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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (Film)

Way back in the early stages of this blog, I reviewed Michael Connelly's novel The Lincoln Lawyer. I've just gotten around to seeing the film version from earlier this year, and I thought it was terrific. Michael McConaughey, after years adrift in films wear he acted more with his shirtless torso than anything else, gives a performance that reminds us of his dazzling debut in A Time to Kill.

McConaughey is Michael "Mickey" Haller, a defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln sedan. He specializes in guilty clients, and is in fact leery of taking on the innocent, for fear they will be judged guilty. But he takes on a high profile client, a rich real estate agent played by Ryan Phillipe, who is charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a prostitute.

The movie ends being a cat and mouse game between McConaughey and Phillipe, who the former realizes is not only guilty, but also guilty of another crime that was wrongly tagged on one of the McConaughey's previous clients. The courtrooms scenes are good, although the prosecutor (Josh Lucas) violates the sacred rule of asking questions he doesn't know the answer to.

The supporting cast is full of terrific actors like William H. Macy, Michael Pena, John Leguizamo, and Marisa Tomei, McConaughey's ex-wife. Frankly I would liked to see her in a role that called her to do more than alternate with admiring gazes at McConaughey, but she's always a nice presence to see in a movie.

The script, by John Romano, and direction, by Brad Furman (a check reveals his earliest credits were as personal assistant to Julia Roberts) are first-rate. As I said about the book, legal thrillers are often a dime a dozen, so when a good one comes along it should be celebrated. The Lincoln Lawyer is a good one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants

After watching The Descendants I had the feeling like I do when I've eaten something that is palatable but seems to be missing a key ingredient, an ingredient that I can't quite place. The film is well directed, intelligently written, and superbly acted, and perhaps best of all has a profound sense of place, but, as the annoying guy in the movie line said of the latest Fellini film in Annie Hall, it didn't hit me on a gut level.

I'm a big fan of writer/director Alexander Payne--Election and Sideways are two of my favorite films of the last fifteen years. The Descendants is more in line with the film of his I liked least, About Schmidt, in that it leans toward the sentimental. Payne does better when he casts a gimlet eye on his protagonist.

Here the protagonist is Matt King, played by George Clooney. He is directly descended from Hawaiian royalty and one of the first white families to inhabit the islands. A successful attorney, he is the trustee in charge of a large parcel of oceanfront land that the whole family has decided to sell to the high bidder, who will turn it into a resort community.

That is Clooney's less pressing concern, though. His wife is in a coma from a boating accident. He is dealing with a troubled 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller), and a 17-year-old daughter in a private school (Shailene Woodley) who had some sort of beef with her mother. Early on Clooney finds out the disagreement was over his now comatose wife's philandering.

Most of the film deals with Clooney tracking down the man who was sleeping with his wife. He turns out to be Matthew Lillard, who I remember mostly for playing the obnoxious kid in a series of bad teen films. Here he's a real estate agent, and has a connection with the land sale. Will Clooney exact his revenge by blocking the sale?

I have a feeling that what appealed most to Payne about this project, which is adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (the script was co-written by Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is the sense of place. Hawaii is certainly a distinct place in America, which few of us have visited for more than a week at a time. The opening scenes, of poverty and despair on the streets of Hawaii, include a voiceover by Clooney wondering at the sanity of people who tell him he lives in paradise. From the film you can get the sense of how life goes a little slower there--shoes are optional, and baseball caps and flowered shirts are formal wear. As Clooney says, "Very important people look like bums and stunt men."

Beyond that, The Descendants also has a keen sense of betrayal, as Clooney and Woodley are both forced to be angry with a woman who can not defend herself. Clooney calls himself the "backup parent," and seems at a loss how to deal with his kids. Woodley, who is sensational as a teenager burning with rage, bonds with her father over finding Lillard, as if they were on some kind of father-daughter scavenger hunt. The family that sleuths together, stays together, I guess.

But other parts of The Descendants fell flat for me. I didn't understand the presence of Woodley's boyfriend, Nick Krause, who seems to be channeling Spiccoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A subplot involving Robert Forster as Clooney's tough father-in-law also didn't work. I did like a late appearance by Judy Greer, who gives the film a lift.

On the face of it, The Descendants is a good movie, it just isn't great. I think I was supposed to care more about these people than I did. Clooney, who shows more vulnerability than he ever has before, and may pick up an Oscar for his effortm (have we ever seen Clooney cry before?) is riveting, but I couldn't feel myself in his shoes. Maybe that's because he's hardly ever wearing them.

My grade for The Descendants: B+

Monday, November 28, 2011

J! E! T! S! Jets! Jets! Jets!

My friend Bob won a silent auction at a community theater he's involved in and had two tickets to yesterday's Buffalo Bills-New York Jets game, and invited me to come along. I gladly did so, having not seen an NFL game for more than 40 years.

I like the NFL very much, though it's a distant second to baseball in my eyes. Going to games is problematic, given the cost and selectivity--many teams have notoriously long waiting lists for season tickets, and places in line are passed down in wills. Plus, I've always thought football is a better game to watch on television.

But I wasn't about to turn down the chance to go. I had no rooting interest in the game. I root for the Detroit Lions, one of the few teams who have never been to a Super Bowl, and have never won a championship in my lifetime. I'm fairly neutral about the New York Teams (I'm also fairly close to Philadelphia, and there are a lot of Eagle fans around). I find Jets' coach Rex Ryan to be obnoxious, but while sitting in a sea of people wearing green Jets jerseys it was easy not to make waves and politely root the Jets on.

It was a great game, with many lead changes. The game really turned on a penalty. The Bills Steve Johnson caught a touchdown pass that put the Bills up 14-7 just before the half. He got a little carried away in his touchdown celebration. First he mocked the Jets' Plaxico Burress by miming shooting himself in the leg, and then flopped to the ground with his arms spread like airplane wings. He was flagged for excessive celebration, which was tacked on during the kickoff. The Bills kicker then mangled an attempt at a squib kick, booting it off of an up man for the kickoff return team, who recovered it for great field position. The Jets were able to drive it in for a touchdown.

The Bills managed to regain the lead, 24-21, but the Jets drove down the field with a few key catches by Dustin Keller. They got the winning score with just over a minute left. But the Bills had time, and managed to drive down the field. But then Johnson, who can't have had a good trip back to Buffalo, dropped what might have been a touchdown, and then Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick missed two times on throws to the end zone, the last one as time expired.

The last NFL game I went to was in October of 1971. I know the date because it was the same day that the Pirates beat the Orioles in game seven of the 1971 World Series. It was so long ago that the stadium (the Astrodome) and one team (the Houston Oilers) don't exist anymore. The Lions beat the Oilers that day, 31-7. I also have a faint memory of my dad taking me to an Eagles-Redskins game in what must have been the late '60s. It was back at old Franklin Field.

Due to the low sampling, yesterday's game now qualifies as the best NFL game I've ever been to.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Cherry Orchard (Classic Stage Company)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing my third production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, and I believe it is the best. Produced by the Classic Stage Company, and directed by Andrei Belgrader, it takes Chekhov's sweeping language and characterization and renders it in simple, heartbreaking, and intimate terms.

I originally wrote about the play here. To briefly summarize, the story concerns a once aristocratic Russian family who are now in danger of losing their estate, which includes a famous cherry orchard. Lyuba (Dianne Wiest), who fled Russia with her daughter Anna (Katherine Waterston) after her seven-year-old son drowned, has returned from living in Paris with a lover who stole all her money. Her brother, Gayev (Daniel Davis), a distracted man who is given to making impassioned speeches to bookcases and playing imaginary games of billiards, is no help. The only person in the extended household who has any sense of the future is Lopakhin (John Turturro), who grew up as a boy on the estate, the son of a serf. He has now built a fortune, and urges the family to lease lots on the estate to summer tourists. This, however, would necessitate chopping down the cherry orchard.

There are also the requisite romantic entanglements of Chekhov: Varya (Juliet Rylance), Lyuba's older daughter, is in love with Lopakhin, who won't propose, because he really hasn't gotten over a crush on Lyuba. Anna is in love with Trofimov, a perpetual student who is something of an early Bolshevik, who makes announcements like "we are above love." Dunyasha, a serving girl (Elizabeth Waterston), is in love with the cruel footman Yasha (Slate Holmgren), even though she has been proposed to by the perpetually clumsy Epikhodov (Michael Urie).

The play rings with a sense of loss. The characters of Lyubov and Gayev, though in their fifties, are child-like, which Chekhov reinforces with the opening scene, set in a nursery. They continue to spend money, even when they don't have any to spare. The world is changing around them, but they ignore the signs, and Lopakhin's advice, until it is too late.

Belgrader has done a lovely job of incorporating the play into the small space. The play is in three-quarter round, on a floor level with the first row of the audience, and only a few feet away. Several times those in the front row had to pull in their feet as actors went by. Swatches of dialogue that are heavy in exposition are often delivered as asides to the audience, and Charlotta, the governess, breaks the fourth wall definitively by interacting with the audience. This gives a fresh take to the material, and gave this viewer the impression I was somehow involved with the situation.

The actors are all exquisite. Wiest, with a winsome expression and lilting voice, perfectly captures the woman-child of Lyubov, and Turturro, though perhaps a bit old for the part, brims with rage and shame. The play has a climax of a sort when he buys the orchard at auction, and as I wrote in my previous post, the scene in which he announces this at a party is my favorite. Turturro, given a great scene to play, knocks it out of the park, giddy with drink and triumph, but at the same time realizing he is destroying the dreams of those whom he loves. He dances around the stage in traditional Russian folk style, and then pulls apart a seat cushion, the feathers cascading around him.

The supporting players are no less brilliant. Alvin Epstein, a giant in American theater (he was in the original Waiting for Godot), makes an excellent Firs, the ancient manservant who rued the day the serfs were ever freed. Davis, who is probably best known as Fran Drescher's foil during the run of the The Nanny, makes a particularly sad and ennobled Gayev.

This production, for those who will be in New York the next few weeks, is well worth the effort to see.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Listed

Driving home from Gettysburg after a fine Thanksgiving I listened to an early Neko Case album, Black Listed, from 2002. It further cemented my lofty opinion of Case as my favorite female vocalist, but it's hard to determine whether she's a better singer or songwriter. Let's call it a tie.

This is a glorious record. Case is often described as alt-country, though she's been getting away from that lately, but here the country sounds are more discernible. The lyrics, though, aren't the usual Grand Ol' Opry fare. The opening track, "Things That Scare Me," sets the tone: "Fluorescent lights engage like birds frying on a wire/Same birds that followed me to school when I was young/Were they trying to tell me something?/Were they telling me to run?"

This is followed by the excellent "Deep Red Bells," in which Case's voice soars with sonic intensity, and ends with: "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag? Past empty lots and early graves of those like you who've lost their way/Murdered on the Interstate/While the red bells rang like thunder?" The next song, "Lady Pilot," ends with the line, "We've got a lady pilot, she's not afraid to die." Perhaps you don't want to listen to that song on an airplane.

The musicality of Case's work is also enduring. "Stinging Velvet" is an old-fashioned honky-tonk song, complete with steel guitar, while "Blacklisted" is in a minor key, and could have been sung by Johnny Cash (it's about a train). In one of two songs she didn't write, "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)," Case brings to remind a torch singer, leaning against a piano in a pool of light. "Outro for Bees" is a beautiful number that is only her voice, a piano, a pump organ, and a cello.

It's hard to pick a favorite song on the album. In addition to the above there's "Pretty Girls," which seems to be set in the emergency room of a hospital: "The TV is blaring and angry, as if you don't know why you're here/Those who walk without sin are so hungry/Don't let the wolves in, pretty girls." "I Wish I Was the Moon" is a heartbreaking song of loneliness.

I have one Neko Case album of all new material to go before I've caught up (not counting her work with The New Pornographers).

Friday, November 25, 2011

Evacuation Day

I like to think of myself as well informed, if not an expert, on American history. But last week, writer and NPR personality Sarah Vowell appeared on The Daily Show to talk about Evacuation Day, which this year falls on the day after Thanksgiving. No, it has nothing to do with the digestive system after a big meal, but instead refers to a day that for several generations was a big holiday in the U.S.

On November 25, 1783, the last British troops left New York, and the war came to an end (the last shot was said to have been fired on this day, when a British ship fired a cannon shot at jeering crowds on the coast of Staten Island, which fell short). The British lifted a Union Jack at Battery Park on a greased pole before they left, but an enterprising and agile veteran named John Van Arsdale was able to ascend the pole and remove the offending flag and replace it with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington then led a procession in, as pictured above.

Vowell also informed viewers that New York suffered greatly during the occupation, especially prisoners of war on prison ships docked in Wallabout Bay, which today is an area between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. More than 10,000 soldiers and sailors died there, more than those killed in all of the battles of the Revolutionary Wars combined. The city also suffered two devastating fires during the period.

From then on, for about 100 years, the date was marked with revelry. Boys reenacted Van Arsdale's feat and tried to climb greased poles. But, as Vowell put it, one person was responsible for the waning of Evacuation Day festivities: "Abraham fuckin' Lincoln." When Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November should be a day of Thanksgiving, it eclipsed Evacuation Day, which fell on or near the new holiday. Thus it remains largely unknown.

I'm currently reading a massive biography of George Washington and, as there are several places to visit a short drive from me that are key to his life, I will be noting them here. Who knows, I may be inspired enough to make the drive to Mount Vernon. Stay tuned. Happy Evacuation Day!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Miral

I'm intrigued by the idea of painters as directors of narrative films. Julian Schnabel, who really doesn't appeal to me as an artist (I went to see an exhibit of his once and I just didn't get the broken plates) made a terrific film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but his latest, Miral, is much less compelling. The first film didn't have a strong narrative, and could be centered around the visual imagery. Miral has a much heavier plot and concerns itself with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Schnabel is not up to the task.

The story is told around women who are affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestine, beginning in 1948. A woman of means (Hiram Abbass), finds refugee children in East Jerusalem and sets up a school for them, which continues to grow (and still exists today). The story then moves to Yasmine Al Massri, a high-strung woman who ends up in jail for punching a Jewish woman in the nose after the latter calls her an "Arab whore." In prison she meets another woman who was a nurse but was sentenced to life in prison after planting a bomb in a movie theater. (This sequence is very effectively shot by Schnabel, as he cuts between the faces of the movie patrons and the movie itself--Roman Polanski's Repulsion).

Al Massri ends up marrying a local businessman and supporter of Abbass', Alexander Siddig. They have a daughter, the title character. Tragedy intervenes and Siddig leaves Miral with Abbass in her school. Flash forward to when Miral is 17, and played by Frieda Pinto. She gets involved with the PLO, much to Abbass' and her father's consternation.

Though Schnabel makes some half-hearted efforts to make this even-handed, it comes down decidedly on the side of Palestinians. Those of us with long memories will pick that up with the cameo appearance of Vanessa Redgrave in the opening scenes. Israelis are, by and large, presented as thugs, with their checkpoints and brutality by the soldiers. I'm sure this is partially true, but the script, by Rula Jebreal, doesn't make much effort to present a balanced view. That's understandable, because this is her story, but I couldn't help but feel uneasy. The only portion of the film that presents Israelis as decent people is a character played by Stella Schnabel as Miral's cousin's girlfriend, who teaches Miral all about The Who and The Rolling Stones.

A better film would have had a character speak for Israeli concerns (such as their very existence is constantly threatened by being surrounded by people who would like them all dead, or at least gone). Instead the film comes off as propaganda,  a simplistic view of 5,000 years of conflict, casting the Jews as invaders and occupiers.

I also found the film sketchy at points, as if great chunks of it had been deleted. It covers forty years of history in just under two hours. I did like Pinto's performance, even if she isn't Arabic (she does resemble Jubreal a great deal).

Miral makes a so-so family drama, and a less than so-so examination of a complicated situation.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hall Pass

Wow, have the Farrelly Brothers mellowed. I haven't seen all of their films, and I wouldn't identify myself a fan, but the mild humor of Hall Pass, which ultimately teaches men to stick with their wives, seems eons away from the darkly anarchic comedy of Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin. Hall Pass is passable entertainment, with a few smiles and no guffaws, but is part of the current trend of movies to depict men as pathetically inept.

Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are best friends. They are each married, although Wilson's union with Jenna Fischer is presented in a much more positive light that Sudeikis' ball and chain, Christina Applegate. We get the usual stuff about pussy-whipped guys, who look back with rose-colored glasses at their single days and bemoan that they could be getting all sorts of poon-tang if they just weren't married.


Fischer and Applegate take the advice of a psychologist friend and give them a "hall pass"--one week that does not have any marital restrictions. The thinking is that the obsession with sex, now denied to them, will dissipate once it becomes easily available.

Of course Wilson and Sudeikis are hapless when it comes to meeting women. We get a lot of obvious and feeble jokes, like them going to Applebee's to meet women, or using pick-up lines about the size of their penises. The movie loses whatever good will it has with me when this kind of humor is employed--as a man, I realize that we can be stupid, but this is ridiculous. It's the reason why I hate all those beer commercials that portray men in the same light.

Of course the two will have disastrous luck in scoring, while Fischer and Applegate are both tempted in their absence (I really like Fischer as a presence, whether in her role on The Office or in the films I've seen her in--she's instantly likable). Wilson eventually, despite himself, woos an extremely hot barista (Nicky Whelan), but we all know what he will finally decide, even as Whelan is exposing her perfect breasts to him.

The Farrellys still have a bit of their naughty selves at work here, such as having a prolonged look at an extremely large penis, but otherwise there are no appearances by semen or any other liquid associated with sex. There are gags about cunnilingus and the correlation between sagging breasts and the size of the vaginal opening, but they are tired and expressed without enthusiasm. A scene in which they eat pot brownies on a golf course is embarrassingly bad.

I didn't hate Hall Pass, but I didn't much like it, either.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Margin Call

With the Occupy Wall Street movement dominating the news, it's easy to see Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, as timely. But this film is really more elemental than current events. Though set on Wall Street, with the prospect of economic collapse as the force driving the plot, the film is better seen as a character study of men (and one woman) compartmentalizing themselves and losing their souls in the process.

The film begins with a focus on two junior employees in the risk management department, Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgeley. They witness a massive layoff on their floor that includes their boss, Stanley Tucci. Following him to the elevators, Quinto is emotional, but Tucci shrugs him off and instead gives him a thumb-drive with a project he'd been working on. Quinto investigates into the night and discovers something that imperils the firm's existence.

Quinto calls back Badgeley and their superior, Paul Bettany. For the rest of the night Quinto's discovery is kicked up the chain, to Kevin Spacey, head of sales, to Demi Moore, head of risk management, then Simon Baker, head of securities. The import of what's happening is so great that something needs to be done before the market opens, so the firm's CEO, Jeremy Irons, arrives like some god in a helicopter.

As to what the crisis is, Chandor takes great pains to try to explain it. In fact, three times characters ask to have it explained to them in "English." Irons, finally, asks Quinto to explain it to him as if he "were a small child, or a golden retriever." Basically, the firm has included, in bundled securities, assets that exceed their volatility measures. If the stock drops by a certain amount, the firm is so leveraged that the loss will exceed the capital value of the company. I'm not even sure of what I've just written, but I don't think it's important to understand the nuts and bolts of it. What's important to know is that the firm is in danger of complete destruction.

Irons' solution is to sell off the toxic asset in a fire sale, even at a loss, knowing that he will endanger the firm's trustworthiness and throw the market into turmoil. His only concern is getting out with his skin, unconcerned with what it does to the little guy. Spacey, who has worked for the firm for 34 years, has reservations, but Irons responds with a speech that one-ups Michael Douglas' "greed" speech in Wall Street. "It's just money, it's all made up, it's pieces of paper with pictures on them, so we can get something to eat without killing each other." Irons says that ups and downs in the economy are part of some sort of natural cycle, and if people are put out of business, oh well.

This is an astonishingly self-assured debut by Chandor. In some ways it reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, in that is has a stagey quality (it could have been, with some minor tweaks, a play) but also because of it's "lift the rock" look at the way things work in America. These are the people who control our lives, but they are people, and they make mistakes.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Badgley and Quinto are both very good (Quinto is one of the producers). Badgeley is the guy who wonders how much money everyone is making, while Quinto is literally a rocket science who has been wooed by the promise of big money. Bettany is a survivor, cogniscent of his own flaws (he pointedly chews Nicoret through most of the film), and Spacey is remarkable as the conscience of the film. Spacey has been coasting since his best work of the '90s, usually being the Christmas ham in any film he's in, and usually playing some kind of villain, best exemplified by his recent role in Horrible Bosses. But here he plays a fully rounded character, toning down his knowledge of his own wonderfulness as an actor.

Chandor also shows a good eye for images. I was particularly impressed with a scene between Baker and Moore in an elevator. In between them stands a diminutive cleaning woman, but they are largely oblivious of her and she of them, sort of like how these Wall Street folks don't care that what they do affects the little guy. The cleaning crew, in fact, are the only appearances that "regular" people make in the film. When Quinto, Badgley, and Bettany go to the roof of the building to look out over the city, they don't see the people down below, just the lights. The film ends with a character literally digging a hole, and as the screen goes black and the credits roll, the digging can still be heard.

One thing that did not ring true: Tucci is escorted out of the building by security after his layoff, his computer and cell phone shut off. There's no way he would be able to hand a thumb-drive to Quinto without security confiscating it. Of course, without that, there's no movie.

My grade for Margin Call: A-.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Led Zeppelin IV

I'm a little late with this, but on the eighth of this month an anniversary of a cultural milestone took place. It was the 40th anniversary of the release of the fourth Led Zeppelin album, a record that officially has no title, but is commonly known as either ZoSo or Led Zeppelin IV.

The third best-selling album of all time in the United States, the album also is notable for containing the most ubiquitous song of the classic rock era, "Stairway to Heaven."

I have never been a passionate fan of Led Zeppelin, not the way I have been of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who or the Doors. I bear a respect for them, but not necessarily an admiration. I don't have any of their albums on vinyl, though they were hugely popular among my peers when I was in high school and college. However, some years ago I bought a boxed set of their entire output and purchased it out of a sense of duty, as much as anything else.

What is my problem with Led Zeppelin? I frankly don't know. I would have thought it was Robert Plant's high, whiny voice, but I like some of the stuff he's done recently, especially with Allison Krause. Their sound, a combination of twelve-bar American blues and Celtic folk, holds no objections from me. Maybe it was that love for them seemed to kind of an understood expectation for us teenagers who were listening to classic rock stations. If we liked the Stones, the Who, then we certainly must like Led Zeppelin. And that meant we really loved "Stairway to Heaven."

A convention practiced by most stations during my youth, and for all I know still practiced now, was that on holiday weekends like the fourth of July or Labor Day, the station would count down the top 500 songs, as voted by the listeners. Without fail, number one every time would be "Stairway to Heaven." Before I was even aware of who Led Zeppelin was, I was sick of that song. Those of a certain age, probably 40 to 70, have heard that song at least a thousand times. I'm not sure anyone can call it their favorite song in public anymore, without prompting sneers and eye rolls.

Truth is, it's a pretty good song, for maybe the first 50 times you hear it. It's certainly the best example of what Led Zeppelin is known for--the mixture of hard rock with poesy lyrics and the airy-fairy sound of Celtic Britain, with its flute and acoustic guitar in the opening. The lyrics, certainly scribed in the notebooks of many a teenager in the 1970s, are most simply interpreted as the emptiness of those who believe happiness can be bought, but how many have struggled to determine just what "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now/It's just a spring clean for the May queen" means?

The album also includes other signature Led Zeppelin songs. Despite the ubiquity of "Stairway to Heaven," the most recognizable song of theirs may be "Black Dog," which has an instantly identifiable riff (I read that it contains complicated time signatures, both to prevent its danceability and cover bands from reproducing it). Following it is another staple, "Rock and Roll," which begins with the cymbal clashes created by John Bonham.

"The Battle for Evermore" leans toward the folkish, and goes so far to include Sandy Denny, of the folk band Fairport Convention, sharing lead vocals. "Goin' to California," about Joni Mitchell, is a beautiful folk song, and "Misty Mountain Hop," complete with mandolin and Lord of the Rings references, is another example of folklore's influence on the group.

The last song, "When the Levee Breaks," betrays the blues influences, as it is a reconstruction of a song by Memphis Minnie. It shows once again how the black musicians of America, who toiled in relative anonymity during the first half of the 20th century, would see their legacy explode with British bands in the second half.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Scream 4

I know I saw the first Scream, and I'm pretty sure I saw the second, but I'm doubtful about the third. But I don't think it mattered much in the level of enjoyment one gets out of Scream 4, which is a clever but soulless bit of meta-film.

Directed again by Wes Craven, with a screenplay by Kevin Williamson, and the central cast of Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox reunited, Scream 4 is once again an exercise that combines decent thrills with deconstruction of the genre. The Scream series has always been self-satisfied about it's winking references to other horror films and the patterns these films use--in this film we learn that gay characters are never killed, and how cops on stakeout always get killed (this discussion is by cops on stakeout). The film opens with a double-reverse, as twice we're faked out by false openings involving the standard Scream opening--a young woman receiving a menacing phone call.

There's only so much a person can take of this, though, and Scream 4 definitely has too much. In this outing, Campbell, the survivor of the first three films, has returned to her home town on the anniversary of the first murders, selling a book. Cox, who wrote the book on the subject, has hung up her reporter's notepad and is married to the sheriff, Arquette. But when Ghostface, the Munchian-masked killer, returns, Cox enlists the help of the high school cinema club, who are experts on the horror genre, to help.

The cast is full of young attractive actresses, all of whom get stabbed in some way shape or form. Lucy Hale, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Aimee Teegarden, and Allison Brie are just the most recognizable faces. The screenplay makes reference to the "torture porn" of the Saw films, but the Scream films are a kind of soft-core version. No nudity, and the gore is less (although we do seem some entrails here), but a kind of porn nonetheless, which seems to suggest that there's a satisfaction in seeing pretty girls hacked up. It's really kind of disturbing.

I admit I was surprised by Ghostface's identity this time around, and I wasn't bored, but this thing has gone on long enough.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Star Island

Carl Hiasen's latest gleeful romp through the dark underbelly of South Florida is Star Island, named for the enclave of celebrity homes in Miami Beach. Hiaasen, who writes these novels about the venal and stupid that rape the land and collectively bring down the I.Q.s of Americans, takes a dim but hilarious view of scoundrels, and uses a handful of upright characters to see good triumph, which so rarely happens in real life.

The fish in the barrel of Star Island are particularly easy targets: paparazzi, talentless fame whores, and the ethically bankrupt real estate developers, who Hiaasen specializes in. His main characters are "Bang" Abbot, a loathsome paparrazo who has an obsession with a singer, Cherry Pye, who bears more than a striking resemblance to some unfortunate young women of today, such as Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. Hiaasen takes particular delight telling us how lousy a singer Cherry is, and what a promiscuous drug fiend she is, but there's also a certain empathy for her, as the real villains are her greedy parents, publicists. and record company executives, who care more about her image than her health.

Abbott is Hiaasen's insight into the sordid world of the paparazzi. He managed to win a Pulitzer Prize, though by ethically dim methods, and now rarely bathes and has no compunction about the havoc he wreaks on people's lives. He conspires to kidnap Cherry so he can get a photo shoot with her, which he is sure will make him famous. Instead he manages to kidnap her double, a struggling actress named Anna DeLuisa, who is the book's morally courageous heroine. She, by happenstance, has made a friend in Skink, a recurring Hiassen character, the former governor of Florida who had a nervous breakdown and has lived off the land in the mangrove swamps for over 20 years.

Another returning character is Chemo, a bodyguard and hit man who first appeared in Skin Tight. He has a damaged face from a chemical peel gone wrong, and after a barracuda bit off his arm, a prosthetic weed whacker attached to his stub. Chemo, after getting out of jail, went into real estate. He has little sympathy for anyone, but has occasional glimpses into humanity: "Remorseless by nature, he nevertheless found himself thinking of all the poor fuckers he'd conned into buying ARMS--now shattered and broke, their only sin trying to score a decent house for their families. The all-American dream! And here's some dumb chick with a voice that sounds like a sackful of starving kittens--filthy rich, and about to get richer. So much for divine order, Chemo thought bitterly."

Hiaasen essentially has written the same novel several times, but that doesn't lessen my enjoyment of them. Characters always have some weird twist--Cherry's publicists are fraternal twins who had plastic surgery to make themselves look alike (Hiaasen has a particular fondness for extravagant plastic surgery--he once had models who were cut to look like Barbie dolls). Even extremely minor characters get backstories, like an NBA player who has a problem crashing Jaguars and pulled his groin not on the court but having sex with his realtor on a diving board.

The most satisfying thing about Hiaasen is his humorous sense of outrage, and that there is the divine order that Chemo is looking for. In Hiaasen's universe, justice is served. For example, Skink strikes out at a corrupt real estate developer by shoving a sea urchin down his pants, which results in some very bloated and painful testicles.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

13 Assassins

In the grand tradition of Akira Kurosawa, Takasha Miike directed 13 Assassins, a 2010 film about the samurai told in the style of Hollywood films, most specifically the Western and the "mission" type of war film. There's also more than a little of the Ocean films of Steven Soderbergh in it. It's a rousing and bloody entertainment.

Set in 1844, an advisor to the Shogun is worried about the ruler's sadistic and impetuous half-brother, who rapes and kills with impunity. He secretly hires a samurai of renown, Shinzaemon, to form a team to assassinate the villainous Lord. Shinzaemon is easy to convince, especially after he sees a woman that the Lord mutilated, cutting off her limbs and tongue and massacring her family.

Shinzaemon assembles an army of 12, including his nephew, who had been a samurai but is now living a life of debauchment. They plan to ambush the Lord, who is guarded by his own samurai, Hanbei, who was Shinzaemon's chief rival in the dojo. Hanbei knows his master is a brutal psychotic, but the samurai is sworn to obey his master.

The assassins, traveling through the forest, pick up a 13th with a man of the wilderness. His identity is enigmatic, and there are many clues to suggest he is not fully human.

Eventually the 13 pinpoint a town where they will attack the Lord. They rig it with explosive booby-traps and movable fences. They will have to defeat an army of 200 to get to their target, and, as with many of these films, it stretches credulity. Of course the samurai are superior fighters, but the army they cut through has to be pretty incompetent to not defeat them. The samurai move through the crowd, hacking away, while the faceless extras all cower before them, vanquished one by one like Republican presidential candidates. If they only attacked together, the fight would be over in five minutes.

But instead the fight goes on for close to an hour, with almost all of the assassins getting a death scene, sometimes with marvelously cliched last words, like "Our mission...finish it!" In the best tradition of the Western showdown, it is left with Shinzaemon and Henbei left to duel to the death, with the evil Lord looking on, fascinated.

I enjoyed this film very much, but it lacks some of the sweep of the best Kurosawa. I found it difficult to differentiate between many of the assassins, who except for a few aren't given much characterization. The ending, starting with that last showdown, is very good, though, with two characters left looking over a vast pile of dead bodies and a smoldering town. Miike, an incredibly prolific director, has a fine eye for visuals and the film is also very well edited.

The DVD contains a interview from Japanese television with Miike. The young female interviewer asks some inane questions, like "What are the highlights of your film?" that Miike answers graciously. She then tells him she had to look away at some of the violence, such as an early scene of harikiri, because the sound effects were so realistic. "Oh, you know what harikiri sounds like?" he teases her.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

I'm a middle-aged man, and thus have never been a teenage girl, but lordy do I feel bad for them. This is what passes for entertainment for girls? This is what sets box office records? Right now, still more than 36 hours from the midnight of the next Twilight movie, devoted fans are lining up in the rain to watch the next installment. You would think after the third one they would have given up.

The Twilight phenomenon is more about psychology and sociology that cinema, because none of these movies have been any good. Eclipse, the third in the sage, features the same old stuff--Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), loved by two hunky guys, one a vampire and one a werewolf. I suppose a teenage girl would love to imagine two guys fighting over her like they do here, but it's a shame this fantasy can't be packaged better.

Eclipse is badly written, acted and directed. The director is David Slade, who made Hard Candy, a movie I loathed. He follows the style already established in the first two films, which seems to be designed to emphasize a kind of brooding romance, and remove any suspense. The dialogue is insipid; the actors all look like they are posing for fashion shoots. Robert Pattinson, as Stewart's vampire love, is wooden, and Taylor Lautner, as Jacob the werewolf, acts with his abs (the one good line in the film is when Pattinson asks, "Doesn't he own a shirt?"). I still haven't made up my mind about whether Stewart can actually act. She's played too many sullen girls for me to judge if that's the only way she can play a role, and she hasn't had anything to do in these films except bite her lower lip and look concerned.

The plot, such as it is, concerns one of the rogue vampires from the first film, a redhead now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who has created an army of "newborns" in Seattle to get revenge on the Cullens, Pattinson's family of good vampires. For some reason that escapes me, Howard has sent her protege to use Stewart to get at the Cullens, which means that Lautner and his clan of Indians/werewolves grudgingly team with the vampires to protect Stewart. The big fight at the end is ludicrously staged, and it seems vampires can be killed just like any person, though when their heads are chopped off they don't bleed, they look more like decapitated garden statuary.

The movie is less about vampires and werewolves than it is about a love triangle. Stewart loves both of her pursuers, but it's Edward she wants. He wants to marry her, because he's "old school," and she reassures her father that she's still a virgin. She wants him to turn her into a vampire, so she won't grow older than him, but everyone tells her this is a bad idea. It's easy to take the fact that the book's creator, Stephenie Meyer, is a Mormon, and ascribe the notion of old-fashioned Christian values at work in this fable, with its emphasis on abstinence and Bella's "conversion" a stand-in for religious conversion, but I think that's giving the movie too much credit. Instead it just feeds into stereotypes about girls who fantasize about their own weddings. I also found the treatment of the Indians as patronizing--they live on a reservation, surrounded by pickup trucks, and sit around campfires telling stories about the old days. I would hope that modern Indians would like to see themselves as more complex than this.

I haven't read the books, but I'm guessing the films are very faithful, as stuff is included that just doesn't add to the story. Stewart's normal high school friends make token appearances, with Anna Kendrick giving a graduation speech. I was interested to see that a couple of the Cullens, who have been window dressing up until now, were given backstories, but this is the kind of thing that True Blood does much better. Dakota Fanning, the best actor involved in this mess, has a brief role as a spooky chick wearing red contact lenses.

I will watch the last two installments of this saga when they come out on DVD, just to keep up with pop culture, but I'm not looking forward to them. I'm sure there's much better books out there that would inspire teenagers to go to the movies. The Hunger Games is one, so I hope that's a big hit.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scorpions

As discussed in my review of Supreme Power, Franklin Roosevelt had an early problem with the Supreme Court. But by the time he died, he appointed seven of the nine justices, and promoted the Chief Justice. In his book Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices, Noah Feldman ably lays out how Roosevelt's appointments, particularly of four justices, would change Constitutional law, and by extension, America, for generations to come.

The title comes from a quote, sometimes attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, but here to law professor and former law clerk Alexander Bickel, that "The Supreme Court is nine scorpions in a bottle." As Feldman points out, though Roosevelt's justices would eventually coalesce into a liberal unit, with the culmination the epic decision of Brown v. Board of Education, they couldn't have hated each other more.

The four men Feldman focus on are Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Robert Jackson. Frankfurter had long been a preeminent legal scholar, an acolyte of Louis Brandeis, and an informal advisor to Roosevelt. Black, a senator from Alabama, ended up being Roosevelt's first appointment, and survived a scandal when it was revealed that he had briefly been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Douglas was the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was appointed at the tender age of forty. Despite lusting after the presidency, he would end up setting the record for years served on the court. Jackson would be the last justice who had not attended law school, and would end up on the world stage as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials.

Feldman gives us a brief biography of each man, plus the shift in the law going on at the time. These four all ascribed, to various levels, to something called legal realism: "The proponents of legal realism objected to the way law had generally been studied and taught until that time--as a body of rules found in legal treatises and used by judges to decide cases. To the realists, law was not what judges said in formal rulings. Rather, law consisted in what legal actors did in the real world."

But each justice had their own interpretation of what that meant. Frankfurter believed in judicial restraint, which is loudly hallowed by conservatives today, but of course that is in the eye of the beholder. For example, should the Court strike down the individual mandate of Obama's health care law, that would not be judicial restraint, but instead activism, but no Republican will tell you that.

Frankfurter would end up disappointing Roosevelt. "His belief in judicial restraint was rooted in the belief that judges should not effect social change, a belief that coexisted with his political liberalism. To this point, the two impulses had never been contradictory. Although he could not have known it, once he went on the Court, Frankfurter would find that the tension between achieving desirable liberal results and maintaining judicial restraint would be a constant source of difficulty."

As for Black, he was an originalist, another word bandied about today, but again, favored by Republicans, deplored by Democrats. But Black made it work for liberalism. He was an absolutist on the First Amendment, and that there was no exception the right of free speech. He also too the 14th Amendment to mean exactly what it said, even though it would have been highly unlikely to imagine its framers believing in integrated schools.

Douglas is the most interesting character of the story, emphasis on character. He would be a political animal for his time on the Court, especially during the '40s. He was vice-presidential timber for three straight elections, and in 1944 was one of two men that Roosevelt would indicate he would accept, Harry Truman being the other. The head of the Democratic party instructed his secretary to type up Roosevelt's memo, which had listed Douglas first, but to rearrange the order of the two names. It was this simple rearrangement that changed history, as Truman would end up being president after Roosevelt died.

Instead, Douglas would go on to be the architect of the way the Supreme Court expanded Constitutional rights. "As a justice of the Supreme Court, he would come to be known as the least compromising figure on the bench, fully prepared to announce opinion after opinion without caring that he was alone in his judgment. Assessments of Douglas as a justice are deeply divided between those who consider him arbitrary and outrageous, and those who judge him the most advanced exponent of liberal principle ever to sit on the Court; again, there is truth in both propositions."

Douglas' most famous statement, which is still mocked by conservatives, came in Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a law that forbade the use of contraceptives by married couples (it was still a hot-button issue during Robert Bork's confirmation hearings over twenty years later). Douglas wrote, "specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance."

Jackson is Feldman's tragic figure, and the one he seems to have the most affection for. A country lawyer from western New York, Jackson would be solicitor general, attorney general, and then justice, but was bitter over being passed over twice for Chief Justice. He would take a year's leave to prosecute in Nuremberg, and though the verdicts were a foregone conclusion, he was badly bested by Hermann Goehring. He advocated a kind of pragmatism that was new to the court, but is now exemplified by the likes of Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Jackson would die (of a heart attack in his secretary's apartment, which was whitewashed over) thinking he was a failure. Feldman believes that over time Jackson's legacy has grown.

The best section is on the deciding of Brown, which would end segregation in schools. Originally it was a split decision, with the sitting Chief Justice, Fred Vinson, a southerner and Truman appointee, against. But Vinson would die suddenly, which prompted Frankfurter to confide to a colleague, "this is the first solid piece of evidence I've ever had that there really is a God."

Vinson's replacement, Earl Warren, was for the ending of segregation, but he recognized, along with Frankfurter, that it would require a unanimous vote. Douglas was no problem, but Jackson had doubts, and was going to file a separate but different concurrence. He had a heart attack, though, and it deflated his will, so he went along with Warren's opinion. Warren then twisted the arm of Stanley Reed, the only holdout, and the decision would change American forever.

I love books about the Supreme Court because of that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff. Sometimes books about the Court are far too complicated for the layman, but Feldman's book is amazingly readable, and always explanatory. He could have added some information about coming and going on the court--he will mention a justice retiring, but not who replaced him, and clearly emphasizes the four men over others--Reed is called, simply, "dull."

But the most fascinating aspect is the personal interplay of the justices. This has always been true, and always will be (the first book I read that inspired my interest in the Court was Bob Woodward's The Brethren, which revealed that some justices routinely called Chief Justice Warren Burger "Dummy"). But the Roosevelt court had a lot of animosity: "Frustration bred contempt. From allies sipping champagne to celebrate one another's joining the Court, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, and Jackson had formed camps and become bitter enemies. Frankfurter despised Douglas, whom he called one of 'two completely evil men I have ever met.' Reflecting the language of wartime, Frankfurter called Douglas, Black, and [Frank] Murphy 'the Axis.' One-upping Frankfurter, Douglas called him 'Der Fuehrer.' The hatred between Black and Jackson ran so deep that it threatened to ruin the reputations of both men. The friendship between Frankfurter and Jackson seemed to depend more on disdain for Douglas and Black than any closer connection. Douglas and Black voted together but were not intimate friends. For them, common ground meant revulsion for Frankfurter and Jackson."

Yet somehow these men would come together to forge a new way of looking at the Constitution, and handing down decisions that still resonate today.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Melancholia

After the abortion that was Antichrist, I was reluctant to see another Lars Von Trier film, but was encouraged enough by good reviews to take a chance on Melancholia. I had to remind myself that I greatly admired Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, and found Dogville interesting if not pretentious. Melancholia is just short of his best work, a beautiful film to watch and listen to.

The film, after a prologue that is sort of a visual poem that foreshadows events that will take place later (and will chase impatient viewers out of the theater), is two films in one. The first half is a wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the castle-like home (exteriors were shot at an actual castle in Sweden) of her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). The sequence begins with the couple's stretch limo trying to navigate the winding, one-lane road to the castle, a wonderful metaphor for marriage, and this makes them two hours later to their own reception.

The reception plays out like a black comedy. Dunst's parents are the twinkly John Hurt and the sour Charlotte Rampling, who openly feud during the toasts--Rampling announces she doesn't believe in marriage, and didn't attend the church service. Dunst's boss, the overbearing Stellan Skarsgard, is also Michael's best man. She's an advertising copywriter, and he pesters her for a tagline throughout the party, even assigning a lackey (Brady Corbet) to follow her around to get it. She ends up screwing Corbet in a sand trap of the estate's 18-hole golf course.

All during the party Dunst suffers from depression, or, as it used to be called before the advent of modern psychology, melancholia. It was here that I had to stop listening to my "wait, but" voice, which grew increasing louder during the second, astronomical half of the film. There is no mention of Dunst being on any medication, and the characters are pretty rough on her when she has episodes, Sutherland going so far as to remind that he is spending a vast amount of money on the affair, so she should cheer the fuck up. Needless to say, the evening does not end well.

The second half of the film is more focused on Gainsbourg, and the sisters invert roles. A rogue planet, called Melancholia, is on a close path to Earth. Sutherland, an amateur astronomer, is excited about seeing the event, and assures Gainsbourg that there is no danger, but Gainsbourg goes online and sees reports that the planet has a slingshot orbit that will indeed cause it and Earth to collide.

Astrophysicists will no doubt roll their eyes at this--first of all, heavenly bodies are named after mythological figures, not mood disorders. Sutherland tells Gainsbourg that with "calculations this large, there has to be a margin for error." Um, no. But to get bogged down into details in like this is to miss Von Trier's point. He has made the castle to be a world unto itself. Gainsbourg goes on the Internet, yes, but there is no television, no view of the world at large, which would undoubtedly be in mass hysteria. Von Trier's end of the world isn't like Roland Emmerich's--he's interested in the internal response, rather than the external.

Dunst, who is by now so depressed she can't even eat her favorite dish of meat loaf, assumes control in the face of crisis, and Gainsbourg becomes dependent on her. She says something a little mind-bending: "Earth is evil; no one will miss it," which becomes even more enigmatic when she adds that she has always known that there is no other life in the universe except on Earth. She's sort of channeling R.E.M.: It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

The film is sumptuous. The images are striking, especially of the oncoming planet and the nighttime shots across the grounds of the estate (more than once it's mentioned that the golf course has 18 holes, but late in the film Gainsbourg carries her child across the putting green with a flag that reads "19"--discuss). The music is mostly Wagner's prelude to "Tristan Und Isolde," which is heavily romantic, and persuades us that Melancholia and Earth's "dance of death" is as graceful as it is catastrophic.

The acting is all around terrific. Dunst has never been better, and is a good candidate for an Oscar nomination. Throughout the film she underplays, never acting "crazy." She's strong in both halves of the film. Frankly, before this film I had never taken Kiefer Sutherland very seriously as an actor, but he's excellent.

The film isn't perfect, which I think Von Trier would appreciate, as he said he doesn't want to make polished films, and prefers them to have flaws. It's pretty heavy-handed to make the obvious use of the word of the title. But I was caught up in the magic of the film--the drowsy, seemingly never-ending wedding reception, and the isolation of the characters in the second half. It is also periodically funny--when Gainsbourg realizes that the planets will collide, she grabs her son and tries to start the car. Dunst asks her, quite sensibly, "Where are you going?" When the world is about to end, there is no place to go. Calm acceptance is the only response.

My grade for Melancholia: A-

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean was a great film director, but his greatest talent may have been adapting great literature. It isn't easy to take a big fat novel by Charles Dickens and trim it down to a two-hour movie that makes sense and flows along trippingly, but he did just that with Great Expectations, made in 1946. I think I enjoyed it even more having read the novel a few weeks ago, so I could see how skillfully Lean and his screenwriters winnowed the story.

Most of the basics are there--a young man, Pip by name, grows up with his mean sister and her kindly husband, Joe (Bernard Miles) a blacksmith. In the first scene (spookily photographed by Guy Green, who won an Oscar for it), he is accosted by an escaped convict while visiting his parents' grave. The convict (Finlay Currie) is menacing, but when Pip returns the next day with a file and some food, the convict is grateful.

Pip then is employed, so to speak, by a local eccentric woman, Miss Havisham (Martita Hall), who lives in a grand house but never goes outside. She has tried to stop time as it was on her wedding day, when she was spurned by her fiance, going so far as to always wearing her wedding dress and leaving the banquet table as it was, cake and all, even as it gnawed by mice (the film also won an Oscar for Best Art Direction). At Miss Havisham's he meets Estella, her adopted daughter, (Jean Simmons) who is mean and haughty to him but he falls in love with her just the same.

As a young man he learns that he has an anonymous benefactor, whose lawyer (Francis L. Sullivan, in a wonderful performance) serves as his guardian. He rooms with Herbert Pocket (an absurdly young looking Alec Guinness), and becomes a gentleman. He also, by his own admission, becomes a snob, and when Miles comes to visit he is embarrassed. When he learns who his benefactor is (I won't reveal it here) he is drawn into a dangerous plot.

Of course, much of the story is excised, as only a miniseries could encompass everything. The entire subplot involving Orlick is cut. Also, Pip is spared treating Biddie terribly--in the film, she is older than he is, and there is no sense that she is the right woman for him, while chasing Estella is a waste of time. In fact, the ending gives Pip and Estella a chance, and while that may be infuriating to Dickens' purists, I thought the angle that Lean took--that Estella was slipping into living just like Miss Havisham, was a sensational approach.

So kids, if you have a book report due on Great Expectations, you might try to watch the movie instead, but be warned there are enough differences that could get you in trouble. You will see a wonderful film, though.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's film J. Edgar is an attempt to explain a man who is fundamentally unexplainable. It's full of dime-store psychology, and paints the first director of the FBI as a repressed homosexual and megalomaniac by dropping little clues for his behavior along the way (mostly by blaming his domineering mother). As I repeatedly checked my watch, I realized I would rather be watching an accurate documentary about the man, rather than a hackneyed personality profile.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, the man some think was the most powerful American of the 20th century. The script, by Dustin Lance Black, (who wrote a much better biographical screenplay with Milk) has a hoary structure--it's told in flashback, as Hoover dictates his memoirs. I found this structure unbelievably square, but felt a little embarrassed when Black turns the tables at the end of the film and we realize that Hoover is not a reliable narrator.

DiCaprio plays Hoover from the age of 24, when he assisted in organizing the Palmer raids, which struck back at anarchists after the bombing of the Attorney General's home in 1919, through the wars with celebrity bank robbers and gangsters, to his gathering of secret files on people in power, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (he is shown listening to a wiretap of an assignation with Kennedy and a woman when he hears of Kennedy's assassination--fascinating if true).

We also see his relationship with his mother, Judi Dench, who tells him, perhaps suspiciously, that she would rather have a dead son than a "daffodil" for a son, and his long relationship with Clyde Tolson, who was the number two man at the FBI and Hoover's good friend. The film is coy to a point about their relationship, as nothing has been proven as to their status as lovers, but a key scene that has Tolson erupting in fury at Hoover's announcement that he plans to propose to a woman (Dorothy Lamour, another amazing fact I didn't know), spells things out pretty clearly. The famed rumor that Hoover dressed in women's clothes is addressed here, but in a totally different context than might have been guessed.

Eastwood and Black extend only a little sympathy to Hoover for having a ball-busting mother. Mostly they take a dim view of him, mostly for his vainglorious posturing. When it's pointed out to him that he didn't actually take part in the shooting of John Dillinger, he fires the man who did, Melvin Purvis. They also emphasize the nation's chief law enforcer as a man who cares little about the law. More than once Tolson wrinkles his brow at Hoover's plan of action and says, "Isn't that illegal?" Hoover's anti-communism so overwhelms him that he virtually ignores organized crime, and is so eager to restore his good name that he ignores the doubts over the guilt of Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh kidnapping (this is a major plot line in the film and something I know a little bit about, since it happened just a few miles from where I live, and the full story is far more interesting).

The film is photographed by Tom Stern, and has the look that Eastwood favors, especially in his historical films--diffuse lighting and earth tones. The editing, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, effectively bounces back and forth through time. But the makeup is spotty. DiCaprio's old age makeup--he plays the man up until his death at age 77, was better than I anticipated, but the makeup for Armie Hammer as Tolson makes him look embalmed.

As for DiCaprio, he sure works hard. He reminds me of a duck (stick with me) that looks so placid sailing across the surface of the water, while underneath the surface the bird's feet are moving furiously. Unfortunately, we see DiCaprio's feet moving furiously. I never forgot it was DiCaprio I was watching, hung up on his accent and facial expressions. Hammer is good, despite his old-age makeup. Naomi Watts, as Hoover's long-time secretary (he proposes to her, but hires her instead) is largely wasted in a nothing role.

I think my favorite part of the film was learning that Hoover and Richard Nixon hated each other. When Hoover dies, Nixon gives a completely insincere tribute to him, even as he sends his men to raid Hoover's files, hoping to find his secret stash.

Hoover's life may be far too interesting to be captured in a conventional movie like this one. The depth of the man's hatred and lust for power is probably unfathomable, and while Eastwood's film makes me want to read more about it, it's unsatisfying.

My grade for J. Edgar: C

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Golden Era

Once again on Veteran's Day I take a look at the Baseball Hall of Fame's ballot for the "veteran's committee" vote, which looks at players, executives, managers and umpires from a certain time period. This year, in the second part of a three-year cycle, a group of 16 will vote on "the Golden Era," or those who made their mark from 1947-1972. Why this is the golden era, I'm not entirely sure; I'm sure it has something to do with the persistent rosy glow of the 1950s, when the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants dominated the game, which the old guard of sportswriters considered the heyday of baseball.

I wrote last year that the entire idea of a veteran's committee, at least for players who had their chance with the writer's committee, seems wrong to me. But this year there are two players who I think were unfairly passed over by the writers, and hope (and think) they will be inducted this time. Some of these players I never saw play, while others I saw at the tail-end of their careers, but there are always the stats. There are a total of 10 on the ballot; I'll consider their candidacies one at a time:

Buzzie Bavasi: The veteran's committee seems to be trying to right a wrong and take a hard look at the general manager, who is under-represented in the Hall. Last year they put in Pat Gillick, and would do well to do the same with Bavasi, who was the Dodger GM from 1951 to 1967, which means he oversaw eight pennants and four world championships. He was also a key person in the integration of baseball during the 1940s. He richly deserves induction.

Ken Boyer: Unquestionably a very good player, and a remarkably consistent hitter (check out his stats from 1958 to 1964) but not quite great. He had 2143 hits and 282 home runs, but he was a third baseman, so those stats are pretty good for the third-sackers of the era. He had a big grand-slam home run in the 1964 World Series, and was also MVP that year, but I think he falls short.

Charlie Finley: If there were a Hall of Shame, he would find a place there, not in the Hall of Fame. He did own a team, the Oakland A's, that won three straight titles, but that seemed to be in spite of him. He bought the team when they were in Kansas City, told the fans he wouldn't move them, and then promptly shopped them to other cities (I was surprised to learn just now that a deal was in place to move them to Louisville but the other owners vetoed it). He may have jazzed the game up with things like more colorful uniforms (and white shoes), advocating the DH and night post-season games (both can be seen as curses by some purists) but there is much more on the negative ledger, including his shameful treatment of Mike Andrews during the '83 series, his attempt to dismantle the team (admittedly, he wasn't the first to do this--Connie Mack did it twice) and then another attempt to move the team while allowing the club to become awful and the stadium to fall into disrepair. If he is elected, I would be shocked.

Gil Hodges: For years he has been the most criminally overlooked player to be left out of the Hall. He garnered 63 percent of the vote in his last year of eligibility by the writers (75 is necessary) and for some reason has been passed by in the various methods of election by the veteran's committee since then. There are some solid arguments against--he only has a .273 lifetime batting average (he only hit over .300 twice), and for a first-baseman, his power numbers (370 home runs) are good, not great. In fact, Baseball Reference lists his most similar players as Norm Cash, George Foster, and Tino Martinez, none of them Hall material. But the man was an RBI machine. He had over 100 in seven straight seasons during the '50s, and even after playing part time at the end of his career still managed 100 per year on average. He never finished higher than seventh in an MVP vote (in 1951, he had 40 home runs and 103 RBI, but only finished 19th). Pushing him over the edge, in my opinion, is his managing the 1969 Amazin' Mets. Elect the man already!

Jim Kaat: A close call, but I would vote no. His case is very similar to Tommy John; he won 283 times, which is third all-time for pitchers not in the Hall, but he pitched forever (25 years), and like John, his average season was 13-11 (to be fair, he spent the last few seasons of his career as a relief specialist). But in the era of the pitcher, he only had three twenty-win seasons (he had a monster year in 1966, winning 25). His highest vote total with the writers was only 29 percent. He seems like a genuinely nice man, as he called Yankee games for years, but in my view he didn't win enough games for election.

Minnie Minoso: A nice career, but I don't get his being on the ballot. He did hit over .300 seven times, but did not get 2,000 hits. He had decent power and speed, and won three Gold Gloves. He may get consideration because he was one of the first Latin stars in the Major Leagues. I remember him for the gimmickry of having him play in his 50s so he could be a four-decade player (the White Sox tried to play him in 1990, at the age of 64, but the Commissioner put the kibosh on it). Instead, why not Vada Pinson, who had over 2700 hits and was also a great fielding outfielder?

Tony Oliva: If someone has an argument for Oliva, I'd be willing to listen. For a good part of his career he played in the shadow of Rod Carew, but he did win three batting titles and led the league in hits five times. He had a .304 career batting average. His career was shortened by knee injuries (he lost almost one entire season), so it's difficult to judge him by lifetime stats--he did not have 2,000 hits, for instance. A close call, and I would vote no, but again, chime in if you think differently.

Allie Reynolds: Perhaps it's the allure of the Yankees of the Stengel era that got Reynolds on this list. He did not have 200 wins, and for a pitcher to get in the Hall with that low of a total, they have to have had an extraordinary career, like Sandy Koufax. Reynolds was not that kind of pitcher. He seems like he was a great number 2 starter, but not an ace. He only won 20 games once (in 1952, when he went 20-8 and led the league with a 2.06 ERA and finished second in the MVP voting). He led the league in strikeouts twice and had two no-hitters, but a 182-107 record with a 3.30 ERA isn't good enough. Why him over Mickey Lolich?

Ron Santo: A third-basemen with similar numbers to Boyer, but more hits and more home runs (342, at the time second to Eddie Matthews all-time for third-sackers). He also won five Gold Gloves and was a big part of a good Cubs team of the 1960s (though we all know they never won a pennant). Strangely, he only got as high as 43 percent of the writer's vote. Santo gets intangible points for playing while afflicted with diabetes and his endearing, if unprofessional, radio commentary on Cubs' broadcasts. Sadly he died a few years ago. It's time for the Hall to enshrine him.

Luis Tiant: I have vivid memories of El Tiante when he was a whirling Dervish on the mound during the 1975 World Series for the Red Sox, but his career went way back, but as with Reynolds, there's not enough wins. Tiant was 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA. He did win 20 games four times, but over his career his average season was only 15-11. He never finished higher than fourth in a Cy Young voting. Oddly, his highest vote total by the writers was 30 percent in his first year of eligibility. He then declined, where most other papers gradually increase. He never again went higher than 18 percent, in his last year of eligibility. Close, but no cigar.

So, if I had a vote, I'd cast it for Bavasi, Hodges, and Santo. It may be wishful thinking, but I think that's who is going to be elected early next month.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Weeds, Season 3

The third season of Weeds continues our heroine's slide into the more dangerous realms of her chosen profession, peddling marijuana. It's an interesting year in the show, as it wraps up certain elements--future seasons will see Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) leaving the pre-fab suburb that was the basis of the show's main theme song--"Little Boxes"--and also leading viewers to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that she's just not a very good mother.

The season begins by resolving the cliffhanger of season 2, when druglords have their guns trained on her. She wriggles out of that one, and that becomes another theme for the show--whenever she faces imminent calamity, something almost divine helps her out of it, whether it's a timely death, or, at the end of the season, a wildfire. Parker gets in cahoots with U-Turn (Page Kennedy), a thuggish drug kingpin, who is at war with Mexicans. Later, she will tangle with bikers.

Meanwhile, her family life becomes tangled. Her eldest son (Hunter Parrish) wants in on the business. He gets a girlfriend (Mary-Kate Olsen), who is a Jesus freak but also a pothead, and she becomes Parker's biggest seller. Then the younger son, Shane (Alexander Gould) starts seeing his dead father.

The other throughline in the season is a character played by Matthew Modine, who builds new suburbs. His new town, Majestic, ends up absorbing the smaller town of Agrestic. This causes problems for Parker's pothead accountant, Doug Wilson, who declares a prank war on Modine. And then there's Elizabeth Perkins, as Parker's frenemy, who always does her best to cause Parker no end of problems.

I found it interesting that the writers of the show took Parker down a slippery slope. It had always been about her doing anything she could to help her family, even if it was dealing drugs. But over the course of this season it became clear that it was more than that. A certain amorality crept into Parker's character. She tried to help out the ex-wife of the DEA agent that she surreptitiously married (and ended up getting his life insurance), but that went horribly wrong. But allowing her sons to get involved in the business would not get her mother of the year awards, and it's clear that the inattention she gave to the younger son led him to go nutso.

There were other peculiarities during the season. The character of Andy (Justin Kirk), Parker's ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, bounced through several storylines during the season. He was in the army reserves, had a brief career as a porn star, romanced a biker chick. All of these lasted no more than two episodes. For a season that only had 15 episodes, there were too many storylines introduced. It might have been better to slow down the pace and focus on fewer story arcs.

I did find the last episode satisfying, as the idyllic town goes up in flames, while Pete Seeger sings the theme song. I may get frustrated by this show, but I will rent season 4.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Metamorphosis

In 1915 Franz Kafka wrote a deceptively simple tale called The Metamorphosis. Many are familiar with the set-up: a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself turned into a bug. How and why this happens is never explained. In fact, Kafka treats this like a very bad day instead of a remarkable scientific occurrence: "...but it was much more the complete hopelessness and the thought that they had a experienced a stroke of bad luck unlike any known in their entire circle of family and friends."

When Gregor's parents discover his transformation, they are horrified, mostly because he was the sole breadwinner. Gregor's first worry is that he is going to miss work, and instead of seeking some kind of remedy, such as a doctor, he simply wills it to go away. His sister, Grete, is kind to him at first, feeding him (by trial and error they discover that Gregor prefers rotting food to fresh). But he is unable to communicate with them, and thus is completely isolated, staying in his room, struggling to move around (his first task is to roll off his domed-shaped back to stand upright).

As the weeks go by, his family begins to flourish without him. His father, long retired, gets a job. His mother takes in sewing. Grete gets a job in a shop. They take in three boarders, all men with long white beards, which suggests a Biblical theme. Gregor is allowed to watch his family from his room, where they are bathed with light at the dinner table. Ultimately he dies, and is carried out into the trash by a servant, assumed to be forgotten.

This is admittedly a bleak worldview. Kafka, who was no barrel of laughs, having suffered from tuberculosis and under the heel of a domineering father, suggests that existence is meaningless. No matter what we do it has no effect. It would seem to be counter to the Capra-esque view in It's a Wonderful Life. Repeatedly in The Metamorphoses it is shown how Gregor has been divorced from humanity--he is now an animal, and not only an animal, an invertebrate, without a backbone.

The translation I read is by M.A. Roberts, and it adheres more closely to the intent of Kafka's German text. For instance, the opening sentence is commonly known as "Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself in bed, transformed into a giant cockroach." Roberts translates it as "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning out of restless dreams, he found himself in bed, transformed into a gargantuan pest." This is because the German word Kafka uses, Ungeziefer, is more accurately translated as "pest" or "vermin." The German word for insect or roach: "Insekt" or "Kakerlaker," is not used. Later, a maid calls him a dung beetle, but she is not speaking from any scientific vantage point.

Those who have seen The Producers will recall that Zero Mostel, while searching for the world's worst play, stumbles upon one that opens with the customary first sentence. He tosses it aside and says, "It's too good."

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Roommate

The Roommate was a much better movie when it starred Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh and was called Single White Female. It's not that The Roommate is aggressively awful--it's somewhat competent in execution, though largely devoid of suspense--it's greatest crime is it's complete irrelevancy. It has no reason to exist.

Minka Kelly (who, at 31, is a little old for such a part) plays a college freshman who has just moved into her room at a thinly veiled UCLA (it's called the University of Los Angeles, but what other college is on Sunset Boulevard?) After a night of partying she meets her roommate, the shy, pretty and polite Leighton Meester (at 25, a little more age-appropriate). Things seem great at first, as Meester couldn't be nicer, but of course everything will go terribly wrong.

It starts with Meester becoming possessive of Kelly, coveting her friendship and protecting her from bad influences. She assaults Kelly's hard-partying friend (Aly Michalka) by ripping out her belly-button ring, then sets up a professor (Billy Zane) in a sexual harassment rap. Best unsaid is what she does to Kelly's kitten. Kelly is oblivious at first, but when she realizes Meester is not taking her psychotropic drugs, she decides to move out, but not before Meester escalates the violence.

The similarities to Single White Female are striking, right down to the heroine being a fashion designer, to a boyfriend being killed with a sharp object (a box cutter replaces a stiletto). It was directed by Christian E. Christiansen, a Danish director who was nominated for an Oscar for a live-action short. I haven't seen that film, but I'm assuming it was inventive and original, and it's sad to think his entry into Hollywood was to make this derivative piece of nonsense. Here's a lesson to up-and-coming filmmakers--don't take anything they offer you. The Roommate may have set him back in his career (although it did make 40 million at the box office).

I will say this--the more I see of Leighton Meester the more impressed I am with her. She turns a cliched role into something interesting--I bought her completely in this movie. She has the potential to be a very interesting actress; I just hope she gets better material.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen is getting all the buzz for her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she is indeed very good. Without her performance, there would be little to recommend this film, which tries to create a haunting psychological thriller but instead succeeds mostly in creating murkiness.

Olsen is Martha, and as the film begins she sneaks away from a commune she lives in based in the Catskill Mountains. She calls her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes her to her lakeside vacation home in Connecticut. The sisters haven't spoken in two years, but Olsen reveals nothing of her stay at the commune, instead just saying she was with a boyfriend and broke up.

The film then intercuts between Olsen's induction and indoctrination into the commune, which is led by the charismatic and just a bit scary John Hawkes. We're not totally sure of what Hawkes is up to or what his game is, but he seems to snare Olsen by crafting a song about her. This despite her waking up one night to find Hawkes humping her from behind.

In the present, Olsen hangs out in her sister's house, mostly sleeping, but also displaying that some communal habits die hard, like skinny-dipping in broad daylight or crawling into her sister's bed while she's having sex with her husband (Hugh Dancy). All the while she refuses to discuss what happened to her, which I imagine is an understandable psychological response, but also is a convenient plot mechanism.

Of course life on the commune isn't as wholesome as Olsen imagines. It's totally patriarchal, as the men are allowed to eat first, and the men seem to have free run sexually (at least Hawkes does). When Olsen realizes they are sort of Manson-Family-lite, she rethinks her position. What starts as burglaries ends in violence, which presumably kick-starts her decision to leave.

Though she does leave, her head still seems to be there. Dancy loses patience with her quickly, and when she accuses him of living his life "wrong" by valuing money and possessions, this while she sleeps under his roof and eats his food, he's had enough. Olsen makes a critical mistake--she calls her commune, which lets them know where she is.

Olsen is amazingly good, and her performance is mostly subtle. A good deal of it is reflected in her eyes, which express a constant bewilderment at being back in the upper-middle-class. Writer and director Sean Durkin has not given us too much backstory--we see nothing of Olsen before her first day at the commune--but Olsen fills in the gaps with her mannerisms, giving us a portrait of a lost woman.

Hawkes is also very good, despite also having to fill in cracks. I think I was influenced by his equally scary guy in Winter's Bone. There's a scene where, while teaching Olsen how to shoot, that we learn that he's not exactly running a peaceful kibbutz. But I would have liked to see more about what he was up to. Did he have a guiding philosophy, or was he just a sexual predator and low-level criminal?

Much of Durkin's fingerprints in this film are the frequent cuts between past and present, often done so that the situation is almost identical, whether it be the position Olsen is sitting in or the mood of a scene, such that it can take a moment for the viewer to realize what time period there are in. This can be clever, but ultimately becomes a tedious gimmick.

The ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene (the title refers to the different names Olsen is known by during the film, a suggestion that her identity is not her own) is abrupt and ambiguous. I'm pretty sure I understood what was going on, but as the lights came up I was surrounded by some confused patrons.

My grade for Martha Marcy May Marlene: C+

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

This collection of inter-connected stories won the Pulitzer Prize for Jennifer Egan this year. I liked it, sort of, but I was also a bit confused by it. Each story is connected to one another by one or more characters, but it's best to read it fast, because if you take a while, like I did, you may forget who is who and how they are related.

It also escaped me how these stories spoke to something greater than the sum of their parts. Most of the through-line concerns music, specifically rock music. Most of the characters have something to do with music, whether as performers, record company employees, or promoters. The action covers a wide swath, from the 1970s to well into the future, but are told out of sequence.

The core of the book is Bennie Salazar, who founded a punk group in the 1970s in San Francisco, and then went on to discover a big group and start a record company. His assistant, Sasha, is also a character, and we first meet her when she is dealing with kleptomania. There's a certain harping on the alienation of youth, as the kids in Bennie's band are picaresquely described in a story called "Ask Me If I Care," one of the stronger entries. Sasha's own misspent youth in Naples is documented in "Goodbye, My Love."

Egan plays with time, especially in a story called "Safari" (which appeared in the Best American Short Stories of 2010), which tells the mildly humorous story of Lou Klein, Bennie's mentor, as he takes two of his children on an African safari. Egan uses a technique of stopping to reveal what will happen to everyone many years in the future, which can be quite effective in honing what we have read so far (is there anything more fascinating than looking at a child and wondering what they will grow up to be?)

"Safari" was the earliest story, chronologically, the last being "Great Rock and Roll Pauses," which is told by Sasha's daughter in PowerPoint slides. Her brother, Lincoln, is obsessed with rock songs that have discernible pauses, and in some ways is as frightening a view of the future as I've seen.

My other favorites of this collection are "Xs and Os," in which the mercurial singer of Bennie's band visits him years later in his fancy record-company office, and brings him a fish, and an uproarious take-off on celebrity profiles in glossy magazines. In this example, a journalist meets a minor young starlet for a typical interview, but it becomes all about him, complete with footnotes, to the point that he painstakingly describes how he attacks her in Central Park.

Less successful is "Selling the General," in which a washed up publicist has to take on a brutal, genocidal dictator. She hires the starlet mentioned above to play the general's girlfriend, but things go badly. It's broad, paranoid nature didn't fit with the rest of the book.

There are parts of A Visit From the Goon Squad that are vivid and touching, but I just missed there collective purpose.