Follow by Email

Monday, October 31, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

When Paranormal Activity 3 opened to huge numbers last weekend, it reminded me that I hadn't yet seen Paranormal Activity 2. I got a blast from the first film, so Halloween weekend was the time to check out the first sequel.

With a much higher budget than the first film, and using some honest-to-goodness actors with professional credits, the film has also been directed by Todd Williams, who takes over from the creator, Oren Peli (who remains as a producer). The film takes the same format as its predecessor, though: home-installed video cameras document the presence of something supernatural haunting a family.

Watching the film had me scrambling to remember the first, because they are tied together. This one takes place just a few weeks before the first, and involves the sister of the woman in the first film, who appears her also (Katie Featherstone). I don't remember if the first film mentioned a sister, but it's always a challenge to make a sequel out of a movie that was presumably intended as a stand-alone.

Katie's sister (Sprague Graydon) has just brought home an infant son. Her husband (Brian Boland) has a teenage daughter from another marriage (Molly Ephraim). Early in the film they come home to a presumed break-in, with the house trashed but nothing much stolen. Boland has several video cameras installed, which allows the director much wider use of angles and a better look to the film.

As with the first film, things begin slowly. We get long shots of empty rooms, or characters doing there normal thing. At first we look at the screen like it was a "Where's Waldo?" book, waiting for something to move. I think the first inkling was when a mobile moves above the baby's crib on its own, but then doors move, pots fall from their hooks, the pool cleaner comes out of the pool by itself, and finally all the kitchen cabinets fly open at the same time.

It was at this point that I found the film to be just a repeat of the first, but then it got interesting, and the screenplay began to better tie the two films together and set up an arc to be explored in future films. As with the first film, Katie and her sister discuss something that happened when they were children. Ephraim, doing some research, comes to the conclusion that someone in Graydon's family made a bargain with a demon, and now that demon wants her first-born son (no son had been born in the family since the 1930s). The charred picture that the couple finds mysteriously in their attic in the first film was explained.

I find these films better suited toward home viewing, so I'll catch up with the third when it's on DVD, but I'm looking forward to it, as I'm now intrigued by the storyline.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary is by no means a great film, but it is buoyed by an affection for Hunter S. Thompson (the film is based on his novel) and a nostalgia for a time, place and state of mind, particularly the notion that journalists can change the world. Johnny Depp, as Thompson's avatar Paul Kemp, late in the story writes a manifesto declaring that the "bastards" of the world are on notice, and his voice will be one of "ink and rage."

The way the film captures Thompson's voice had me seeing it as a half-glass full rather than empty.  To be sure it suffers from some of the self-righteousness that Thompson could be prone to, and it at times struggles to find a tone that balances slapstick comedy with moral outrage. Some of the characters are mere stick figures. But Depp's affectionate portrayal and a script by Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed the great Withnail and I (but hasn't made a film in almost 20 years) suffuses the entire enterprise with a kind of joyous reverie that sustains it.

The film is set in Puerto Rico in 1960, and even those who don't like anything else should glory in the production design. The cars, the clothes, the sets and the music are all terrific. We open on Depp, as a young journalist, awaking after a night of debauchery. He pulls himself together for a job interview at the San Juan Star, an English-language newspaper. The editor-in-chief (Richard Jenkins), despite reservations about Depp's obvious drinking problem, gives him the job (Depp later learns he was the only applicant). He's shown the ropes by the staff photographer (Michael Rispoli), who explains that the paper is on its last legs. Depp's first job is to write the horoscope and do rewrites.

The first half of the film has Depp and Rispoli engaging in picaresque adventures, such as being chased from a late-night encounter at a jungle restaurant, going to cockfights, and escaping from the police (one of my favorite lines of dialogue has Rispoli shouting, "Oh my god, it's the policeman we set on fire!"). Meanwhile, Depp is seduced by a pair of gringos: Aaron Eckhart, as a shady real estate developer, and his girlfriend, Amber Heard, whom Depp meets when she appears to him in the ocean, like a mermaid.

Eckhart hires Depp to write marketing material for his venture of turning a nearby island that is being used as a gunnery range into a vacation paradise. It's never clear why Eckhart would put so much stock in Depp, which is a big plot problem. Nevertheless, Depp takes meetings with Eckhart's backers, including a rabid anti-communist American. Depp tries to keep his attraction for Heard under check, but she doesn't make it easy.

Eventually the film takes on a more serious tone, as Depp realizes Eckhart is a crook, and that there is a large disparity in income between the likes of him and the peasants. It's an easy kind of moralizing, and I never quite grasped what the problem was. Is all development bad? Does it lead to poverty? The film is vague on the issue. But it awakens something in Depp, who decides to fight back.

Also in the film is Giovanni Ribisi as a scabrous "crime and religious correspondent," the sort who is always drunk and listens to Hitler recordings for ironic purposes. At one point he asks Depp to check out his penis, and asks him if it's the clap. "It's a standing ovation," Depp tells him. There are a lot of mordantly funny lines like that, particularly a riff by Depp on Richard Nixon, whom he watches debating John Kennedy. "What is this blizzard of shame?" he asks. "The man lies like he breathes."

Unfortunately, not all of the dialogue is as rich. Jenkins, a very good actor, is saddled with a comic toupee and some cheesy lines, which make him seem like a version of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Heard, who is made to look luminous (not a tough job) isn't given much character development, instead simply serving as the embodiment of a male fantasy.

But overall I liked The Rum Diary. A scene that has everyone going to a local club to hear music pinpoints the nature of the characters--Depp, Rispoli and even Heard are at home in the sweaty Latin canteen, but Eckhart, pressed in linen, representing the colionalist point of view, is distinctly out of place, and ends up thrown out on his ear.

My grade for The Rum Diary: B

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cardinal Rules

The World Series ended last night with the St. Louis Cardinals winning a bland 6-2 game over the snake-bit Texas Rangers, ending an improbable run that started on August 25th with the Cards at 67-63 and 10 1/2 games out of the wild card. I've been doing this blog now for six years, and the Cardinals are the first team to win twice in that span. So this is what passes for a dynasty these days in Major League Baseball. Love it.

I was rooting for the Rangers, using the "team that has gone the longest without winning" factor, for the Rangers, in fifty years of existence, have never won it. It must be dawning on their brass, though, including the grim-faced team president Nolan Ryan, that they may have inherited the Red Sox mantel. For on Thursday night, the Rangers endured the most excruciating loss in World Series history. Yes, we know about the Bill Buckner game in 1986, but at least the Red Sox were only one strike from victory in that game once, the Rangers managed to do it twice. They gave away five leads, and blew three saves.

This series will go down as one of the more entertaining in history, despite the calm of gave seven. For a while it looked like a couple of games, now afterthoughts, would register strongly in history. Game 2, in which the Rangers scored twice in the top of the ninth with the some base-running wizardry by Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus, prevented the Cards from going up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 was the Albert Pujols story, in which he compiled the best hitting stats for a player in any World Series game in history, going 5 for 6 with three home runs and six RBI (tying records) and 14 total bases (establishing a record). Derek Holland pitched a gem in game 4, and then came the crazy nightmare of game 5 and the inability of Tony LaRussa to properly communicate with his bullpen, with the stunning spectacle of being greeted at the mound by a different pitcher than he expected, and once again reminded us all how baseball clings to Luddite practices such as using an old-fashioned bullpen phone.

LaRussa, the resident genius of baseball (see my previous post) took a big hit after that game. Some excused the bullpen problems, and instead focused on bizarre base-running decisions, such as Pujols calling for a hit and run and then not swinging at the ball, leaving Allen Craig out to dry at second. A rain out allowed the press to fixate on these mistakes for an extra day.

But game 6 washed all that away. The game, which is certainly one of the top five in Series history, played out like a Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed fight, which each side taking turns battering the other. Early on the game was a comedy of errors, with two pop-ups dropped and Michael Young looking like a Little Leaguer at first, but all the unearned runs balanced out and it was a 5-5 tie. A pair of back-to-back homers by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, plus an extra run, made it 7-4 Rangers, and it seemed that a championship would finally come to Texas.

But a home run by Craig made it 7-5, and then, in the bottom of the ninth, Neftali Perez would allow two runners on but got David Freese to his last strike. Freese then lined a ball to right. Cruz, playing too shallow, seemed to freeze on the ball, and then looked hapless trying to corral it. The play he made wasn't as nakedly awful as Buckner's 25 years ago, but it was bad enough, and almost any other decent outfielder in baseball makes the catch. Instead, Cruz futilely leaped for the ball, missed it by about two feet, and Freese had a two-run game-tying triple.

The Rangers struck back though, with Josh Hamilton hitting a God-called two run dinger. Time for another chance for the Rangers to get within one strike of a title. Darren Oliver, 41 years old, allowed two singles. After a sacrifice both runners were in scoring position. The Rangers intentionally-walked Pujols (after this series I'm joining the opinion by some, including Rob Neyer, that the intentional walk is one of the worst plays in baseball) and Lance Berkman lined a two-strike single off Scott Feldman to tie it.

Ranger fans must have been sick. One the precipice of greatness twice, the champagne being readied twice, Joe Buck reminding us all of how they started as the replacement Washington Senators and their first manager in Texas was Ted Williams. Sick. The kind of sick that scours the soul and leaves one unable to get out of bed. As Hamilton later said, God told him that he would hit a home run, He didn't tell him that the Rangers would win. God can be a sadistic bastard.

Rangers manager Ron Washington brought in the little used Mark Lowe to pitch the ninth, leaving C.J. Wilson behind and inviting second-guessing. Lowe hadn't been used in weeks, and was kind of like the Pat Darcy of this series (he, of course, was the Red who gave up Carlton Fisk's 12th-inning foul pole shot in 1975). Lowe promptly allowed Freese to hit one deep onto the centerfield berm, and a classic game was over.

It was a lot of fun the next day for sportswriters and fans to compare this game to others in the pantheon. Certainly it ranks up there with game 6 of '75, game 7 of '91 (the Morris-Smoltz classic), or the Buckner game. But baseball fans have short memories, or at least are unwilling to do the research. Even the august New York Times, in their slide show of great Series games, only went back as far as 1947, when Cookie Lavagetto broke up Bill Bevins no-hitter, forgetting about 45 previous Series. Of course, not many are left that can vividly recall game 7 of the 1924 Series, when two bad-hop grounders bounced over Giant Freddy Lindstrom's head, and the Senators came back to win in walk off fashion, and I dare say no one is alive who even saw the last game of the 1912 series, when the Red Sox won when Fred Snodgrass made his famous muff and the Giants lost. And, of course, there are no videotapes of those series. Thus, we only know what we've seen.

I rooted for the Rangers, but I enjoyed watching the Cardinals' celebration, even as I did in 2006, when they beat my beloved Tigers. St. Louis is a great baseball town, and their crowd, awash in carmine, were boisterous, appreciate and knowledgeable. Even the insufferable LaRussa looked humble being interviewed, where he provided some great inside stuff, such as Yadier Molina telling him that Chris Carpenter had plenty left in the tank, or that pitching coach Dave Duncan hung up on him when he suggested another starter besides Carpenter. I loved Carpenter giving an interview with his tow-headed daughter riding his shoulders, and David Freese accepting the MVP award with a deer in the headlights look, as if he were afraid it was a dream that he was about to awaken from.

It was a great series, it was the essence of what makes baseball great. I can't wait until next season.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Green Hornet

I have a faint and pleasant memory of the old Green Hornet TV series, which was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of ABC's Batman series (though unlike the campy Batman, The Green Hornet was played straight). The show lasted one season, and is not, to my knowledge, on DVD or in syndication anywhere, and is based on a very old radio show. If anyone knows it today, it's because of the Al Hirt-performed theme music (one of the best TV show themes ever, right up there with Hawaii Five-O), and that it introduced Western audiences to Bruce Lee.

It is therefore difficult to understand why this film was made. I have a nostalgic tug for the material, but I'm fuckin' old. None of the kids this film was marketed for knows who The Green Hornet was, and in this age of superhero films, a guy with a green mask, a fedora, a trench coat and a souped-up limousine isn't going to set the world on fire.

So I have to give credit to the approach taken here. The film, directed by Michel Gondry (it had been in the hands of Kevin Smith for a while), was made turned over to the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and transformed into an action-comedy tailored to Rogen's oafish charm. I admire the effort, but the execution is another story. The Green Hornet ends up lacking the cool factor, and instead becomes relentlessly noisy and dumb.

Rogen is Britt Reid, the louche son of a newspaper publisher (Tom Wilkinson). After Wilkinson dies (by a bee sting) Rogen inherits his empire. He has no interest in running the paper, but after meeting his father's mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou) he has fun with his new friend tooling around in modified automobiles. Playing a prank one night, they break up a mugging, and Rogen is inspired to become a superhero, with Chou being the mastermind behind everything (not to mention is superior martial arts skills).

Rogen ends up butting heads with the local crime lord (Christoph Waltz), and hires a pretty secretary (Cameron Diaz, in a role that's kind of a step-down for her--this is usually the role for someone on the up-and-come). The action sequences are loud and without subtlety, usually involving the "Black Beauty" (the tripped-out car) going through a glass wall.

One's enjoyment of the film is going to be based on how one can stand an entire film of Rogen acting the goofball. I get where he's coming from--he's trying to do a send-up of comic book films while at the same time trying to make a real comic book film. It's a nice try, but a failure, and I would imagine will not be the franchise he intended.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kaboom

This seems to be my week for paranoid thrillers, but Kaboom offer as a unique hybrid: it's a college sex comedy combined with an apocalyptic science-fiction story. It doesn't entirely succeed, but at least its approach is fresh.

The story centers on Smith (Thomas Dekker), a college freshman whose sexuality is "undeclared." He lusts after his surfer roommate (Chris Zylka), but falls into a no-strings-attached relationship with London (Juno Temple). His best friend (Haley Bennett) is an acerbic lesbian who has just established a relationship with Roxane Mesquida, who unfortunately turns out to be a witch.

Dekker is haunted by a particular dream, and then has what may or may not be a hallucination involving a red-haired girl and a trio of men in animal masks. This leads him to finding the truth about his father, who he thought died in a car crash, but instead is tied to a sinister cult who is bent on destroying the world.

Araki creates a nice pansexual world, full of all sorts of pairings. But the plot becomes more and more contrived. By the end it seems like a sci-fi story scribbled by a twelve-year-old in a composition book. I have the feeling this was what Araki intended, as the coincidences pile up (no character is incidental--they are either part of the cult or secret agents intended to foil it). The film doesn't so much end as stop; perhaps Araki ran out of money.

Still, I admired Kaboom for its perky sexuality (Temple, in particular, makes a great nymph) and has some clever dialogue.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dark Mind

Sometimes a low-budget movie just can't pull it off. Dark Mind, a 2006 film by Nicholas Peterson, has some interesting ideas and creates a properly paranoid atmosphere, but the overall effect is shoddy and cheap looking, with amateurish performances and slapdash special effects.

Reminiscent of Darren Aranofksy's Pi, Dark Mind is about the unraveling of a genius. Christopher Kennedy Masterson is a young man who always wanted to be an inventor. Set sometime in the early '60s, he wins a young inventor prize, but his father steals the money. He finds out that his father also stole most of his inventions. He starts working on his grand idea, which he calls the "cube," and borrows money from the mob to finance it. Taking far longer to make his idea come to fruition, he must hide from the mob, and takes a new identity in California.

He rents an apartment and works feverishly on his idea, all the while slowly succumbing to the notion that people are after him. He befriends a pretty young waitress (Lyndsy Fonseca), but when she innocently comes to visit him to return a notebook he left in the cafe, he attacks her. This gains the interest of the police, who question him about missing persons. Meanwhile his mentor, a Russian scientist, hovers around the scene, tying the film into its epigraph, which is quotation from Joseph McCarthy.

This summary may make the film sound better than it is. Though this could have been the core of a good movie, it's something of a mess. The film is edited by its director, but not very well. The photography is unnecessarily dark and muddy. The only saving grace is a fantastic credits sequence (it doesn't say much of a film that it's best moments are over after a minute or two) and a fine score by Jasper Randall.

Masterson, whose shoulders the film rests on, is game but ultimately ill-equipped to handle it. He's just not engaging enough. He is, I should add, a natural to play the lead if anyone ever wants to make the Wall Cox story.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Take Shelter

Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is one the best insights into mental illness I've ever seen on screen. Or is it? One of the most tantalizing things about this excellent film is that we're never sure whether the lead character is slipping into paranoid schizophrenia or is, in fact, a prophet. Nichols' screenplay, direction, and Michael Shannon's beautiful and stunning potrayal all combine to make this film gripping and suspenseful.

The film grabs the viewer from the beginning and won't let go. Shannon, as a normal husband and father, works on a drilling crew. His daughter is deaf, and he does his best to work to communicate with her as she is prepared for implant surgery. But then Shannon starts to have bad dreams. Really bad dreams. They involve storms and someone familiar to him attacking him. At first it's the dog, then a friend and co-worker. These dreams spook Shannon so much that he starts to go off the boil.

Normally dreams in films are problematic, and the "it's only a dream" scene is a cliche. But Nichols largely avoids this. When Shannon awakes from a horrible dream, it's not so much to give us a "whew" feeling, but instead increase the dread. We become aware of Shannon's problems at the same pace he does. When he starts to hear thunder when there is nothing but blue skies, he understands there is something wrong just as we do.

Shannon visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the same age he is now. He checks out books from the library and sees a counselor. Yet he is still consumed by expanding a storm shelter in the backyard of his rural Ohio home. This creates all sorts of problems with both his employer and his wife (Jessica Chastain, who has been in every movie I've seen this year, it seems, and good in all of them). He takes out a risky loan to build it, and even a visit from his no-nonsense older brother (Ray McKinnon, in an effective scene) can't dissuade him from believing that a horrible storm is coming.

There is so much good about this film that it seems wrong to pinpoint one aspect of it that makes it succeed, but I must start with Michael Shannon's performance. Shannon often plays men who are not right in the head, so I was worried that it would be a performance like Jack Nicholson's in The Shining, where the actor's previous reputation made it impossible to buy him as a normal person. But Shannon is completely convincing as an average Joe, and his breakdown is played in subtle, close-to-the-vest fashion. We understand each move he makes to understand what's wrong with him, but also feel for him as his obsession overwhelms him. He only erupts once in the film, and when he does it makes it all the more powerful.

After watching this film, I'm wondering how I'll react to the next big storm.

My grade for Take Shelter: A

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

"Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in American history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights movement of the 1960s."

So writes Isabel Wilkerson in her stunning book The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of those African Americans who, between 1915 and 1970, fled the old Confederacy and Jim Crow for freedom in the North and West. Though life would be different for them, it wasn't necessarily a paradise, but it did offer new opportunities and completely changed the face of big cities in the north, particularly Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Newark. Chicago went from 1.8 percent black at the turn of the century to one-third black by 1970; Detroit 1.4 percent to 44 percent. By the end of the 20th century, Detroit would be 80 percent black.

Wilkerson, ingeniously, chose to tell the story of The Great Migration primarily in narrative form, through the life stories of three of its participants, each of whom followed one of the usual paths out of the South, new forms of the Underground Railroad. Ida Mae Gladney, who picked cotton in rural Mississippi, escaped with her family to Chicago in 1937. George Starling, who tried to organize citrus pickers in central Florida, and thus marked himself for death, went to Harlem in 1945. Robert Pershing Foster, a physician from Monroe, Louisiana, who couldn't even see patients in the hospital in Monroe, set out for Los Angeles in the 1953. Each would find a certain measure of freedom--there were no "Whites Only" signs, and Ida Mae couldn't believe that she was allowed to vote once she got to  Chicago--just suggesting that in Mississippi would have gotten her killed.

But they would run into other kinds of troubles. It was interesting to read that blacks could not easily leave the South--they were still valued as labor, mostly as sharecroppers. Often they had to get on trains in stations far away from their home towns, to avoid being seen. Laughably, the white Southerners didn't understand why they wanted to leave. Apparently the rash of lynchings and an almost complete lack of rights didn't occur to them. Wilkerson tells of how bad it was--a black person couldn't even pass a white motorist on the roads. Policeman would stop blacks on a Saturday and ask them why they weren't working. And, of course, there was no justice for blacks. White sheriffs, like the one in Florida who terrorized George Starling, Willis McCall, were the law unto themselves.

So when they made their escape, it was like receiving the warmth from another sun, a title that Wilkerson borrows from Richard Wright, one of those who made the migration. Wilkerson writes about how the black culture thrived because of it; many famous blacks received opportunities they might not have received had they stayed, from sports stars like Jesse Owens and Bill Russell to musicians such as Miles Davis, Ray Charles and John Coltrane. All of the first mayors of big northern cities--Carl Stokes, Harold Washington, Coleman Young, David Dinkins, Wilson Goode, Tom Bradley, were part of the Great Migration.

But life wasn't a picnic in the North. Wilkerson is able to express the strange dichotomy of the southern attitude toward blacks to that in the North. White southerners had a long history of associating with blacks. There was segregation to be sure, but a co-existence. In the North, this was not so. The Great Migration started in World War I, when a shortage of labor prompted blacks to flee to get jobs out of the cotton fields, working on assembly lines and in factories. But soon the European immigrants began to feel threatened, and hatred, though not codified, was rampant. Wilkerson tells the story of how a black family tried to move into the all-white enclave of Cicero, Illinois, and it prompted a riot. My own hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, was fiercely segregated. For decades it was ruled with an iron fist by mayor Orville Hubbard, who said, "Negroes can't get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than you do to a fire." Even today, Dearborn is only 1 percent black. Wilkerson doesn't mention it, but Dearborn would end up as a haven for Arab-Americans, something Hubbard couldn't have foreseen.

As The Warmth of Other Suns moves on, the stories of Wilkerson's three protagonists take over. Ida Mae, living in an all-black neighborhood on the South Shore, watches from her picture window as the neighborhood is taken over by drug dealers, gang-bangers, and prostitutes. George Starling works for years as a porter on Amtrak, never having any hope of being promoted. Before the Civil Rights Act is passed, he has the odd job of, when the train reaches the Mason-Dixon line, escorting black passengers into segregated cars. Robert Foster becomes a successful physician in Los Angeles (Ray Charles is one of his patients) and is part of high society. He turns his back on his roots, and his children know nothing of the degradation he suffered. One of the finest passages in the book is when Wilkerson relates his harrowing drive from Louisiana to California, driving all night through Texas, and then trying to find a hotel room in Arizona, where there is no Jim Crow law but motel owners still won't rent to colored customers.

Though this is a work of nonfiction, Wilkerson has the gifts of a poet. "Unknowingly, the migrants were walking into a headwind of resentment and suspicion. They could not hide the rough-cast clothes ill suited for northern winters or the slow syrup accents some northerners could not decipher. They carried with them the scents of the South, of lye soap and earthen field. They had emerged from a cave of restrictions into wide open, anonymous hives that viewed them with bemusement and contempt. They had been trained to walk humbly, look down when spoken to. It would take time to learn the ways of the North."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Skeleton Key

Here's a surprise: a Kate Hudson movie that doesn't suck. It's actually pretty good, a slickly made horror film that relies mostly on psychological thrills than visceral ones, and makes good use of its backwoods Louisiana setting.

Hudson, who way back when was an Oscar-nominated actress, has since become something of a joke, although presumably her skein of lame romantic comedies must earn money, because she hasn't had to resort to a sitcom. But one wonders at the decision, somewhere shortly after making Almost Famous, when she opted for frothy garbage rather than serious films. I hope she's happy with her decision.

The Skeleton Key, a 2005 film directed by Iain Softley, is not a serious film, but it's not frothy. Hudson stars as a health care worker who takes a job as a live-in attendant in a mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou. Her patient is John Hurt, a stroke victim, whose wife, Gene Rowlands, is domineering. Rowlands' lawyer, Peter Sarsgaard, persuades her to hire Hudson, as several homecare workers have already quit.

It soon becomes clear why they quit. From Rowlands' edict that no mirrors be hung in the house, to the perpetually terrified loo in Hurt's eyes, something is clearly amiss. The mansion itself is, as the standard goes, big and creepy, and there's a secret room in the attic. Finally Rowlands tells Hudson about a pair of African Americans, who worked as servants, and how they were lynched for practicing hoodoo (which is pointedly differentiated from voodoo, perhaps to forestall angry comments by Haitians).

Softley does a nifty job making the whole thing chilling. I especially liked the use of an ancient recording that recorded a hoodoo ritual--I can still hear the incantation in my head. Hudson gives a fine performance, without frills, and if there are the usual cliches--storms have a habit of occurring whenever something important is going on--they are handled deftly.

In this age of horror films being aimed at the lowest common denominator, it's nice to see a film like The Skeleton Key aiming a little higher. It's a better-than-average spookfest.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Permanent Midnight

I've never been a big fan of Ben Stiller's comedy performances. They've always struck me as having a desperate, "Look at me, I'm funny," attitude, especially in films like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. But as a dramatic actor he shows much better discipline. Though I wasn't crazy about the movie, I thought he was good in Greenberg, and he is very good in the otherwise mediocre Permanent Midnight.

A 1998 film directed by David Veloz, and based on a memoir by Jerry Stahl, Permanent Midnight tells the harrowing story of Stahl's drug addiction while working as a television writer. Stahl wrote for several shows, but here the focus is on a thinly fictionalized version of ALF (the film calls it "Mr. Chompers").

Told in flashback, Stiller is in rehab and working in a fast-food restaurant when a woman (Maria Bello), a fellow addict, drives the wrong way through the drive-thru window looking for matches. They end up in a motel room and Stiller tells her his story. Already having a drug problem when he arrives in L.A., he hooks up with his old drug buddy (Owen Wilson) who introduces him to a television executive (Elizabeth Hurley) who is looking for a partner in a sham marriage to get her a green card. She gets him a job with the puppet-centered sit-com, but he escalates his drug use to shooting up heroin.

Eventually he and Hurley have a baby, and the film climaxes with the evening he takes the infant with him on an odyssey to find a score. Somehow I think this would have been more harrowing in print than it is on screen.

While Stiller is excellent in this role, the film suffers from not being able to give us any insights into the man's drug addiction. There is brief mention of a father's suicide and a mother's mental instability, but we're thrust into the situation in the middle. This is the "Behind the Music" template, without the first half.

There are a few moments of genuine humor, such as when Stiller gets the "Mr. Chompers" gig by telling the producer (Fred Willard) that he sees the puppet as a modern-day Tom Joad, or when he pitches an idea for another show, while completely high, that would break out in Ethel Merman-like musical numbers.

Though Permanent Midnight is not a great film, it made me wish Stiller would do more drama.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Oscar 2011 Forecast: Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen
When analyzing this year's Best Actress Oscar race, there is one big question--what category will Viola Davis end up in? The actress, who was so good in The Help, will get a nomination, that's a certainty, but it all depends on where. The history of Oscar playing games with categories is rife with injustices, and it's not clear that it won't happen this year. Davis is the lead actress, in terms of screen time and story, but I have the nagging suspicion she may end up in supporting. This is interesting, because if she ends up in supporting she is sure to win; that's not so certain in the lead category.

With these predictions, I'm going to assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Davis will be shuttled to the Supporting Actress category, and when this happens there will be all sorts of accusations of racism.

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) Close was nominated five times in seven years in the '80s, but came up empty. She hasn't been nominated since, and has become more accomplished as a television actress. But she has a great shot at returning to Oscar silliness with her role as a cross-dressing person in a period film, which sounds like a natural for the Academy.

Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) This a role-based nomination possibility; almost anyone who snagged the role would have been in Oscar talk. It all depends on how the film is received--it is comes across more as potboiler than "art," than it likely won't happen.

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) In the spirit of last year's nomination of Jennifer Lawrence, I like the idea of Mark-Kate and Ashley's younger sister getting a nod for a small, gritty film about a cult. I think the Academy voters will find it irresistible, too. And John Hawkes is in this movie, too!

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) It's fairly certain that La Streep will get her 17th nomination. All the ingredients are here: she plays a real person (Margaret Thatcher), adopts an accent, wears a big wig. The burning question, as it has been for several years now, is whether this will finally be her year to win her third Oscar.

Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) There have been many actresses who have played Marilyn Monroe over the years, but none has ever been nominated for an Oscar. I like Williams' chances, as she comes off a nomination last year, and it seems the tone of this is more respectful than sleazy.

Other contenders:

Charlize Theron (Young Adult)
Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method)
Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Felicity Jones (Like Crazy)
Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)
Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

And, of course, Viola Davis.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in a future that is nervously close to being. The dollar is pegged to the Chinese yuan, everyone carries around a handheld device, the apparat, much like an iPad, that can instantly ascertain anyone's credit rating or "fuckability." Corporations are now huge--the one airline is called UnitedContinentalDeltamerican. The National Guard is everywhere. Those who read books are viewed with suspicion--"scanning texts" is the preferred mode of gathering information.

Into this dystopia Shteyngart spins a romance, alternating viewpoints between the two characters. On the one hand is Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old romantic who imagines himself a character from Chekhov. He actually owns books, despite their musty smell, and works as a salesman for a corporation that extends people's lives. While in Rome he meets a Korean-American girl, Eunice Park, who is much younger and with-it. Her narration is told in her account on "Globalteens," a social networking site. She is moderately disgusted by Lenny at first (the daughter of a podiatrist, she is put off by his ugly feet) but eventually moves to New York to be with him.

Shteyngart uses the romance as a backdrop to his rather bleak view of the future, when America is sliding into oblivion, its debt called in by the Chinese and fighting a war in Venezuela. It was interesting timing to read this during the Occupy Wall Street protests, as political protests become a major part of the story, and when communication goes down it becomes impossible to connect with love ones, such as Eunice's parents in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Lenny's boss, a 70-year-old man who looks forty years younger, serves as a kind of benevolent despot in the tale, working behind Lenny's back to steal Eunice away.

If all this sounds grim, it is, but it's also a very funny book. As with his novel Absurdistan, Shteyngart has a magical gift for language. I loved a passage where Lenny springs for the extra money to take Eunice on a "business-class" New York City subway car (a great idea!): "In business class, we had the run of the cozy, already slightly browned sofas and the bulky apparati chained to a coffee table and dusted with fingerprints and spilled drinks. Heavily armed National Guardsmen kept our carriage free of the ubiquitous singing beggars, break-dancers, and destitute families begging for a Healthcare voucher, the ragtag gaggle of Low Net Worth Individuals who had turned the regular cars into a soundstage for their talents and woes."

Or this description of Eunice's mother: "A great spidery web of defeat spread across her face--as if there lived below her neck a parasitic creature that gradually but purposefully removed all the elements that in human beings combine to form satisfaction and contentment."

As with many dystopian novels, from 1984 to Brave New World, Super Sad True Love Story can said to be less science-fiction than a prediction. Here's hoping it doesn't come true.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Genius at Work

The World Series starts tonight, and some baseball fans are dreading the match-up between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. Nothing against the teams, but the fact that neither team, during their League Championship Series, had a pitcher make a quality start (the Rangers didn't even have a starter who won a game). This means the game will be in the hands of the managers early and often, with numerous pitching changes. And when one of the managers is Tony LaRussa, that can be painful.

LaRussa, without too much argument, is the greatest manager of the last fifty years. He has now won pennants in four different decades, which only John McGraw and Connie Mack have done. He is only 35 wins behind McGraw for second place on the all-time list (Mack is about 1,000 ahead of McGraw), so barring a sudden retirement or a dismal season, he will pass that mark next year. He is only one of two managers (Sparky Anderson is the other) to win World Series in both leagues. Following the retirement of Jerry Sloan from the Utah Jazz, LaRussa's tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals is now the longest of any head coach in the four North American sports leagues.

Yet many find LaRussa insufferable. He is deified by many writers. Buzz Bissinger wrote an entire book about a three-game series he managed. He's part of a coterie of coaches, including Bill Parcells and Bobby Knight, that seem to hang together because they are elite (of course, I don't know that for sure. Maybe it's their shared love of stamp collecting). LaRussa also has a law degree.

He stands in the dugout during games, at times fiddling with his lip, looking at the field as if it were a chessboard. Baseball fans like to think of their game as having a large intellectual component, and it is often something of a chess match, but when a manager reminds them of that, somehow it rankles. LaRussa, some think, imagines himself the Bobby Fischer of baseball, with or without the insanity.

There is evidence to back this up. It was LaRussa who batted his pitcher eighth. He has used 4.9 relievers a game, which is either a testament to a bad pitching staff or a manager who preaches match-ups. Compare this to Jim Leyland (a friend of his), who seems to throw a reliever out there and damn the torpedoes.

This series will be all about bullpens, and how they fare against the big sluggers. The Texas line-up is inexhaustibly powerful, with Nelson Cruz setting a record for home runs in a seven-game post-season series. On the Cardinals side, the Rangers will have to deal with Albert Pujols and the suddenly hot David Freese, but it seems to me that Texas' line-up is more consistently dangerous.

Still, it's hard to count out the Cardinals. At this time of year a team can get hot and roll right through the post-season. However, many times those types of teams, whether they be the '06 Tigers or the '07 Rockies, finally hit a wall. That's why, despite LaRussa, I'm going to pick the Rangers in six. And, despite their being George W. Bush's favorite team, I'm going to root for them.

By the way, Tony LaRussa's greatest achievement is his daughter, Bianca, who is a Raiders cheerleader. She's pictured below.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Outside the Law

Outside the Law is the last of last year's nominees for Best Foreign Language film that I'm taking a look at. It's a tough call as to whether I liked it less than Biutiful, but it's close. Needless to say, it didn't deserve inclusion.

A representative of Algeria, the film is largely in French, and documents the long struggle for Algerian independence from France seen through the eyes of three brothers. When we first see them, they are children watching their father's farm being taken from them, presumably by French colonialists. Then we are at the end of World War II. While Europe is celebrating V-E days, Algerians were being massacred in a city called Setif, where are heroes come from.

In reading about the film there is a lot of controversy about how accurate it is about that massacre. I'm in no position to judge, but I did find the director, Rachid Bouchareb, takes a stand of simple outrage that obfuscates the storytelling. In the early going, the action hurdles forward so many years that it's tough to keep track of how we should be feeling. Bouchareb seems to be saying, "Just hate the French, that's the simple thing to do."

The three brother take different paths--Said (Jamel Debouzze), is a bantam-sized hustler, who only wants to make money. He takes his mother to Paris and works as a low-level pimp before moving up to being a manager of boxers. Massaoud (Roschdy Zern), fights for France in the early Indochina War and is taken prisoner. He is released with a damaged eye, but tracks his family down to Paris. Also in Paris, but in jail for his revolutionary ideas, is the intellectual brother, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila). When he is released he foments rebellion and is under the watchful eye of the police, personified by the dutiful Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan).

Bouchareb also directed the Oscar-nominated Days of Glory, which was a standard World War II movie, albeit with the novelty of it taking the point of view of Algerians fighting for their colonial masters. All three of the brothers were in that film as well. I don't know what it is about Bouchareb's style that appeals to the voters; perhaps it has a comforting, 1950s vibe that the older voters respond to. For no matter how incendiary or angry Bouchareb tries to make his film, it falls directly in the tried and true formats of similar films of the genre.

The three brothers are never fully realized as characters. Zerny, who has fore sworn killing and wants to get to know his wife and son better, comes closest. Bouajilay is portrayed as a man who has sold his soul to his cause, while Debouzze is the biggest puzzle. Perhaps his character is the simplest--make a buck. The brothers do display loyalty to each other, even when Debouzze angers the movement by having his fighter fight for the French championship, which is a no-no among revolutionary Algerians.

Outside the Law is also derivative--one gets the impression that Bouchareb watched The Godfather before filming. A few of the killings seem directly pulled from that classic, especially a car bombing where a despondent man watches helplessly as his beloved is blown to bits, recalling Michael and Appolonia in the Coppola film. Another scene, in which Debouzze takes revenge on the man who evicted his family, is right out of The Godfather, Part II, when Vito goes back to Sicily to get the old man who wiped out his family. "I'm Vito Andolini, and this is for you." The copy is a pale imitation.

One scene I greatly admired also reminded me of another film. Bouajila and Balcan have a sit-down meeting, in which they understand they are not that far apart. Bouajila asks Balcan if he regrets his work during the French Resistance against the Germans, equating the Algerian struggle to that of the French under Nazism. Balcan understands, but will not stop hunting the terrorists down. It's a good scene, but it seems lifted from the great sit-down that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had in Michael Mann's Heat.

Perhaps that's why Bouchareb is liked by the Academy--he examines an exotic topic--the Algerian independence movement, by making a film firmly entrenched in Western filmmaking habits.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Ward

The Ward is John Carpenter's first film in more than a decade. He's a hero to some fanciers of genre films, but I've never thought his work was that stellar. I suppose for what he does he's one of the best, but the horror genre, to me, as always had a low bar. That being said, The Ward doesn't rely heavily on strictly visceral thrills. There is some atmospheric touches that Carpenter uses. Unfortunately, the script, by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, is unoriginal.

The film begins with Kristen (Amber Heard), torching a farmhouse. She's arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital. We are told it is 1966 (the dates given in the film don't add up), presumably because a story set in the distant past allows for more politically incorrect treatment of patients.

Heard is one of a small handful of patients on the ward, and the film becomes sort of a horror version of Girl, Interrupted. All of the girls are attractive. What is it about sexy girls in psychiatric hospitals? After Sucker Punch I realize this must be a particular male fetish.

Heard, who doesn't understand why she's there, slowly realizes something is amiss, especially when a ghoulish figure wraps her hand around her throat in the shower. A ghost of some sort is haunting the ward, and one by one the other girls are done in. One gets a lobotomy, another is fried by electric shock therapy. Questions to the nurse and doctor are mysteriously unanswered.

By the end of the movie a twist is revealed, that while clever is nothing new. In fact, it's something of a rip-off from another movie. I can't tell you the movie or I would give away the secret. Suffice it to say it starred Amanda Peet.

The script is also implausible in other ways. The hospital seems ridiculously lax in security. Heard is able to get out of her cell very easily, and even gets out of a straitjacket in under thirty seconds. The head nurse seems to work there 24 hours a day, and when patients do escape there's no communication with other staff. Also, why would anyone make vents big enough for someone to crawl through in a facility designed to keep people inside?

So ends Amber Heard week. Pretty girl, but she hasn't made a whole lot of good movies. I understand she will appear in the upcoming film Rum Diary, so maybe her luck will change.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Relatively Speaking

Yesterday I went into New York City to see a program of one-act plays, Relatively Speaking, by three estimable writers. Each was labeled a comedy, but they were different styles of comedy. All were directed by the actor John Turturro and all, as the title indicates, somehow related to family.

The first play, by Ethan Coen, called Talking Cure, is set in a psychiatric hospital. A patient, Danny Hoch, is being examined by a doctor, Jason Kravits. The doctor is full of bromides such as "I'm only trying to help you," but Hoch nimbly evades his questions and puts the doctor on the defensive. As one would expect of a Coen brother, it is black comedy that has a nice bite. It soon comes out that Hoch is a postal worker that snapped, and he begins discussing how much his parents argued during his childhood.

The play then morphs into a flashback showing those very same parents, Katherine Borowitz and Fred Melamed, sparring. This is classic Jewish humor, but I was thrown by the scene. It was jarring to have the shift from the psychiatric hospital to a Jewish couple's dining room, and I don't think the scene explained the patient's problems (he is in utero as the scene takes place). I did find the couple's bickering over the husband's use of Hitler as an extreme example amusing.

The middle play is George Is Dead, by Elaine May. This one-act veered wildly from farce to despair. Lisa Emery stars as a mild-mannered woman who has a late-night guest. She's Marlo Thomas, who abruptly announces that her husband has been killed in a skiing accident. It seems that Emery's mother was Thomas' long-time nanny, and that Emery has always resented her mother's apparently larger affection for her client than her own daughter. Thomas is a whirlwind of selfishness; she gives backhanded compliments and eventually worms an invitation to stay overnight. Emery even scrapes the salt off her Saltines.

As the play goes on Thomas is revealed to be pathological--she refuses to deal with making funeral arrangements, and prefers to watch old sitcoms on TV. Emery's husband (Grant Shaud) eventually arrives, and a sour scene between husband and wife, that seems out of place, unfolds. The play ends on a very dark note.

Finally, we get Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel, which is why I attended, as I imagine most patrons did. (Ethan Coen joked in the New York Times that what people were thinking about during his play was "How long until Woody Allen's play?") Allen's work is old-fashioned boulevard farce, and I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote it 50 years ago, as it has a timeless quality, as well as having no shred of realism.

The setting is a tacky motel where two people, Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor, arrive, attired in wedding finery. They are goofy in love, and she is thrilled to see the round bed and heart-shaped jacuzzi. But then the first interloper appears. Shaud arrives while Graynor is in the bathroom. We soon are informed that though this looks like a typical honeymoon night, it is not. Guttenberg, despite being in a tuxedo, is not the groom. He's the groom's stepfather. (As my companion said, it all comes back to Soon-yi).

Eventually the motel room will fill with the entire family, including Guttenberg's spurned wife (Caroline Aaron), Graynor's parents (Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Kavner), an intoxicated rabbi (Richard Libertini), Guttenberg's shrink, and a pizza delivery guy. The laughs are frequent, the introspection is nonexistent. We know what we're in for when Guttenberg carries Graynor across the threshold and bangs her head on the doorjamb.

The play is heavily Jewish, with references to names like Mendel and Schlomo, and the rabbi referring to pogroms and Cossacks. There are plenty of laughs, such as when Kavner accuses Linn-Baker of having sex with a prostitute. "She wasn't a prostitute, she was your sister," he says. Aaron asks Guttenberg what happened to their marriage. He recites a litany of miseries, such as their constant fighting and their lack of a sex life. She responds, "But aside from that, we were very happy."

As director, Turturro is most successful with Allen's play, as it doesn't differ in tone. He stages the increasingly busy stage well, with everyone creating a tableau of zaniness. The other two plays don't quite hang together. Rewrites, rather than crisper direction, might have been in order.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Stepfather

This 2009 film is a remake of a generally well-regarded film from 1987 that I have not seen. I believe it is considered an unnecessary remake, but having not seen the first one I can't throw too many stones at it. I will give it some credit for being slickly made and containing some nicely done suspense.

Dylan Walsh starts as the title character. As the film begins he alters his appearance after slaughtering an entire family on Christmas Day. He then travels to Portland, while the police have no idea who he is or where he went, as he is very meticulous about making sure he has no identification--he pays for everything in cash, and has no records.

He then meets Sela Ward, a recent divorcee, in the supermarket. He charms her, and six months later they are engaged. But she has an older son, Penn Badgely, who has returned from military school, and immediately suspects him of being fishy.

The film might have been more interesting if we didn't know Walsh was a psychotic killer from the beginning. Keeping the audience in the dark along with the characters might have made for more suspense. Of course, this would have drastically changed the film, as Walsh has to kill people who are on to him, including a nosy neighbor who sees a sketch who looks like him on America's Most Wanted.

The film is fairly well directed by Nelson McCormick, who doesn't complicate it much. This is not a bad film to watch on the late late show.

I should add that the film fits into Amber Heard because she co-stars as Badgley's girlfriend. There are many shots of her in a bikini, and they are the best reasons to see the film for men (and boys, too).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Playboy Club

At the start of Amber Heard week I mentioned her starring role in the short-lived TV series The Playboy Club. It was the publicity surrounding the show that had me thinking about her in the first place, though I hadn't seen any episodes. Well, thanks to Comcast On Demand, I watched all three of the aired episodes today.

The show is not the worst thing I've ever seen, but its cancellation is not undeserved. It doesn't seem to have a real purpose--perhaps it's a copycat of Mad Men, in that it's a show set in the early '60s, full of vintage clothing, cars, and music. But unlike that much superior show, The Playboy Club doesn't really make any points. Mad Men uses the past as a mirror to the present. The Playboy Club, at least in the third episode, makes no stronger case that the bunnies at the clubs are decent, hard working women.

I've been reading Playboy for almost forty years, since I snuck peaks of my dad's issues, but I certainly get why some people object. Over its existence, Hugh Hefner has represented many things, a lot of them good--such as civil liberties and sexual freedom. But he has also maintained a curious view of feminism. Dressing women up as animals to serve men in clubs is not exactly a modern view of female empowerment. Hefner, who narrates the pilot episode, has never been able to reconcile the objectification of women and feminism, and this show has the same problem.

All this would be meaningless if the show had an interesting story or dialogue; it does not. Heard stars as a new bunny at the Chicago club. She, along with the other girls, lives at the Playboy Mansion (another curiously patriarchal habit--they aren't trusted to live on their own?) She's groped by a mobster and while fending him off kicks him in the throat with her three-inch heel, puncturing his jugular.

Luckily for her, a suave lawyer (Eddie Cibrian) comes to her aid and helps her dispose of the body. Cibrian, who even sounds like Jon Hamm's Mad Men character, seems to me be the Playboy ideal male, the guy who used to be pictured in ads titled "What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?" He's handsome, smart, successful, and dating the "bunny mother" (Laura Benanti). One wonders how he has so much time to be both successful and hang around the Playboy Club every night.

The mobster story dominates the first three episodes. We even get an appearance by Mayor Richard Daley, who is revealed to be dirty (shocking!). None of this was terribly compelling. Despite Benanti's excellent performance (and perfect look--she does look as if she came right out of a 1961 issue), her jealousy of Heard isn't very interesting.

A different approach might have made a more interesting show. A subplot involving an early gay rights organization was promising, and maybe, given time, more interesting historical things like that would have been incorporated in the storyline. But the show was neither fish nor fowl; Playboy suggests nudity, but of course on NBC there would be none. It would have worked better on a cable network that would have allowed full artistic freedom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Drive Angry

As is the current trend with Nicolas Cage films, Drive Angry has a certain sense of craziness. If you're in the right frame of mind, you can actually enjoy some of its goofy style, especially if you're into both gun and car porn. Drive Angry has plenty of both.

Cage stars as John Milton (not a coincidence that he shares the name of the author of Paradise Lost), who is trying to recover his baby granddaughter from a Satanic cult, led by the charismatic Billy Burke. Meanwhile, Cage is tracked by a suit-wearing fellow who claims to be an FBI agent but calls himself The Accountant (William Fichtner). When he kills someone by flicking a baseball bat you get the idea that Fichtner was not trained at Quantico.

Early in the film Cage enlists the help of Amber Heard, a pissed-off waitress. At first he is interested in her car, a '69 Dodge Charger, but eventually Heard proves herself in combat. It's not a demanding role, but Heard gives it a certain spirit that's appealing, especially when she's wearing Daisy Dukes.

Cage is fully in his weird guy role, but there's a good reason for this. I won't spoil it, but when Cage says he was in prison he's not quite telling the truth. When David Morse shows up as his old friend named Webster, it reinforces the gimmick.

Drive Angry was directed by Patrick Lussier, and written by Lussier and Todd Farmer (who also plays the guy skewered by a bat). The script has a droll sense of humor, not taking itself very seriously. This isn't high art, but for drive-in fare it's not bad.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

And Soon the Darkness

If there's one thing we've learned from bad movies, is that pretty girls traveling in foreign countries come to no good. That's repeated in And Soon the Darkness, a 2010 film directed by Marcos Efron.

It stars Amber Heard (she co-produced) and the equally stunning Odette Yustman as two young ladies on a bicycling tour of Argentina. They arrive in a small town, and the kindly proprietress of their hotel (Adriana Barazza) is aghast that they are traveling without any other company. Yustman flirts with a local man at a watering hole, and a mysterious American (Karl Urban) lurks around.

The girls miss their bus, and decide to spend the day sunbathing, which was probably the main reason for the existence of this film. They have an argument and Heard leaves Yustman behind, and she's promptly abducted. It seems that the town has a slave-ring operating which smuggles girls into Paraguay.

Unlike some films of this genre, such as Turistas, Train, or the Hostel films, And Soon the Darkness is not gory. Most of it tries to sustain simple tension, but the result is a bit of a snooze.

The film is adapted from a 1970 British film of the same title. In that instance the girls were in France. Still no love lost between those two countries.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Remember the Daze

It's Amber Heard week here at the new-look Go-Go-Rama. Heard was the star of the short-lived series The Playboy Club, which, despite my being a reader of Playboy for almost forty years, I didn't watch, which may be why it was canceled. If it couldn't even get the Playboy readers, it was doomed.

Heard is one of the stars of Remember the Daze, a strange and uncomfortable film that was released in 2008. In many ways it's a rip-off of Dazed and Confused, except it's set in 1999 instead of the 1970s. The similarities are legion, starting with the use of the word "Daze" in the title (although I read that the original title was The Beautiful Ordinary. Clearly the title was changed later in order to try to cash in on the earlier film). The film is also, like its predecessor, set entirely in one day, which happens to be the last day of school. There is also a large ensemble cast, which includes Heard and other actresses that merit my interest, such as Lyndsy Fonseca and Leighton Meester.

The film was written and directed by Jess Manafort, and though the film is not very good, it has interesting moments. Mostly, though, I found the film incredibly sad. The kids, whether in high school or just out of middle school, are all obsessed with drugs. There is hardly a moment in this film whether a character isn't drinking alcohol, smoking pot, or eating mushrooms. None of the children pictured show any spark of an interest in anything but partying (except for a vacuous cheerleader character who urges everyone to come to a pep rally). If this was how high school life was in 1999, I'm glad I graduated 20 years earlier.

The film has a shapeless form. Characters don't really have defined arcs. There are girls who are having a secret lesbian relationship, the cheerleader has a boyfriend who treats her like shit, another girl never goes to school and verbally berates her parents (the mother is played by Moira Kelly, who I hadn't seen in a long time). One character, who graduates without ever talking to anyone, wanders around taking photographs. In the hands of someone with a bit more skill, this film might have made an interesting docudrama about high school life, but instead it's a mish-mash--it can't decide whether it's a comedy or not.

I'm also curious about the time setting. The film doesn't seem anchored to 1999 in any way. No current events are mentioned and, doubtless due to budget issues, there are no hits on the soundtrack. If no one had mentioned it was 1999 I would have never known. Frankly, I can't remember anything that was going on in that year, other than the Columbine shooting and the Clinton impeachment trial.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Cape May Lighthouse

Yesterday was a glorious day here in New Jersey, so a friend and I did what we like to do on such days--take a road trip. This time our destination was Cape May, which is on the southern tip of the state. We didn't go downtown, which is full of colorful old Victorian homes called "painted ladies." Instead we wandered around the Lima Bean Festival in West Cape May. I'm not sure why lima beans in particular are celebrated--are they grown there? But it had some interesting vendors.

Then we drove out to the lighthouse. I am a big fan of lighthouses. I have a small collection of Harbour Lights, which are small reproductions of lighthouses. New Jersey has several lighthouses, and I've visited two of them--Barnegat and Cape May. I hope to visit more.

Cape May Light was built in 1859 and still functions. It looms above the spit of sand that overlooks the water. Lighthouses, to me, represent a time gone-by, a kind of 19th century world that suggests romance and adventure. Though the light is still functional, it has a technology that goes back to the ancient Egyptians.

My friend is a birder, and there were several other avian enthusiasts. A platform near the lighthouse is set up to look out over a marsh. It is an ideal area for bird of prey viewing, mostly hawks and vultures. Some excitement bubbled up when a hawk known as a merlin landed in a treetop and sat there while being photographed by several birders. A woman pointed it out to me and said, "There's a merlin in that tree if you're interested." I could have said, "Yes, and Sir Lancelot is in the shrubs," but I didn't.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March is a perfectly acceptable film that takes the easy way out. It seems designed as Oscar bait, and it looks good and has a lot of fine actors, but there's something missing. It's a movie ostensibly about politics that says nothing about the political process.

George Clooney, who directs, plays a Democratic presidential candidate. By the time of the Ohio primary, which is on the date of the title (which also refers to political skulduggery, minus the knives, in 44 B.C.) the race is down to two candidates. Since Ohio is an open primary, conservative Republicans are urged to vote for Clooney's opponent, who is seen as less electable. This is a bit of a fantasy, as Clooney's first statement as a candidate in the movie is that he is not a Christian, something that would doom any real candidate. This is the kind of wish fulfillment of liberal screenwriters that characterized The West Wing.

Clooney, who is a peripheral character in the film, is managed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a crusty old pro, and Ryan Gosling, a young hotshot. Clooney's opponent is managed by Paul Giamatti (giving another performance where he wheezes most of his lines). Giamatti asks to meet with Gosling to try to seduce him to come over to his campaign. This sets off a chain of events that snarls everyone, including a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

There's some good stuff here, but I didn't believe most of it. I have no idea what goes on in a political campaign, but it didn't ring true to me. For one thing, I had trouble with Gosling. I don't have anything against him as an actor per se, but I noticed something here. When he's playing uneducated characters, such as in Blue Valentine or Drive, his vocal technique seemed correct, a kind of streetwise diction. But here it's the same. A political operative, it seems to me, would be from a top school, and wouldn't sound like he was pulled out of an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. You can't use the same voice as a psychopath from Drive and a campaign manager in The Ides of March. Also, Gosling's so-called brilliance is never on display in the film. Everybody says he is, such as the scene with Giamatti, who tells him how wonderful he is. It's telling, not showing.

I also had trouble with the central conflict. Clooney is involved in a scandal that Gosling knows about. I won't go into details, but it's the kind of scandal that history has seen before and struck me as totally unoriginal. I'm not sure that, in its earliest form, it would have ruined a candidate. Strangely, it reminded me of the film Easy A, in which a high school girl's reputation is ruined because people think she had sex. Not in this era, people.

But I do give the film a thumbs up, with reservations. Clooney gives an interesting performance. At first you think he's playing to his type, a charming, slightly roguish liberal do-gooder, but Clooney gives him shading as the film goes along that surprises. A key scene between he and Gosling in a kitchen at the end of the film is crisply acted, written, and directed.

I also liked Hoffman, who plays a guy who has seen it all. It seems naive that a campaign manager would value loyalty, of all things, more than anything else, but I believed him when he said it. When things don't go his way, his character accepts it as part of the game.

Where this film disappoints is that it lacks a big picture. One shouldn't review a film for what it is not, but it seems to me that Clooney missed a chance here to make a statement about the insanity of the American political process. Instead, it's simply a small study of a few characters. The film teases--it makes references to real political figures, and uses the imagery of Shepard Fairey's Obama "Hope" posters, but aside from that I don't see any parallel between Clooney's character and Obama. I'm a big Obama supporter, but I see nothing wrong with a film taking subtle shots at him.

I did like some of the maneuvering that went on, that I do believe exists. Mostly this entails a senator from North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright) who dangles his endorsement to the highest bidder. That seems completely plausible to me.

My grade for The Ides of March: B-

Friday, October 07, 2011

True Blood, Season 3

I've just finished watching season 3 of True Blood, the HBO show about vampires and other supernatural creatures wandering around the bayous of Lousiana. It's a lot of fun, and while detailing some pretty heavy shit, never takes itself too seriously. When the main character, Sookie Stackhouse, finds out that she's a fairy, she says, "I'm a fairy? How fucking lame."

When season 2 ended, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) had just proposed to Sookie (Anna Paquin). Bill is a vampire, of course, but is a good guy, or so we think. Sookie, trying to compose herself, goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, Bill has been kidnapped.

It turns out he was snatched by werewolves. In the True Blood world, werewolves are biker types and not very bright. Unlike vampires, they are unknown to the public. These particular werewolves are controlled by a nasty vampire named Russell Edgington (Dennis O'Hare), who is the vampire King of Mississippi (I love that the vampires have archaic royal structure but adhere to the borders established the U.S. government). Edington is a great villain--a 3,000-year-old vampire who has a Li'l Abner accent and rockabilly sideburns.

The main spine of the series is the game of wits between O'Hare, Moyer, and Erik Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), Moyer's rival for Sookie. Skarsgard learns that Edgington was the vampire who wiped out his family a thousand years ago when he was in Sweden, so he plots his revenge, using Sookie's telepathic power. Sookie doesn't know who to trust, especially when she learns that because she has fairy blood, she's delectable to vampires. She calls herself "vampire crack."

There are several subplots. Sookie's friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) once again endures numerous hardships, primarily being kidnapped by a love-struck vampire (James Frain). Sam, (Sam Trammell) the shape-shifting bar owner, tracks down his birth parents and discovers he has a brother who can turn into a pitbull. His parents put him to work in dogfights, and Sam rescues him, but finds out he's a lot of trouble.

Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie's dim brother, falls in love with a pretty and mysterious girl from the backwoods. She's got a secret, too. Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), Tara's flamboyant cousin, falls in love with his mother's male nurse, who, keeping with the True Blood pattern, also has special powers. It's no wonder that the sheriff (played by William Sanderson) quits halfway through the season.

While the show is lurid and gorey, it does score points about politics in America. The show has always been a metaphor for homosexuality--vampires have "come out" and are fighting for an equal rights amendment. Their cause is hurt when Edgington rips out the spine of a newcaster on live television.


Thursday, October 06, 2011

Incendies

One of the nominees for last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, Incendies straddles two worlds. It concerns Canadian siblings, twins, who listen to their mother's will being read. They discover two amazing things: their father is alive, and they have a brother.

Simon (Maxim Gaudette), wants nothing to do with this mystery, but his sister Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) travels to her mother's homeland of Lebanon. We then see, in flashback, the mother's (Lubna Azabal) harrowing story. She is exiled from her family for loving a refugee, to whom she bears a son that is given up for adoption. She goes to the city, attends a university, and gets involved in the political upheaval of a civil war. Eventually she is imprisoned.

Jeanne can hardly believe the stories she hears. She has grown up in quiet, peaceful Canada, and is a graduate assistant for a mathematics professor. Her mother had never told her anything of her background, and when she discovers her mother was raped in prison, she jumps to an incorrect conclusion. Later, when Simon joins in the hunt, he explains the shocking truth to her in a mathematical equation--the simplest possible math problem, which refers back to the beginning of the film, when the professor mentions that they will be studying insoluble problems.

Incendies, written and directed by Denis Villenueve, has an old-fashioned structure, but has the shock of the new. Though the ultimate reveal has the stuff of melodrama, it packs a punch, particularly when a man stands at the grave of Azabal. There are some other gut-wrenching scenes of wanton cruelty, such as when a bus of civilians is attacked by right-wing Christians.

I have one more Foreign Film nominee from 2010 to go, and it's sitting on my TV. I'll have a review up shortly, but I doubt it will top Incendies, which should have won the award.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Walter Mosley has written some fine crime novels, most of the featuring Easy Rawlins. The Rawlins books explore the plight of American blacks in Los Angeles in the post-war, great migration era (I'm reading a book on that subject now, review to come). The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey also explores the life of a man who grew up in the deep south and saw the indignities and barbarity of how his people were treated. It is also, technically, a crime novel in that a crime is committed and solved. But the "detective" is someone altogether different.

Ptolemy Grey is 91-years old. When we first meet him he's also completely lost to dementia. He lives in a filthy apartment--the toilet is so backed up it won't flush, so he pees in a coffee can. He leaves the radio and TV on 24 hours a day, and doesn't even bother going into the bedroom--it's too full of junk. A great-grand-nephew sees to his needs, but then a different nephew shows up, which confuses him. This nephew takes him to the bank, but steals from him.

Ptolemy drifts in and out of time. His mind takes him back to when he was a small child, when a beloved playmate died in a fire and he could not save her, and when his mentor, a man he called Coydog, acts like his Uncle Remus, filling him with wisdom (My favorite aphorism is: "Trustin' a woman is like walkin' in California," Coydog would say. "You know there's bound to be a quake sometimes, but you just keep on walkin' anyways. What else could you do?")

Ptolemy learns that his nephew, Reggie, has been shot to death. He's told it was in a drive-by gang shooting. His niece sends over a teenage-girl she has taken in, Robyn, to care for him. Robyn is quite a creation, in that she is the embodiment of every male fantasy that has ever emerged. She's seventeen, hot, and forms an instant and undying attachment to a 91-year-old man. I didn't for one moment believe she could exactly exist, but went with it. Mosley, like all men getting older, is entitled to his daydreams.

Robyn eventually hooks Ptolemy up with a doctor who has an experimental treatment for dementia. Ptolemy gets the treatment, in exchange for willing his body to science. Ptolemy sees this as a deal with the devil; instead of exchanging his soul, he's exchanging his body, which he is willing to do. His mind and memory back, he remembers that he has a cache of gold coins, a legacy to him from Coydog, who paid for them by being lynched and burned to death. Ptolemy uses his sharper senses and the money to plot to avenge Reggie's murder.

Certainly an nontraditional crime novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is elegiac in tone. Much of the book is Ptolemy's memories concern life in the Jim Crow south. He also flashes back to his second wife, beautiful and much younger, who strayed on him frequently but always came back. Mosely's prose effectively handles Grey's shifting consciousness without confusing the reader.

There's also the satisfying sense of justice and loyalty present in the book. Though Robyn is too good to be true, she earns from her filial devotion. Some scenes of a neighborhood junkie who has preyed on Grey during his dementia are also satisfying.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey might not be what Mosely's fans expect. It is less a detective novel than a meditation on age, dementia, and the evils of segregation. In a certain sense, though, it has the essential element of all good detective fiction--the spirit of redemption.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Mission Impossible II

I'd seen the first Mission Impossible, and I'd seen the third one, but for some reason I missed the second, released in 2000 and directed by John Woo. It delivers exactly what you'd expect, and kept my interest for its two-hour running time. The script is by old pro Robert Towne.

For a spy thriller, the plot is remarkably simple. A pharmaceutical company has, in the interest of drumming up business, created a virus and its antidote. An IMF agent (IMF being roughly equivalent to the CIA, I guess) has stolen antidote, but needs the virus for it to be worth anything. IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is to get the antidote back. He's asked to recruit a sexy thief (Thandie Newton), whom he immediately falls for.

Anthony Hopkins has a brief turn as Cruise's boss, and informs him that Newton was not recruited for her thieving skills, but because she is an ex-girlfriend of the bad guy (played by Dougray Scott). This torments Cruise, which means he doesn't smile as often.

There are several elaborate set pieces: a break-in at the fortress-like pharmaceutical headquarters (Scott is completely aware of what Cruise will do, and in a nod to the first film, mentions that he likes to "come in from above"); a playful car chase between Cruise and Newton on a winding cliff road; and a motorcycle chase complete with a helicopter. As usual with Woo, much of it is in slow motion and overly stylized, but one doesn't expect subtlety in these things.

A few things stretch the bounds of reason--Cruise is interrupted rock climbing on vacation, and hangs from his fingertips. Nobody's fingers are that strong. And there's an over-reliance on life-like masks.

But overall Mission Impossible II provides exactly what one expects. It's a bit mind-numbing, and could have had a bit more of a humorous touch. I did like Newton. She's been an under-utilized actress, as far as I'm concerned, and it's easy to see why both men fell for her like a ton of bricks.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Lion-Hearted

It's a good time for Michigan sports fans. The Tigers are in the playoffs (go to Tiger Rank to follow that more closely; link is at right), the University of Michigan Wolverines are 5-0 (though not against stiff competition), and most amazingly, the Detroit Lions are 4-0, after winning their last two games after being down by 20 or more points. That's the first time that's ever happened. It's the first time the Lions have been 4-0 since 1980 (it was pointed out to me that on Saturday Michigan State, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan all won their football games as well).

I haven't made a post on the Lions since they got off a to a good start four years, when Jon Kitna was quarterback. Since then, they've gone on a monumental slide. The following year they set a standard for futility, going 0-16. They took Matt Stafford with the number one draft pick, but he's had a hard time staying healthy. Then, last year, they took the beastly lineman Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick; he has added some integrity to the defense, and the Lions improved to six wins, winning their last four in a row.

Under coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions were the pick of many football writers this year to be the team to watch out for. That's usually the kiss of death, but so far so good. They beat a good Tampa Bay team on the road (the Lions had a more than one-season losing streak on the road). They beat up on Kansas City, then pulled a comeback on the Vikings after being down by 20 at halftime, again on the road.

This weekend's win against the Cowboys, in Dallas, is the kind that could propel them to good things. Down at one point 27-3, the Lions preyed on Dallas mistakes, returning two interceptions for touchdowns (why the Cowboys were throwing that far up is a question). Stafford, who didn't have a great day, did manage to find Calvin Johnson in the end zone twice. Johnson, a holdover from the days of Matt Millen's wide receiver fetish, is one of the best in the game, particularly at making jump ball catches. It reminds me of my days playing football with the guys, where I would be quarterback and be told to just heave it up and my receiver would fight for it.

The Lions have a big game this Monday night against the Bears. They don't play the Packers, the only other undefeated team in the NFL, until Thanksgiving day. Of course I don't expect them both to be undefeated then, but if they are it will be a game much focused on in my brother's house, where I will be watching.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Wild Bunch

My Robert Ryan film festival ends with the other iconic 1960s film of his, The Wild Bunch, a pivotal film in cinema history. Amazingly I had never seen it until yesterday. With the passing of over 40 years, it's impact has lessened quite a bit. I enjoyed it, but it certainly has dated.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was noted for its almost balletic violence. Peckinpah used advanced editing techniques and frequently mixed the speed of the film. It's most remembered today for showcasing mayhem in slow motion. Feeding off of the ending of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch went even further, showing spurting blood that was unheard of in Westerns.

In addition to the violence, The Wild Bunch was a political allegory. Set on the Texas-Mexico border in 1913, the film is about the dying of the American West as romantics knew it. There are automobiles and airplanes, and the frontier was almost gone. The unstable Mexican political situation depicted in the film is easily paralleled to the war in Vietnam (Peckinpah came out and said that it what it was about).

A band of aging outlaws, led by William Holden, head into a Texas town to rob a railroad office. They are being ambushed, as a former member of the gang, Ryan, is working for the railroad, in order to get a pardon from a prison sentence. The gang manages to escape, but down several members (the shootout in the city streets lasts about 20 minutes). Holden, belying the phrase "there is no honor among thieves,"  preaches to his gang the importance of sticking together. His closes friend is Ernest Borgnine, and they have an old-timer played by Edmond O'Brien, two brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates), and a young Mexican, Jaime Sanchez.

The bunch ends up in a Mexican town ruled by a general, who treats the people brutally. Holden agrees to do a job for the general, stealing a shipment of American guns. He figures the general will try to cheat him and works out a plan to get payment. Sanchez asks that one case of guns be given to rebels in his village, which causes him to be taken prisoner by the general. Holden, sticking to his code, goes back with Borgnine, Johnson, and Oates, the odds decidedly not in their favor.

The film was released in 1969, and shares interesting similarities to a film from the same year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The latter film was much more comic in tone, but both were about the transition of the Wild West into the 20th century, and both end with the heroes being massacred. Of course, we don't see Cassidy and Sundance getting killed, but we do see the bunch go down, in gory detail.

The film has some clumsy moments. A flashback is introduced with wavy film, like something out of a parody. But for the most part it's a gritty, well-acted tale. In some ways, Ryan plays the most interesting character. He's forced, against his nature, to try to capture his old mates, and must use a motley crew of men (Strother Martin among them). He's clearly torn, and the pain of his task is etched on his face.