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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Woman in White (1997)

Wilkie Colllins' novel The Woman in White (see below) has been adapted many times, including a few silent film versions, a Hollywood film from 1948, and an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The only available version to me is a 1997 Masterpiece Theater adaptation that shows how not to adapt a classic novel.

Collins' novel is long and complex and almost all plot. This version, directed by Tim Fywell, is just under two hours long, and while it is acceptable and expected to see a truncated version of the book, this film makes some changes that seem arbitrary.

Having the book so fresh in my mind it's difficult to be objective. Had I not read the book, I would have found this film sluggish and curiously mean-spirited, with good characters acting much more aggressively than they do in the novel.

To summarize, two half-sisters (Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell) live in a country estate in the north of England (here they share a father, while in the book they share a mother). A drawing teacher (Andrew Lincoln) arrives, and on his walk to the estate from the train station he encounters a woman dressed all in white who acts strange. Amazingly, unlike the book, he does not learn that she has escaped from an asylum (in the book, he encounters her in London).

Lincoln falls in love with Waddell, but she affianced to a local baronet (James Wilby). Unlike the book, where the drawing teacher leaves because it is the gentlemanly thing to do, the film has him framed for molesting a maid.

Wilby, who appears to be a first-class gentleman, soon reveals himself as a cad. Waddell returns from her honeymoon and tells her sister that she fears he will kill her for her money. Soon an Italian count (Simon Callow), saying he is Wilby's cousin, arrives. He appears to be on Waddell's side, but also soon is revealed as a villain (in the book, he is the sisters' uncle by marriage, but here he is a hired confederate).

The main difference is the shift of focus from Walter Hartright, the drawing teacher, to Marian (Fitzgerald). She is protagonist and goes through some hardships unseen in the book. A death of a major character is also changed and sensationalized, and a character who dies in a fire is changed from an accident and gallant behavior by the drawing teacher to out-and-out murder. Also, a huge section on Fosco's comeuppance is excised. Russell Baker, the host of Masterpiece Theater, explains that that would have taken another hour to dramatize. True, but why stint? If you're going to make a film of the book, why do it at half measure?

A BBC miniseries of five episodes was made in 1982, I assume that is much more on the mark. I'm curious to see the 1948 film, if only because Fosco is played by Sidney Greenstreet. No one would mistake him for an Italian, but physically he is much more in line with the character as described by Collins.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Night to Remember

I had a blast last night following the harrowing drama of the resolution of the regular season in Major League Baseball. I'm listening to ESPN's Tim Kurkjian proclaim it as the greatest night of regular season baseball in the history of the sport, and if that sounds like hyperbole, I can't come up with a decent argument against.

Both leagues had teams in flat-footed ties for the wild card playoff slot, and thus there were four games with playoff implications. Three of the affairs came down to the last at-bat, and at one point, if scores held, there would be two play-in games today. However, both of those games went up in smoke, and as one team had a historic comeback and two others had crushing losses.

In the American League, Boston and Tampa were tied for the wild card. Boston had had a comfortable lead at the start of the month, but went on a historic collapse, playing bad baseball the entire month, unable to win two games in a row. Tampa fought back, and though they had a hiccough in New York last week, Boston's downward spiral enabled them to pull into a tie. They would host the Yankees, Boston was in Baltimore to play the last plays Orioles, who had thrown a monkey wrench in the Boston season by taking three of four last week in Boston.

In the National League, Atlanta had a collapse of their own, with the St. Louis Cardinals charging from behind. Atlanta was home against the Phillies; St. Louis was in Houston. Atlanta jumped out to a lead, and St. Louis, in the only noncompetitive game of the night, cruised to a lead against the Astros. It appeared the teams would end in a tie, necessitating a play-in game the next day.

It also appeared the Red Sox would survive their skid and make the playoffs. The Yankees jumped all over the Rays, with Mark Texeira slapping a grand slam. They would take a a 7-0 lead into the eighth. In Baltimore, after a rain delay, Boston went into the bottom of the ninth up 3-2, with their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, on the mound.

But the baseball gods were mischievous. Tampa, against the Yankees September call-ups, rallied for six in the eighth. Then, with two out in the ninth, Dan Johnson pulled a ball down the right field line, tying the game. Boston, still ahead, just needed to hang to force a play-in game, which means there would be two on Thursday.

But the old Curse of the Bambino came back to life. Papelbon struck out the first two Orioles in the ninth, but then surrendered two consecutive doubles to allow a tie. Then, a liner to left, which Carl Crawford just missed. The winning Oriole run rounded third. The Red Sox Nation was stunned.

Amazingly, just moments later, the Rays, in the bottom of the 12th, sent up Evan Longoria, who had already homered in the pivotal eighth. With Scott Procter on the mound (the Yankees had no other pitchers they were willing to use--Mariano Rivera was not an option) Longoria snaked the ball over the left field wall. He and Bobby Thomsen are now the only players in Major League history to hit walk-off home runs to send their teams into the post-season.

Meanwhile, in the National League, I could only follow the updates. Unbelievably, ESPN2 didn't switch to the Braves-Phillies game, they aired a strongman competition instead. WTF? The Braves rookie closer, Craig Kimbrel, who set a rookie record for saves, blew the most important save of the year, allowing the Phillies to tie. They would then lose in extra innings, while the Cardinals watched happily in the clubhouse.

The four first-round series are intriguing, although I think the Phillies will easily beat the Cardinals. I'll pick them in a sweep. I'll take the Diamondbacks over the Brewers in four, and the Rangers to sweep the Rays. As for the Tigers-Yankees, I can't make a prediction, I can't be objective. I was watching the crawl all night, willing the Tigers to win and the Rangers to lose so the Tigers would get home field against the wild card winner, and not have to go to New York to play the Yankees. It would not be so. I'll have a preview of the series up on Tiger Rag sometime tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Dirty Dozen

My wrap-up of the Robert Ryan film festival is two iconic films from the 1960s that, amazingly, I haven't seen before. The Dirty Dozen, directed by Robert Aldrich, was the number-one box office earner of 1967, but somehow I've avoided it all these years. It's not a very good film, but it scratches an itch.

What's most interesting about the film is that it takes the standard World War II movie template but twists it for '60s sensibilities. Most know that it is about a dozen men who, either facing long prison sentences or execution, are recruited for a secret mission to storm a French chateau riddled with German officers. The twelve men, played by a variety of stars, unknowns, and future stars, end up representing the rebellion of 1960s counterculture.

Lee Marvin plays the major assigned to train them. Marvin was the prototypical '60s tough guy. He was hard-assed, but you always got the sense he was tolerant. One can see him being one of those ex-Marines who would get along fine with long-haired hippie freaks. His manner of speech was always ultra-cool, and his character is a discipline problem himself, pissing off his superiors, like generals played by Ernest Borgnine and Robert Webber, and particularly a colonel played  by Ryan.

The principles of the "Dozen" are John Cassavetes, as a wormy Mafioso (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but only did the role to make money to make his own movies); Charles Bronson, as the most responsible of the group; Telly Savalas, as a sadistic, woman-hating, psychopathic racist; Jim Brown (who quit football to take the part), as a black man in a segregated army, and Donald Sutherland, who isn't given much of a character but does have a memorable scene when called upon to impersonate a general.

The film is too long--a scene in which the Dozen prove themselves during war games is kind of ridiculous. The better scenes involve the men coming together as a team, Unfortunately some of the Dozen are hardly referred to at all. Trini Lopez is one of them, and he's given a song (not a great moment), but is killed off-screen.

The final scene, the raid on the chateau, is bloody and brutal, with the Germans killed by being penned into a bunker and burned alive (along with women). Aldrich was pressured to cut that scene, but did not. There's a kind of viciousness which eliminates any sense of patriotism, and may be what Quentin Tarantino had in mind with Inglourious Basterds.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Woman in White

A young drawing master is walking along a road at night. He is surprised by the almost phantom-like appearance of a woman dressed entirely in white. She is lost and in need of assistance. He gallantly helps her, and then later is passed by men in a coach. He overhears them talking about an escaped patient from the nearby asylum--a woman in white.

So begins Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, published in 1860 and a huge success. It was the first of what were called "sensation" novels, full of melodrama and plotting, with allusions of illegitimacy, murder, and switched identities. It had elements of the Gothic novel, of the social justice of Dickens, and is a very early example of the detective novel. Though the style of prose is very ornate and is at times almost funny viewed from this day and age, it is a lot of fun. There are even two villains.

The drawing master, Walter Hartright, takes a job in the north of England for a Mr. Fairlie, who imagines himself an invalid. He has two nieces, half-sisters: Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. Marian is plain, Laura is beautiful. Walter also notices Laura bears a striking resemblance to the woman in white, whom he learns is named Anne Catherick and was a close friend of Laura's mother.

Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is promised to Sir Percival Glyde, who would seem to be only after her money. Sir Percival, it is then revealed, had a hand in committing Anne to the asylum, and she responds by sending a letter to Laura warning her not to marry him. Sir Percival's good friend is the obese but dainty Count Fosco, an Italian who is married to Laura's aunt. A collector of canaries and white mice, he is charming but evil to those who can see through them, and together with Sir Percival they hatch a terrible plot that Walter and Marian must team together to overcome.

The novel is told entirely in first person from shifting narrators, with Walter being the most prevalent. Marian also contributes. The language is baroque and so ripe that it can engender amusement, but it also makes everything pretty clear, even when the plot becomes increasingly complicated.

The Woman in White also makes some statements about the time it was written. There is certainly an over-riding theme of the social strata of Victorian England. Walter is of the lower-class, and knows it when he steps into the Fairlies' world. Sir Percival has a secret that he must protect lest his position in society be ruined. There is also a sense of the exotic alien, in the person of Fosco. He is Italian, and thus not to be trusted, and has the kind of savoir faire that is notable among many villains who have come after him.

I also found the characterizations of Marian and Laurie to be quite dramatic and telling. Laura is beautiful and fair, and Walter falls in love with her immediately. She is vulnerable and weak, and inspires everyone around her to either protect her or exploit her. Marian, on the other hand, though smart (Fosco admires her as an adversary), is doomed to spinsterhood, even though there are several moments throughout the book in which it's plain that Walter and Marian should really be together.

Consider this initial description of Marian: "Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by a face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead...To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model...and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognize yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream."

If Collins tells us that a smart woman must therefore be homely, at least he does make Marian extraordinarily smart. There's a great scene in which she climbs out a woman in a rainstorm and eavesdrops on Sir Percival and Fosco. It's a shame that she couldn't have been better looking.

Though the book at times trips over its own language, it's quite a page-turner at the end. I made some assumptions that were not true, and was surprised by a few other developments. The story couldn't work today (I won't give anything away, but DNA would settle the central problem) but if the reader puts themselves in the world of Victoriana it rings true. As Fosco says of the story: "What a situation! I suggest it to the rising romance writers of England. I offer it, as totally new, to the worn-out dramatists of France."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball

On his show Friday night, David Letterman cracked that Moneyball was "the most exciting movie I've ever seen about baseball statistics." It was a joke, of course, but there's an element of truth in it. It is the most exciting movie ever made about baseball statistics. But it's not really about baseball statistics. As with most stories, it's about redemption.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a bonus baby phenom. He was drafted in the first round by the Mets and passed up a scholarship to Stanford to play pro ball. But he didn't live up to the hype--he bounced around the majors for a few years, never playing more than 80 games in a season and retiring with a lifetime batting average of .219. As played by Pitt, this failure fuels his desire as the General Manager of the Oakland A's to produce a world champion.

The film begins with the last day of the 2001 season. The A's, who had been up 2-0 in a five-game series, lost to the Yankees (as a Yankee-hater I remember that series well; it hurt bad). Pitt goes to his owner and tells him they will lose three of their best players to free agency, and he needs more money to complete. The owner sympathizes, and in exposition that is for the audience more than Pitt, tells him Oakland is a small market team that can't compete with teams like the Yankees financially.

Pitt then meets a young assistant with the Cleveland Indians, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). An economics major from Yale, who was probably the last player picked for Little League, Hill is a disciple of Bill James, the former security guard at a pork and bean cannery, who with his self-published Baseball Abstract had created a new way of evaluating players by use of statistics. Pitt hires Hill, and they confront their old-guard scouting staff with names that are immediately scoffed at. The old scouts believe in intuition and judging players by intangibles like physique and the attractiveness of their girlfriends. Hill believes that winning requires runs, and runs requires being on base.

Pitt gets a lot of flak, but he's the boss and the team is assembled and the rest of the film chronicles the season. It doesn't start well, as manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn't play the players Pitt wants him to. So he trades them. Eventually the team goes on an epic winning streak and Beane and Hill's actions are validated--to a point.

I say to a point, because Beane, and the book on which this film is based, is still sneered at by some baseball people. They point to Beane's never having been in a World Series, let alone won one. The A's haven't been the playoffs since 2006. But it is undeniable that the changed the face of the game. As Red Sox owner John Henry says in a speech at the end of the film, James was right, and those who distrusted him really feared him.

Moneyball was directed by Bennett Miller, who helmed Capote, my favorite film of 2005. I'm eager to see what he does next, because Moneyball is almost pure delight. I'm a baseball fan, as one might be able to tell, but I think this film will appeal to anyone. It doesn't get too technical--the most arcane statistic mentioned is on-base percentage, and even a novice who has a basic understanding of the game will understand the revolution going on here.

Beyond that, the film exceptionally details the ascent of a mountain of disapproval. Pitt, once he buys into Hill's argument, is like an evangelist spreading the word. The film is edited at a fast pace, but is not in a rush. There are a few scenes, perhaps too many, of Pitt in an empty stadium, gazing into space, but for the most part the pace is thrilling. I loved the scenes of him working the phones in trades. If that's not how it's done, it should be. I came away green with envy--how fun it must be to work for a major league baseball team.

Some may scoff at scenes involving Pitt's daughter. There's one scene in a music store where she plays him a song. This could have been disastrously cloying, but I think it added necessary humanity to the character. Again, this movie isn't about baseball. It's about a man's attempt at redemption, set against a backdrop of baseball, and it informs us to a key decision he makes at the end of the film.

As a baseball fan, I do have to point out some errors. Hill's character is fictional; he's based on a man named Paul DePodesta, who was already working for the A's. Also, Jeremy Giambi and Chad Bradford, who are players that Pitt announces he wants after the 2001 season, were already on the team at that point (I remember that because Giambi was thrown out at the plate by the amazing play of Derek Jeter in the 2001 ALDS--his lack of hustle cost the As the series!)

But a lot of it is right on target. I double-checked with Baseball-Reference.com and they had the details right about the game that the A's set the American League record for most wins a row (how did I forget that?) In movies like this, artistic license is almost always going to intrude, in this case it is at an acceptable level.

The acting here is good all around. Pitt gives the best performance I've seen him give. I was particularly impressed with his movement--the athletic grace that defines the smallest of movements, even snapping or pointing his fingers. Hill, in a much less flashy role, is also very good, a man who uses his specialized knowledge to work in a game that he loves. And I would have named you a hundred actors who could have played the pugnacious Art Howe before I got to Hoffman, who has never struck me as an athlete, but, by god, he makes it work. Maybe it's the buzz-cut.

In some ways, Moneyball resembles last year's The Social Network. Both detail a change of the guard in a portion of society (granted, Facebook changed a lot more than sabremetrics did, but in a relative way they made just as much a difference). The instigators of that change were both outsiders (Hill is the equivalent of Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg) and both were seen as juvenile upstarts. It's no coincidence that Aaron Sorkin wrote both scripts (co-writing Moneyball with Steve Zaillian). While Moneyball isn't as emotionally powerful as The Social Network, both are epic achievements.

I close by noting that Moneyball was originally going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who had to back out because of a conflict with Contagion. Both turned out to be good films, but I wonder how Soderbergh's version would have been different.

My grade for Moneyball: A-

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial is a Pulitzer-Prize winning analysis of Abraham Lincoln's views of slavery and race. Written by esteemed historian Eric Foner, is it many ways an amazing tale, especially compared with the politics of today. In an era when many political candidates are proud of their intransigence, and "flip-flop" is a dirty word, Lincoln's evolution of thought is an admirable one, and it ended up setting the course of American history.

As Foner points out, "Lincoln has been described as a consummate moralist and a shrewd political operative, a lifelong foe of slavery and an inveterate racist. Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists, and members of every Protestant denomination as well as nonbelievers, have claimed him as their own."

However, Foner also points out: "Lincoln was strongly antislavery, but he was not an abolitionist or a Radical Republican and never claimed to be one. He made a sharp distinction between his frequently reiterated personal wish that 'all men everywhere could be free' and his official duties as a legislator, congressman, and president in a legal and constitutional system that recognized the South's right to property in slaves."

The book is structured as biography, with Lincoln's beliefs and attitudes about slavery and race at its core. As a young man he grew up in a society that did not believe in the equality of blacks. Kentucky the state of his birth, was a slave state, and though Illinois had outlawed slavery it was a deeply racist state. Lincoln's grandfather had been murdered by a black man, and prejudice ran deep. But he had always believed slavery was wrong, if not only for the inhumanity, but because it was "both injustice and bad policy." He also wrote, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is wrong, nothing is wrong." But he also believed in the rule of law, and during his early political career he fully recognized the rights of slave-owners. The Republican Party grew out of a combination of abolitionists, who would have freed slaves immediately, and the more conservative, who wanted to stop its expansion into territories.

When Lincoln became president and the Civil War began, Lincoln began to evolve. He is famously quoted as writing, "I would save the Union. I would save it in the shortest way under the Constitution...My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery." But by September 1862 he had decided to emancipate the slaves, and he stated clearly by the end of war that it was about slavery.

Two intertwined themes best display Lincoln's evolution of thought: colonization and black troops. Initially Lincoln was for one and against the other. Colonization was a hot topic early in the war, as many thought slaves should be freed, but then what to do with them? Many ideas of relocation were hatched, including an island off Haiti and a coal-mining area of Colombia. Most black leaders were against it, including Frederick Douglass, who rightly stated that slaves were Americans. Lincoln was worried, also rightly so, that freed blacks would endure horrible and racist recriminations, and would be better off leaving.

As for the recruitment of black troops, Lincoln was against this, but eventually relented. The valor of black troops during the Civil War is well-documented, and afterward Lincoln completely dropped the idea of colonization. One seemed to eliminate the other--accepting that a man can fight for his country is in itself a statement that he is a citizen. In his last speech, Lincoln spoke of allowing certain blacks, namely the "intelligent" and servicemen, the right to vote. It is thought that this was what put John Wilkes Booth, who was in the audience that night, over the edge.

Foner also closely and fascinatingly documents the development of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is widely misunderstood. It only freed slaves in the the Confederate states that were not under Union control. Thus, slaves in the border states that did not secede (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware) and states and portions of states that were under Union control, such as Tennessee and parts of Louisiana, were not freed. But it signaled another remarkable change in Lincoln. He had talked of gradual emancipation, and compensation to slave owners. But the Proclamation was immediate and without compensation, like a band-aid being ripped off.

The book is full of little tidbits that bear repeating, such as the accidental good fortune of George McClellan's incompetence as a general. McClellan, of course, was reticent about attacking, and dithered so much that he was eventually replaced (he would run against Lincoln for president in 1864 and lose). Foner points out, perceptively, that had McClellan succeeded and the war shortened, the Emancipation Proclamation may have never come, and a different, gradual emancipation may have been the result. It's not often that a black man can be grateful to George McClellan.

Andrew Johnson comes in for some harsh treatment, too. Foner's tone is so heartbreaking when he discusses how Johnson was the complete opposite of Lincoln, and a horrible president. Of course, no one can say for sure how Lincoln would have handled reconstruction, but it's not a stretch to think he would have handled it better than Johnson, who was openly racist.

Every book I read about Lincoln I admire him more. He is no saint (he commonly used the word "nigger" in conversation, a result of his upbringing). He had little contact with educated blacks before the war, but after meeting with Douglass and others he came to believe that they were equal with whites. As Foner puts it, "Lincoln did not enter the White House expecting to preside over the destruction of slavery. A powerful combination of events...propelled him down the road to emancipation and then to a reconsideration of the place blacks would occupy in a post-slavery America...as the presidency of his successor demonstrated, not all men placed in a similar situation possessed the capacity for growth, the essence of Lincoln's greatness."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Nevermind

Twenty years ago today Nirvana's second studio album, Nevermind, was released to modest acclaim. Since then it has sold 30 million copies and is considered to be one of the best rock and roll records of all time. I don't think a better rock record has been recorded since.

Though Nirvana has become one of the bands most associated with the Seattle grunge scene, Nevermind was an attempt by its songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, Kurt Cobain, to break free of the grunge template. Upon listening to it again, it struck me as heavy metal without the preening, and punk without the safety pins. Upon doing a little research I was amused by Cobain's summation, with which I fully agree, when he called it "Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag."

Produced impeccably by Butch Vig (although Cobain didn't like the polished result, saying it sounded more like a Motley Crue record than punk). the album contains 12 songs. In the days when I would buy fifty or so albums a year I was happy if one had two or three good songs; Nevermind didn't have a turkey in the bunch. Almost all of them were full of snarling, distorted guitars and fierce drumming by Dave Grohl. Even at the advanced age of 50, listening to it makes me want to move.

The album begins with the most iconic song of the era, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It was this song, and the video directed by Samuel Bayer, that launched the group into the mainstream. At the time they, as well as all of the Seattle scene, was characterized as "alternative" rock, which was only played on MTV during their late-night program 120 Minutes. But the song and video became so popular that the network played it during the day, and "alternative" wasn't alternative anymore. Nevermind was the gateway that transformed the rock landscape for good.

Geffen Records expected to sell 250,000 units, but the album hit number one in January, 1992, knocking Michael Jackson off the top spot. I was interested to learn, though, that it's not the best-selling album of the Seattle grunge movement--Pearl Jam's Ten is.

There's so much to like on Nevermind. From the majesty of the opening cut and the magnificent opening chords, which are to 1991 what the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" is to 1964, the songs come at you with a ferocity that is nonetheless poignant. Cobain's guitar is terrific, as is Grohl's drumming, exemplified on "Breed" and "Territorial Pissings."

Cobain emphasized the melodies and the lyrics were almost afterthoughts. Very few could understand what he was singing, anyway. "A mosquito, my libido" really can't mean anything. There are a few exceptions--"Polly," a sinister song about a torturer of a girl is clearly heard: "Polly wants a cracker/I think I should get off her first/I think she wants some water/To put out the blow torch." "Something in the Way,"  the other downbeat song on the record, contains some tortured adolescent lines like, "It's okay to eat fish, 'cause they don't have any feelings."

Of course, Cobain was destroyed by his own demons, leaving Nirvana's legacy a brief but powerful one in rock history. They made three studio albums, and one of the best live albums I've ever heard, MTV Unplugged. Cobain has joined the list of rock legends who will be forever young, like Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They never got the chance to tour to graying fans, or surrender the rebellion of their youth. On the inside of Nevermind's CD booklet, Cobain gives the camera the finger, which he's still doing, twenty years later.





Friday, September 23, 2011

Live Free or Die

Zooey Deschanel week ends with Live Free or Die, a 2006 indie comedy from former Seinfeld writers Greg Kavet and Andy Robin. It is not as funny as the worst episode of Seinfeld, but it isn't aggressively bad. I just am kind of tired of movies about stupid criminals.

Set in New Hampshire, hence the title (the state motto), the film is about a hapless small-time crook called Rugged (Aaron Stanford). He fancies himself a kingpin of crime, and gallivants around town in a dilapidated van, stealing UPC codes for rebate checks and pilfering charity donations. He is a coward but full of braggadocio.

He runs into an old friend (Paul Schneider), who is a halfwit but owns a share of a storage facility that his sister (Deschanel) runs. Stanford wants a job as a security guard there, but somehow he ends up trying to get revenge on a bully by pouring brake fluid into his well. The man ends up dying of a different cause, but Stanford thinks he has murdered him and tries to cover up the crime.

Stanford puts a lot of work into his character, but ultimately he's just too stupid and annoying to care about. I see one critic that compared him to Steve Buscemi; perhaps he was thinking of Buscemi's brilliant performance in Fargo. The difference is that Buscemi was not the main character of Fargo, and was instead just one of many layers of eccentricity. The performance to marvel at is Schneider's, who uses the subtlest hints to create a vividly moronic but well-meaning man. I was riveted to him every time he was on screen.

In addition to Deschanel, some other recognizable performers in small roles are Michael Rapaport, as a jealous police officer, and Judah Friedlander (Frank from 30 Rock) in a particularly foul-mouthed role as a hardware store owner and pornography collector.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Girl

Coincidentally (honest), in the midst of my Zooey Deschanel week her new sit-com, New Girl, debuted. I forgot about it but with the magic on Comcast On Demand I defied those that would tell me when to watch it and viewed it at my leisure yesterday.

I'm something of a sit-com snob, grumbling about how the good old days of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are gone, and how the key cast departure on M*A*S*H was Gary Burghoff. I don't watch too many sit-comes regularly--The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and Modern Family. That's about it.

New Girl, therefore, wasn't bad, which is high praise from me. I didn't laugh out loud, and I don't think I smiled broadly, but it didn't suck and I like Zooey Deschanel, who plays a standard type but manages to make it interesting.

Deschanel is Jess, a quirky teacher (we haven't seen her teaching yet, so I don't know what that will be like) who gets cheated on by her live-in boyfriend. She answers an ad and moves into a vast apartment with three single guys. They are played by Jake Johnson, a bartender who pines for and drunk dials his ex-girlfriend; Max Greenfield, as some sort of businessman who has a tendency to take his shirt off and act like a "douchebag" (the guys have a "douchebag jar," which operated much like a swear jar); and Damon Wayans Jr. as a personal trainer who has a communication problem (Wayans, because of a commitment to another series, will be replaced starting in episode 2).

The laughs, such as they are, will clearly come from Deschanel's place in this bastion of bachelorhood--it's sort of like an update of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, minus four dwarves. There is no sexual tension between her and any of the guys, at least not yet--the series will have jumped the shark when it does.

A lot has been made of Deschanel being an indie movie presence who has gone to TV. That's fine by me, as she is engaging to watch, even if some of the gags (like her watching "Dirty Dancing" incessantly) are kind of tired. The creator is Elizabeth Merriweather, who favors the style of comedy that has one character saying something and immediately being proven wrong by a flashback, such as when Johnson denies drunk dialing his ex, only to immediately see a scene of him doing just that.

The series also has to decide whether Deschanel is hot or not. She's dowdied up, wearing glasses and dressing in vintage clothing, but she hangs out with models.The show seems to have her want to be a dork, but nothing can hide Deschanel's basic attractiveness. If she moved in with me I would begin lusting after her immediately.

I'll probably watch this show again, and since it got good ratings it's first time out it might be around for a while.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Flakes

Zooey Deschanel has not exactly racked up a lot of hits in her career. Yes, she was in Yes Man, but she was also in Flakes, a 2007 film directed by Michael Lehmann, which earned a grand total of $778. Yes, $778. It deserved to make more.

Flakes is a film for and about slackers. The title refers to a New Orleans establishment that sells nothing but cereal, and the operators and customers are passionate about it. It's owned by a burnt-out hippie (Christopher Lloyd, basically playing the character he played from Taxi) and managed by a struggling musician, Aaron Stanford. The place sells the basics like Rice Krispies and Cheerios, but also has discontinued and hard-to-find children's cereals that collectors bid over in a frenzy on eBay.

Stanford's girlfriend is an artist who legally changed her name to Pussy Katz. She is intent on Stanford taking some time off so he can finish recording a CD. In this, making your own CD represents picking yourself up and doing something with your life. But when an MBA opens a rival cereal bar across the street, Deschanel, in order to get Stanford motivated, tries to drive Flakes out of business. Kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, no?

Flakes is a genially pleasant film--nothing incendiary (which Stanford wants his music to be). It bears a lot of weight in the kitsch area, as I can think of nothing more kitschy than people collecting cereals. A large percentage of Flakes' customers are stoners, and they have made up the bulk of the $778 worth of tickets on its release. It is pretty certain that after watching you will want a bowl of cereal. But what kind? Quisp? Count Chocula? If only a place like Flakes really existed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Privileges

There has been on shortage of books about rich people; F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said they are different than you or I (Hemingway's response was, "Yes, they have more money.") Jonathan Dee's novel, , is a bit different from those I've read, in that he seems to make no judgments about his wealthy family of protagonists--they're just folks who happen to have a lot of money.

The novel is structured in four chapters. The first is a virtuoso description of a wedding. Adam and Cynthia, 22 and young to be getting married in this day and age, are tying the knot. The wedding is a big one, held in Pittsburgh, where Cynthia's mother lives, but we immediately like our couple, who see through the bullshit and get along great. The wedding is scene from many points of view, from the intended to their attendants to the parents to the wedding planner.

Each of the next three chapters jumps ahead in their lives, to when they have small children and Adam is an up-and-comer in an investment firm, to when the kids are teenagers and Adam is insider trading, to when the kids are college age and Adam is filthy rich and Cynthia is running a major philanthropical organization. The characters are finely etched and the writing sings, as in this example of when Cynthia meets her husband's boss's wife, who gives her a tour of her country home: "By the fourth or fifth room Cynthia had a powerful urge to burn the whole place to the ground with this Botoxed stick figure inside it. There was no way they could have been more than ten years apart in age--unless she was a mummy, Cynthia reflected while watching the jaw move in her eerily smooth face, or possibly a vampire, preserved for centuries by the blood of her social inferiors--and yet she spoke as if from some great experiential height, as if, at the end of her remarks, there might be time for questions."

As good as the book starts, I couldn't help but be disappointed as it goes on, and the last chapter seems like a random unraveling. The daughter, April, is a society queen hip-deep in drugs and Eurotrash. Jonas, the boy, is attending college and studying art history, and attempts to track down an outsider artist who may be insane. I couldn't quite grasp what Dee was trying to say--it was as if the plot were decided by roll of dice. April embraces her wealth--she nonchalantly buys Jonas and his girlfriend a Picasso--while Jonas distances himself from it, living in modest circumstances. It just didn't mean much to me, and doesn't so much end as stop.

I did like some asides, particularly from Jonas' point of view. As a teenager he's into music, and alienates his cover band-mates with his deep interest in bluegrass and folk. He thinks to himself, "What the hell ever happened to country music, anyway? It used to be so fucking dark it took your breath away. Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away. Now it was a museum of itself, a pander-factory full of Vegas-style reactionaries in thousand-dollar hats. What was good about it was never coming back."

I think The Privileges would have been brilliant if the chapters were told in reverse order--as Harold Pinter's play Betrayal was. If we were to start with the rich people, and then progressively shown how they were younger and less rich would have made more of an impact. As it is, it left me unsatisfied.


Monday, September 19, 2011

The Go-Getter

It's Zooey Deschanel week here at Go-Go-Rama. After being charmed by her once again in Our Idiot Brother, I scoured Netflix for some films I haven't seen her in. It turns out she's been in a lot of movies I've seen but forgotten about, but there are a few I've missed, including The Go-Getter, from 2007, written and directed by Martin Hynes.

Deschanel is perhaps the epitome of what Jezebel.com dubbed the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"; a cute, eccentric female that gives hope to the brooding lead male character. This kind of girl exists only in the movies, and stems from the fevered imagination of male screenwriters who have taken the opportunity to create bring their ultimate and elusive fantasy to life. Deschanel has played several of them, and plays another one here in this listless indie road picture that bears little resemblance to real life.

To show how unrealistic her character is, Deschanel plays a woman whose car is stolen, but she doesn't call the police. She calls the thief, our "hero," (Lou Taylor Pucci) on the cell phone she left in her car and the two form a long-distance relationship while he drives around the West, searching for his brother to tell him their mother has died. This loser, who says he is inspired by Huckleberry Finn, starts the movie with a decision that would put most of us in jail, but he ends up with a quirky girl falling in love with him over the phone.

Pucci ends up finding an old classmate (Jena Malone), who, having nothing better to do, accompanies him on his journey and takes his virginity, a pet store by run by potheads, and a commune of potters. Deschanel doesn't appear until the middle of the film, and she's not given much to work with. It's hard to fathom how she could have a crush on a guy like Pucci, who not only doesn't understand Mark Twain but also lacks any kind of fortitude.

There are a lot of familiar faces in the cast, including Maura Tierney and Judy Greer, and Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation plays two unrelated quotes quite well. But they must have done the movie for love or art, as it only grossed $11,000. That's about right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Billy Budd

I went to college so long ago I can't remember whether I read Billy Budd. I know I took a course in Melville, well, it was "Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James," taught by one of my favorite professors, Paul Dolan, but I don't remember if we read Billy Budd. I'm glad I don't remember it, because as I watched the film version, made in 1962, I was riveted with suspense.

Based on a play that was in turn based on Herman Melville's posthumously published novel, Billy Budd is an allegory of good and evil set at sea. The setting is a British ship, "The Avenger," during the war between Britain and France in 1797. Budd is a merchant seaman about a ship ironically called "The Rights of Man," but is impressed into service aboard the naval vessel. He was treated well aboard the merchant ship, but discovers a different world on the naval ship.

The captain and officers are fair men (Captain Vere is played by Peter Ustinov, who also directed). But the master-at-arms, who is responsible for discipline, is the epitome of evil. John Claggart, sinisterly played by Robert Ryan, is a bitter man who is too full of pride in himself as dispenser of cruelty to be sufficiently human. The men fear him, and he feeds off this. He punishes capriciously, and takes perverse delight as men are flogged. He doesn't know quite to make of Billy, though. As played by Terence Stamp (his first film role), Billy is angelic, ignorant but innocent, eager only to see the good in men. He honestly doesn't hate Claggart, even after the man causes the death of one of his friends by making up go up into the mast despite being ill. When Billy tries to befriend Claggart, it only makes the master-at-arms hate Billy the more.

Claggart eventually accuses Billy of mutiny, and I'll stop there because the rest of the film had me on tenterhooks. Ustinov and his officers (one of them John Neville, the eventually portrayer of Baron Munchhausen, another a young David McCallum) debate the rule of law against the rules of conscience. It's a long, talky scene, easily evident of a stage adaptation, but the writing and acting are so good it doesn't matter.

Stamp was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Ryan is chilling in his evil, while Ustinov is also brilliant, particularly his reaction to one of the last lines of the film, "God bless Captain Vere!" The ending reduces all to the folly of war, the cruelty of blind justice, and the death of innocence. A very good film.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oscar 2011: Best Actor

At this stage of the Oscar race, it seems to me that Best Actor is wide open. Very few worthy performances have been seen by the general public, so it becomes a matter of judging possible nominations by the reputation of the actor, the nature of the role, and the buzz from film festivals. I feel almost no confidence at this point, and wouldn't be surprised if the eventual winner does not appear anywhere in this post.

That being said, here's my predictions for the five men who will get nominated. I'll adjust accordingly before the onslaught of awards nominations sometime in early December, when the picture will be much clearer.

George Clooney (The Descendants) The current Hollywood class president, Clooney seems to be an Academy favorite, and The Descendants is getting good word. He is also the director of The Ides of March, and actors lover actors who direct.

Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) Gun to my head, I'd have to say he's the favorite right now to win. Though he still looks like he's 12, he's been around a long time and been in some huge movies, so at 36 it could be considered a "you've paid your dues, kid" award. Besides, he plays a real person and he's a straight man playing gay.

Michael Fassbender (Shame or A Dangerous Method) He's been on the cusp of stardom for a while now, and one of these films could do it for him. In the former he's a sex addict, but it might be too explicit for Academy tastes. In the latter he plays Carl Jung, and costume dramas are more liked by Oscar, so that may the one that gets him a nod. Or he ends up canceling himself out.

Ralph Fiennes (Corialanus) This one is a hunch, and if the film comes and goes without a trace it will end up looking silly. The Academy seems to hold Shakespearean performances in some kind of awe, and I've heard good things about this one, though the play isn't that well known (I saw Christopher Walken do it at the Public Theater twenty years ago, and it was amazing).

Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March) Another actor who has more than one film this year that could get him a nomination. This one is more likely than Drive, in which he is stoic. The Academy likes performances where you can see the acting.

Other possibilities, in no particular order:

Jean DuJardin (The Artist) A lot of bloggers have him pencilled in, but I'm more cautious. I'm not sure how America will respond to a black and white silent film. If he's nominated, it will be the first performance in a silent film in a loooong time.

Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) There's mixed word out of Venice on the film, and Oldman has never been nominated before. I wonder if it's because he's politically conservative.

Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) I think this guy's great, and he's in another role of someone who's unhinged. It's a small film, so he'll really have to knock people out to break through.

Brad Pitt (Moneyball) His stardom earns him a spot here, but it's hard to believe the film will catch on. It certainly has very little foreign prospects--baseball is hard enough to understand by those who weren't brought up on it, but try explaining Wins Above Replacement to them.

Johnny Depp (Rum Diary) After seeing the trailer I'm really stoked to see this, and Depp is an Academy favorite, but Hunter S. Thompson may be too much for Academy tastes.

Paul Giamatti (Win Win) Probably came out too long ago to still be in play; he has a better chance in Supporting Actor with The Ides of March.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive

You know a movie's gotten under your skin when you leave the theater and pretend like you're the main character. I drove home ready to weave in and out of traffic and outrun police cars; fortunately I live only a few minutes away and didn't have to go on any highways, or I might have had my license revoked.

There's a long way to go this year, with a lot of high-profile movies to come, but it's a sure bet that Drive will be in my top ten. A moody, somber film that recalls movies like Taxi Driver and Collateral, Drive is full of mystery, menace, and gallons of blood. It starts slowly, but the last half is pure adrenaline.

I will admit I had never before heard of the director, Nicholas Winding Refn, who is apparently a big deal among the cognoscenti. He was hand-picked by star Ryan Gosling, who has taken a part with fewer lines than almost any star turn since Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Wefn directs with a sure hand, with some stunning moments that edge close to calling attention to themselves, but serve the story. A scene near the end, in which two characters grapple to the death, is revealed only in shadow in a sunlit parking lot, and it works tremendously.

Gosling is a Hollywood stunt driver, auto mechanic and, on the side, a wheel man for robberies. He's so mysterious we don't even know his name. His closest friend, a mechanic played by Bryan Cranston, doesn't know anything about him before he showed up out of the blue at his auto shop. He is beyond laconic--A.O. Scott compares him to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, but he's more like Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbit, an autistic savant when it comes to cars. The opening scene shows him doing what he does best--eluding cops after a robbery, his heart rate seeming like is no faster than someone watching golf on television.

But, of course, there's a girl, and that changes everything. He becomes sweet on his neighbor, played winsomely by Carey Mulligan. She's got an adorable son and a husband in prison, but when hubbie gets out Gosling goes against his rules and helps the family out, and you don't need me to tell you that things go wrong.

As one would expect with a movie called Drive there are some awesome car chases, but they don't dominate the film. Instead the film is more about the gradual lifting of a veil from Gosling's face. We sense that something happened to him long ago that made him what he was, as he's not stupid (Ron Perlman, as a villain, mistakenly tells him, "You're not very good at this, are you?" Boy, is he wrong). There's a gripping scene after a shootout in motel, with Gosling's face coated in blood, in which he pauses, considering his next move. It's an impassive look, but it's still wrought with meaning.

There is a lot of blood in this movie. I think there's about a dozen kills, and they're all bloody. Gosling, though stone-faced, can be surprisingly vicious (Mulligan finds out about that first-hand in an elevator). We're also surprised by a performance by Albert Brooks as a businessman who's not entirely on the up and up. Gosling, when introduced, is reluctant to shake hands with him, and says, "My hands are dirty." Brooks responds, "So am I." When Brooks later jabs a fork in someone's eye, it's kind of like watching Woody Allen garrote someone.

My grade for Drive: A



Thursday, September 15, 2011

De Stijl

I was in Princeton Record Exchange to buy some music and nothing in the new rack appealed to me, so I wandered the store looking to fill some holes in my collection. For the last couple of years I've ended up getting something Jack White-related about this time (two years ago it was the Dead Weather, last year The Raconteurs) so I went back to early White Stripes to pick up their second album, De Stijl, from 2002. Now all I'm missing of is their eponymous first album.

I am of the opinion that White is the most interesting musician working today, from the many projects where he plays to those he produces, like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. He's the musician's musician, and after reading Keith Richards' autobiography, I think they are of the same type (minus the drugs, most likely).

De Stijl, which was named after the modernist Dutch art movement most typified by Piet Mondrian, is hardly modernistic. It is a blues-rock album, full of looking back at the old ways, with White's prominent reverb guitar and Meg White's insistent but quiet drumming. There is little other instrumentation. I believe there are no bass guitars anywhere on the record.

All of the songs but two are original--the last cut is a cover of a Blind Willie McTell song. The first few songs are more pop-influenced. "You're Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl)" has a British Invasion sound, and "Apple Blossom" sounds like a lost Paul McCartney. I love "Hello Operator," which sounds more like later White Stripes, and "Little Bird," which really cranks the guitar.

The album gets more blues-oriented as it goes on, with a cover of Son House's "Death Letter," "Truth Doesn't Make a Noise," and "Sister, Do You Know My Name."

I've still got one Raconteurs album, one Dead Weather, and that first White Stripes album to go to finish all the Jack White studio stuff, at least on those he plays. It's a worthy ambition to collect 'em all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Odds Against Tomorrow

The first noir to use a black protagonist, Odds Against Tomorrow, which I've seen twice now, is a crackerjack entertainment that is also ahead of its time on its views of racial issues. Essentially using the classic heist template, it advances it by being an adept character study of two men of opposition who are forced to collaborate.

The film, from 1959, stars Harry Belafonte and was produced by his company. The direction is by Robert Wise. The real star, though, is Robert Ryan, who sizzles as a racist who is a man out of his time. The film begins with him living in domestic misery with Shelley Winters. He's an ex-con and she earns the money, while he's left picking up her dry cleaning and babysitting for the upstairs neighbor (Gloria Grahame, in a brief but vivid performance).

Ed Begley, an ex-cop who did a year for contempt of court for not naming names, has an idea. For reasons not explained, he knows about the routine of a bank in Upstate New York (the movie was filmed in New York City and Hudson, New York). He approaches Ryan, who turns him down, telling him he's not a thief. He also approaches Belafonte, a jazz musician who is in the local mob boss for betting on the horses. Begley manipulates the mob boss into pressing Belafonte for payment.

The first half of the film is basically the two men realizing they have no other choice but to accept Begley's offer, and it's spelled out in terrific scenes. Belafonte gets drunk at the jazz club (few films of the era had so many black faces in them) while Ryan is bullied by a young soldier (Wayne Rogers) in a bar.

The robbery itself only encompasses the last thirty minutes or so of the film, and of course, in the grand tradition of heist movies (a favorite genre of mine) something doesn't go as planned. Ryan and Belafonte are at each other's throats, and Ryan's inability to see past Belafonte's color screws up the whole thing. In a pointed finale, the two men's races are rendered moot.

Also everything about this movie has crackle, including the script by blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (who was fronted at the time by black novelist John O. Killens--Polonsky has since been given official credit) cinematography by John C. Brun, editing by Dede Allen and a jazz score by John Lewis (including such luminaries as Percy Heath, Bill Evans and Milt Jackson). There's also a small but interesting performance by Richard Bright as a henchman who I believe is supposed to be gay, but of course that was too early to be forthright about such a thing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

God's Little Acre

God's Little Acre, a 1958 film directed by Anthony Mann and starring Robert Ryan, was based on a sensational novel from the 1930s by Erskine Caldwell that inspired attempts to ban it by various organizations because of its sexual nature. The film was restricted to audiences over 18, but of course it's not very racy in the context of today.

The film is set on a Georgia farm during the Great Depression. Ryan owns the farm, but instead of using it to grow crops, he has spent 15 years digging for gold that his grandfather told him about. The land is pitted with holes that he and his two sons have helped him dig.

One son (Jack Lord), is married to Tina Louise (the film is full of actors who made it big in 1960s TV--Michael Landon and Vic Morrow also co-star). She oozes sexuality, with her bosom practically jumping out of her dress. Lord is jealous of his sister's husband (Aldo Ray), who lusts after Louise. A daughter (Fay Spain), has slept with many men, but a local man running for Sheriff (Buddy Hackett) wants to marry her.

A subplot involves Ray and the cotton mill where he worked. The mill has closed, but Ray is adamant about starting it again. It was this angle of workers' rights that was Caldwell's main focus of the book.

The tone of the film varies from comic to tragic, often in a style that is usually called "rollicking." At times it recalls the later TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies," especially when Ryan visits a son who has married well and lives in luxury. It was often hard to tell if the script mocked the characters or admired them.

The title refers to a patch of ground on Ryan's farm that he has promised to the church--anything that grows on it will belong to them. He marks the land with a cross. But just in case the gold is there, he constantly moves it around, saying a little prayer. Finally he sticks it in a creek, and asks the Lord to strike him dead if he objects. Needless to say, Ryan survives.

The film was not a box office success, and this is probably due to the time for the book having expired. Even though it was racy for 1958 (in one scene Spain takes a bath and Hackett gets a peek at her) it was no longer the sensation it was in the '30s, and the Marxist angle no longer resonated. It's an interesting picture, but not a very good one.

Monday, September 12, 2011

House of Bamboo

House of Bamboo, from 1955, is a lavish film shot in CinemaScope by Samuel Fuller. This was a mistake. The film's noir overtones are completely overwhelmed by the vivid Japanese scenery. This film should have been shot in black and white.

The film starts with a train robbery in Japan (the entire film was shot on location, something of a novelty for the time). Later, a man is shot during a bank robbery by his own men. He declines to talk, but the authorities find out he has a Japanese wife (Shirley Yamaguchi). He dies without giving away his confederates.

Sometime later, an associate of the dead man (Robert Stack) shows up looking for Yamaguchi. She tells him her husband is dead. He decides to try to throw his muscle around, selling protection to local businessmen. This runs afoul of the local crime boss, Robert Ryan, who admires his pluck, and hires him into his gang.

Of course, with Robert Stack in the part you know he's not a crook--he's an undercover army cop, worming his way into Ryan's gang. Yamaguchi acts the part of his kimona, which by context I figure must be a word meaning a Japanese girlfriend of a white man. She is interested in helping Stack catch her husband's killer.

Fuller, who is a favorite of today's filmmakers, seems hamstrung by dealing with CinemaScope. The vivid colors and Japanese locations recall a film that would come along two years later, Sayonora, which was more melodramatic and suited to the technique. This story wants to lurk in shadows, but instead is sun-splashed with color.

I also found the script to be a bit limp in depicting Ryan and his gang. They seem like a bunch of bunglers, and I wonder if mob bosses really plan bank robberies by using toy cars and pool cues. The film really only came alive for me in the final minutes, when Stack and Ryan shoot out on a rooftop amusement park, with Ryan taking refuge in a large, revolving globe.

House of Bamboo is not a bad picture, but it is one that is at odds with itself.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Wanna Get Lucky?

I checked out this book because it is set in Las Vegas, and I'll read any book set there. Long-time readers of this blog know I'm obsessed with Vegas, and may know more about it than any other person who's never lived there.

Wanna Get Lucky?, by Deborah Coonts, does have a lot of details about Vegas right, and the author hits all the spots one would expect. The narrator is the custom service manager of a fictional casino (the Babylon), and there are side trips to a brothel in nearby Pahrump, a swinger's convention, an adult film expo, and the pirate fight in front of the Treasure Island. The only thing missing was a midnight trip into the desert, or a stop at Area 51.

This is classified as a mystery novel, but there's not much mystery. It gets off to a juicy start; a woman falls from a helicopter and lands splat in the middle of the Treasure Island spectacular. Lucky O'Toole, the aforementioned casino employee, knows the victim (the helicopter is from her casino) and smells a rat. A new security guard has her suspicious, and when a swinging, 400-pound minister is being blackmailed she starts to put it all together.

The problem with this book is that it's formulaic, saccharine, and highly unbelievable. Do the Las Vegas police really take orders from a casino employee? Maybe, but I never really bought Lucky as a character. Maybe it's her name, which sounds like a chain of Irish pubs, or that every word out of her mouth is sarcastic. She seems to be piggybacking on a string of sassy female protagonists, from Kinsey Milhone to V.I. Warshawski to Stephanie Plum. I got the feeling this is just the first Lucky O'Toole book, and I'm not looking forward to more.

Perhaps I'm the wrong gender. This book was clearly intended for women. One chapter is dedicated to O'Toole and her frumpy assistant getting make-overs (so the frumpy assistant can promptly bed a hunky private eye) and Lucky has a sappy romance with the female impersonator who lives upstairs. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in this relationship, like he was the killer or something, but no, it's strictly romance novel stuff, with the buff hero looking good in a dress.

Coonts gets pretty explicit with the sex industry stuff, kind of mocking it while trying to be blase. I think it might be the same effect a sex-toy party would be in a suburban household.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Naked Spur

As I mentioned in my article on Men in War, Anthony Mann was known for five Westerns he made in the 1950s which were more psychologically complex than most films of that genre had been. The only one I had seen before today was Winchester '73, which began a long association between Mann and James Stewart, who starred in all five films. Robert Ryan was also a regular in Mann films, and appears as the villain in The Naked Spur. Or is he?

Stewart plays a bounty hunter on the trail of Ryan, who is wanted dead or alive, with a $5,000 reward on his head. Stewart loses his trail before coming across a grizzled old prospector (is there any other kind?) played by Millard Marshall. Stewart pays Marshall to guide him into the mountains. They find Ryan on top of a rock cropping, throwing boulders down the side. A dishonorably discharged soldier (Ralph Meeker) comes along, and the three manage to capture Ryan and his girlfriend, Janet Leigh.

The rest of the film is a morality play that bears some resemblance to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Ryan as the treasure (Meeker says of him, "He's not a man' he's a sack of money"). Stewart wanted the reward all to himself, so he can buy a ranch. But Marshall and Meeker demand to be included, so they all three lead Ryan back to Kansas for trial. But Ryan, who maintains a good sense of humor for a man headed to the gallows, mischievously works to get the three men at odds with each other, picking on their particular weaknesses.

The film has some drawbacks befitting the time period (1953). An encounter with Indians isn't exactly enlightened, and the ending, which I won't spoil here, is a bit too romantic. But otherwise this is top-shelf stuff. Stewart had set aside his cuddly image in Winchester '73, and keeps it up, playing a man who is at odds with his own decency. Meeker, most famous for playing Mike Hammer, is also good as a flashy and "morally unstable" soldier who has eyes on Leigh. Marshall, who is known by most movie fans as his role as the studio man in Singin' in the Rain, makes a great prospector, whose only ambition in life is to strike gold.

Since this was seen due to my Robert Ryan film series, I should add that he is reliably excellent, playing against what I've seen so far, in that he always has a laughing tone of voice.

The screenplay, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, earned an Academy Award nomination, and unusually for a Western, features only five speaking parts. The film was shot on location in Colorado, and offers some stunning vistas.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Contagion

T.S. Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper." In a modern context, he could be talking about the basic and very real fear of mankind being wiped out by biological means rather than nuclear annihilation, and this is the stuff of Steven Soderbergh's taut and smart thriller, Contagion. 

Written by Scott Z. Burns, the screenplay drips with all sorts of technical jargon, and has a cast full of Oscar nominees in lab coats looking at computer screens and furrowing their brows as they attempt to beat the clock to isolate and then discover a vaccine for a nasty new virus. The opening sequence, set to electronic music by Cliff Martinez, is a masterpiece of editing, as it shows how the disease travels from one person to another, from Kowloon to London to Tokyo to Minneapolis. If editor Stephen Mirrione isn't nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing, then there is no justice.

Mirrione won an Oscar for editing Soderbergh's Traffic, and Contagion reminds me a great deal of that film, although it doesn't match the scope or pathos of it. While I enjoyed Contagion's rhythm and world-spanning action, I strangely wasn't terribly caught up in any human stories, which is odd considering it's about a world-wide pandemic. There are attempts to give the film a human face, particularly in the case of Matt Damon, who is husband to the first victim, Gwyneth Paltrow. He and his teenage daughter witness the chaos of looting and bank-storming, and Damon is sort of the everyman of the film. It's a nice performance, but edges into something out of a Lifetime movie.

Better are the scenes of doctors performing heroically. Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC, and Kate Winslet is his field-worker, who heads to Minnesota to track down the source. Meanwhile, Jennifer Ehle (the film's best performance), Demetri Martin, and Elliot Gould are doctors searching for a vaccine, while Marion Cotillard is a representative of the World Health Organization who travels to Hong Kong and ends up a pawn in a political game. Her story is interrupted for a good chunk of the movie, and does not end satisfactorily, in my view.

The worst part of the movie involves a blogger and conspiracy-theorist, played by Jude Law. We know he's a bad guy because he has bad teeth, and tells a room full of newspaper employees that print is dying. He publishes theories that the government is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies, which isn't terribly far-fetched, but the way Law plays it he might as well be claiming that the Earth is flat. As Manohla Dargis pointed out in her review, it's an interesting switch from the muckraking cinema of the 1970s--in Contagion, the government is good, and the press is bad.

Still, on the whole, Contagion is expert filmmaking and as scary as anything from the mind of Wes Craven or John Carpenter. Walking out of the theater you might be searching for a hand sanitizer, and may think twice about shaking someone's hand. Fishburne notes that the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 1 percent of the world's population, but in those days international travel wasn't nearly what is today.

My grade for Contagion: B

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

In a Better World

The winner of last year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World, a Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, is at its heart a look at the nature of violence, specifically when it is used as a solution to a problem. Denmark, which recently was rated as the country with the happiest population, is an interesting choice to set the film, which shows how two young boys come to see violent revenge as justified.

The film stars Mikael Persbrandt, looking perpetually tired, as a doctor who works at a clinic in the Sudan, where he witnesses many atrocities, including pregnant women who are ripped open by a particularly vicious war lord. His son back home in Denmark, Markus Rygaard, is an awkward boy who is mercilessly picked on by bullies. His mother, Trine Dyrholm, struggles to raise her children with prolonged absences by Persbrandt, and the two are legally separated.

Rygaard makes a friend in a new boy, William Jøhnk Nielsen, whose mother has recently passed away. He has moved to Denmark from London to live with his father, who struggles to comfort his son, but the boy is resolute in anger. When he sees Rygaard being picked on, he takes him up as a cause, and savagely beats the head bully. Later, while on an outing, the boys see Persbrandt roughed up by an auto mechanic. Nielsen is convinced that the only way to get even is to do something drastic.

As an American, this film might have struck me somewhat diffferently than it might a Dane. I saw a parallel to the relationship between the two perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, in that one was a prototypical psychopath and the other was a follower. Though the crime in this film is at a much lower scale, the pathology seems the same. I'm not sure if that was Bier's intention--she has made comments about how the supposed homogeneous nature of Denmark might not be all that it is cracked up to be--Persbrandt and family are Swedish, which is some sort of mark against them (as an American, I can't tell a Swede from a Dane, but it is apparently easy to in Denmark). 

The scenes in Africa, in which Persbrandt's Hippocratic Oath is tested when he is called upon to treat the warlord, are a little pat in their structure. Although I admired In a Better World greatly, there is a bit of predictability to it, as nothing about it is terribly startling, even give the violence depicted. It's a good film to kick off a philosophical discussion on whether a violent response is ever appropriate.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Life

Some people lead more interesting lives than others. Right up there in the terms of "interesting" is Keith Richards, the guitarist for the Rolling Stones and a damn fine memoirist. As the inner flap of his autobiography states, "Believe it or not I haven't forgotten any of it."

Richards was born in Dartford, a suburb of London, in 1943. He grew up an only son and fell in love with rock and roll after listening to Elvis Presley. He then began a life-long infatuation with the American blues, specifically those of Chicago. Along with a few other blokes who shared his passion, namely Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, they formed a blues band. They named themselves on the spot by looking at a Muddy Waters album cover. The rest changed the face of rock and roll and the world in general.

Along the way, Richards led his life with gusto, to put it mildly. The abuse of his body has been legendary, and he doesn't hold back discussing his use of various drugs, including heroin, cocaine and marijuana. The book kicks off with a bust in Arkansas in 1975, and there were many more. Somehow, through a combination of great lawyers and luck, he managed to elude major jail time.

But the book is much more than a string of the adventures of a drug addict. He says, "It was very like a drug. In fact a bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn't kick music." Richards loves music and the guitar, and he frequently gets very technical, which makes this a must read for any aspiring rock guitarist. He discusses how he discovered 5-string open tuning, which he used for songs like "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" (both of them were done all acoustically, which never occurred to me before). He also talks about the writing process. Most people know he wrote the riff for "Satisfaction" in his sleep, and the world was lucky that he had a tape recorder going. He also wrote "Angie" for his daughter. Mostly, he says, the process was that he would give an idea to Jagger, who would complete the lyrics.

Of course there are many merry madcap adventures along the way. Richards writes in a conversational style (he probably dictated this to his co-writer, James Fox) and holds nothing back. Of Mick Jagger, whom he has had a long, difficult relationship: "Mick and I had a totally identical taste in music. We never needed to question or explain. It was all unsaid. We'd hear something, we'd both look at each other at once." But the relationship soured over time. "I've no doubt, in retrospect, that Mick has been very jealous of me having other male friends...I have the feeling that Mick thought I belonged to him. And I didn't feel like that at all. It's taken me years to even think about that idea. Because I love the man dearly; I'm still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend."

For a period in the 1980s if appeared the Rolling Stones were done. Richards writes about feeling immense betrayal when Jagger cut his solo records and then toured, singing Rolling Stones songs without the Rolling Stones. But they have made up--the world's longest existing rock band goes on.

The book is frequently funny, though there is some heartbreak along the way. Richards and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, lost a son to crib death. He and Pallenberg finally broke up, mostly because he kicked horse and she didn't. He then found love with Patti Hansen, to whom he's still married, living the life of a country squire in Connecticut, reading Patrick O'Brian novels. He describes his first meeting with her family, a Thanksgiving where he smashed his guitar on the dinner table. Somehow they forgave him.

But oh, the life of a rock star. The girls: "I don't think it had ever reached the extremes it got to around the Beatles and the Stones time, at least in England. It was like somebody had pulled a plug somewhere. The '50s chicks being brought up all very jolly hockey sticks, and then somewhere there seemed to be a moment when they just decided they wanted to let themselves go. The opportunity arose for them to do that, and who's going to stop them? It was all dripping with sexual lust, though they didn't know what to do about it. But suddenly you're on the end of it. It's a frenzy. Once it's let out, it's an incredible force. You stood as much chance in a fucking river full of piranhas...These chicks were coming out there, bleeding, clothes torn off, pissed panties, and you took that for granted every night...They didn't give a shit that I was trying to be a blues player."

There a lot of characters in the narrative, from fellow musicians to hangers-on. Richards bears the dubious distinction of turning John Phillips on to heroin and shared a lost three-day acid trip with John Lennon. There's lots of accolades for various musicians, from Jerry Lee Lewis (though Richards did get in his face once) to Tom Waits to Etta James. He's also frank about those he didn't care for. He doesn't have many kind words for Jones, who thought himself the leader of the band, even though he didn't write any songs. When he died, Richards is respectful, but doesn't seem to have grieved too much. He did grieve for Gram Parsons, whom he loved.

What is probably the best part of this book is that it both confirms and belies the public Richards. Yes, he lived a crazed life, but there's also a stability there, rooted in loyalty, family and love of music. But he's aware of the persona. He talks about the famous stories: falling out of a palm tree (and nearly dying of a cerebral hemorrhage), having his blood replaced (not true), and snorting his father's ashes (true). "I can't untie the threads of how much I played a part that was written for me. I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? I think in a way your persona, your image, as it used to be known, is like a ball and chain. People think I'm still a goddamn junkie. It's thirty years since I gave up the dope! Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down, you can see it. I think some of it is that there is so much pressure to be that person that you become it, to a certain point that you can bear. It's impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were."



Monday, September 05, 2011

Men in War

I return to my Robert Ryan film festival with 1957's Men in War, a Korean War film as spare and unsentimental as its title. It was directed by Anthony Mann, a director celebrated by cineastes (but not much remembered by the general public) for making a series of Westerns in the 1950s. Though this is a war film, it has the feel of a Western, with a group of hardened men facing a hidden enemy in a harsh environment.

Ryan stars as the battle-weary Lieutenant Benson, who has a platoon of men who are surrounded by the enemy. He needs to get them to a hill he thinks belongs to the good guys, 16 miles away, but he has no vehicle. Then a jeep shows up, driven by a obstreperous sergeant (Aldo Ray) and a shell-shocked colonel (Robert Keith). Ryan commandeers the jeep, but makes use of Ray, who has an uncanny knack for sniffing out enemy combatants.

The rest of the movie consists of the men working their way to their destination. They are shelled, and then have to navigate their way through a mine-strewn road. In the grand tradition of war films, they are a diverse bunch (there's even a black soldier, kind of daring for 1957), and slowly get picked off one by one. Ryan and Ray continue to squabble, and Ryan tell him, "God help us if it takes men like you to win this war."

Eventually the film climaxes with the remaining men trying to storm the hill, which is directed crisply. I won't say who makes it, but despite the patriotic ending, the fade-out seemed to indicate a a disgusted attitude with war in general.

There's some familiar faces in the cast, including a very young Vic Morrow as a nervous soldier. The terrific but not overbearing score (there are plenty of effective moments of silence) is by Elmer Bernstein.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Debt

The Debt is a film that requires some patience. The first half takes place in 1966 and deals with a mission by three Mossad agents who are charged with kidnapping a Nazi war criminal (roughly based on Dr. Josef Mengele) who is in East Berlin. The cloak and dagger stuff is well done, as the female agent (Jessica Chastain) must go undercover and see the criminal, now practicing as a gynecologist, as a patient. It can't be easy spreading your legs and showing your vagina to a Nazi called "The Butcher of Bierkenau."

While all this is going on there are scenes from 1997, in which the older versions of the three agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds) are in Tel Aviv. Mirren's daughter has written a book about their mission, and Hinds is not exactly happy about it.

This is good stuff, but it's like someone telling a long story where you're wondering what the point is. Then, about halfway through, boom! A major plot twist that smarter viewers than me may have seen coming. From then on, The Debt is one of the better films of the year.

I'm not going to discuss the plot any more than that, lest I spoil it, as to hint at it would ruin it. Suffice it to say that the main issue of the film is the ethical and moral conundrum of telling a lie or revealing the truth, and what it means to each character.

Beyond that, the film, directed by John Madden, is a tense thriller. There are some fine set pieces, such as one in a Berlin train station and another in a Ukrainian hospital. Madden has done well with action films before--his unfairly dumped Killshot was a first-rate crime film. The younger actors dominated the first half, and Chastain, who has had a watershed summer (The Tree of Life, The Help, and now The Debt, when I had never heard of her before) is terrific as a young agent. Sam Worthington is the young Hinds (it's always a struggle in films like this where one actor looks nothing like the actor who plays him older) and Martin Csokas is the young Tom Wilkinson. There's also a terrifically sinister turn as the Nazi by Jesper Chriastensen.

The second half of the film is dominated by Mirren, brilliant as ever, who lives with a secret and is forced back into the secret agent business thirty years after she gave it up. I'm extremely heartened by The Debt, a movie for adults that brain-dead teenagers wouldn't know what to make of (it's told nonlinearly), managed to finish second in this week's box office race, opening at multiplexes (I could have seen it at any of five different theaters in my neighborhood). I'm also glad to see that Mirren, by virtue of her dominance on the poster, was the main draw of the marketing. Imagine, a sexagenarian actress as a draw! Unthinkable!

The Debt is a remake of an Israeli film that was unreleased in the U.S., so I don't know if this one is better. It doesn't really matter, as this version is a superior spy movie.

My grade for The Debt: B+.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Our Idiot Brother, directed by Jesse Peretz with a screenplay by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall, is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. I did, though, watch it with almost a permanent smile on my face, and laughed out loud more than a few times. This is due mostly to the way the film is carried by the genial performance of Paul Rudd in the title role. I want a guy like this to exist, and enjoyed spending an hour and a half with him.

I've liked Rudd in everything I've seen him in. He's sometimes been the only good thing in otherwise dreadful movies, like How Do You Know and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The character played here, Ned Rockland, is similar to the stoner portrayed in the latter film, but instead of being a quirky minor role, he's the center. There's a risk in building a film around a character that, in amateur hands, could be a one-joke gag, but due to Rudd's strengths as an actor he overcomes a mediocre script.

Rudd's Ned is something of an anachronism, a latter-day hippie in the 21st century. He works on an organic farm, and in the opening minutes is busted after selling pot to a uniformed police officer. His naivete and gullibility are so endearing that one feels about him like a puppy--he's also mistaken for "retarded" more than once, and is the first to agree, although isn't really stupid, he just refuses to see the bad in anyone.

After serving jail time he finds that he's been booted from his farm by his now ex-girlfriend Kathryn Hahn. She's taken up with the equally clueless and good-hearted T.J. Miller. That doesn't bother Rudd as much as that she is not letting him take his dog, Willie Nelson.

The rest of the film finds Rudd in an odyssey as he bounces from family member to family member. His mother (Shirley Knight) babies him, so he ends up with his eldest sister (Emily Mortimer), who is married to a pretentious shithead (Steve Coogan, underplaying expertly). After he negatively influences their son by showing him Inspector Clouseau movies, he's off to sister number 2, a writer for Vanity Fair (Elizabeth Banks). Evgenia Peretz is a writer for that publication, so presumably she knows what it's like there.

Rudd manages to screw up her career in an incident with an interview subject, and moves on to sister number 3, a lesbian stand-up comic (Zooey Deschanel, adorable but in an underwritten role), who is in a relationship with a lawyer (Rashida Jones). Again, Rudd screws things up while trying his best to be affable, and he's on the outs with the whole family.

There a certain cliche about the wisdom of fools that runs through literature and film, and there's nothing here that raises the bar on that particular idea. But the film is so good-natured and sweet that I couldn't help but like it. Jesse Peretz (Evgenia's brother, and presumably not an idiot) isn't a magnificent director--the pace could have been a lot snappier--but he's captured the right tone. What the Peretz's seem to say is that the world needs more people like Rudd, even if he does do stupid things and wear Crocs in public.

My grade for Our Idiot Brother: B