Follow by Email

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sky Full of Holes

As I look over my review of Fountain of Wayne's last album, Traffic and Weather, from four years ago, I could make many of the same statements. Again their songs are snippets of life from middle-class American life. "Acela" is perhaps the most typical, a song about a commuter train. But I liked Sky Full of Holes more than Traffic and Weather--I think it has more emotional resonance, and any group that can effortlessly rhyme Cracker Barrel and Will Ferrell has it going on, as far as I'm concerned.

There are the usual FOW touches. The first line from the first song, "The Summer Place," is "She's been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977." There's a certain element of nostalgia for a certain kind of life, as referenced in the song "Radio Bar," where Steve Miller's "The Joker" is playing over and over again. "Action Hero," about a hapless suburban man who longs to be a super-hero, reminds me of Elton John's "Roy Rogers," and "A Road Song," about the travails of a band on the road, seems more personal than FOW's other work.

But I think the song that gives this album an extra bit of greatness is the last cut, "Cemetery Guns." On the surface it's kind of sappy, about a military funeral, but it departs from FOW's standard issue template and after multiple listens I liked it more each time. The lines, "Cemetery guns go bang, bang, bang, shooting all the sky full of holes, twenty-one times in a row, for the blue war widow in the gray raincoat and the green grass down below." Call me sentimental, but that gets to me.

Of FOW's five albums, I'd put this either third or fourth. Utopia Parkway remains their masterpiece, but even the worst FOW album is better than most of the stuff I listen to these days.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Animal

As far as I'm concerned, if Rob Schneider were to board a rocket ship to the sun, it would be a benefit to cinema. While I was working at a movie theater I saw of enough of Deuce Bigalow 2 to be inspired to murder all responsible. But I kind of wanted to see The Animal, his film from 2001, because of Colleen Haskell.

Haskell was perhaps the cutest contestant to ever appear on Survivor. She was on the first, and still best, season, and I can still her on the beach in her pink bikini. I don't know who thought she could be an actress, because she can't really act, but her appearance in The Animal is not a complete embarrassment. I am not surprised, though, that she has never made another movie.

Given all that, I was surprised that The Animal was not a complete atrocity. It's not good, but I did smile a few times. It was produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison company, so you know what you're going to get--I doubt Happy Madison will ever make an adaptation of a Trollope novel.

Schneider, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays a hapless fellow who wants to be a policeman. After surviving a car wreck he's rescued by a mad doctor who stitches him back together with animal parts. This means that he acts like various animals, mostly a dog, horse, seal and monkey. He also has the impulses of animals, so he gets freaky around meat and a goat in heat.

Schneider is an okay physical comedian, but he's no Buster Keaton. One gets the sense that this is something that Sandler passed on. He appears in an unfunny cameo, but I liked Norm McDonald's cameo. Edward Asner, as a police captain, seems pained, and has a look on his face that seems to ask, "Do I really need the money?"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

After reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, I thought I'd take a look at a couple of film adaptations. The most famous is the 1945 film, directed by Albert Lewin, that made Hurd Hatfield a kind of punchline in movie history. I wonder how many people asked him if he had a portrait in an attic somewhere.

The film is a good one, with well-paced suspense, but has some notable and understandable differences from the novel. Hatfield is the title character, a kind of angelic young gentlemen. His portrait is painted by his friend (Lowell Gilmore) and, after hearing the philosophy of man-about-town Henry Wotton (George Sanders, absolutely perfect) that youth is the most important thing one can have, Hatfield idly wishes that he could stay the same, but the portrait would age. The film adds an Egyptian cat statue, which acts as the talisman that grants Hatfield his wish.

A big difference between the film and the book is the removal of any shred of homoerotic love between the painter and subject. Gilmore plays Hallward as a kind of no-nonsense fellow, while Hallward in the book is obsessed with Gray's good looks. Also, Sybil Vane (played here by Angela Lansbury, who won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar) is not a Shakespearean actress, but a singer in a vaudeville. Instead of Hatfield turning on her for her loss of talent, she instead fails a morality test that Sanders suggests.

These changes don't upset the core nature of the film, and the ability to see the portrait in its decadent state is thrilling. The film is in black and white, but shots of the portrait, both before and after, are in a kind of lurid technicolor. The "after" portrait was done by Ivan Le Lorrain Albright, and now is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

My only gripe with the movie is the addition of an unnecessary love triangle between Hatfield, Donna Reed as Hallward's niece, and Peter Lawford as her suitor.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Oscar 2011 Forecast: Pick a Number Between Five and Ten

Once again the approach of autumn means that Oscar season is about to heat up, as the theaters start playing "serious" films. This season has some obvious candidates, but I have a feeling that this might be a year like 2008, when Slumdog Millionaire came out of nowhere. I wouldn't be surprised if my list of ten below doesn't even contain the eventual winner.

The most interesting about this year is that, for the first time, no one know how many nominees for Best Picture there will be. All we know is that there will somewhere between five and ten. In the Kremlinology involved in deciphering the motivation for these rule changes, one can be a little perplexed. If the absence of The Dark Knight in 2008 occasioned the expansion of the nominees from five to ten, what film made the powers-that-be dial it back?

Some have speculated it was The Blind Side, but that particular film was nominated two years ago, not last year, so if it is the culprit it was a slow reaction. I'm thinking that one of last year's nominees--maybe Winter's Bone, which was a worthy nominee--had a paltry amount of votes. Now, any film that doesn't get at least five percent won't be nominated, thus eliminating the chance that a film could be nominated with only one vote.

The Blind Side was really the only WTF? movie that was nominated over the two-year ten-nominee period. I liked some more than others, but it didn't lead to any major embarrassments. I have a feeling that this winnowing process will hurt some films, like Winter's Bone and A Serious Man, that deserve to be nominated. We'll see.

And now, my highly unscientific, arbitrary, and clueless list of ten films that seem to stand a good chance at getting nominated. And I'll also make a guess at how many films end up getting nominated: 7. It's my lucky number.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, December): Adaptation of the play God of Carnage, with the God edited out presumably for the sensitive American audience. Polanski is a hot button, but this seems like it good be very good, and it has Christoph Waltz playing someone who isn't a villain, which will be a nice stretch. Also with Kate Winslet, known Oscar favorite.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, Sept. 9); Trailers look promising, great cast, classy director, and a squirm-in-your-seat subject matter. This is the kind of genre film that the expansion seems to have helped out.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nov. 23): I love Payne (not pain--I'm not a masochist), and teaming him with George Clooney seems like good Oscar bait. Payne scored an Oscar nominations for Sideways, so it's not unprecedented.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, December): Daldry has made three movies, he's been nominated for Best Director three times. The last two were also Best Picture nominees. That could either mean he has momentum, or he's do for a let-down. I'm betting on the former, given that this is a 9/11 film.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, Dec. 21): Sure to be a box-office smash, and with the Fincher imprimatur should get oohs and aahs from critics. This has a chance to be the one film of the lot that celebrates commerce over art...

The Help (Tate Taylor, Aug. 10)...or it could be The Help, which has sparked debate amongst intellectuals and has also managed to be a big hit. It is a middlebrow examination of a complex issue, which is right up Oscar's alley. If there were ten nominees, it would be a sure nominee.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, Oct. 2): Clooney could be seeing double-duty in this category. This one is a political drama, which is sure to titillate liberal Hollywood. Clooney is not guarantee, though--remember Leatherheads?

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, November) Like Charlie Brown with the football, I keep putting Clint Eastwood down on my list, though he hasn't hit Oscar gold since Letters From Iwo Jima. A biopic of J. Edgar Hoover with Leonardo DiCaprio seems just the ticket to get Clint back to the Kodak Theater.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, May 20): Like Eastwood, Allen hasn't had a chance to refuse attending an Oscars in a while (he was last nominated for Match Point). Given that this was a critical and box office success (his greatest box office success ever), combined with the frisson of his return to favor, makes it film a potential nominee. It will certainly be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, where he's been nominated more than twenty times.

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, Dec. 28) This has got to be the front runner right now, a gooey adaptation of a novel and play about a boy and his horse, set against the backdrop of World War I. It's period, it's sentimental, it's Spielberg. I should add that Spielberg has only been nominated once as Best Director in the last thirteen years (for Munich).

Other possibilities, in no particular order: Hugo (Martin Scorsese), We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe), Tree of Life (Terence Malick), Young Adult (Jason Reitman), Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd--and Meryl Streep's shot at a third Oscar), Moneyball (Bennett Miller), and The Artist (Michel Hazanivicius--a silent movie).

Let the games begin!

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Dangerous Ground

Back to the Robert Ryan film festival with On Dangerous Ground, an extremely hard-boiled noir from Nicholas Ray, with a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides from 1952. Though it's ostensibly a police procedural, it qualifies as a noir because of the conflicted nature of its protagonist.

Ryan stars a big city police detective. He's become so numbed by dealing with the dregs of society that he has lost compassion for almost everyone. His partners, both happily married men, notice his cynical attitude and warn that he will be eaten alive.

The first third of the film concerns Ryan looking for a cop killer, and beating information out of anyone who might know something. He's warned by his captain (Ed Begley), and then shipped out of town into the sticks to work on a murder case. He arrives just in time to get in a chase of the killer, along with the murder victim's father (Ward Bond), who is intent on killing the suspect on site.

The two men track the killer through the snow to an isolated house, where an attractive blind woman (Ida Lupino) lives. Bond is sure she's hiding something, but Ryan treats her more tenderly. It soon comes out that the killer is her brother, and she implores Ryan to promise he won't be killed. Seemingly touched by her strength and vulnerability, Ryan undergoes a change, and after the case is wrapped up he heads back to the city, a different man.

On Dangerous Ground is an oddly structured film, in that the first third is so separate from the last two. I learned that the first third was entirely Ray's creation, and not in the source novel (called Mad With a Heart). Ryan is terrific as a guy who's soul has been tramped down by seeing only the worst in people, while Lupino, is also great as a woman who doesn't seek pity. Bond, seeking nothing but revenge, is like a force of nature.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Comanche Moon

I'm a big fan of the Larry McMurtry novels chronicling the Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus McRae, but the miniseries based on each of the four books in the series have varied in quality. Comanche Moon, which was the last book written, but the second chronologically, was adapted into a miniseries in 2008. I missed it upon first airing, but after reading Empire of the Summer Moon I thought it was a good time to watch it, with facts about the Comanches fresh in my head.

This takes place in the years before Lonesome Dove, which remains the best book and the best film adaptation of the bunch. Call and McRae are Texas Rangers in the year 1858, trying to keep the Comanches at bay. The Indians are led by Buffalo Hump and his son, Blue Duck, but the former kicks the younger out of the tribe for recklessness.

Call, (Karl Urban) a dour, humorless man, is keeping company with a whore, (Elizabeth Banks, in one of the most wholesome performances as an Old West whore you'll ever seen). She becomes pregnant by him, but he won't acknowledge the child or marry her. McRae (Steve Zahn) is a loquacious belly-acher, in love with a shopkeeper (Linda Cardellini), but he's too insecure to keep her.

The Rangers are captained by Inish Scull (Val Kilmer, in a performance that's too eccentric by half). He's a Bostoner, with esoteric knowledge, but he's also an accomplished Indian fighter. When a Comanche, Kicking  Wolf, steals his super-large horse, he sets off on foot to retrieve it. He ends up captured by a sadistic Mexican bandit, (Sal Lopez), who puts him in a cage suspended off the edge of a cliff. Scull gets treated better in the movie than in the book--in the book his eyelids are cut off, which is the thing I most remember about it.

There are some familiar Western tropes, such as an Indian raid and a few shootouts, but what makes McMurtry's books distinctive are their lack of being predictable. I couldn't believe, when reading Lonesome Dove, that Call did not end up killing Blue Duck. McMurtry avoids the showdowns we expect, and often has major characters die off-screen. This can make film adaptations less successful, and Comanche Moon often has a going-through-the-motions aspect. The director, Simon Wincer, is the same man who made Lonesome Dove, but this one is missing a joie de vivre that the first one had.

Some of the cast has an interesting problem. Call has been played by four different actors in each of the miniseries: Urban, Johnny Lee Miller, Tommie Lee Jones, and James Garner. Urban tries to make him his own, but you can see a slight imitation of Jones's style. Zahn more nakedly apes Robert Duvall in mannerisms, and at times pushes it too hard. Interestingly, Wes Studi plays Buffalo Hump, and there's a scene in which he interacts with the Kickapoo tracker, Famous Shoes (here played by David Midthunder). In the last miniseries, chronologically, Streets of Laredo, Studi plays Famous Shoes.

The film, as one would expect, plays fast and loose with the facts. Buffalo Hump talks about when Comanche leaders were ambushed by Texans, and implies he was a boy, but in fact he was in his forties at the time, and did not die as depicted here. Also, Quanah Parker is a very small character here, but he was not a leader at the same time as his father, Peta Neconah. Quanah was 12 when his father was killed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray

As much as I venerate Oscar Wilde, I hadn't read his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, even if people haven't read it, know the plot--a man doesn't age, while his portrait does. Wilde had perhaps written the first episode of the Twilight Zone.

First written for an American magazine in 1890, it was not well-received in Britain. One critic noted that was fit only for "outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys." Another asked, "Why go grubbing in muck-heaps?" In his civil suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, who had accused him of being a sodomite, the book was used against him. He lost the case, ended up going to jail, and died at 46.

Aside from its ironic horror plot, The Picture of Dorian Gray is noted for its tie-in with Wilde's belief in aestheticism. Basil Hallward, a painter, worships the beauty of another young man, Dorian Gray. That this may be thinly veiled homoerotic love is not a big leap to make (Wilde edited out much of the homosexual content). Hallward paints his portrait, his finest yet, and Gray takes it home with him. He muses that it would be nice if the painting would age instead of him: "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June...If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that--for that--I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!"

A third character, Sir Henry Wotton, is Wilde's stand-in (Wilde said that all three main characters were based on himself, but Wotton was as others see him). Wotton advocates a hedonistic lifestyle, and his full of epigrams. Here are but just a few:

"Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

"Men marry because they are tired, women, because they are curious; both are disappointed."

"No woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals."

"There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating--people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing."

"When a woman marries again it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs."

And, perhaps most importantly, Wotton says, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," for Wotton believes in the worship of youth and beauty. "People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible...A new Hedonism--that is what our century wants. You [Gray] might be its visible symbol."

Gray falls in love with an actress, Sybil Vane, in a second-rate Shakespearean theater. He loves her because of her beauty and because of her acting ability.Without even knowing his name she accepts his proposal of marriage. But when Wotton and Hallward come to see her perform she is wooden. She tells Gray that because she is in love with him she has no need to have talent. He is enraged, and breaks off the engagement. A day later he regrets this and will take her back, but it is loo late, she has killed herself. The next time he looks at the portrait there is a bit of cruelty in the mouth and the hands have blood on them.

Time goes by and Gray lives a life of debauchery. He is inspired by a French book that Wotton gives him. An entire chapter, with allusions to Romans like Tiberius and Caligula, give us an inkling that Gray is living a life of complete decadence. His portrait becomes more and more ugly and twisted. Hallward wants to see it, and Gray finally lets him, telling the painter that he is looking at his soul.

From there Gray commits murder, and must dodge the efforts of Sybil's brother in exacting revenge. (He first meets him in an opium den that is a masterly wrought depiction of desperation). He finally endeavors to destroy the painting, thinking that will end his troubles, but of course, it does not.

Wilde added a preface a few years after publication in an attempt to defend himself. It has his philosophy of art: "The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." He also says, quite rightly, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all." The preface ends, as if with a shrug, "All art is quite useless."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Michele Bachmann

I read an interesting profile of Michele Bachmann by Ryan Lizza in the current issue of the New Yorker. Bachmann, who eked out a victory in a largely meaningless Iowa straw poll last week, is undergoing her moment in the Republican race for president, and thus has invited even more scrutiny. This is encouraging to liberal Democrats like me, because the more stuff they dig up, the more lunatic fringe she seems. But, of course, be careful what you wish for.

I will give Bachmann this--for a two-term congresswoman, she's made incredible progress. Normally someone with as little experience as she has would be a back-bencher, but she's turned frequent appearances on news channels, particularly Fox News, to her advantage, and she's become one of the most prominent faces of the Tea Party movement. As a woman, she's also managed to push aside the other putative female candidate, Sarah Palin. While Palin has dithered and cashed in, Bachmann has put her money where her mouth is and thrown her hat in the ring.

I first heard of her on Wonkette, the D.C. gossip site. Before a State of the Union addressed, she gave George W. Bush a kiss flush on the lips, and stared at him longingly, like a teeny-bopper gazing at Justin Bieber. The snarks had a field day, as they have with many of her frequent gaffes, from being suspicious of the U.S. census, to confusing John Wayne with John Wayne Gacy, to wishing Elvis Presley happy birthday on the anniversary of his death. More delitiriously, she called Barack Obama "un-American," apologized for it, and then retracted her apology.

Beyond being a gaffe machine--let's face it, so is Joe Biden--Bachmann has disturbing connections with some scary people. If Obama was falsely accused of "palling around with terrorists," Bachmann has openly consorted with some far-right haters. She has spoken highly of Dominionism, a movement started by Frances Schaeffer, who made a documentary called "How Should We Then Live?" which blasts Renaissance art as blasphemous. His movement has been defined as "Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns."

Bachmann studied law at Oral Roberts University, which defines its mandate "to equip our students with the ability to bring God's healing power to reconcile individuals and to restore community wholeness" and "to restore law to its historic roots in the Bible." And Bachmann says she believes in the Constitution! While at O.R.U., she worked for a professor named John Eidsmoe. Last year Eidsmoe addressed an event in Alabama on Secession Day, and said that it was the state's "constitutional right to secede," and that "Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun understood the Constitution better than did Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster." The problem is, Bachmann has not distanced herself from him. Expect his to be a household name should she get close to the nomination.

Bachmann also, on her website, listed as a recommendation a biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins, who proposes the theory that "the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the North." In his book, Wilkins condemns "the radical abolitionists of New England" and that "most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a suffiency of goods for a comfortable, though--by modern standards--spare existence."

These connections are sure to be viewed with dismay in the black community, as they should by thinking people everywhere. Bachmann's husband, a psychologist, has been involved with some sort of treatment for gays. Bachmann and her kind are on the losing side of history when it comes to gay issues, and I hope she pays for it.

I can't see Bachmann winning the nomination. She may have her die-hard supporters, but the men in the cigar-smoked-filled room will surely see that she can't capture the middle, not with her kooky ideas and racist bedfellows. As they did with Mike Huckabee last time, the establishment will coalesce around someone who is perceived as more electable, who is probably Mitt Romney. In the meantime, though, liberals can watch, slack-jawed, as the center becomes farther and farther right.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon

Though much of the history of the conflict between white and Native Americans focus on the battles of the Indians of the Northern Plains, S.C. Gwynne points out, in his book Empire of the Summer Moon, that the most powerful Indians of North America were the Comanche, who held off encroachment by Europeans for forty years. They actually repelled the Spanish coming from the south, pushed the Apaches west, and held Texans at bay for years, until they were finally wiped out. Before that, though, they had the most successful empire of any indigenous North American tribe.

As Gwynne puts it: "The Comanche...were..a military and trade empire that covered some 240,000 square miles, essentially the southern Great Plains. Their land encompassed large chunks of five present-day states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado. Kansas, and Oklahoma...It was not an empire in the traditional sense, and the Comanches knew nothing of the political structures that stitched European empires together. But they ruled the place outright. They held sway over some twenty different tribes who had been conquered, driven off, or reduced to vassal status."

The Comanches were extremely nomadic, and knew nothing of agriculture. They were not united, but instead consisted of half a dozen different bands, which made making treaties with them futile, as no one person spoke for them all. In a way they had not advanced since the stone age, and in 1836, when they first came into serious conflict with whites, they were still living life the same way they did hundreds of years earlier, with one important difference--the horse.

The horse, it is good to remind ourselves, is not native to North America. It was brought here by the Spanish, but the Comanche adapted to it as no other tribe. They lived on horseback, and a horse became an extension of them. They could fight on them, too. A warrior could unleash 20 arrows in the time a Texan could load and shoot one round.

The Comanche were also extremely vicious. To refer to a race of people as savages is today verboten, but they were, in a sense, savage. Their morality, as it were, was different even then the cruelties of Europeans or eastern Indians. The Comanche fought to the death, and had no compunction about torturing their victims. They also, in contrast to many other tribes, were very cruel to women, torturing and gang-raping them. This had been their tradition of hundreds of years.

Gwynne tells the story of the Comanche nation thoroughly, but uses the thread of the tale of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah. Parker was nine years old in 1836, when she was kidnapped by a band of Comanches. She ended up marrying a chief, Peta Neconta, and giving birth to a son called Quanah. Her clan looked for her for years (which partly inspired the John Ford film The Searchers) and tried to ransom her. Eventually, in a skirmish in which her husband was killed, she was retaken by whites when she was 33 years old. Two of her sons, including Quanah, escaped. She would never see them again.

Cynthia Ann, or Nautde, her Comanche name, wanted nothing to do with the white world. She constantly tried to escape and return to the only life she knew. She had completely forgotten English, and had no interest in relearning it. She did have a daughter with her, Prairie Flower, but when she died Cynthia Ann gave up the will to live and died.

Quanah, returning to his tribe as an orphan, was socially ostracized as having white blood, and his status as son of a chief was gone. He would persevere, though, and become the leader of his people, hating the white man and killing many. The Comanche were normally a short, squat people, but Quanah, with his white blood, towered over them, with a strong physique and superior leadership qualities.

The Texans, and later the Americans, tried everything to repel the Comanches. A group celebrated today by the name of a baseball team was created to thwart them: "It came in the form of dirty, bearded, violent, and undisciplined men wearing buckskins, serapes, coonskin caps, sombreros, and other odd bits of clothing, who belonged to no army, wore no insignias or uniforms, made cold camps on the prairie, and were only intermittently paid. They owed their existence to the Comanche threat; their methods, copied closely from the Comanches, would change frontier warfare in North America. They were called by many different names, including 'spies,' and 'mounted volunteers,' and 'gunmen,' and 'mounted gunmen.' It was not until the middle of the 1840s that they finally had a name everybody could agree on: Rangers."

The Texas Rangers had only limited success against the Comanches. The greatest Ranger, John Coffee Hays, is largely responsible for the success of the Colt .45. Colt had gone bankrupt, as the U.S. Army saw no need for his revolver. Hays, needing a multishot weapon that could be fired from a horse, ordered several, and put Colt on the way to becoming one of the richest men in the world.

Eventually the U.S. Army, after the Civil War, turned its attention to the Comanche threat. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, who Gwynne calls "the anti-Custer," was ultimately successful in wiping them out. One band after another went to the reservation, and finally, in the 1875, Quanah saw the writing on the wall and turned himself in. He then went on to have a spectacularly different sort of second act of his life. He embraced the white man's ways (although he never cut his hair, didn't give up polygamy or using peyote) and was named the first and only Principal Chief of the Comanches. He also, ironically, became close friends with Mackenzie, the man determined to defeat him.

Gwynne's book is a fascinating account for those interested in Native American life. Though mostly chronological, he at times jumps back and ahead, and I at times lost the thread. But his writing is mostly vivid, and includes some winking asides. Perhaps the most playful is his description of the bawdy names of some of the Indians. Buffalo Hump (who would play a notorious part in Larry McMurtry's novels of Texas) had a name that literally translated as "Erection That Won't Go Down." But I liked the literal translation of a medicine man named Isa-Tai, which is either "Wolf Vulva," or "Coyote Vagina," both good names for a punk rock band.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

One Day

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that One Day is the first film to be centered around St. Swithin's Day. It really should have been called St. Swithin's day, but then would have mistaken it for one of those horrid romantic ensemble comedies made by Garry Marshall.

This film has gotten some pretty bad reviews, but I liked it all right. Maybe it was my mood, or maybe it's that I could probably stand to see Anne Hathaway reading the instruction manual for an electric toothbrush. She has what they used to call star quality, and even though her English accent comes and goes here, she's radiant. All by herself she has lifted this film one entire grade for me.

The conceit, and it's a pretty good one, is that we follow the relationship between two people by looking in on them during only one calendar day through the years--July 15th, the day for a certain English saint who is buried in Winchester. We start in 1988, when Emma (Hathaway) and Dex (Jim Sturgess) are celebrating graduation (they graduate kind of late in the year in England). They really don't know each other too well, but Hathaway has a crush on him, and they spend a night together, although chastely, and decide they will be just friends (it takes a bit of acting on Sturgess's part to convince me he would turn Hathaway down--I think he was turned off by her putting Tracy Chapman on her record player).

We then are shown every July 15th in successive years, all they way to 2010. Hathaway wastes her education by sporting a sombrero in a Tex-Mex restaurant. Dex teaches English in India, but then becomes a TV host for some sort of late-night music program. He is wildly successful, but turns into an asshole, and is later called the most annoying man on the telly (he must have been the British equivalent of Ryan Seacrest).

Hathaway takes up with a fellow waiter, (Rafe Spall) an aspiring comedian, and then writes a successful children's novel and moves to Paris. Sturgess ends up married to an icy blonde (Romola Garai). The feelings between the two linger, though, even when Hathaway ends it after Sturgess shows up for dinner coked out of his mind.

I won't go any further that that, as most smart viewers will see certain things coming. There's a dramatic twist at the end that I should have seen coming, but only spotted seconds before it occurred. This scene will make many viewers roll their eyes, but it kept with the melodramatic nature of the film.

I did appreciated that, though there are some coincidences, being that the film is limited to action on July 15th, that not everything happens on that day. There are a couple of weddings in the film, neither of which are on that day, and other momentous events happen off-screen. This gives the film a much more realistic feeling.

One Day was directed by Lone Scherfig, who also made the far superior An Education, but her talent is evident here, taking what could have been a throwaway weepie into something more intricate. This is helped not only by Hathaway (Sturgess isn't bad, but he's outshone by his leading lady, something that James Franco can relate to) but by a witty script by David Nicholls, who wrote the book it's based on. He also wrote the book and script for the charming Starter for Ten, and there's a lot of great lines in One Day, usually spoken by Hathaway. She says of her new, tattered apartment, "It smells of onions and disappointment," and describes her conservative swimsuit, "It's a swimming costume. It's called the Edwardian."

My grade for One Day: B

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mystery Street

Mystery Street, which was part of a double-bill on the Act of Violence DVD, is a decent murder mystery from 1950, an early film by director John Sturges, who would go to make great films like Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. It was also, some claim, the first movie to be filmed on location in Boston, and plays today like an episode of CSI: Boston.

The film is also notable for having the lead, a police detective from Barnstable, Massachusetts, played by a Hispanic, Ricardo Montalban. Not much is made of it, except for a pointed comment late in the film. I admire the script's forward-thinking on that point.

Though filmed with noir techniques, Mystery Street is a police procedural and an advertisement for Harvard University. In the beginning we are shown a young woman (Jan Sterling) who plies her trade in a bar. She is constantly calling someone in Hyannis. She meets a poor drunken sap in the bar and manages to get him into his car. She drives out to the Cape, ditches the sap, and ends up getting shot by someone whom we only see in shadows. The sap reports his car missing, but leaves out the details of the girl to his insurance company and to his wife.

Months later the girl's bones turn up on the shore. Montalban is approached by a forensics unit operating out of the Harvard medical school. They show him their techniques for determining her identity. Once they have that, Montalban tracks down all the suspects. The poor sap who lost his car ends up as the suspect, and is about ready to hang for it until some more clues turn up.

Mystery Street is a fine, old-fashioned whodunit, with some nice supporting character roles, most notably by Elsa Lanchester as Sterling's dotty landlady, who thinks she can make some cash by blackmailing the killer. I liked that Montablan, who is presented as a stalwart, fair-minded cop, makes a mistake by believing the sap did it. While not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, it's a perfect movie for a rainy afternoon.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Act of Violence

Act of Violence, from 1948, is a dandy film, an early example of the work of director Fred Zinneman, who would go on to make a number of classics like High Noon and A Man for All Seasons. It succeed where The Racket does not in that both protagonist and antagonist are morally ambiguous, and an audience's sympathy may shift.

In some ways it reminded me of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, not only because of the similarity of the title. Both films have a man's past catching up with him due to his being identified by someone through a news story. In this case it's solid citizen Van Heflin, who is a building contractor in a small California town. He's got the ideal life, with a young wife (Janet Leigh, who I didn't recognize) a child, and a thriving business. But when a mysterious man with a limp shows up (Robert Ryan), he's immediately concerned, and starts turning off the lights and pulling the blinds.

It turns out that Ryan is a former army buddy. The two were in a POW camp together, and he blames Heflin for his injury and the deaths of ten men. Heflin confesses to his wife what he did, which I won't reveal here, but it shifts the allegiances of the viewer. The introduction of Ryan's girlfriend, Phyllis Thaxter, makes it clear that he's not some cold-blooded killer, but instead a man consumed by the need for revenge.

Heflin, fleeing Ryan through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, stumbles into a dive bar. He meets a good-time girl, played by Mary Astor, who takes a shine to him. He tells his sotry to her and she takes him to meet some shady characters, who offer to help him out for a price. Of course they mean to kill Ryan, and Heflin's conscience awakens, and there's a very well-done scene at desolated train station.

Act of Violence is first-rate all around, with a great music score by Bronislau Kaper (orchestrated by Andre Previn), photography by Robert Surtees (who would later do such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Last Picture Show) and nuanced performances by Heflin and Ryan.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Racket

Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan reteam for The Racket, a 1951 film, directed by John Cromwell, that is a bit too black and white to be interesting. The good cops are too good, the bad cops are too bad. But Ryan is pretty menacing as a crime boss.

The setting is an anonymous city that is rife with corruption. A mysterious figure, called "The Old Man," calls the shots, with Ryan being the on-the-ground crime boss. The corruption is so thick that it is an open secret that some cops, like a fat sergeant played by William Conrad, and the district attorney, who has been promised a judgeship, are in the pocket of the syndicate. But Mitchum is a squeaky-clean captain of the precinct who has vowed to take Ryan down.

This is the kind of film that's perfect for late, late show insomnia. It doesn't ask much of the viewer, and features old-fashioned, melodramatic performances. Watching Lizabeth Scott, as a chanteuse and gangster moll, is watching a style of acting that is long out of style but has its guilty pleasures.

The Racket is a kind of forerunner to more complex films about police corruption, like Serpico and Prince of the City. Also, though it is included in a box-set of noir films, it is not noir, as the protagonist, Mitchum, has absolutely no doubts or character layers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Back to Black

I must admit it was with ghoulish curiosity that I picked up Amy Winehouse's 2006 album Back to Black, which won her several Grammys and made her a star. Unfortunately, stardom was not kind to her, and she died, presumably from drugs and/or alcohol, last July.

I was familiar with a few of her songs, notably "Rehab," which won the Grammy for Record of the Year. It's a fantastic song, with a desperate message. "I don't ever want to drink again, I just need a friend," she sings, conversely to an upbeat brass tempo. Equally good is the second track, "You Know I'm No Good," which is another toe-tapper that has a negative subtext. It also manages to make a rhyme with Tanqueray, which is just one of the bits of evidence of her skill as a songwriter. She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album, with the kind of assuredness that was way beyond her years.

I think the strongest cut on the album is the title song. It's about a woman who's man has left her for another woman. Going "back to black," given that she refers to "black" as alcohol in "Rehab," would suggest that his leaving has sent her back to the bottle, or worse: "You go back to her, and I go back to black." The production value on the song is also top-notch, with brass and strings that provoke a strong emotional response. It's a powerful song.

For many years Winehouse was one of the entertainment biz's biggest train wrecks, fodder for snarky gossip sites. She had a distinct look and was a tabloid's dream come true. It also seems that she was not a well person and led a very sad life. It is unfortunate that she died so young--at 27, the age when so many rock legends have died (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain). Her voice was so amazingly good, a combination of jazz and soul and R&B. Though she didn't sound like her, she reminded me of Billie Holliday, who also had a life cut short by abuse. Such is the way of the music industry.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Mad Men, Season 2

I finally got around to watching the second season of Mad Men, and now that there's a delay in the airing of the next season, I'm only two seasons behind. While this season wasn't as strong as the first, it was still gripping entertainment.

Once again set in the advertising agency of Sterling Cooper, this time in 1962, the character list is basically the same. The central character is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the highly successful creative director who is still protecting the lie about his identity and still a chronic philanderer. The central affair of this season is one he has the wife and agent of an obnoxious comedian. This time, though, his wife Betty (January Jones) finds out and kicks him out of the house.

The other characters all have subplots that at times stretch into melodrama. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) one time Draper nemesis, deals with his father's death in an airplane crash and his wife's infertility. Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the copywriter with pretentions of being artist, goes Bohemian, moving to New Jersey and dating a black woman, whom he will accompany on a Freedom Ride. Howard Crane (Rich Sommer) looks to the expanding world of television advertising, and an episode revolved around an airing of the show The Defenders, which really did broadcast a show about abortion. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is engaged to a doctor, who seems perfect but has a dark side.

Aside from Don and Betty, the main character of the show is Peggy Olsen, played magnificently by Elisabeth Moss. When we last left her she had given birth to Pete Campbell's child (no one knew she was pregnant) and given it away. She spent some time off due to mental health concerns, but came back with a promotion. By the time the season ends she's a senior copywriter with her own office. Peggy is the representation of the burgeoning career woman at the time. She has managed to break through, while others bump against the ceiling. Joan, given a chance to review TV scripts for Howard, is disappointed when a man is hired to do it; Howard hadn't even thought of giving her the chance. A young secretary for Draper is fired by Joan for an indiscretion, but she manages to get to Sterling, who not only lets her keep her job, but ends up leaving his wife for her.

The season ends with Draper on a bizarre odyssey in Southern California, where he spends some debauched time with some jet-setters, and then confronts his past. I didn't buy it completely, as his character, up until then, seems like he would never sacrificed anything for his professional life, but then again his character has been completely unknowable.

The writers of the show are keenly aware of the events of the time. All sorts of events from 1962 make it into the plot, from the death of Marilyn Monroe to the Cuban missile crisis, which ends the season. Some of it seems shoe-horned in, but some of the little things resonated with me. Perhaps the most interesting scene was when Don and Betty have a picnic. When they pack up to leave, Don tosses his beer can aside and they leave all their garbage right on the grass. This truly was a different era, and was the kind of thing that would eventually make Iron Eyes Cody cry.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Help

So often it seems that the story of African Americans in Hollywood films also has to be told from the white point of view. Prejudice is shown as wrong by a white person standing up and fighting back, with the aggrieved blacks benefiting from their courage. There is some of that in The Help, but mercifully not enough to sink it. The Help is pasteurized history, but it still has enough of the good stuff to be worthwhile.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, The Help is about a peculiar social aspect of that time and place. White families of means employ black maids, who cook their food, clean their houses, and, most importantly, raise their children. These children consider these maids more maternal than their distant, social-climbing mothers, but when the time comes to employ their own maids, they resort to their ugly behavior, treating these women like chattel.

The Help focuses on a few households. One is taken care of by Aibilene (Viola Davis), who watches over the child of a woman who doesn't even know to change the baby's diapers. The other is the home of Hilly Holbrook, (Bryce Dallas Howard) the queen bee of Jackson society and as mean as a snake. She has a special obsession with toilets--she wants a law passed that all homes must have separate bathroom facilities for their colored help. She fires her maid Minnie (Octavia Spencer) for violating the code of the commode.

Then there's Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), who went to college with more on her mind that snaring a husband. She is unmarried (something of a scandal) and gets a job with the newspaper writing a household hints column. But she has more serious literary ambitions. Sympathizing with the plight of these women, she endeavors to interview them for a book. After a series of indignities, she gains the trust of Aibilene and Minnie, and they tell their horror stories to her.

Of course how these women were treated is despicable, and only the members of Aryan Nation would think otherwise. But I wonder how many of the people watching this film today, cheering as Howard gets her particularly vile comeuppance, would have been the same people screaming epithets at those students as they tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, or cheered the death of Medgar Evers. I'm not immune from this--my grandparents weren't exactly enlightened thinkers on race, and used the N-word casually. This film would have been courageous fifty years ago, and also impossible to release in the South. To watch it today from the safety of half a century seems like watching animals behind a wall of glass.

But The Help was made now, and I can't judge it on any other terms. As such, it's a crowd-pleasing absolution for white guilt. And where it succeeds more than other recent films is that the white eyes--Stone's--aren't the dominating feature of the film. This film instead belongs to Viola Davis. A similar film, The Blind Side, was all about deifying Sandra Bullock's character, relegating the black character to the status of family pet. Davis's Aibilene is no passive bystander. She is the focus of the film, and wears the indignity of her life on her face with such great skill that the faults of the film seem less magnified.

There are faults. A few subplots are either clumsy or bizarre. Once fired, Spencer gets a job with a woman (Jessica Chastain) who is ostracized by the other ladies, presumably because of her white trash origins. The relationship between the two takes on a strange, sit-com like quality. I was also completely uninterested in scenes involving in Stone's love life. And the villains of the piece, led by Howard, are mostly cardboard.

But the heart of the story, Aibilene's struggle to maintain her dignity in the face of appalling prejudice, makes this all worthwhile. Spencer is also quite good, giving the Aunt Jemima stereotype a boot in the pants. A lot of other familiar actresses, such as Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen, also turn in effective performances. Cicely Tyson is also moving in her brief role as the maid who raised Stone, but was sent away in a manner we don't find out about until the end of the film.

Watching The Help I was reminded of when Roots first aired. Our family, like millions of others, were transfixed by the week it was on television, back in 1977. What a turning point in American cultural history it was when everyone, white people included, cheered when Ben Vereen told good old Lloyd Bridges that if he ever harmed one of his'n again, he'd kill him. That was almost 35 years ago. The Help doesn't break any new ground, but at least it's focused on the right character.

My grade for The Help: B-

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Almost from the very first scene of Crazy, Stupid, Love I couldn't wait for it to be over. The entire film was aggressively insipid, and dares a viewer to try to like its characters, or believe that any of their behavior is based on real life. Everything these characters do is because the script tells them to, not out of any organic narrative drive. Perhaps worst of all, it ends with one of those public embarrassing moments (a speech at a school graduation, such a cliche) that is so common in movies of this ilk, and even worse, it asks us to believe that the wisest character is a child who clearly has psychological problems.

The film was directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote the ribald and hysterically funny Bad Santa. The script was written by Dan Fogelman. If any of these gentleman had come to me for advice, which sadly they did not, I would have advised them so scrap what they had and tinker it into a straight farce, which it has all the elements of but little of the elan. One of the scenes with the most potential for humor (which is still botched) is when all the characters come together and the men end up in a backyard brawl. More of this was needed.

Instead the film is one of those weepy dramedies about finding our soul-mate. The opening scene has Julianne Moore telling her husband, Steve Carell, that she wants a divorce. Carell is again playing one of his sad sacks, and the shtick is getting old. She has had an affair with a just-as-dreary office-mate, Kevin Bacon.

Carell, wounded to the core, decides to try out the local watering hole, which apparently is the only bar in town, given how many whopping coincidences erupt. For no good explanation, the bar's Lothario, Ryan Gosling, takes Carell under his wing and teaches him how to be a lady-killer (don't talk about yourself is one of the main rules). The two end up as unlikely friends, and with a new wardrobe and an expensive haircut, Carell manages to turn him into a Don Juan. His first conquest is Marisa Tomei, who ends up sleeping with him when he drops the act and impresses her with his hang-dog honesty. It's an embarrassingly bad scene for both of them.

There are numerous other subplots. Gosling ends up falling for the one girl who turns him down, Emma Stone. If that weren't enough, Carell's 17-year-old babysitter, (Analeigh Tipton, who I see was a contestant on America's Top Model) has a crush on him. She ends up taking naked pictures of herself to send to him, which is treated humorously, even while such behavior by teenage girls is in the news as a very serious problem. Carell's 13-year-old son, Johah Bobo, is in love with Tipton. She catches him masturbating, and he tells her he was thinking about her, always a good way to start a romance. Bobo then spends the rest of the movie stalking and harassing her, but it's okay but she's his "soul-mate." The kid needs extensive therapy.

All of this could have worked with a good script and decent direction, but it was not to be had. Almost every moment seemed phony and contrived, and good actors were wasted. As I said, I'm tired of this character Carell plays--he's due to play a serial killer or Klansman. Stone overdoes her goofy charm and ends up coming off like a nitwit, while Gosling is so bland you almost forget he's in the movie, especially when he disappears for a good chunk of it. Moore just looks like she wants out.

I see this film has a 76 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes this easily my overrated film of the year.

My grade for Crazy, Stupid, Love: D

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Set-Up

A minor masterpiece, The Set-Up was directed by Robert Wise and released in 1949, and is part of my series on the best of film noir. Instead of the protagonist being a private detective, he is a boxer, but it still has all the necessary requirements of the genre. It remains one of the best boxing films of all time.

A trim seventy-two minutes, The Set-Up takes place in real time, as we are shown a street clock in the opening moments, showing about ten after nine at night, and before the film ends the same clock reads about twenty after ten. The set, which depicts a street corner in fictional Paradise City, features an arena, which advertises boxing on Wednesdays and wrestling on Fridays. Across the street is the Hotel Cozy, where Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is staying, along with his wife Julie (Audrey Totter). Ryan is a thirty-five year-old has been, still believing he's one punch from the big time. He's fighting a young kid on this night, and is sure he can take him. Then, he tells Totter, he may get top billing, which could mean $500, and maybe then they could buy a cigar stand in Union City.

Totter won't go see the fight, she's tired of seeing him get his brains beat out. He gives her her ticket and heads to the gym. Little does he know that his manager (George Tobias, later known as Abner Kravitz on Bewitched) has sold him out, taking $50 from the opponent's manager to take a dive. The kid is owned by a local hoodlum, who has big designs on his charge. Ryan's cornerman (Percy Helton) thinks Tobias should at least clue Ryan in, but Tobias is sure he will lose, and doesn't want to share his spoils.

The first two thirds of the film show Wise's brilliance with the camera and his background as an editor (he edited Citizen Kane, after all). There's a bit of O'Neillian drama in the fighters' dressing room, where the boxers get ready, swap stories and then head out, and come back some time later, either victorious or near unconscious. One punch-drunk fellow never tires of talking about the guy who lost 21 fights but still became middleweight champ. This is intercut with scenes from the arena, where tiny little subplots are carried out (the writer, Art Cohn, who adapted the film from a poem of all things, deserves a lot of credit here, too). There's the blind man who enjoys having his friend describe the action to him--when the ref steps in, he calls out, "Let 'em fight!" There's the two suburban couples out for the evening, with one of the wives saying the last time she was at the fights she held her hands over her eyes. Of course, she turns out to be more bloodthirsty than anyone. And there's comic relief with the silent role of the portly fellow who, every time we see him, is consuming a different concession.

Meanwhile, Totter wanders the bustling streets. She tears the ticket in half, letting it rain down from a bridge over a passing train, a marvelous shot that makes full use of image and sound.

The final third of the film is Ryan's fight. Tobias and Helton give him bad strategy, hoping he'll lose, but he has no idea he's supposed to throw the fight. Wise cuts from the fight to the audience, and unlike some sports films, in which shots of the crowd are used to be excessively manipulative, the shots here are picture perfect, and there is never a wasted moment.

The fight itself is also crisply realistic. Ryan was a champion boxer in his days at Dartmouth, and the photography and low angles, with sweat flying from the fighters' brows, clearly influenced Martin Scorsese in his shooting of Raging Bull. Scorsese provides the commentary for the DVD.

I won't spoil the ending, because I would hope anyone who loves film will get to see this film without knowing the outcome. Not only is it a classic of its kind, but it's also a great snapshot of a time gone by, when fight nights were part of American culture, and an underbelly of corrupt city life. For those knowledgeable of the time period, there's a cameo by the photojournalist Weegee, who plays the timekeeper.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Piggybacking on a retrospective that Film Forum is running on the actor Robert Ryan, I thought I'd take a look at some of his available films on DVD. Ryan, who died in 1973, was a tall, hard-nosed actor who played mostly tough guys, and often played the kind of guy who was his direct opposite--racists.

I've written about three of his films on this blog before: Clash By Night, Bad Day at Black Rock, and The Professionals. His breakthrough role, and his only Oscar nomination, came for 1947's Crossfire, directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Crossfire was also nominated for Best Picture, which meant that two-fifths of that year's nominees were directly about anti-Semitism. While the winning picture, Gentleman's Agreement, was far more subtle and complex, suggesting that even well-meaning people had disturbing attitudes, Crossfire is blunter and preachier. It's also disguised as a noir murder mystery, though there's not much obfuscation about who the killer is--he's revealed about halfway through.

As the film begins, a man is beaten to death. This is shown only in shadows, a noir technique, but Dmytryk revealed that he did it to save money. The murdered man was a Jew, and detective Robert Young finds the wallet of a G.I. in the sofa. His buddy, Ryan, comes by the murder scene looking for him. In trying to track down this G.I., Young questions his best friend, Robert Mitchum, who flatly states his buddy would never kill anyone, and decides to conduct his own investigation.

The film is not a true noir, mainly because it has the interesting aspect of not having a protagonist. Neither Young nor Mitchum command the stage long enough to be a true lead, and both disappear for large chunks of the film. Ryan is more dominant as the antagonist, whose ugly attitudes about Jews (he suggests that they all evaded service, though the murdered man, unbeknownst to him, was wounded at Guadalcanal) throw a shadow over the entire film.

The film works as a thriller, but not overwhelmingly so. It has more appeal today as a social message film, particularly for Young's big speech at the end, when he compares his grandfather's experience as an Irish immigrant to the evils of anti-Semitism. In a line that would not gain approval from the NRA, he says that people can't carry guns because they're dangerous, and "hate is like a gun." Young isn't so down on guns that he shoots the unarmed killer in the back, though.

Though the film is quaint, it has some nice brittle performances, particularly by Ryan and Gloria Grahame, who was also Oscar-nominated. She plays a good-time girl with a chip on her shoulder, and there's a bizarre scene with a man who may or may not be her husband.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hide and Seek

One day someone will do a scholarly paper on Robert De Niro's slide into mediocrity. At one time considered to be among the greatest actors of his generation, somewhere along the line he decided to seemingly accept any script that passed through the transom of his agent, making substandard thrillers and comedies for the easy buck, making his collaborations with directors like Martin Scorsese seem like a faint memory. I don't begrudge him this; he's free to make a living anyway he likes, and he's had a lot more box office hits in the last decade than in the three before, but his days as an incendiary performer seem to be over.

Looking over his filmography, I think this was caused by the success of Analyze This, which traded comedically on his tough-guy persona. He hasn't made a "prestige" picture since, and hasn't had a sniff of on Oscar nomination. Instead of making pictures with exciting new directors, he's making tired, generic thrillers, like Hide and Seek, from 2005.

Hide and Seek, directed by John Paulson, is slickly made and has a fair share of thrills and chills, but it's completely routine. A young girl (Dakota Fanning), goes into shock after her mother's suicide. Her father, a psychologist (De Niro), removes her from therapy in New York City and moves her to a creaky, lonely old house in the country, seemingly defying every movie dictum. Hasn't he ever seen a movie? And why does a family of two need a house that looks like it has six bedrooms?

Fanning, in one of those performances that make you think she's really a very small adult, soon has an imaginary friend, whom she blames for a series of mishaps. First the cat gets drowned in a bathtub, then dad's new girlfriend goes flying out the window. There's a twist involved, a tired old formula that plays on multiple personalities (and coincidentally is very similar to the below-reviewed Session 9).

De Niro pretty much sleepwalks through the role. One wonders if he and Scorsese will ever get together for one last hurrah, or whether De Niro has coasted into a kind of semi-retirement, hardly lifting a finger as he makes one mediocre film after another.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Last Hero

Like many young baeball fans of the 1970s, one of my favorite players was Hank Aaron (the others were Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente). I was at just the right age to be excited about his breaking of Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, and watched live on April 8, 1974, when he took Al Downing deep for number 715. At that time he was the toast of America, but it was no secret, as revealed in Howard Bryant's fine biography of Aaron, The Last Hero, that it was a trying time for the man.

Henry Aaron (those who knew him never called him Hank), was from Mobile, Alabama. He had little formal baseball training, but despite that he dreamed of being a pro player. He didn't even play high school ball, instead honing his skills by hitting bottle caps with sticks. He signed with the Negro Leagues team the Indianapolis Clowns, and thus, before he retired in 1976, was the last active Major Leaguer who had played in those leagues.

Aaron was the first black player in the notoriously intolerant South Atlantic, or Sally, League, where he played for Jacksonville. He was such a good hitter that it was hard to keep him on the farm, and he ended up on the Milwaukee Braves in 1954.

Bryant covers those early years closely. The Braves, who had just moved over from Boston, were starting to form a good nucleus. I was interested to read how teams were shaking the dust and contemplating movement. The St. Louis Cardinals thought about moving to Houston (!), and Bill Veeck of the Browns wanted to move to Milwaukee, but ended going to Baltimore. If the Braves' ownership had hung on, they might have ended up staying in Boston and the Red Sox would have moved, as the latter would start on a several-year period of doldrums. Imagine how baseball would be different today without the Red Sox in Boston!

The Braves would end up in the World Series in 1957 and 1958, both times playing the Yankees. In '57 Aaron was MVP and they won, in '58 they would be one of the few teams that would blow a 3-1 game lead.

As the book goes on after that, though, the tone shifts from a seasonal diary to a more general approach to the man. The Braves, who would move to Atlanta in 1966, would go to the postseason only once more while Aaron was on the team (in 1969). Instead, Bryant focuses on Aaron's place in baseball history, and the most elusive subject of all--Aaron himself.

Bryant was able to interview Aaron for the book but he is the most incomplete character of the story. Bryant, in fact, goes off on tangents that at times made me forget the main subject of the book, particularly a chapter that is more about Jackie Robinson than Aaron. The truth appears to be that Aaron was a closed figure to most of the world, and very few people got to know him. After his career ended, many thought he was bitter or angry. He would be forever compared to Willie Mays, and Aaron always thought he was a better hitter.

The chapter detailing his chase of Ruth is terrific. Aaron snuck up on the record--it was thought Mays had the best chance, but tailed off at the end of his career. It was only after Aaron passed the 500-homer mark that people started taking him seriously. In 1973, at 39 years old, he hit 40 homers and ended the season one shy of Ruth. Death threats had already started pouring in, and he had his own security detail. On the first day of the 1974 season, in his first at bat, Aaron hit number 714 off of Jack Billingham in Cincinnati. The Braves' management, fearful he would set the record on the road, ordered manager Eddie Matthews to leave him on the bench, which prompted the ire of commissioner Bowie Kuhn (Aaron would have a long-time enmity for Kuhn).

But on that Monday night in Atlanta three days later Aaron did set the record at home. Bryant chooses to quote Vin Scully's eloquent call of the moment: "It is over. And for the first time in a long time that poker face of Aaron shows the tremendous relief...What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron."

Of course, underlying the Aaron story is what Philip Roth called the "human stain," race. Aaron battled racism, as did all black players in those days, when they couldn't stay in the same hotels that their white teammates stayed in. Aaron, who today is 77 years old, covered the period from when blacks couldn't play in the big leagues to when the stadium in Mobile, in which he wasn't allowed to attend or to play, now bears his name. It is an American story, and no matter how often it is told is resonates with the courage of those who defied the odds and achieved greatness.

Bryant ends the book with the spot Aaron was put in with regard to Barry Bonds breaking his record. It was a no-win situation--if Aaron showed any petulance, it would be seen as sour grapes, but to embrace it would have been a denial of Bonds' obvious cheating (Aaron hated cheating--Gaylord Perry and his spitball was a long-time nemesis). Aaron had no love for Bonds, and would not travel around with him as he passed milestones, but did finally tape a congratulatory message for him on the night Bonds hit home run 756.

The book, which is at times as serious as an autopsy, is well-written but occasionally sloppily copy edited. In one sentence, two different dates are listed for Aaron's second marriage. Bryant is thorough, but he has the uphill battle of trying to decipher a man who will not be solved. I think this passage says it best: "At virtually every major stage in Henry Aaron's professional life, a familiar pattern would develop, predictable as a 3-0 fastball: He would excel on the field and somehow become wounded off of it, slowly burning at yet another personal slight. It was only after he'd walked out the door, embarking on the next chapter of his life, that he would be rediscovered, the people he'd left behind realizing, too late, that the world without him seemed just a bit simpler. The reassessment would always be the same: Henry Aaron was a treasure after all. He carried himself with such dignity! And the people who wanted to celebrate him anew and be close to him and tell him how much he had touched them would always wonder why he appeared to live at a certain remove, and why he did not seem particularly overjoyed by their sudden and heartfelt acknowledgment."

In Tiger Stadium one day in 1975 or 1976 I had the chance to see Henry Aaron in person, while he played for the Milwaukee Brewers, and he hit a home run. The Tigers won the game, but I think I was more thrilled about seeing a bit of history.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Game of Thrones

With all of the hype surrounding the recent HBO series A Game of Thrones, which I haven't seen yet but plan to, I thought I'd read the book first. I thought it was okay, but ultimately ended up finishing out of sense of duty. I wonder if I'll end up reading the other books in the series out of the same sense of obligation.

An 800-page fantasy book that at times reads like the overheated imagination of a hard-core Dungeons & Dragons player, A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, is full of the tropes of the genre. There's lots of mentions of wolves, ravens, and dragons (they are supposedly extinct, but with the title of the fifth and most recent book of the series I'm not so sure about that). The setting is an imaginary place that seems to be shaped like England, with a massive wall to the north that keeps some kind of creatures called "The Others" out.

The land has seven kingdoms, but is ruled by one king, the fat and jocular Robert. His old friend is Eddard Stark, who is the leader of the family that has dominion over the north. After the death of Robert's main advisor, known as the King's Hand, Robert calls Eddard to the castle to replace him. That's just one of the many plot threads, and it would be almost impossible to summarize this huge book. Suffice it to say that the queen, Cersei, from the si, nister Lannister family, is up to no good, and is closer than normal to her twin brother. There's another brother, Tyrion, a dwarf who is the most engaging character of the book.

Eddard and his wife suspect the Lannisters of murdering not only the King's Hand but of also having something to do with their young son falling out of a window. There's all sorts of palace intrigue, and every so often the scene shifts to another land, where the scion of the usurped king has married his sister off to the leader of a barbarian warlord.

The story is very complicated, and difficult to get into. There's an appendix in the back, with a list of all the characters, and this proved to be extremely necessary in the early going. Martin cuts back and forth between several story lines, with a handful of characters being focus points, and at times he was away from one story for so long that I forgot what was going on. The book also doesn't so much end as stop--nothing was wrapped up to my satisfaction, necessitating going on to the next book to get answers. A prologue, in which characters interact with "others," is hardly referenced again in the entire book, and remains a mystery.

But the book has its charms. For a sword and sorcery genre book it's extremely well-written, even if it flirts with self-parody. I especially enjoyed those chapters that deal with Tyrion, particularly when he is jailed in a "sky prison," in which there is no fourth wall, just open space leading thousands of feet down to a rocky death (the floors are also ever-so-slightly sloped downward). The book is also not sentimental--characters die without warning, and sometimes they are good guys.

This is the first book in the "Song of Ice and Fire." I'm not sure if I have the stamina to attack the second book. HBO will be making that into a series, so maybe I'll just watch that instead. It will take far less time.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Session 9

Session 9 is a taut little psychological horror film that never delivers on what it promises. It is to be admired for its use of restraint rather than gore to deliver frights, but I found the ending didn't make sense.

The star of the film is the Danvers Mental Hospital, which closed in 1982. The filmmakers wrote the script with it in mind, and without its use it would have been impossible to make. The most impressive shot in the entire film is a helicopter shot of the massive building from above--as one character describes it, it's shaped like a bat, with wings that jut out from the center in a jagged fashion. The Gothic architecture looms frighteningly, even in daylight. As many know, there's nothing more scary than an abandoned mental asylum.

Given that, the film is off to a good start. A crew of absestos removers, led by Peter Mullan and David Caruso, have won a bid to work on the hospital. Mullan, who is stressed by a struggling business and a new baby, wins the bid by promising to do the job in a week--Caruso estimates that it will take three. They are joined by Steven Gavedon (who co-wrote the film), a one-time law student who is familiar with the history of the place; Josh Lucas, a cocky fellow who stole Caruso's girlfriend; and Brendan Sexton III as Mullan's novice nephew.

Each will in some way become spooked by the place. Lucas finds a hidden cache of money, while Gavedon finds tape recordings of sessions with a patient who exhibits multiple personality disorder. Sexton is afraid of the dark. Mullan is most aggrieved; he hears voices. I did wonder why these guys had so much time to wander off, given that they were under the gun to complete the job in a week.

Ultimately someone snaps and they engage in a game of cat and mouse. It wasn't clear at the end what each character's motivation was, and the reveal at the end, while emotionally effective, didn't tie loose ends together.

Session 9 isn't a bad film, and would be good for a scary night at home, but with a better script could have been a very good horror movie.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Though I doubted the need for another movie in this series, it turns out that not only is Rise of the Planet of the Apes the best in the saga since the iconic first film, it is also the best multiplex popcorn movie I've seen all summer. It's the best kind of sci-fi: plausible but just out there enough to be wondrous, and raises all sorts of ethical and moral questions that don't overwhelm the simple pleasures of the story.

The film doesn't really concern the "rise" of a planet controlled by apes; it's more like the birth. The five-film cycle of Planet of the Apes films, which presented itself as a time-loop Moebius strip, covered this in the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I saw that when I was a kid, and don't remember much about it, other than that a virus had killed off all dogs and cats and people kept apes as pets, who got tired of being servants, I guess.

This film, with a good script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, directed by Rupert Wyatt, harkens back to a familiar science-fiction template--the hubris of the scientist. Following the long footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein, a biochemist played by James Franco has been working on a cure for Alzheimer's. He has a personal reason for doing so, as his father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. He has tested a drug on chimpanzees which makes them extra smart. His initial subject is killed for being aggressive, but it turns out she left a baby.

That baby, called Caesar and featuring the motion-captured movements of Andy Serkis, turns out to be one smart chimp. Franco keeps him as a pet, and marvels at his brainpower. But when Caesar, defending Lithgow in a neighborhood squabble, gets sent to an ape refuge, he realizes he's been had.

The sequences where Caesar plots his rebellion and escape are the best parts of the movie, and play like an old prison drama. It is here that nods are made to the original film, with two of the best-known lines being quoted, and even a cameo by Charlton Heston is inserted. I wonder how many got the joke that the orangutang was named Maurice, an obvious nod to actor Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zeus in that old film.

The resulting show down on the Golden Gate bridge is tense and well-shot and edited, and has the best gorilla death scene since the original King Kong. Given the strong reviews and good business, a sequel, which is set up in the closing credits, should be forthcoming and worth watching.

As for the CGI, which replaces the notion of actors in monkey suits and makeup, I'm of two minds about it. During the opening scene, in which Caesar's mother is capture in Africa, the obviousness of the special effects distracted me. There was never a moment I didn't realize that I wasn't looking at real chimps or gorillas or what have you. But when the apes were viewed close-up, the work with the eyes was effective, and made it seem as if we were looking at real characters. It was always possible to know what Caesar was thinking.

I also appreciated how the film, while being a good action flick, also addresses the slippery ethics of using animals as drug test subjects. I'm sure PETA has given their approval. Though it is science fiction, I am dubious about a drug that makes an ape smart over night. You'd think they'd have to have a little schooling first.

My grade for Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A-.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Fast Sofa

Fast Sofa is a cheap, cruddy, smutty film from 2001. It is one of many films that use the world of pornography as some sort of metaphor for a life that is both exotic and dangerous. I will say that of most films I've seen about porn performers, this one is fairly realistic. Perhaps that's because the legendary Ron Jeremy was "adult film consultant" (he also has a small role).

Jake Busey plays a slacker and small-time drug dealer. He is a pretty loathsome character, cursing out cops in their presence and treating his patient girlfriend (Natasha Lyonne) like shit. He likes to lie around and watch porno tapes, especially starring his favorite, Ginger Quail (Jennifer Tilly). In an amazing coincidence, he and his buddy, Adam Goldberg, are out on the town when they see Tilly in a club. Busey is unable to resist the opportunity, and manages to score with her.

Busey confesses his sin to Lyonne, who promptly kicks him out. His apartment has been robbed, and he later sees Goldberg consoling Lyonne a little too intimately. He decides to take up Tilly's offer to hook up with her in Palm Springs, and heads to the desert in a banged-up Buick Skylark (the film's time period is difficult to discern--I suspect it was the 1980s, given the lack of cell phones, the use of videocassettes, and mentions of Traci Lords).

Along the way Busey strikes up an unlikely friendship with an odd man (Crispin Glover, in a bit of typecasting) who has an obsession with birds. These two will go bowling together (where Busey picks up a sixteen-year-old girl, played by Bijou Phillips) and get in and out of scrapes. When Busey catches up with Tilly, he finds that she's married to a sleazy and dangerous guy (Eric Roberts, another bit of typecasting).

The film was based on a novel by Bruce Craven, who is one of the screenwriters. It has the kind of sordid, dusty feel of a pulp novel, but I'm sure that whatever literary qualities it had were lost in translation. Salome Breziner directs with a busy hand, using multiple screen images often, and the low budget shows. Busey makes a distinctly unappealing protagonist, and Glover is, well, he's just weird. The Lyonne-Goldberg subplot gets dropped halfway through the film.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Cascades

For three days this week I was in Jackson, Michigan, which is a place that is not noted for being a tourist destination. It is a smallish city, about 33,000 residents, that lies about an hour west of Detroit. Like many Michigan cities, it has seen better days.

I was there for my grandmother's interment. She and my grandfather were born and raised there, and though they hadn't lived in Jackson for over sixty years they chose to be buried there. My mother was born there, but left at a very young age. I hadn't been there in over forty years; I have faint memories of visiting my great-grandmother, my grandmother's mother, when I was a little kid.

The city isn't noted for much. It was settled in 1829 and named after President Andrew Jackson. It is one of the cities that claims to be the "birthplace of the Republican Party;" Wikipedia notes that that title is in dispute, but Jackson did have the first meeting of people who called themselves Republicans, way back in 1854. This is appropriate, as all of my mother's people are die-hard followers of the G.O.P. It is also the hometown of football coach Tony Dungy, and as I was strolling through the cemetery I saw a headstone with that name on it; surely it is one of his relatives.

As a family we spent most of the time together, having a ceremony, eating communal meals, or frolicking in the motel pool. But on the last night my uncle convinced a few of us to go to something called The Cascades. I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but I was up for anything, even if it was raining lightly. It turns out that The Cascades is a large combination waterfall and fountain system that features colored lights. It has been there a long time--it opened in 1932, and was the brainchild of a man named Sparks (he had a radio factory in Jackson). It's the kind of thing that would have been a big deal back in those days, and my uncle said my grandparents used to go there on dates and neck. Now it seems like a relic of more innocent times, and it's kind of surprising it's still there.

But it was fun to visit. My ten-year-old nephew had a blast, running up the steps to the top, getting soaked not only from the rain but from the spray of the fountains. Oldies blasted on the sound system ("She was black as the night, Louie was whiter than white..."). We finished a circuit of the thing just as they announced they would be closing due to an incoming thunderstorm.

I doubt I ever get back to Jackson again. But if any of you out there have reason to be there, check out The Cascades. I've never seen anything like it, and even in this day and age it seems exceedingly quaint, there's also something very charming about it.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

While watching Cowboys & Aliens I was reminded of the scene in Tim Burton's Ed Wood when a producer of cheap drive-in fare hires Wood to direct a picture. Wood is told he can make any movie he wants, but the producer already has a title and a poster. Cowboys & Aliens started with a title and worked backwards, with no other reason than that someone thought the title was cool.

And I would agree, it is cool. The film tries to mesh two time-honored genres: the Western and science fiction, but it turns out they don't go together well, not like peanut butter and chocolate. The idea is not new; there was a comic book series in the 1950s called "Space Western," and this film was also based on a comic book. Of course, they may have gone together better with a director who shows some flair, but Jon Favreau has never shown that kind of dexterity, instead he is a manipulator of special effects; emotions and theme would seem to be beyond him.

As another critic pointed out, this is the second film this summer bearing the name and fingerprints of Steven Spielberg (Super 8 was the other) that might have been much better had he directed. Spielberg is only one name in a long list of producers, and there are enough screenwriters to field a soccer team. I think this film would have been much better if it were written by one person with a good imagination, rather than a team of guys settling for the lowest common denominator.

The film begins with Daniel Craig awakening in the desert. He has no memory of his name or how he got there, and he has a strange metal contraption secured around his wrist. Like Jason Bourne, though, he hasn't forgotten his skills, and takes care of three hombres who try to capture him. He wanders into a generic Western town that is run by the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford), with a sheriff who tries to keep the peace (Keith Carradine), which is mostly upset by Ford's half-wit son (Paul Dano). There's also a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who seems to have strolled in from the pages of Vogue, and has the whitest teeth this side of the Pecos.

All of a sudden this cliche is interrupted by another one, as the villagers are attacked by spaceships. Of course, back then people had no notion of space travel, so they are thought to be demons. They snatch up people using a lasso-like metal rope--it seems to me that beings that can perfect interstellar space travel could come up with better technology.

That's a key problem with the film--how to have it so people who have nothing more than six-guns and bows and arrows (and a few sticks of dynamite) can defeat an alien race who can travel between galaxies. The script bends over backwards to make things work--I wondered why the aliens, if they were interested in kidnapping humans, didn't go to a more populated place, like a city, but this is explained, if not completely satisfactorily.

In any event, former enemies, like Craig and Ford, team up with a band of outlaws and Apache Indians to defeat the aliens, glossing the thing with a forced feel-good sentiment. There is little character development--Craig is the taciturn loner who is doing this for the woman in his life, while Ford has a disastrously sappy subplot involving an Indian employee (Adam Beach) who looks up to him like a father. This film is not Ford's shining moment. It just may be a career low.

I didn't hate this film, though, mostly due to how it looked. The costumes and sets are rigorously detailed, and the photography by Matthew Libatique is lovely to behold. Coincidentally, I saw again his Black Swan just before this, and marveled at how he was able to handle two completely disparate environments to equally stunning effect.

When I was fourteen I would have loved this film, as it has the requisite action you would expect, there's just not enough substance and intelligence to make it transcend the studio hacks' fingerprints. For young boys (and old men) there's also a completely gratuitous yet tasteful nude scene featuring Wilde.

My grade for Cowboys & Aliens: C