and the absurd sight of Walker, a solitary man in a suit and fedora, piloting a boat into the Tunnel of Love.

The murder itself is also memorable, shot through the lens of Elliott's fallen eyeglasses. Hitchcock had a singular ability to make shots like this that had directorial flourish without calling attention to himself--they always served the story. A similar shot is when Granger, now being stalked by Walker (who feels Granger owes him a murder) sees Walker in the stands a tennis match. The heads of everyone in the stands swivel to follow the ball, but Walker's head does not turn--he's staring directly at Granger. If I thought of a shot like this I'd be tempted to retire.

As the film goes on and we realize just how crazy Walker is, so does Granger, and we can feel the screws tightening on him. Granger's character is really a weak man--he seems to have been dominated by his first wife, and the script insinuates that the marriage to Roman is something of a feather in his cap, as he wants to go into politics. I found it interesting to learn that in Highsmith's book, he does commit Walker's murder, but in the film he is ostensibly innocent, but one can't help feel that he somehow did do something guilty.

Walker, enraged that Granger won't play ball, seeks to frame him by dropping Granger's cigarette lighter, purloined in the opening scenes, at the murder site. Thus we have a great example of Hitchcock's McGuffin, a device that everyone in the film is after but doesn't really matter to the plot. This leads to another great scene, when Walker drops the lighter down a sewer grate. Everything rests on him getting this lighter back, and we discover, perhaps to our surprise, that we root for him to get it, as a closeup of his hand strains to reach the object. Walker, in comparison to Granger, is so interesting that it's hard to root against him, and furthermore, if he loses the lighter, the movie is over, which is definitely what we don't want.

Finally the film ends with the spectacular carousel crash (this was not in the original script, and thought up on the fly). It also contains humor, such as the worried mother expressing concern for her little boy on the out-of-control carousel, after which we cut to him, laughing and having the time of his life.

There isn't a segment of this film that isn't interesting. The supporting performances are all great, including even Hitchcock's daughter Patricia as Roman's sassy little sister. She is supposed to resemble Elliott, and I had somehow misremembered and thought that Patricia had played the murder victim, something I wouldn't put past Hitchcock. I also got a kick out of the two scenes in which Marian Lorne played Walker's mother. In the extras, Richard Schickel points out that any middle-aged woman in Hitchcock's films were presented as monsters. Lorne, who is remembered mostly for playing Aunt Clara on Bewitched, is not exactly monstrous, but dangerously daffy, pampering Walker (we first see her giving him a manicure). She is deaf to accusations against him, and of course she paints the most grotesque paintings. It is one of many of Hitchcock's demented mother-son relationships.

Strangers on a Train is exhilaratingly fun. Even the tennis scenes at the end are well done, which is unusual for sports scenes at the time. I find it interesting that Granger, who has to try to beat Walker to the murder site, needs to beat his opponent as quickly as possible. If I were presented with that scenario, I'd be tempted to throw the match, losing in straight sets. But Granger never considers this--he is determined to beat his opponent as quickly as possible.

In a sad footnote, Walker, who had a drinking problem, would die within the year, in his early forties. His son, who appears on the DVD extras, looks astonishingly like him.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Introducing Tiger Rag

For anyone interested in my posts on sports, I have created a new blog about my dual sports passions: the Detroit Tigers and Princeton Tigers Women's Ice Hockey (both conveniently have the same mascot).

It can be found here and the link has been added to the right. It will be sporadically updated--don't expect daily posts, like Go-Go-Rama.

This Sunday, weather permitting, I'll be in attendance at Comerica Park for a Tigers-Angels game, and hope that Justin Verlander will be on the mound.!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Sorceror's Apprentice

I mentioned in my discussion of Leaving Las Vegas that it seems like a lifetime ago that Nicolas Cage was taken seriously as an actor. Mostly it has been his predilection for appearing in junk like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was was a depressing experience to watch. Not only is it apparent that Cage is simply doing it for the money, but it has a dreadful performance by Jay Baruchel in the title role.

The film is from Disney, which has cannibalized itself by using one of its iconic scenes from Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse, as a sorcerer's apprentice, tries to use magic to clean up the castle and ends starting a flood. Incredibly, the Disney executives allowed director Jon Turteltaub to shit all over that scene by reproducing it in live-action, with the spastic Baruchel filling in for Mickey. If Mickey Mouse were dead, he'd be rolling in his cartoon grave.

The film is a bunch of nonsense about how Cage is a thousand-year-old sorcerer who once worked for Merlin along with Alfred Molina. The latter turned bad, so Cage locked him up in a nesting doll, along with Morgana Le Fey (Alice Krige). Merlin tells him to await the "Prime Merlinian" (I'm not making this up), who turns out to be Baruchel, a nerdy physics student. Together they must stop Molina and Morgana from taking over the world with dead people. Yeah, right.

Almost nothing about this film works; even the special effects seem tired. Baruchel is so unrelentingly annoying that you hope he dies in a horrible way, and Cage, with straggly hair and a perpetually bemused expression on his face, is no doubt ruing all those castles he bought that he has to pay for by doing crap like this.

And why cast Monica Belluci only to give her about five minutes of screen time?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Leatherstocking Tales

For the tenth year in a row, I spent a lovely July weekend in Cooperstown, New York to attend the induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year three new members were added to the illustrious list of greats. But this year I also spent more time appreciating the surroundings, aided by a GPS and some great weather (it was at least ten degrees cooler up in the mountains than the sweltering state of New Jersey).

Cooperstown is not the birthplace of baseball, even the museum admits that. It was a myth that seemed right, and the real birthplace is too complex to pinpoint (Hoboken, New Jersey has a stronger claim, as that is where the first official game was played). But long before anyone had heard of Abner Doubleday, Cooperstown was known as the home of author James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the adventures of Natty Bumpo (aka Hawkeye), and where the Mohicans roamed.

If Cooperstown is not the historical home of baseball, it is certainly an appropriate stand-in for it. It's a fantastic little village, and when my ship finally (finally!) comes in I wouldn't mind living there. It's full of gingerbread houses and quiet lanes and I'm sure it's pretty sleepy except for one weekend a year (the year Derek Jeter gets in will be intense. Intense.) This year, due to using a GPS, I was able to get off the beaten path. The Garmin seems to be programmed to bypass Interstate highways when not necessary. When one normally plans a trip to a place one is unfamiliar with, the easiest route is the Interstate, because it's simple to navigate. But with a GPS, I was guided along lovely back roads, past farms and meadows and weathered to dilapidated barns. With my windows rolled down the piquant smell of cow manure occasionally wafted in, and every so often I'd slow down to cruise through a small town that seemed to have bypassed time--it was hard to believe I was in the same state that was home to the Bronx and Greenwich Village.

This year the ceremony was cleaved in twain. A part dubbed "the Awards Ceremony," which doles out honors to a sportswriter and broadcaster, were ghettoized to the day before the induction ceremony. Held at Doubleday Field, it seemed to me to be the same as how the Academy of Arts and Sciences broke out their honorary awards, giving them out a dinner and not during the telecast. Perhaps the brain trust of the Hall decided it was too much for people to sit in the broiling sun to listen to writers and broadcaster give their speeches. This year it was Philadelphia sportswriter Bill Conlin and Expos and Marlins broadcaster Dave Van Horne who were honored, as was Roland Hemond, a long-time general manager with many clubs, who received the Buck O'Neill lifetime achievement award.

Before those awards were handed out, Terry Cashman was on hand to sing his ubiquitous "Talkin' Baseball," which he wrote thirty years ago. The famous refrain of "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke," seems to be more poignant, as Duke Snider died this year. Willie Mays, the sole survivor of that trio of New York centerfielders of the 1950s, was not on hand the entire weekend.

After the awards ceremony, the second-annual parade of Hall of Famers down Main Street took place. This is a fun event, with many HOFers in attendance, waving from the back of pickup trucks. Reggie Jackson, for some reason, was on his cell phone, no doubt making some sort of deal.

The next day was the induction ceremony. There was drizzle in the morning, but bright sunshine by the afternoon, but not too hot. Fans in lawn chairs strike up conversations about baseball (a hot topic was whether Jack Morris deserves induction--opinions were split). I was surrounded by Canadians, who were down to witness the first player to enter the Hall as a Toronto Blue Jay--Roberto Alomar. That same player also drew many proud Puerto Ricans, as he is the fourth from that island to be inducted. Bert Blyleven drew legions of Minnesota Twins fans, and though both he and Alomar were well-traveled in their careers, those were the only two teams that supplied many fans.

Also inducted was general manager Pat Gillick, who kicked things off with a stately speech. He has won where ever he has been--he constructed the World Champion Blue Jays of 1992-1993, the current Philadelphia Phillies, and also playoff teams in Baltimore and Seattle (including the Mariners team that tied the record for most wins in a season--116).

Alomar was next, delivering some of his speech in Spanish and giving major props to his father, Sandy Sr., who was a major league player, and his brother, Sandy Jr., who was a major league catcher for many years. There was no mention of either expectorant or John Hirschbeck.

Blyleven ended the proceedings with a playful but heartfelt speech. His bitterness over having to wait fourteen years to be elected was well documented, but he put that aside and was gracious and funny. He promised not to anything "stupid or silly," which thankfully included mooning.

On the drive home I listened to the Tigers beat the Twins on Sirius/XM radio, ending a perfect little trip and another visit to the magic baseball village of Cooperstown. Every baseball fan should visit at least once.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America

Captain America (subtitled The First Avenger, which in effect makes it a two-hour tease for next year's The Avengers) is richly entertaining, yet somehow familiar. It recalls the adventures of Indiana Jones and James Bond, and doesn't deviate from a fairly standard template. On the other hand, it is refreshingly unpretentious. It may use a piece of Gotterdammerung in the soundtrack, but does not resort to Wagnerian excess like some of the other recent comic book adaptations.

Captain America is the first Marvel adaptation of a superhero that predates the era of Stan Lee, who revolutionized the industry by giving his heroes neuroses and everyday concerns. Cap is a contemporary of Batman and Superman, and wasn't much more than a patriotic symbol and a square jaw. When Lee figuratively and literally thawed him out of an ice floe in the 60s, he seemed an anachronism, yet has been a staple in the Marvel Universe since then (even though he was killed off at one point).

The film, directed by Joe Johnston, takes the same approach. Steve Rogers, played winningly by Chris Evans, is not a very complex character. He's scrawny and weak, but he has the heart of a lion, and wants nothing more than to fight against the Germans in World War II. He is classified 4F, but catches the eye of a scientist (Stanley Tucci, great as ever). Tucci, along with Tommy Lee Jones as a classically gruff colonel, are developing a serum to turn men into super-soldiers. Evans is their first guinea pig.

Meanwhile, the head of a Nazi scientific outfit called Hydra, played menacingly by Hugo Weaving, who has a distinctly crimson complexion, has secured a rare artifact that supposedly comes from Odin himself (you would think that since Thor is part of this, they would have mentioned it in his movie. Maybe they did and I didn't catch it). This, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, echoes the claim that Nazis are obsessed with the occult. Weaving, along with his scientist right-hand man (Toby Jones, who has the appropriately bulbous cranium for such a role) have developed a weapon from the artifact that can win the war.

After Evans is turned into Captain America (the special effects of putting Evans face on another body is seamless) he is turned into a propaganda figure, selling war bonds and appearing in comic books and serials, a kind of meta approach. Of course when he finds out that his old friend, Bucky Barnes (who was a homoerotic sidekick in the comics) is in danger, he heads out to help him.

Captain America is a lot of fun, with the right mix of action, adventure and humor. Evans, who I despised as the Human Torch, is much more tolerable here. Hayley Atwell, who is the super-cool British Agent Carter, is both his boss and love interest. Evans is teamed with an old-fashioned all-American platoon, including a black and Asian guy (no mention is made of troop segregation), and is a film that celebrates American pluckiness without being jingoistic.

It also looks great. Setting the film in the 40s was a great idea, as this was when comic books were simple and cut and dried, with no gray area between good and evil. The colors are muted, like the newsprint of a pulp novel, and and instead of wearing a Lycra bodysuit, Evans wears what looks like a heavy denim. The only thing he carries that is fantasy is an impenetrable shield made of "vibranium" (I believe in the comics it was adamantium, the same substance that Wolverine's claws are made of, but I quibble). A superhero carrying something as quotidian as a standard-issue sidearm just feels right.

As fun as the film can be, it doesn't set the bar very high. For what it is, it couldn't be much better, but it stops short of attaining an epic status like Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2. But not all superhero movies can be that sweeping, nor should they.

Be sure to stay after the credits finish for a sneak peek at The Avengers film, coming next May. I have to admit I'm excited by it. And I wouldn't consider Red Skull gone, either (his defeat shouldn't come as a spoiler to anyone with half a brain). As a guy I knew who wrote for Marvel said of the Marvel Universe, "No one stays dead, except for Uncle Ben."

My grade for Captain America: B+

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cousin Bette

I was pleasantly surprised by Cousin Bette, a 1998 film directed by Des McAnuff, who is primarily a stage director. It pretty much sank like a stone upon release,  but I enjoyed its droll and mordant humor and cast.

Based on a novel by Balzac, Cousin Bette is one of those films that is heavy on corsets and scheming, and may remind one of Dangerous Liaisons. Set later than that film, in Paris just before the 1848 revolution, the film centers around an aristocratic family called the Hulots. The wife and mother, Geraldine Chaplin, is on her deathbed as the film begins, and she asks her cousin Bette (Jessica Lange) to make sure she takes care of her family after she's gone. Lange, who is a fortyish spinster and costumier at a theater, was given short shrift by the family, while Chaplin got everything. She intends to take care of the family through revenge.

Lange, who lives alone, has a crush on her upstairs neighbor, a penniless and starving sculptor (Aden Young). She nurses him to health and gives him money so he can work. She discusses him with Chaplin's daughter (Kelly Macdonald), who is intrigued by him. Macdonald ends up buying one of his statues, and the two meet and fall in love.

Meanwhile, the patriarch of the Hulots (Hugh Laurie) has spent the family into debt. He has a mistress, a singer at the theater where Lange works (Elisabeth Shue). Lange, befriending Shue, uses her and the richest man in Paris (Bob Hoskins) to spin her web of deceit and bring ruin upon the family.

This is a lot of fun, but in some ways is a little dry, especially comparing it to the much juicier Dangerous Liaisons. Lange, unnaturally dour, seems to be enjoying herself, and Shue is game playing a singer who can't really sing. I also enjoyed Laurie's performance.

The best part of the film is the script, by Lynn Seifert, that always manages to keep a devilish sense of humor about itself. This tone is set early on, when Chaplin remembers how Lange was mistreated: "Oh, how they beat you." Lange replies, "I really don't remember," while clearly lying and planning the destruction of Chaplin's family.

For those interested in costume dramas with a twist of malice, Cousin Bette is a pleasant way to spend two hours.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cleopatra Brimstone


A cleopatra brimstone
 I had the pleasure or re-reading one of my favorite stories the other day, "Cleopatra Brimstone." I actually own two books in which it's anthologized, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 15, and a collection of speculate fiction called Redshift. The only other thing I've read by Hand is a novel, Waking the Moon, which I found fairly ridiculous. The story, though, is gripping.

It centers around a young woman, Jane Kendall, who has had a life-long attraction to insects. Her earliest memory is a butterfly mobile over her crib. She is a beautiful but studious girl, given to reading articles on entomology instead of going out on dates.

While attending college, she leaves the lab late one night and is raped. The rapist wants her to struggle--that is his turn on. It is a shattering enough experience that she leaves school. After a time, though, she agrees to go to London to house-sit for some family friends. She volunteers at the Regent Park Zoo's insect house, working for an entomologist who regards her with equal parts bemusement and a kind of hungry appraisal.

Something comes over Jane. She has always had strange hairs that grow out of her eyebrows and almost have sensory feeling to them. After attending a club populated by the pierced and freaky, and accidentally wandering into an S&M room, she is inspired to shave her head and dress herself in punk clothing. She makes some purchases of hand and anklecuffs at a sex shop. On her next visit, calling herself Cleopatra Brimstone (a species of butterfly) she picks up a boy and takes him back to her place. She cuffs him to the bed, implores him to "try to get away," and gives him a handjob. When he ejaculates, he transforms into a moth. She dutifully puts the insect into a killing jar and mounts him.

Surely that sounds bizarre, but Hand's writing is so straightforward and without filigree that it seems perfectly reasonable. Jane goes on a killing spree, taking boys to her bed (or to a car or an abandoned park) and at the moment of ecstasy they transmogrify. When her employer happens to see her collection, he grows suspicious, since she happens to have a Madagascan moon moth, which are rare and would never be found in London.

The story is a nifty, adult tale of dominance and the balance of power. It's by turns erotic, scary, and full of information about lepidoptera. I think it would make a good movie, too, though one with a very hard R-rating.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Molly

I mentioned in my review of Leaving Las Vegas that Elisabeth Shue has never had as good as a role since then, and seems to have dropped off the radar. But she did try, and while watching her 1999 film Molly, all I could think of was Robert Downey Jr.'s line in Tropic Thunder about going "full retard."

Shue is the title character, Molly, a mentally retarded and autistic 28-year-old woman. When the institution she lives in closes down due to budget cuts, her brother (Aaron Eckhart) must care for her. He had only visited her at Christmas before, and thus their new situation is very awkward at first, especially when Shue strips down at his office and gets him fired.

So we have a film that starts out like Rain Man and then gradually turns into a remake of Charly (indeed, the script is based on the same source novel, Flowers for Algernon). Shue is operated on by Jill Hennessy, who implants new brain cells, and she makes rapid progression, enjoying a trip to Dodger Stadium and a evening of theater (though she forgets it's a play and jumps on stage to stop Romeo from killing himself).

Of course this won't last, as it didn't with Charly. Along the way we get platitudes about the worth and dignity of every person (usually delivered by Molly's sweetheart, a learning-disabled man played by Thomas Jane). Eckhart learns his lesson, and the discerning viewer will be rolling his eyes. It's got its heart in the right place, but this is no better than a Lifetime movie.

All that needs to be said about this film is that a woman undergoes brain surgery and leaves the hospital with a full head of hair. That's the kind of authenticity it has.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Supreme Power

Ah, to be a Democrat in 1937. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been re-elected with an astonishing 61 percent of the vote. The Democratic majority in the Senate was massive--76 of the 96 were Dems. Roosevelt had, in his first term, pushed through sweeping legislation designed to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, and with such a super-majority in Congress it was not unthinkable to imagine that he could continue to do so. Only one thing stood in his way--the Supreme Court.

Jeff Shesol, in his fascinating and eminently readable Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, tells a tale that, but for a few twists of fortune, could have had a different ending that would have affected American's lives today. It's also a tale of the hubris of Roosevelt, and perhaps the greatest mistake he made as president--trying to change the law to alter the makeup of the highest court in the land.

When Roosevelt first took office in 1933, the Supreme Court was an aged group, and were mockingly known as the "nine old men." As Shesol points out, they had been known by this name for almost a century, as they had always been men and almost always had been old. Even after the retirement of the nonagenarian Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1932, the court's average age was 71. But age wasn't Roosevelt's problem--the most liberal justice was Louis Brandeis, who was well into his seventies. The problem was their political temperament.

Throughout his first term, Roosevelt's policies were dealt defeats by the court. The National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act were both struck down. Many other laws that Congress enacted which regulated business were seen by a majority of the court as improperly interfering with commerce. It was clear that the conservatives, among them James McReynolds and Willis Van Devanter, were keen on striking down anything that had Roosevelt's name attached to it.

Roosevelt's solution was to add more justices. Other ideas were bandied about, including Constitutional amendments that would require seven votes to overturn an act of Congress, or even to prohibit judicial review of Congressional acts to begin with. But Roosevelt and his legal team, led by Attorney General Homer Cummings, had a different idea--pack the court.

"The solution, [Cummings] told Roosevelt, was simple: a law providing that when any federal judge refused to retire at seventy, the president would have the power to appoint an additional judge. Roosevelt got the point immediately. If no one retired, this would give him six appointments overnight--one for each of the current justices older than seventy. A three-man liberal minority would become, virtually overnight, a nine-man majority."

This was not unprecedented. The Constitution does not specify how many justices are on the court--that is determined by Congress. The total has gone up and down over the years. When Andrew Johnson was president and a vacancy opened a hostile Congress eliminated the seat. But it had been set at nine for over sixty years. Clearly this would raise some opposition, but given the numbers in Congress, Roosevelt thought he could get it passed.

It turned out to be a huge fight, and Roosevelt lost support of conservative Democrats. Burton Wheeler of Montana led the charge. Roosevelt erred to begin with, by saying he was doing this to alleviate the workload of the Court. But no one believed that for a minute. Many liberal thinkers were against it, deciding it was baldly political and a step toward dictatorship (then, as now, it was easy to compare the current president to Hitler).

The issue, which Roosevelt put forward on February 5, 1937, was huge. "The clamor was unrelenting. From the morning of February 5, a great roar of opinion--for and against--issued forth from the radio, editorial pages, newspaper columns, town halls, church pulpits. Switchboard operators argued between calls. Waitresses passed petitions. In state capitals and in Washington, the mailbags were full and the wires alive with implorings of one kind or another, sent to anyone with a potential say in the matter. A din like this had not been heard since the League of Nations fight of the early 1920s, or perhaps since Reconstruction--commentators were unclear when, if ever, Americans had made this much noise."

A series of events over the next few months undermined Roosevelt and his bill. The court, perhaps mindful of what was going on, changed direction. Owen Roberts, a Hoover appointee, switched his vote on a few key decisions, including a minimum wage law, and then, more spectacularly, to uphold the Wagner Act, which allowed workers to unionize. Everyone thought this was a loser, so when the government won, it was stunning. Roberts' change of heart was tabbed "The switch in time that saved nine." Then, Willis Van Devanter retired, which would give Roosevelt his first appointment.

The bill would ultimately lose gas and go down. Shesol writes intriguingly of the viper pit that was the Senate, telling the sad tale of Joseph Robinson, the majority leader of Arkansas, who fought hard for the bill primarily because he had been promised a spot on the court. He would end up working so hard for it that it killed him.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in this book. I was amused that during Roosevelt's first term, a suspiciously familiar sounding organization called the "Liberty League" sprung up, hinging on upholding the Constitution and perhaps becoming a third party. They even had a leader named Beck.

And, as usual in books about the Supreme Court, the interplay between the justices is intriguing. Most prominently featured in Shesol's book is Brandeis (Roosevelt called him "Old Isaiah"), Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes, who though Republican usually sided with the liberals, the same with Harlan Fiske Stone (who would replace Hughes as Chief) and the ever-nasty James McReynolds, who not only refused to speak with the Jewish justices Brandeis and Cardozo, also vowed, "never [to] resign as long as that crippled son-of-a-bitch is in the White House."

But of course he would resign, during Roosevelt's third term. By the time Roosevelt died, he appointed seven of the nine justices, and promoted Stone to Chief Justice. He said that he had lost the battle but won the war, which was true in a sense. But, as Shesol points out, he would have won that war without the court-packing plan, through simply outlasting the conservative justices. Shesol writes that in a way, Roosevelt lost the war, because his effort struck a deep wedge in the Democratic Party, and began the eventual loss of the Southern conservative, which would become final during the Civil Rights movement.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

In my review of the first part of the closing chapter of the decade-long Harry Potter film series, I wrote about how it had groaned under the weight of its own arcana, and that those who had read, indeed those who had immersed themselves, in Potterana will have an entirely different take on it that us muggles who only bear a casual relationship to the material. There's less of that in Part 2, but as the film drew to conclusion I could envision those who know the names of the four houses of Hogwarts like they know their own phone number were weeping, while I was looking on, perplexed.

The first hour or so of the film is perhaps the best of the entire series. Hitting the ground running, and making me think back to the first part (a DVD perusal would be ideal homework before seeing), the principle three of Harry, Hermione, and Ron (Daniel Racliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) have just buried Dobby. I forget how and why the goblin from Gringots is there, but he gets them inside the vaults of the bank in a suspenseful scene, and then they escape on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. Later, at Hogwart's, Snape (Alan Rickman) and Miss McGonigle (Maggie Smith) actually have a showdown. I was thinking that this was going to be a lot of fun.

Eventually the action became more routine. Voldemort (an excellent Ralph Fiennes), leads his minions into battle at the old school, while the staff and students do everything they can to keep him out. Harry searches for the last of the horcruxes (the pieces of Voldemort's soul), and tries to figure out a way to kill the ever-present snake at the Dark Lord's side (I forget what the snake means, other than a sexual metaphor). Luna Lovegood, Harry's eccentric friend, clues him that he needs to talk to someone dead, so he finds a ghost (Kelly Macdonald). I was hoping he would end up talking to Moaning Myrtle. Whatever happened to her?

As the films went on, and I suppose this is true for the books, too (I only read the first four), the tone changed, and I'm not sure for the better. This last episode contained clips from the earlier films, as we learn the true motivation of a certain character (something I had already figured out a long time ago, so as it was revealed I sat there smugly in my seat). When I think back to the earlier films and remember characters like Myrtle and Nearly-Headless Nick, I kind of felt nostalgic. I suppose that is part of the point--J.K. Rowling's books, on the whole, can be taken as a story about the end of childhood, though a coda reminds us that life goes on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is a handsome production, directed with flair by David Yates, with great lighting, pacing and acting, especially from Fiennes and Alan Rickman. Almost everyone who has been in a Potter film returns for a cameo (but was that Emma Thompson or a look-alike--she wasn't credited). Again I was struggling to keep everyone straight, and a key moment supplied by Mrs. Malfoy had me wondering if I had ever seen her before in any of the films. I also had trouble figuring out how a certain character had in his possession a certain sword. The trouble with films about magic is that there always seems to be some heretofore unmentioned spell pulled out at the last minute to save the day.

For those who love these books and films, I would suspect they will be immensely satisfied by the last shot before the coda. I found much of the ending inevitable if not predictable, but I'm not a true believer. On the whole I give it a thumbs up, but the magic of this enterprise will always be the books. The films have never quite captured it.

My grade for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: B-

Friday, July 15, 2011

Leaving Las Vegas

Gather 'round children and hear about a time when Nicolas Cage was considered to be a serious actor, a time before he was a joke, making ludicrously bad action films and earning fame for squandering his fortune on castles and yachts. Yes, back in the 90s he even won an Oscar for his work in Leaving Las Vegas, and made one of indelible performances as an alcoholic in movie history.

I hadn't seen the film since it was first released, and I'm glad I watched it again to remind myself how good Cage can be. He really hasn't replicated this since except for his dual role in Adaptation. In Leaving Las Vegas he is scary good--there have been countless drunks in cinema history, and they usually gather a lot of attention and awards, but Cage manages to play his role without sentimentality. He is what he is.

The film was written and directed by Mike Figgis (he also composed the jazz score), and he avoids traps all the way along. We really don't know why Cage's character is a drunk--we first see him whistling his way down the aisle of a liquor store, filing his cart. He makes a vague statement about his wife: "I don't remember whether I started drinking because my wife left or my wife me because I started drinking." We see a glimpse of that life when, after he is fired from his job as a screenwriter, he burns his possessions, and it includes a snapshot of a wife and son.

He heads to Las Vegas with the single purpose of drinking himself to death. He ends up meeting a prostitute, Elisabeth Shue, but instead of having sex he just wants her companionship. Perhaps engaging her nurturing instinct, she takes him in, but he makes her promise she won't ask him to stop drinking. He also gives her a magnificently played speech about how he knows he's a drunk and she's a hooker, and the two agree to love each other for who they are.

This could have been treacly tripe, the kind of "man redeemed by the love of hooker with a heart of gold," but Figgis steers away from that. Cage doesn't want to be redeemed, and Shue acquiesces. These are two broken people clinging to the same piece of wreckage, and sustain each other in the last throes.

Figgis also introduces what seems to be a subplot about Shue's Russian pimp (Julian Sands), but wraps it up before the movie is halfway over, as if saying, "The movie is about these two people and no more." When Shue is roughed up by some college boys, the part of our brain that expects a Hollywood response of Cage avenging her honor is not satisfied, and it's all for the better.

As Cage continues to make bad movies, presumably to stave off losing every house he owns, it's helpful to remember this film, which is a terrific one with an even better lead performance. One of the moments I had remembered even from sixteen years ago was, as he is being fired, his heartfelt apology to his boss. "I'm sorry," is the simple statement, yet it speaks volumes about the character and his situation. If only we could see Cage at this level once again.

I don't mean to give short shrift to Shue, who was also a revelation in this role. She also received an Oscar nomination, but since then her star has drastically dimmed. I've got a few more of post-Vegas films coming up in my Netflix queue, but clearly her potential has not been met.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raising Sand

Lately I've been drawn to any music that features a banjo, a dobro, a mandolin or a fiddle. I got the itch while watching Steve Martin and his band at the Capitol on the Fourth of July. But instead of getting a Steve Martin album (which is still a possibility), I ended up getting Raising Sand, a collaboration between old rocker Robert Plant and bluegrass fiddler and vocalist Alison Krauss. It won the Grammy for Best Album of 2007. It's not that great, but it's pretty gorgeous.

I've been aware of Krauss for a long time, but have never listened to any of her records. It's not too many violinists who can sing as good as she can, and no disrespect to Plant, but her songs are the standout on the record. All of the songs are cover versions, chosen by the producer, T Bone Burnett, and range from the Everly Brothers to Tom Waits.

Plant, who I can't think of without recalling his high-pitched wail at the opening of "The Immigrant Song," plays it cool here. He opens with a bluesy old '50s number called "Rich Woman," and has fun with another oldie, "Fortune Teller." He also oozes his way through Townes Van Zandt's "Nothin'." The Plant highlight is a song he and Jimmy Page did about ten years, a plaintive "Please Read the Letter."

Krauss' voice is crystal clear and as mellifluous as a bell. She has vocals on my favorite cuts on the album, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," "Trampled Rose," (the Waits song) and "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson." Gender bears no factor in the choices of these songs--the latter has Krauss singing about letting a good woman get away.

The record closes with the beautiful hymn-like "Your Long Journey," which would be a natural at funerals, a much better choice than "Dust in the Wind." I'm going to look for more from Alison Krauss.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ernie Kovacs

Largely forgotten today, Ernie Kovacs was one of the most innovative minds in television history. He had a series of comedy shows in the 1950 and early sixties, up until his death in a car accident in 1962. I had a faint memory of his stuff, though that seems impossible since was born in 1961--perhaps I saw repeats. I certainly remembered the Nairobi Trio, and the song that went with them, which has been running through my head for the last week.

After reading an appreciation of Ernie by Jonathan Lethem in Playboy, I rented a two-disc "Best of" collection. It's clear after watching them that he was way ahead of his time. Most early TV comedians were from radio or vaudeville, and thus were more verbal in approach, but Kovacs used visual gags. For example, a woman in a bath is surprised by a periscope rising from the bubbles. A skier in a painting heads down the hill and breaks through the frame. A man takes a copy of The Old Man and the Sea off the bookshelf and is hit with a spray of water. Dancers in gorilla costumes dance Swan Lake.

Kovacs influenced much of comedy that came after him, from Laugh-In to Saturday Night Live to Monty Python. Lethem calls him the link between Groucho Marx and David Letterman. His work is almost surreal, and seems much more sophisticated that what was on TV at the time, although certainly much of it was also completely silly (Kovacs was also a writer at Mad Magazine).

His show was constructed largely of short blackout sketches, accompanied to the tune of "Mack the Knife" in German. He loved music, and there are several silent sketches that show characters, or even office equipment, moving to the beat of classical music. One show, featuring his Chaplinesque character Eugene, was completely without dialogue.

He also had a stable of character. The most durable was Percy Dovetonsils, a fey poet with coke-bottle glasses. The character might seem stereotypically gay now, but it's done with affection. I loved his little shake of the head laugh, and the way he sipped his martini (on one show the crew slips a fish into his drink). The voice he used was hysterical, I can still hear the way he says, of his cameraman, "Norman, of the muscles and sinews."

The sketch he is probably best known for is the Nairobi Trio. It's simple, but as Lethem notes, is universally funny, both to small children and the elderly, from hillbillies to punks. It's three people in gorilla masks, overcoats, and derbies. They act like wind-up toys, playing instruments to the tune of an infectious tune called "Solfeggio." Everything basic about comedy is in the sketch, from the simple ridiculousness of men in monkey masks to the slow burn (one monkey hits the other over the head with xylophone mallets). I could watch this over and over again and never get tired of it.

Kovacs early death certainly deprived the world of a comic genius--Lethem compares his loss to Buddy Holly. Would he have gone on to make great comic films. The what-ifs abound. If you've never seen any of his stuff, look for it on YouTube, especially the Nairobi Trio.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Californication

I know nothing about Tom Kapitas, the creator of the Showtive series Californication, but I'm guessing one of two things: this is either autobiographical (less likely) or the visualization of a fantasy. Because, as disheveled as the life of the protagonist is, deep down a lot of guys would like to have his life.

The show debuted in 2007, and I just finished watching the first season. It stars David Duchovny as the louche Hank Moody, a novelist and New Yorker who has moved to L.A. to have his latest book turned into a blockbuster movie (with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, no less). He despises the city and the movie business, but stays to be near his ex (Natascha McElhone) and precocious daughter (Madeleine Martin).

I enjoyed the show, but I can see why it is polarizing. The whole success of the enterprise depends on whether you like Hank or not, and a lot of people don't. The charming asshole is a tough thing to pull off, but I think Duchovny does it. I end up rooting for the guy. Women, on the other hand, may feel differently.

The very first scene of the show has him dreaming about getting an offer of a blowjob from a nun, in the altar of a church. This is explained to him as being indicative of his longing for unattainable women, explains his friend and agent (Evan Handler). The most unattainable woman is McElhone, who has left him and gotten engaged to a cold fish (Damian Young). Though Duchovny beds women with almost the frequency of Wilt Chamberlain, he pines for her obsessively.

Moody, also in the first episode, ends up bedding Madeline Zima, who turns out to have two surprises. She is only sixteen, and is Young's daughter. This event, plus the pursuit of McElhone, ends up providing the impetus of the plot through much of the rest of the series.

Moody is definitely an interesting character. He has writer's block, can quote Keats, and has a gift of gab. Some of his dialogue is priceless. He's also frequently an asshole, but he knows it. He ends up costing himself a relationship by deriding a woman for using the phrase "LOL," and by my count was punched at least five times during the first season.

The show also pushes the crudeness envelope, not out of any sense of being daring, but more in a winking smarminess. We have a man's face sprayed with female ejaculate, the same man's nipple torn off during an S&M session, and some very frank discussion of sexual proclivities. There is plenty of nudity, though none from Rachel Miner, who plays Handler's assistant, a "Suicide Girl" with some ambition. I might add that she is totally hot.

It's kind of funny to see Duchovny, who has gone to rehab for sex addiction (and is an Executive Producer) playing the Lothario. He does make a deviation from his real-life persona when he tells a porn star who has taken him home, "I'm not that into porn."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Nemesis

This is the 24th book of Philip Roth's that I've read, an astounding number, both that I've read so many of one man's books, and also that he has managed to write so many, with none of them being a clunker. I put Nemesis in the middle of the pack, a beautifully written, occasionally gripping novel that questions the vagaries of life and the purpose of God.

As Roth nears 80, many of his recent books have dealt with mortality. Everyman, Exit Ghost, and Indignation particularly. Nemesis does as well, though not the mortality of an aged man, but the mortality of the young and vital.

It is 1944, a sweltering summer in Newark. Bucky Cantor, an idealistic young man, teaches gym and has a summer job managing a playground. He has been classified 4-F by the draft board because of bad eyesight, and feels guilty about it, as his good friends are fighting in Europe. He does his job with enthusiasm, caring about the boys who play in the ballgames on his playground.

But a killer is loose. Polio--scary, dangerous, and mysterious, begins to strike. Several boys under Bucky's charge are stricken, and two die. One parent accuses Bucky of letting them play in the heat for too long. No one knows what causes the disease, which makes everyone scared and suspicious.

Bucky's girlfriend has a job as a counselor at a camp in the Poconos. A job opens up there, and against his better judgement, he leaves Newark and goes to the cooler and polio-free climes of Pennsylvania. But then a boy comes down with polio, and Bucky can only blame himself.

Roth beautifully captures the place and period. You can feel the "equatorial" heat of that summer in Newark, which at the time was predominately Jewish and Italian. Roth's old neighborhood of Weequahic is as recognizable to his readers as Yoknapatawpha County is to Faulkner's. No less skillfully detailed is Indian Hill, the summer camp in the Poconos, which is run by a man who believes strongly in the Indian camping methods. I couldn't help but think back to my summer camp in the '70s, when we also were grouped by Indian names. I think I was a Pottowattomie.

I loved Roth's passages on the bucolic camp, such as this one: "The hills, the woods, the white island, even the lake had disappeared. He was alone on the board above the lake and could barely see a thing. The air was warm, his body was warm, and all he could hear was the pock of tennis balls being hit and the occasional clank of metal on metal where some campers off in the distance were pitching horseshoes and striking the stake. And when he breathed in, there was nothing to smell of Secaucus, New Jersey."

There's not as much of the bawdy Roth humor. There's no explicit sex; not a word that would offend a nun (Bucky and his girlfriend have sex, but in the dark on an island in the middle of the lake), but there is a little zing here and there. I laughed at this line, spoken to Bucky by a camper during an Indian ceremony: "'It's our medicine man," whispered Donald. "It's Barry Feinberg.'"

Roth's last three books, which he has grouped together and called "Nemeses: Three Short Novels," all take a central character and basically grind him into dust. There are parallels between Bucky and Marcus Messner, the college boy of Indignation, as both are unraveled by fate, although Messner's flaw is within himself, while Bucky's is set forth by outside influences--namely, polio.

But Roth takes it further in a coda. The story is narrated by one of the boys Bucky managed on the playground, who came down with polio. He meets Bucky later in life, and we see that Bucky's downfall doesn't really come from polio; it comes from his reaction to it. "But there's nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy. He'd been alone for too long with his sense of things--and without all he'd wanted so desperately to have--for me to dislodge his interpretation of his life's terrible event or to shift his relation with it."

In some ways, Nemesis is a retelling of the Book of Job, as Bucky questions a God that would strike down innocent children. But God does not, as he does with Job, appear to Bucky, and he is left alone to deal with the consequences.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Horrible Bosses

There seems to be a trend at the multiplexes now--the R-rated comedy is back. This summer we've seen Bridesmaids, The Hangover 2 and now Horrible Bosses do good business.

The premise of Horrible Bosses is simple, and I suppose universal--it's only the self-employed or luckiest of us who has never had one. Three chums each have a horror story at work. Jason Bateman works for a sadist, Kevin Spacey. Charlie Day is a dental hygienist who works for a dentist, Jennifer Aniston, who blatantly harasses him sexually (this is a bad thing because he is in love with his fiancee). Jason Sudeikis loves his boss, but when he dies his cretinous son (Colin Farrell) takes over.

As they compare notes they decide to try to hire a hit man to kill their respective bosses. They head to the bad part of town and find Jamie Foxx, who won't do the job, but will "consult." He suggest the Strangers on a Train gambit--they should kill each other's bosses.

This is a good idea for a movie, but fails consistently. There is plenty of blame to go around. To start, the director, Seth Gordon, shows no flair for comic pacing. The film just kinds of lays there, like a dead fish. Scenes drag on for too long and have no sparkle. This should have been a fast-paced farce, but instead plays like a drama.

The screenplay, by three credited writers, is also full of dead spots, and works much too hard to be crude, almost snickering like Beavis and Butt-head as it makes jokes about sex and bodily fluids. I found the whole Aniston thing way over the top. I suppose boys who grew up lusting after Rachel on Friends may get a tingle by hearing her say "I want you to fuck my mouth," but it has all the wit of a whoopee cushion (it's interesting that a woman harassing a man is comic, while the opposite would be creepy beyond measure).

Finally, the cast just doesn't work. The bosses are okay--Aniston certainly has made a departure from the dreary rom-coms she's made lately, and seems game for anything, and Spacey simply recycles the agent he played in Swimming With the Sharks. But Farrell is a delight. He sports the world's worst comb over and hides his roguish Irish charm behind a truly repellent character. But again, the writers go over the top when we see his apartment, which Sudeikis calls "inside the mind of an asshole."

The three leads are a bigger problem. Bateman and Sudeikis are too bland by half, and Day, who seems to be playing the Zach Galifianakis role, over compensates to the point of supreme irritation. For one thing, there's no particular reason why Aniston would lust after him (if the role had been played by a sweet-natured hunk it would have worked better--Day is short and squirrelly).

The film isn't a total disaster. I chuckled a few times when the dialogue manages to reach a more effervescent level, especially in the scenes with the three leads and Foxx, who comes off unscathed (his name is "Motherfucker" Jones, and thus the leads call him, properly, Motherfucker).

But on the whole I found Horrible Bosses messy and dreary. I'm not down on crude comedies--Animal House and Bad Santa are the cream of the crop, but they were made by people who knew what they were doing. Not so with Horrible Bosses.

My rating for Horrible Bosses: C-

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Murderball

Murderball is a 2005 documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award, but I'm just catching up to it now. It does the best thing that a documentary can do--take me to a world I know nothing about, and make me care about people doing something I would have never thought was interesting.

The world is that of "wheelchair rugby," or "quad rugby," that was once called "murderball." As Mark Zupan, one of the key players on the U.S. team states, murderball was not exactly easy to market to corporate sponsors.

The game is played by quadraplegics with varying disabilities. Most of the players sustained spinal injuries. They roll in fortified wheelchairs and play a game that combines elements of basketball, American football, and hockey. But the object of the game seems to be, as one players puts it, "kill the guy with the ball."

The film, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, covers the U.S. team from their defeat at the hands of the Canadian team. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as they had never lost a championship before, and the Canadian team was coached by one of their ex-players, Joe Soares, who went to coach the team to the north after being cut by the American team. Soares, a fascinating hard-ass type of guy, is asked by his ex-teammate, "How does it feel to betray your country?"

The film then chronicles both teams as they prepare for the Paralympics in Athens in 2004. I did not know, of if I did I forgot, that the Paralympics are part of the Olympics, taking place in the same venues after the Olympics are over--a kind of shadow Olympics.

Since I knew so little about this topic I ended up watching a game played in 2004 not having any idea how it turned out, which made for great suspense.

In addition to Zupan and Soares, a handful of other players are featured. They were followed for two years, and the filmmakers got incredible access, even following Soares into an operating room while having a heart attack. I did wonder how much was staged, especially considering Soares' anniversary dinner with his wife was done with a two-camera set-up. I was also suspicious of a parallel story about a young man who undergoes a spinal injury and then months later is introduced to the sport by Zupan on a recruiting trip. How in the world did the filmmakers know this young man would end up interested in wheelchair rugby?

That aside, the film is extremely well done. In the supplemental material, the players featured express their relief that the film is not one of those "pity me" films with stringed musical accompaniment. These guys are not in the business of self-pity, and the film does not oversentimentalize their disabilities. One of the players, Bob Lujardo, doesn't have hands or legs, but seems as able-bodied as I am. This no-nonsense approach lends dignity to the proceedings, and makes for a more emotional impact at the climax of the film (I won't tell who wins).

Friday, July 08, 2011

Red Planet

I seem to be on a kick of watching films about Mars. Last week was Mission to Mars, this week is Red Planet, a 2000 film directed by Antony Hoffman. I liked this one much better. It wasn't as intellectually ambitious, but it was fun, taut, Saturday-matinee-type movie.

Set in 2025, the Earth is almost destroyed by environmental damage and humans have looked to the red planet. They've seeded Mars with algae to create oxygen, but when oxygen levels drop, a crew is sent on manned mission.

Leading the team is Carrie-Anne Moss (playing Bowman, a name that is surely a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Everyone else in the cast is also recognizable: Benjamin Bratton as cocky pilot, Val Kilmer as a technical specialist (they joking call him "Space Janitor"), Terence Stamp as a science officer who has turned to philosophy, Tom Sizemore as a bioengineer, and Simon Baker as...well, I don't what he does exactly, but he plays a pivotal part in the action.

Of course something goes wrong, and the five men land on the planet, while Moss stays above trying to fix the ship (we learn that using a fire extinguisher in zero gravity isn't easy). On the surface, the astronauts have to deal with oxygen tanks that are running out and a robot they've carried along for navigation purposes has been accidentally switched to "military mode," and hunts them like a stainless-steel cougar.

Red Planet is slickly made, and I enjoyed the "Ten Little Indians" aspect, as the crew members are picked off one by one by various hazards. Star power is no guarantee of long life in this film.

It was also nice to see Val Kilmer acting the part of a humble and decent guy, which is a switch. I could not, though, as hard as I tried, believe Tom Sizemore as a genius with numerous doctorates.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Finishing the Hat

I'm not a big Broadway musical guy, but even I can appreciate the genius of Stephen Sondheim, who is one of the great lyricists of the art form. His first volume of collected lyrics, which runs from 1954 to 1981, is subtitled "with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," and it's those that make this book gripping reading.

Reading lyrics is kind of hard, especially if you don't know the tune. It's easy to follow along the amazingly familiar, like "Send in the Clowns," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and the entire score of West Side Story, but for other shows the lyrics didn't really sink in with me. I saw A Little Night Music last December so that helped, and while reading the lyrics to Sweeney Todd I thought back to the film, and while I didn't think it was a great film I did enjoy the lyrics.

So where this book excels, at least for me, who has a background in theater, is Sondheim's tales out of school and his discussion of other lyricists. It's like taking a master class with one of the great lyricists of all time. I learned about assonance and consonance, and what a pure rhyme is, and how syllable stress is important. Sondheim is meticulous about his word choice, and cites three rules: Content dictates form, less is more, and god is in the details. As for rhymes, he's almost manic on the subject. Consider this tidbit: "Regional accents can confuse the issue. To me, a native New Yorker, 'dawn' rhymes with 'lawn' and 'gone' with 'on.' When I worked with Leonard Bernstein, who was born near Boston, he insisted, to my horror, that all four words rhymed with each other. For a musical version of 'The Boston Strangler,' that might have been acceptable. For a show about New York street gangs, it was not."

Sondheim dishes about those he worked with. He's particularly savage about Robert Brustein of the Yale Drama School, whom he worked with on a student production of The Frogs. He also doesn't mince words about critics. "The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses. Books are reviewed by writers, the visual arts by disappointed, if knowledgeable, painters and art students, concert music by composers and would-be composers...Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publicly criticized by illiterates."

He's also clear-eyed in his criticism of other composers, but only discusses those that are dead. He didn't think much of Lorenz Hart, who he cites as gifted but lazy, or Ira Gershwin, who he thinks may have tried too hard to keep up with his composer brother George. Hart is scolded for sacrificing meaning for rhyme: "'Your looks are laughable,/Unphotographable" (from 'My Funny Valentine' in Babes in Arms). Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire, surely he meant 'unphotogenic.' Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate '-enic' rhymes are hard to come by." Sondheim believes that lyrics should indicate character, which is why he takes Alan Lerner to task: "For example, there's an appearance of high gloss in My Fair Lady's lyrics in "I'm an Ordinary Man" that "I'd be equally as willing/For a dentist to be drilling/Than to ever let a woman in my life," a syntactical train wreck, especially noticeable coming from a professor of English so meticulous about the language that the plot depends on it."

On the other hand, this book is not a continuous gripe-fest. Sondheim is very complimentary to those who have proved to be right. He discusses how difficult it was to work with Jerome Robbins, but cites several instances when Robbins' genius saved the day. He is also just as hard on himself, pointing out lyrics he's now embarrassed by, and frankly pointing out the weaknesses of some of his shows, particularly the flops. Do I Hear a Waltz? he calls a "why" show--why was it written in the first place? In this case, it was a favor to do a show with composer Richard Rodgers, and he thought he could make a boatload of money. He sums it up by saying, "It was my first and only 'Why?' musical. Friendship, obligation and greed are not good enough reasons to write anything."

Anyone who has an interest in musical theater, or the creative process for that matter, should read this book. It was fascinating from beginning to end, and I'm looking forward to the second volume, which will be titled, Look I Made a Hat (those are songs from his Sunday in the Park With George, by the way).

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Camino Real

Camino Real, Tennessee Williams' 1953 play, marked a departure from his earlier work. Indeed, it was departure from almost anything anyone had seen. Williams notes in an an article published in the New York Times before the Broadway opening (commenting on the out-of-town tryouts): "There have been plenty of indications already that this play will exasperate and confuse a certain number of people which we hope is not so large as the number it is likely to please. At each performance a number of people have stamped out of the the auditorium, with little regard for those whom they have had to crawl over, almost as if the building had caught on fire, and there have been sibilant noises on the way out and demands for money back if the cashier was foolish enough to remain in his box."

He later rationalizes: "As for those patrons who departed before the final scene, I offer myself this tentative bit of solace: that these theatre-goers may be a little domesticated in their theatrical tastes. A cage represents security as well as confinement to a bird that has grown used to being in it."

The use of a cage as a metaphor is telling, for the action of Camino Real does take place in a cage of sorts. The title is Spanish for "royal road," and the setting is a town in some banana republic, presumably in South America. One side of the street is a fancy hotel, and the operator, a fat man named Gutman (named after the Sidney Greenstreet character in The Maltese Falcon) runs the town. The other side of the street is skid row, with a fleabag hotel, a pawn shop, and a gypsy woman's stall.

A number of characters, both from literature and history, are trapped there. The opening sees Don Quixote and Sancho Panza wander in, but we eventually meet Casanova, Lord Byron, Marguerite (the name of the main character in Camille) and Esmeralda, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who is the gypsy woman's daughter. Eventually they are joined by Kilroy, the typical American (certainly named after the World War II era graffiti, "Kilroy was here") who isn't sure how he got there. The whole thing gave me the effect of watching a Twilight Zone episode, but with much more literary pretension.

The play was a flop, as Williams was right--conventional audiences didn't understand it. It has since received a much more appreciative response. Williams, though writing in a surrealistic style (characters are killed and carted off by menacing "street cleaners," Esmeralda regains her virginity every night by the light of the moon) he still is able to suggest the dark torment of the soul that marks his other work. There's a crackling good suspense scene when an unscheduled plane, called "the Fugitivo," arrives and Marguerite wants on it, but she doesn't have her money or passport ready. It's like everyone's worst airport dream.

I don't know what it means, and frankly it didn't matter much, because I enjoyed reading it, and would love to see it staged, as I'm sure that would give me keener insight into it. Sometimes writers are just ahead of their time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Husbands

As I mentioned in my article on The In-Laws, Peter Falk was well-known for his work in the films of John Cassavetes. I was interested to learn, though, that before making the film Husbands in 1970, the two hardly knew each other. Cassavetes didn't really know the other star of the film, Ben Gazzara, either, but he knew he wanted them to star in his film about middle-aged men facing mortality.

Falk, Cassavetes, and Gazzara are all suburban, married men with kids. They are three-quarters of a foursome, although we only see the fourth man in photos taken at a pool party. The action then cuts to a cemetery, where that man is being eulogized. The remaining three friends are so rattled by his death that they go on an epic bender that takes them to London, where they each try to score with a woman.

This is not an easy film to watch. It's well over two hours long, with long, improvisational scenes that appear to meander into meaninglessness. One of them is in the back room of a bar, where a group of people are drinking and singing songs. A woman is singing but the three leads mock her mercilessly.

The third act, which is in London, is so rife with misogyny it's hard to know what Cassavetes was up to. I would imagine that it his response to the blooming feminism of the period. But are these men to be pitied or despised? Pauline Kael called the film "offensive and infantile," and I see her point. Jay Cocks of Time called it the greatest film one is likely to see, while Roger Ebert responded that never had such a bad film received such a great review from Time.

It would be hard to understand a woman enjoying this film. Falk, at one point, tells Cassavetes that he won't shower if doesn't want to. "If I want to stink, I'll stink...If I want to be dirty, I'll be dirty. You have to be free. You have to be an individual." This makes me think that it's all a joke from Cassavetes, that he realizes that this macho, cave man approach is dying, and thank god for that. He subtitles the film, "A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom."

But there is just too much nastiness to recommend this film. Gazzara knocks around his wife and mother-in-law, Cassavetes date-rapes an English woman (who is still with him at breakfast) and Falk's encounter with a Chinese girl is really creepy. Compare this film to The Hangover, which is entirely different in tone, yet also presents men as clueless pigs. At least the latter film makes no pretense about it.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Trip

Whenever Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan team up, it's comedy gold. Throw in Rob Brydon and it's platinum. Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People introduced me to this team, while Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, cemented my opinion that anything these guys do is hilarious.

The Trip, which is a film that is stitched together from a British comedy series, is something of a sequel to Tristram Shandy, in that again Coogan and Brydon are playing versions of themselves. Coogan has been hired by a newspaper to write reviews of restaurants in the north of England. His American girlfriend (Margo Stilley) is back in her home country, so he has resorted to asking his some-time colleague, Brydon, to accompany him. It's sort of like a movable My Dinner With Andre with impressions.

The results are uproariously funny and also heartbreakingly sad. There is no credited screenwriter, so I imagine Coogan and Brydon just made it up as they went along. Things get off to a rollicking start at their first meal, when they compare their Michael Caine impressions.

As the film goes on, we see the pathos underneath the humor. "Coogan" is emotionally needy. He misses his girlfriend, but that doesn't stop him from making two casual conquests in the course of the trip. He is annoyed when Brydon is recognized and he's not. He fields calls from his American agent, longing to be in films by auteurs. In one hilarious dream sequence, Ben Stiller appears as his agent, telling him the Coens and the Wajchowskis, "both of them," are interested in him. "All of the brothers are interested in you."

Brydon is unfailingly cheerful and patient, and extremely happy in cozy domesticity, which seems to annoy Coogan even more. He acts like he can't stand to be with him, hearing his constant impressions (Brydon can't go more than a few seconds without doing Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, or Woody Allen, to name a few) but deep down he's more afraid of being alone. "You're a good bloke, despite what people say," Coogan tells Brydon, his way of expressing affection.

Brydon is completely aware of Coogan's failings, but is too busy enjoying himself to let it bother him. When Coogan, trying to cross a river on stepping stones, gets stuck halfway across, not being able to go forward or back, Brydon calls out, "You're stuck in a metaphor!"

There are loads of laughs in the film. My favorite bit is when Coogan and Brydon, riding through the stone-walled landscape of the north country (there are some beautiful vistas) riff on a before-the-battle-speech that one might hear in a period adventure film. "To bed!" Coogan improvises, "For we rise at 9:30-ish." Or when Coogan is smoking pot, and Brydon declines, and Coogan accuses him of not living dangerously. Brydon reminds him of when he had a Red Bull and Coke. There's also the scene where Coogan tries to deconstruct the lyrics of ABBA's hit "The Winner Takes It All," which both men sing with gusto.

I would imagine that Britishers, who have seen these guys on television, would get a lot more of the in-jokes, but even without all the cultural references I thought this was a gas-and-a-half.

My grade for The Trip: A-.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Pop-Tarts Are Crack

I read somewhere that anyone who calls anything as addictive as crack has never actually had crack. Fair enough, but for me, Pop-Tarts are my crack. I'm not surprised to read that they are Kellogg's best-selling product. They date back to the early '60s, as do I, but the flavors have expanded into a phantasmagorical potpourri. Strawberry, blueberry and cherry have been joined by delights such as blueberry muffin, chocolate chip cookie dough, and vanilla milk shake. It's a good time to be alive for Pop-Tart lovers.

I've been eating Pop-Tarts as long as I can remember, and it's kind of stunning that I'm fifty years old and still love them. I don't drink Kool-Aid anymore, but walking down the cereal aisle at the store and coming the toaster pastry aisle is like being an alcoholic in a liquor store.

I could live on Pop-Tarts, and there have been times I have. Just the other day I bought a twelve-pack during my morning shopping excursion. By the time I went to bed the box was empty, having consumed them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. It wouldn't be so bad if I could limit myself to just one a day, but knowing they're in the house means every time I'm the slightest bit hungry I head toward them.

This wouldn't be a problem, and indeed wasn't a problem when I was a kid, except now I have health issues. My weight has fluctuated in extremes. When I was a teenager I could eat an entire pizza and not gain an ounce. When I graduated from high school I weighed 120 pounds, and was five-eleven. When I was forty-five, I was still five-eleven, but weighed twice that. I lost a lot of weight, getting as low as 180, but recently I've been eating terribly, throwing myself a pity party after losing my job. I've been eating ice cream like it was going to be discontinued and, of course, Pop-Tarts. My weight is now at 210.

I saw my doctor on Friday and he said my blood pressure was a bit high. Before prescribing medicine, he suggested I try to lower it by diet and exercise. I've been doing a lot of exercising--working at home has enabled me to take long walks and go swimming--but my diet has been atrocious. So I'm going to have to cut out the ice cream, the pizza and, sadly, the Pop-Tarts.

I should add that I enjoy eating them straight out of the box. They're really designed to be toasted, and they are good that way, but I like the convenience of being able to eat something immediately, without any preparation. And then I wash them down with a cold glass of milk. Oh, the rapture! Pop-Tarts, I will miss you.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

9 Songs

As I wrote in my review of Shortbus, I'm intrigued by the notion of combining mainstream moviemaking with explicit sex scenes. There aren't too many that do, and Michael Winterbottom's 2004 film, 9 Songs, may be the most explicit I've ever seen. The problem is, without the sex this film isn't interesting in the slightest.

With only two characters, 9 Songs runs a little over an hour. It documents the relationship between an Englishman, Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and an American girl in London, Lisa (Margo Stilley). They fuck and go to rock clubs, watching alt-rock bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand, and The Von Bondies (these are the nine songs of the title).

The story is told in retrospect by Matt as he studies ice in the Antarctic. He has a kind of Jean-Paul Belmondo look, while Lisa is tall and lithe. She kind of uses him, and then just decides to go back to America, but there's not much conflict, and neither character is very interesting. Supposedly the film got a standing ovation at Cannes, but that was probably for the blowjob scene.

As for the sex, it starts just peeking, in the dark, but by the end there are close-up scenes of oral sex and insertion. Stilley, on the DVD extras, says the film is not a turn-on, but she hasn't met me--it definitely moved part of me.

9 Songs illustrates some of the problems of mixing cinema and porn. One, it won't play in many theaters. Two, you have a hard time finding actors. Stilley discusses how she thought about the repercussions of appearing in the film (she still works, and I just saw her in Winterbottom's The Trip, which I will review in a couple days). A director could hire sex performers from adult films--Catherine Breillat used Rocco Siffredi in her film Romance--but frequently they can't act, and by hiring a porno star a director is almost conceding that his film is pornographic. Perhaps the most insurmountable problem is that whenever an explicit sex scene comes along the story stops dead, because we are so amazed that we are watching two actors actually fucking or sucking.

But I applaud those like Winterbottom who try. He just needed a better story and more interesting characters. Maybe someday this won't be such a big deal.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Split Image

I've read many books by Robert B. Parker. They're like snack food--not particularly nutritious, but hard to put down. In fact, on more than one occasion I've read them straight through in their entirety. I remember once leaving work from New York City to take a train out to my friend's house in Jersey. I started the book as I waited on the subway platform, and finished it as the New Jersey Transit train was pulling into my destination.

I haven't read a Parker novel in quite a while, and I think it's because while Parker is an incredibly prolific writer, he also seems to have gotten lazy (Parker died last year, so this is all in present tense). Maybe I was put off by his admitting in an interview that he never rewrites his material, which I don't think any other writer could claim. I don't doubt that he doesn't rewrite, because his books got to be very simple and without depth.

All of the Parker books I'd read were about Spenser, his Boston private eye. He had other series characters, and Split Image, which was his penultimate novel, featured two of them: Jesse Stone, the police chief of a small, coastal Massachusetts town, and Sunny Randall, a female private detective. I was new to both of these characters, but they are both sharply drawn, and have a casual sexual relationship as they get over their exes.

In fact, this book is more about character than plot. There really isn't much of a mystery here. There's a crime--two of them--as a gangster's henchmen is found murdered in the trunk of his car. Stone investigates, and finds that two gangsters, former rivals, live next to each other and are married to identical twin sisters. Stone digs deeper and finds out that these sisters have a reputation of swapping sexual partners (they are known as the "Bang Bang Sisters") without the partners knowing that they're not sleeping with the sister they think they're with.

A subplot involving Randall has her working for a couple trying to get their daughter out of a religious commune. This is one of those common private eye plots that has the detective acting like a white knight, doing what is right rather than what is in the best interests of her client. It's kind of a throwaway; Parker may have thought about it for an entire novel but realized it was too thin and shoved it into this book.

Split Image isn't much of a whodunit, and it's not high on suspense. Neither protagonist is ever in any danger--no shots are fired, and only a couple of punches are thrown (neither by the two heroes). Instead, it focuses on their weaknesses. Stone has a drinking problem, and Randall has daddy issues. Both of them are depicted in their respective analysts offices, having convenient epiphanies (Randall's shrink is Susan Silverman, Spenser's long-time lady love).

Parker is known for his terse, spare writing, making Hemingway seem chatty in comparison. He may have written the shortest sex scene ever, between Stone and Randall: "They made love." But while adjectives may slow him down, it at times becomes comical how he writes as if typing with one finger and on a deadline. The dialogue is equally spare, with most of the characters speaking sarcastically, to the point of glibness.

Parker's characters will live on, as other writers have been hired by his estate to carry them on. I hope they use a few more adjectives and adverbs, and maybe actually create a mystery to ponder.