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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Let's Hear It for 2012!

2011 was a mixed bag for me. I got a job, then I lost it, and the process of losing it drove me to a psychiatrist's couch and the wonders of pharmaceuticals. But I lucked out and had a job in my back pocket, a lucrative gig I could do it at home for only a few hours a day, which sustained me during the summer and fall. But then that dried up, so the work is now less than a trickle. So I continue to collect unemployment, but I had to file a new claim, and though it was approved I have a phone appointment with them on Wednesday, about which I have no idea. I have been doubling my anxiety medication in preparation for that call.

I also turned 50 in 2011, which is pretty fucking old. I'm older now than three of my grandparents were when I was born. I'm older than the United States president, if only by a few months. If actuarial tables are correct, I'm deep into the second half of my life. I've lived more life since graduating college than I did before. I was born before color TV, before the calculator (remember adding machines?) and I remember when Pong was cutting edge technology.

Though I'm closer to death than birth, and though I have no job prospects on the horizon, I'm optimistic about 2012. Why? Love. Yes, I am in love, and she loves me, too. It's a very cinematic story really. I met a girl 16 years ago on a chat line, of all places. We hit it off, but she lived in Las Vegas and I lived in New Jersey, and since I was working for Penthouse, I wasn't about to quit. She had no interest in coming here, so she ended up getting married to someone else. But we stayed friends all that time, and we stuck together through thick and thin.

Now she's divorced, and we're going to give it a go. There are many complications--she has two adopted kids of different races, and they are special needs. We're still separated by a continent, but that will change. We've gone back and forth on who will move, but right now it's me moving there, which is pretty exciting, since I've had a thing about Vegas since even before I met her. I wrote a screenplay about Area 51, and am currently writing (though am stuck) on a novel that takes place in Vegas. Maybe by living there I can finish it. The unemployment rate in Las Vegas is the worst in the country, but since when I have done things logically?

This is all very tentative, but I'm of the attitude that fuck it, I'm going to do it. We'll need money--she's getting a pretty large divorce settlement from her ex-husband's rich family, so that will make things easier. I may even go back to school--UNLV has has a master's program in creative writing. Of course I won't like the heat, and culture in Las Vegas means Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil. But, at 50, I think it's a good time to reinvent myself. Maybe I'll get a tattoo, learn to ride a motorcycle, or learn how to play poker and go pro. Well, probably not, because I suck at card games. But, as they say, unlucky at cards, lucky in love.

Happy new year to all my readers. I'm able to see where you all are from. I get readers from places as disparate as Macedonia to Malaysia to Bolivia. I have a hunch you don't stay here for long--my number one post is on porn star Kagney Linn Karter, and I imagine you guys who find it are looking for a picture much more risque than the one I posted. But even if you're only here for a few seconds, thanks for visiting, and I hope you come back. I started this blog on a whim almost six years ago, and it's become kind of an obsession for me. I'll keep doing it, as long as I have the mental faculty to do so.

Friday, December 30, 2011

West Side Story

West Side Story was the winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1961; in fact it won 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations. As good as The Hustler was, I can't say that I wouldn't have voted for West Side Story--it was an innovative feast for the senses, and really hasn't been duplicated as a film that effectively told a story through music and dance.

The film, of course, was based on the Broadway musical, an updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Set in a part of New York City that no longer exists (it was razed to build Lincoln Center), the story concerns rival gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. In the midst of the tension between the two gangs, Tony, a former gang member, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks' leader. Tragedy ensues.

The play was conceived by Jerome Robbins, who enlisted Leonard Bernstein to write the score, Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics, and Arthur Laurents to write the libretto. Bernstein was after changing the nature of the Broadway musical--up until then, most musicals were lighthearted romantic comedies. His music, almost operatic in nature, combined with Robbins' balletic choreography to create something new in American musical theater. In my opinion, which is not an audacious one, Bernstein wrote the greatest score ever for a Broadway musical.

For the film, Robert Wise was hired to direct. Robbins would choreograph, but eventually became co-director. He was so demanding, and insisted on so many takes, that he was eventually fired, but kept the credit; when he and Wise won the Oscar for Best Director (the first co-directors to do; since then only the Brothers Coen have done it) neither thanked the other. Robbins also won a special Oscar for his choreography.

The film has many attributes, Bernstein's score included, but I noticed that when articles appeared on the film's 50th anniversary this October, the encomiums were written by dance critics. In the documentary that accompanies the DVD, it is notable that Sondheim says that on the surface, West Side Story is about racial prejudice, but really it's about the theater, and how to tell a story using dance.

I've known some people who could never get West Side Story. The prologue, one of the most thrillingly brilliant segments in any American movie, focuses on Russ Tamblyn as Riff, snapping his fingers along with his gang. The only sequence that was actually shot in New York, the scene shows the rivalry with the Sharks, who fight with balletic moves. I remember a kid I knew who couldn't get past the fact that gangbangers would never dance like that. True, and the dancers in the film don't look all that tough--their dancers, after all. But the movement is just breathtaking, and if you can just sit back and let that scene wash over you, the rest will come easy.

And there's so many other great numbers, both personal and intimate, such as "Maria," and "Tonight," sung by Tony and Maria on the fire escape, to the production numbers such as "America" and "Cool," or "Quintet," one of the most amazing pieces of music ever written for the American stage, when the Jets and Sharks are heading for their rumble, Anita (Rita Moreno) is readying for her date with Bernardo (George Chakiris), and Tony and Maria reprise "Tonight," to the heartbreaking "Somewhere."

I've learned all sorts of interesting trivia about the film--I did know that Marni Nixon's voice was dubbed in for Wood, who did record for the film, but her voice wasn't deemed good enough. The same fate befell Richard Beymer as Tony. Some of the actors up for Tony included Warren Beatty (who was currently dating Wood), but it was Elvis Presley the producers wanted. Colonel Tom Parker turned them down, insisting that he didn't want Elvis depicted as a gang member. Auditioning for Maria were Audrey Hepburn, who withdrew because of pregnancy, and Valerie Harper, who would go on to play TV's Rhoda. It is a shame, though, that more Latino actors were not used--Moreno was the only one. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and Chakiris, a Greek-American, was the Best Supporting Actor winner.

The film certainly seems dated in some respects. Juvenile delinquency was a problem in the 1950s, but I doubt these characters would scare any current gang members. Use of terms like "daddy-o" give it a quaint feeling. But there is some trenchant sociology going on. Consider the character of Anybody's, a tomboy trying to join the gang, only to be rejected because she was a girl. That she is called "anybody's" suggest things the film leaves to the imagination.

And consider the wonderful number "Gee, Officer Krupke," the only pure comic number in the film. Sondheim, in his inimitable way, uses jokes to highlight the deadly cycle that impoverished children went through--being handed from judge to psychologist to social worker. Finally the Jets, in song, sum it up as "We're no good, we're no good!"

Musicals enjoyed a long life in Hollywood, and though they've had a bit of a revival in recent years, their days of glory are over. West Side Story was the apotheosis of that period.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Judgment at Nuremberg

Another nominee for Best Picture in 1961 was Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. A three-hour courtroom drama, it was one of the first films to take on the subject of Nazi genocide in a Hollywood film, and at a sensitive time, since West Germany was a key ally in the Cold War at the time, and the United States did not wish to alienate them by dragging up old memories.

The origins of the film were a teleplay by Abby Mann that ran on Playhouse 90, and starred unknown actor Maximilian Schell as the defense attorney. After seeing the show, Spencer Tracy wanted to do it, and got Kramer to direct. Kramer, well known for making socially conscious films like The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind, was a natural for this uncompromising look at an extraordinary time in history.

Instead of dramatizing the more sensational first trial, which tried big names like Goering, Mann concentrated on a less well-known trial of judges, reasoning that these men, who knew the law, were more fascinating defendants. They were tried for sentencing innocent people to concentration camps, and sterilizing people for political purposes.

Tracy starred as the chief judge of a three-man tribunal. Schell reprised his role as the defense attorney, and earned an Oscar for Best Actor (Tracy was nominated). A large cast of famous actors included Richard Widmark as the prosecuting attorney, Marlene Dietrich as a German woman and widow of an executed German officer who befriends Tracy, Burt Lancaster as one of the defendants, and in glorified cameos, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland as witnesses for the prosecution. Both Clift and Garland also earned Oscar nominations.

The star of this film, though, is Mann's script, which also won an Oscar and deservedly so. It's not a flag-waving damnation of the German people, considering both sides quite eloquently. Schell's defense is multi-pronged: the judges involved were carrying out the law for the good of their country; they didn't make the law. In a big speech toward the end he also points out that there is plenty of room for assigning blame, from the Vatican, who signed an accord with Hitler in 1933, to American industrialists, who profited by supplying Germany with the mechanisms of their horror. Mann, in an interview on the DVD, cites the villain of the film as patriotism, an audacious thing to say, but one that has a lot of truth in it. So many atrocities have been committed in the name of patriotism that it backs Oscar Wilde's quote: "Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious."

Mann also turns the tables more than once. Widmark makes a passionate speech against forced sterilization, to which Schell responds by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote a decision that upheld sterilization of the mentally incompetent. Mann didn't go the full route when discussing a case that involved the sexual relationship between Aryans and non-Aryans; he could have had Schell point out that the exact same laws existed against miscegenation at the time in the U.S.

The film has all the earmarks of live television, with a limited set, and almost every character gets a big speech. But they are all knocked out of the park. I'm not sure if Lancaster's speech, in which he announces his guilt, was better than Tracy's reading of the decision, or Schell's previously mentioned speech. Clift and Garland are also quite good in their brief roles, as the former, his once matinee idols look damaged by a car crash, squirms on the stand as he testifies about being sterilized, or the latter, her days as America's sweetheart behind her, portraying an unglamorous woman who was jailed for supposing to have a relationship with an elderly Jewish man.

In addition to the big stars in the cast, there are a few notable film debuts: Werner Klemperer, who would end up starring as Col. Klink in Hogan's Heroes, played the nastiest defendant, and William Shatner was the judge's assistant.

In some of the supplemental material, it states that actual films of the concentration camps were shown to the public for the first time in this film. I don't believe that that's true--The Stranger, from 1946, beat it by 11 years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

War Horse

I'm going to begin my review of War Horse by taking the unusual tack of quoting another critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times: "You may find yourself resisting this sentimental pageant of early-20th-century rural English life, replete with verdant fields, muddy tweeds and damp turnips, but my strong advice is to surrender. Allow your sped-up, modern, movie-going metabolism...to calm down a bit. Suppress your instinctive impatience, quiet the snarky voice in your head and allow yourself to recall, or perhaps to discover, the deep pleasures of sincerity."

Fair enough. I interpret Scott's plea as a call to check my cynicism at the door, and try as I might, I couldn't do it. To be sure, the film, which can only have been the work of Steven Spielberg, is an impressive production, but I just felt too manipulated to soak in what others may enjoy. This film may be the litmus test of the year. I don't begrudge others who may find themselves weeping at the end, but my tear ducts remained dry.

As one of its stars, Emily Watson, termed it, the film is "Black Beauty goes to war." For those who somehow made it through childhood without reading Black Beauty, that's the story that is told from the point of view of a horse, who moves from owner to owner, good and bad. War Horse adds the element of World War I, as our horse in question, Joey, moves from English to French to German owners, emotionally touching everyone he comes in contact with. Horse lovers will respond to this more than others, I suspect, but it's a tricky move, because the central character--the horse--isn't really a character, he's a creature that others respond to. It's hard to feel like one is in the shoes of a horse, not only because they are nailed on. We get used to one of his owners, then we move on, and the film becomes a series of herks and jerks that is inevitably leading to a reunion with his original owner.

That original owner is Albie Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). His father (Peter Mullan), in a fit of exaggerated pride, spends much too much on the horse while at an auction looking for a plough horse. Joey, as Irvine names him, is a thoroughbred, not made for farm work. Watson, as Irvine's mother, is outraged, as Mullan has spent the rent in a foolish gesture. Irvine must train the horse to plough the field to get the necessary crops for the rent, so the first half hour of the film is all about whether a horse can plough.

Things pick up when war is declared, and Mullan sells Joey to the army. Irvine is aghast, but his new owner (Tom Hiddleston), a captain, assures him he will take care of him. But in an ill-thought cavalry charge, Joey ends up in German hands. He is tended to by a soulful young German soldier (David Kross), and then ends up at a French farm, beloved by a little girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). I last saw Arestrup as a vicious criminal in A Prophet, so to see him as kindly grandfather was jarring.

And so it goes for Joey, until he ends up tangled in barbed wire in the no-man's land between British and German lines. In the best scene of the film, a British and German soldier call off the hostilities long enough to free him, Spielberg's admittedly unsubtle way of telling us that war is bad and we're all horse-loving brothers under the skin. While the message is trite, the filmmaking is superb.

And there are times when the genius of Spielberg, despite his over-reliance on sentimentality, shines through. I'm thinking specifically of an execution that is shot through the slowly revolving blades of a windmill, or a pulse-pounding tracking shot that follows Joey racing through the war trenches. And the final shot, photographed by Janusz Kaminski against a setting sun that recalls the end of the first act of Gone With the Wind, is over the top in emotional manipulation, but is beautiful to behold.

At this stage of his career Spielberg may be in an impossible situation with jaded viewers like me. He's proved everything he could ever possibly prove, so to expect him to continually re-invent himself is probably futile. This is the stuff he does best, and as far as that goes War Horse is quintessential Spielberg. It doesn't have the wonder of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the depiction of war is not as uncompromising as Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. But, as he has been quoted, he wanted to make a movie that could have been made 50 years ago, and he and Kaminski studied the films of John Ford to try to achieve that. But, as Orson Welles said of Ford, whom he considered the great master of film, "Sentimentality was his vice." The same can certainly be said of Spielberg. But for those lean toward the sentimental, War Horse will prove to be a richly rewarding experience.

My grade for War Horse: B-.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

London Boulevard

Sticking with Keira Knightley, which I would love to do, I turn to London Boulevard, a 2010 British film that never was released in the U.S. It was written and directed by William Monahan, the screenwriter of The Departed, in his directorial debut.

Though the film has a lot of familiar elements, I admired its style and Colin Farrell's cold-blooded performance as a hoodlum just out of prison. As usual in the movies, he wants to go straight, but is drawn back into the underworld by his friend Ben Chaplin, who gets him work collecting for a loan shark. Meanwhile, he gets a chance at a job providing security for a reclusive movie star (Knightley).

Eventually the big boss, Ray Winstone (another fine performance), wants Farrell to move up in the organization, but Farrell says thanks but no thanks. Winstone ends up murdering someone in Farrell's presence to make him an accessory, but Farrell runs afoul of him and, as Bugs Bunny used to say, "This means war."

Knightley's role is almost a glorified cameo. She, of course, falls in love with Farrell. Far more interesting is David Thewlis as Knightley's personal assistant, who takes to a life of crime with brio. "How do you feel about guns?" Farrell asks him. Thewlis responds, "I'm a trained actor. I can feel anything about anything."

Shot in grimy muted colors by Chris Menges, London Boulevard fits right in with recent British crime films like Harry Brown or even all the way back to The Long Good Friday. It's not a great picture, but I enjoyed it (helped by the subtitles that Comcast On Demand thoughtfully provides).

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Dangerous Method

I don't know if I've had a more confounding cinema experience this year than I did watching A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's film about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and the woman who came between them. I'll bet that psychologists everywhere will flock to it, arguing about it like ballet dancers did about Black Swan last year, but for those of who can barely keep straight the differences between id, ego, and superego, this film is about as interesting as a graduate seminar, even if it does not one but two scenes of a topless Keira Knightley getting spanked.

The script, written by Christopher Hampton and based on his play The Talking Cure, focuses on the true story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a Swiss acolyte of Freud's, treating a Russian girl (Knightley), who has hysterical fits. What's interesting about this early sequence is how well she is treated--this is no Snake Pit. Jung uses Freud's new-fangled psychoanalysis, talking out what makes her go into seizure-like fits, and traces it back to her relationship with her father, who beat her, but also made her excited.

Eventually Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the two form a collegial relationship, despite Freud considering Jung a bit of a kook with references to mysticism and shamanism. This sort of comes out of nowhere in the script, as except for one scene in which Jung proclaims he anticipated the sound of a heater crackling, we don't get a sense of him as anything but a straight-laced gentleman. That is, until he succumbs to Knightley's charms and indulges her fantasies of being beaten.

But this makes the film kinkier than it sounds. At several points I wondered if this was a movie at all--instead it just seems like random scenes cut together without any regard for pacing or story. Cronenberg indulges in some transitions I find to be violations of unwritten rules--he has two characters talking in a scene, then cuts to the same two characters, discussing something else, in a different place, without us having any sense of how much time has passed, or the resolution of the previous scene. There's also a lot of talk about Freud's fixation on sex, with a few droll lines by Jung about how everything with Freud comes back to sex (I was reminded of the line in the TV show M*A*S*H, when Dr. Sidney Freeman says, "Sex is why we eat, sex is why we go to the bathroom, sex is why we have children.")

Of the acting trio, there are mixed results. Fassbender has been in a million films this year, and though I haven't seen Shame yet, I'm betting that his performance as Jung is the dullest of the year. He shows little indication of why he's doing what he's doing--he violates a sacrosanct rule by sleeping with a patient, but aside from a slightly wrinkled brow, doesn't seem to suffer much for it. Knightley has an impossible task--her early scenes she has to go full crazy, thrusting her jaw out like she's turning into a werewolf. I give her marks for giving it the old college try, and certainly some insane do act like that, but I couldn't help but see the acting. She's much better when she's recovered and studying to be a psychiatrist on her own, debating with Freud over the sexual drive destroying the ego.

Mortensen stealthily steals the show, although I had trouble buying him as Freud, given the little I know about him. There's a nicely done scene of he and Jung exchanging letters, ending their friendship. Even more vivid in this otherwise dry film is Vincent Cassel as a psychiatrist who has been institutionalized for not believing in repressing anything. When he escapes by jumping over a wall, I wanted to go with him.

I couldn't help but find A Dangerous Method dull and talky, and was sneaking peeks at my watch often. My grade: C-.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Guns of Navarone

Also nominated for Best Picture in 1961, The Guns of Navarone is a classic example of several tropes in Hollywood. It's a war picture, with faceless Germans the enemy; it's an adventure story, with a clearly delineated journey that must be accomplished by the heroes; and, most vividly, it's perhaps the best example of the mission story, where a small team of disparate people must unite to take down a greater evil.

I don't know if, before yesterday, I had ever seen this film straight through, but I certainly remember seeing pieces of it on the 4:30 movie. It's the kind of movie that inspires scenarios for boys playing with army men or G.I. Joes. During World War II, a band of six soldiers are assigned to sabotage a pair of large guns that block access to a channel through the Aegean Sea. Of course the team is from all nations and types--the British career soldier (Anthony Quayle), the chemistry professor who happens to be an expert in explosives (David Niven), the American mountain-climbing expert (Gregory Peck), the Greek colonel (Anthony Quinn), the technician (Stanley Baker), and the cold-blooded killer (James Darren).

Not only were the characters of certain types, but so were the actors. Peck, Niven, and Quinn were movie stars, but Quayle was a classically trained stage actor, and Darren was a teen idol pop star. The movie seemed designed to have something for everyone, and was a huge hit.

Looking at it yesterday, it isn't all that, at least not anymore. To its credit, it's not all gung-ho--there is a pointed speech by Niven about not caring anymore about the outcome of the war. There will be more wars, he says, why not just let the world blow itself to bits. But it does lean on the ludicrous at times. There's a scene in which they are all captured (dealing with the one German who is given a soul) and escape rather easily. But this type of film doesn't rely on making sense, it's all about last-second escapes and nick-of-time explosions.

On the good side of the ledger, the characters are sharply drawn, and Niven, in particular, is excellent. It might have been this film, or maybe it was The Pink Panther, but when I was in my early teens David Niven was one of my favorite movie stars. I went so far as to read both of his memoirs. What can I say, I was a weird kid. Anyway, there's a gripping scene, late in the film, in which Niven discovers there's a traitor in their midst, and his method of working out who it is is terrific. Credit here must also go to the screenwriter (as well as the producer) Carl Foreman and director J. Lee Thompson.

The film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, but in this modern era they look a little cheesy. The rear projection is painfully obvious. But that doesn't lessen the overall effect--a scene in which they land the boat on the island of Navarone in a pulsing storm is still well done. But the destruction of the mountaintop housing the guns is really bad--it reminds me of the destruction of the castle in The Bride of Frankenstein, but not as good.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Artist

The Artist is a lot of fun, but is it a great film, as judged by the many critic's awards it's been winning? Opinions will differ. I consider it more a pastiche, or a valentine, for the silent film-era, and is about as deep as a strip of celluloid. It's richly entertaining, but made of gossamer.

We've been reading how unlikely it must have seemed that a French, black and white, silent film would score with audiences. Well, since it's silent, it's Frenchness doesn't matter at all, and it isn't truly a silent film at all, in that there is synchronized sound and special use of voices and sound effects where needed. Surely it will mean more to those who recognize the tips of the hat to the films A Star Is Born, Singin' in the Rain, and even Citizen Kane (look for a dinner table scene that is almost a perfect match from that film).

The story is wafer-thin: Jean Dujardin is George Valentin (only one letter away from the great silent film star, Valentino) a huge silent film star. At his latest premiere, he meets cute Berenice Bejo, who is an extra. They have a spark of kismet, but Dujardin is married to the sour Penelope Ann Miller. She hates him--why we don't know, since he is never less than charming--to the point where she defaces every image of him she can find. Maybe he's more devoted to his Jack Russell terrier, who performs with him. An R-rated version of this film might have been interesting.

Anyway, Bejo gets a job as an extra on Dujardin's latest film, and during a dancing scene they fall in love, although it is unrequited. She slips into his dressing room and caresses his overcoat, a bit lifted from Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven, but still lovingly done. The tide is about to turn, though, as studio boss John Goodman shows Dujardin the new-fangled "talkie" technology. Dujardin is adamant that people don't want to see him speak, and so as silent films fade, so does his stardom, while Bejo becomes a big star.

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is clever and looks great. The very first title card is "I won't talk!," and the closing bit of dialogue, well, I won't spoil that. The aspect ratio is the old-fashioned 1:33, and the camera speed, while not the common 16 fps of silent days, is 22 fps, off a bit from the modern 24 fps. I read an article where Hazanavicius points out that if nothing else, those two frames per second cuts eight percent of the running time. The photography, by Guillaume Schiffman, is magnificent, as is the music score by Ludovic Bource, and the costumes, by Mark Bridges (who was a college classmate of mine).

The performances by Dujardin and Bejo are also a joy. Dujardin, as a man of the past, favors the mugging style of silent films, while Bejo has the additional level of playing a woman who acts in talkies while being in a silent film, but she's terrific. But Uggie, as the Jack Russell, steals the show, especially in a great scene worthy of Rin Tin Tin when he retrieves a bewildered policeman.

For those who thinks an old movie is early Spielberg, the charms of The Artist may well be lost, but those who remember watching the black and white classics on the midnight movie should feel a glow of nostalgia. The production design captures the glamor of the era, down to the gaudy Hollywood mansions to the movie magazines. I liked The Artist a great deal, but it just isn't deep or substantial enough to warrant "best of the year" accolades. It's a novelty, albeit an expertly done one.

My grade for The Artist: B+

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fanny

It's time for my fifth annual look at films from fifty years ago, by focusing on those that were nominated for Oscars. A few years ago I wrote on The Hustler, which was one of the five nominated films for Best Picture in 1961.

Another was Fanny, directed by Joshua Logan. You often hear, especially from older film fans like me, that "they don't make them like that anymore." Well, this is not always a wistful comment. They don't make movies like Fanny anymore, and thank god. This is one of those bloated, overly-colored saturated spectacles that you can imagine your grandmother dressing up to go see.

Set in Marseilles, the film concerns the love story between a young daughter of a fishmonger (Leslie Caron) and a bartender (Horst Buchholz). He longs to go to sea, but after spending one eventful night with Caron, knocks her up. He doesn't know that, though, and heads out on a scientific exploration. Caron, left pregnant and unmarried, decides to marry the rich merchant who has always been an admirer of hers (Maurice Chevalier), who is decades older. He knows of her situation, but accepts the child as his own.

Eventually Buchholz comes back on leave, and due to some basic knowledge of math deduces the boy is really his. There's some tension, but not much, as Chevalier worries that Caron will leave him for her true love. I had stopped caring long before this point.

Though tough and gritty films like The Hustler could crack the nominations in those days, movies like Fanny still somehow enthralled the voters. The film is very lush and has vibrant costumes and sets, but lordy is it a chore to sit through. Like Gigi from three years earlier, which actually won the Best Picture Oscar, it has an overload of Gallic whimsy. I can only be grateful that this film, which was based on a Broadway musical, removed all of the songs, which would have made it longer.

Charles Boyer, who plays Buchholz's father, was nominated for Best Actor. He does do some nice work.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (U.S. Version)

Anyone who has seen the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as I have, is naturally going to compare it to that film, if not the book both are based on (I have not read the novel, though I did read the second in the series). To get the comparisons out of the way, David Fincher's U.S. version, written by Steve Zaillian, is a better film, with less interest in fidelity to the novel, although it is pretty faithful, instead opting for an overall feeling of gloom and despair, somewhat akin to Fincher's approach in Zodiac and Se7en. The faults in the film, as with the Swedish version, rest with the source author, Stieg Larsson.

To quickly sum up, a journalist who has been convicted of libel (Daniel Craig), is summoned to a privately-owned island in the north of Sweden. A patriarch of a very rich family, Christopher Plummer, asks him to look into the disappearance of his niece some 40 years earlier. Plummer's family is a gaggle of Nazis and other reprobates, and the whole thing has a kind of "locked door" quality to it, as there is only one way off the island and it was blocked by a traffic accident when the girl vanished.

Meanwhile, we meet Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), by now one of the most celebrated characters in contemporary pop literature. A computer genius with a troubled background, she has a face full of hardware, a body covered in ink, is sexually ambiguous, and isn't trained in the social niceties. She investigates Craig's background for Plummer's lawyer, and then goes about dealing with her new legal guardian, who rapes her viciously. Her revenge is appropriately vicious in turn.

Eventually, of course, Craig and Mara team up, and I think they had better chemistry in this film. For one thing, the characterization of Mikael Blomkvist, as played by Craig, makes him much less of a lady's man than he is in Larsson's books. Salander is also less of a super-woman. There's no inkling in this film that she has martial arts training--when her backpack is stolen in the subway, she retrieves it not like some sort of Jet Li in a Mohawk, but more like a very pissed off teenager. But, Zaillian sticks with the mistake of having the two become intimate. There's just no reason for this, and it threw both films off their axis. The relationship would have been far more poignant if the attraction between them would have been more avuncular and unacted upon.

The film is over two and a half hours long but seems to go too fast in spots, as the mystery is pieced together rather quickly, to the effect of it being almost beside the point. My memory is fuzzy, but I don't recall in the other film Blomkvist having a teenage daughter, who here clues him on the solution of a particular puzzle that rapidly unlocks everything else. Instead, Fincher is more concerned with mood, and the scenes that take place on the island reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, which had similar characters that were part monster. The opening credits, like something out of a Bond film, had scenes of a dripping oily substance on body parts, set to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," cuing us in for a macabre evening.

I enjoyed this film, and often it found it pulse-pounding, but it has some problems that are unfixable. The denouement, involving Mara helping Craig get revenge on the man who set him up, seems to go on forever. As stated, some of this is Larsson's uninspired writing--does every villain really explain everything to the investigator before he tries to kill him? But the acting is good--Mara, while not outshining Noomi Repace, does strike me as a more vulnerable figure, and is difficult to take your eyes off of. It is a bit hypocritical, though, for a movie about cruelty to women to have Mara frequently undressed.

My grade for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: B.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Washington

"He ranks as the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved. He seems to lack the folksy appeal of Abraham Lincoln, the robust vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, or the charming finesse of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, George Washington has receded so much in our collective memory that he has become an impossibly stiff and inflexible figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human." So writes Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the indispensable man of the founding of America, whose command of the Continental Army led the colonies to victory in the American Revolution and then, as first president, ensured that the fledgling republic held together. Chernow has written a doorstop of a book--over 800 pages--but they are all a delight to read, and I was gratified to be awash in facts about perhaps the most famous American who has ever lived.

Chernow provides a cradle to grave study of the man, touching on his Virginia boyhood, conscious of males in his family having a habit of dying early. But it was through those deaths, and his fortuitous marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, that provided him a fortune. Before that, though, he was a frontiersman and an able soldier, participating in the French and Indian War. In fact, that he did not receive a commission from the British Army (colonial soldiers were routinely looked down upon) first began to nettle Washington about the British. That, and his difficulty in dealing with British merchants. It could be sad that bad customer service provoked Washington to desire independence.

Washington was chosen as commander of the army because he had the most military experience--I was surprised to learn that John Hancock wanted the gig. But no matter how often I read about the war, I can't wrap my mind around how the Americans won, as Chernow vividly points out how the army was ill-fed, underpaid, and ill-clothed. Washington lost more battles than he won. Imagine the scene after Washington fled from Long Island (with the help of a thick fog), but then was routed by the British in Harlem. Chernow writes: "The man of consummate self-control surrendered to his emotions. Fuming, he flung his hat to the ground and shouted, 'Are these the men with which I am to defend America!' According to another account, he swore, 'Good God! Have I got such troops as these?'"

But Washington, when he did win, did so brilliantly, as in his surprise attack on Trenton after crossing the Delaware, and the subsequent Battle of Princeton. No less a person than Frederick the Great wrote, "The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of 10 days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements."

What's clear is that the United States of America would not exist in its present form without the help of the French, particularly their navy, which kept Cornwallis from retreating from Yorktown. The antipathy for the French, though, came almost immediately. Memories are short.

Washington was then chosen as the president of the constitutional convention, after which he became the first president of the United States. His primary attribute was the ability to listen and absorb the opinions of others before deliberating and making a decision. He had no interest in becoming a monarch, and feared that the country would lean that way. That didn't stop his critics, most notoriously the son of Benjamin Franklin, who ran a newspaper called the Aurora, from criticizing him mercilessly, claiming that Washington was monarchical. Chernow bends over backwards to disprove that notion.

Washington knew that everything he did as chief executive was establishing precedent. He actually wanted to resign in his first term after two years--his health was failing already, and he almost died more than once. But many feared that he was the glue holding everything together. He dithered about running for a second term, and regretted it almost at once. He was criticized for picking the site of the new capital so close to his home at Mount Vernon, and his cabinet was like a nest of vipers, with Hamilton and Jefferson at each other's throats, and John Adams, his vice president, providing more carping than help. It is to be noted that Adams, Jefferson and James Madison come in for a lot of criticism from Chernow.

Washington's second term was pretty much misery for him. In addition to cabinet squabbles, there was the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania (Washington actually led an army ready to put down those who did not wish to pay taxes), and the treaty John Jay forged with Britain, which Francophiles like Jefferson excoriated. It was with great relief that he left the presidency after two terms. But Chernow enumerates the triumph of Washington's tenure: "Washington's catalog of accomplishments was simply breathtaking. He had restored America's credit and assumed state debt; created a bank, a mint, a coast guard, a customs service, and a diplomatic corps; introduced the first accounting, tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad; inaugurated a navy, bolstered the army, and shored up coastal defenses and infrastructure; proved that the country could regulate commerce and negotiate binding treaties; protected frontier settlers, subdued Indian uprisings, and established law and order amid rebellion, scrupulously adhering all the while to the letter of the Constitution...Most of all he had shown a disbelieving world that republican government could prosper without being spineless or disorderly or reverting to authoritarian rule. In surrendering the the presidency after two terms and overseeing a smooth transition of power, Washington had demonstrated that the president was merely the servant of the people."

There is a lot to savor about this book, but I think the personality of Washington that Chernow paints is the best. To start with, he had a horrible mother, a woman who thought nothing of her son's accomplishments and only of herself. Chernow wryly puts it, "With more to brag about than any other mother in American history, she took no evident pride in her son's accomplishments." Perhaps because of this, Washington rarely displayed emotion. He did not like to be touched, and frequently employed an icy stare. One could judge how one stood with him by the salutation of his letters, which were either "Sir," "Dear Sir," or "My Dear Sir," which were, in ascending order, his warmth toward his subject.

But Washington loved the theater, he loved the company of pretty ladies (Chernow includes Washington's flirtation with Sally Fairfax, although seems to think that nothing untoward took place) and had a droll sense of humor. Once, before a battle, Anthony Wayne said to him, "I'll storm hell, sir, if you'll make the plans." To which Washington retorted dryly, "Better try Stony Point first, general." Apparently he also liked dirty jokes--J.P. Morgan purchased some of his letters and had them burned, citing them as "smutty."

He was also extremely generous, although his finances were always precarious. He and Martha had no children of their own, and her two children surviving at the time of their marriage died young, but he doted on his step-grandchildren, and took in all sorts of nieces and nephews. He could also be a rank sentimentalist, as Chernow magnificently describes in his tearful farewell address to his officers at Fraunces Tavern, and his equally lachrymose farewell address as president.

Of course, as with many of the founding fathers, there is the devilish issue of slavery. Washington owned hundreds of slaves, and though he treated them more kindly than others did--he would not break up slave families, and at one point stopped selling them altogether, he did not free them until after his death. This was a major deal at the time, but one can't help but feel it was too little, too late. When a slave escaped, he and Martha couldn't understand why a slave that was so well treated would want to leave, an odd thing for a man who fought a war for freedom to think. Chernow puts it thusly: "He privately made no secret of his disdain for the institution, but neither did he have the courage to broadcast his views or act on them publicly. After endorsing abolition, he shunted direct action onto other shoulders." He did, however, allow blacks to serve in the Continental Army; from six to 12 percent of his army was black.

This book is a treasure trove of history and psychology. If you didn't know Washington as anything more than marble man before, you'll feel like you know him intimately after reading it. There are too many delicious facts to chew on, but I'll end with one of my favorites, when Chernow writes about Washington out hunting: "A month earlier, he recorded that he had killed five mallards and five bald eagles in one day--a curious triumph for the Father of His Country."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Place in the Sun

Back in April, when Elizabeth Taylor died, I endeavored to see a few of her films that I hadn't seen before, such as National Velvet and Reflections in a Golden Eye. A Place in the Sun was also one of those films, but it had the ominous "Very Long Wait" tag on it in my Netflix queue. I left it there, sitting at the top of my queue, and after eight months it finally came. I can only imagine that Netflix had only one copy, and it was gathering dust on some guy's coffee table.

The film was celebrated in its day. It won six Oscars, including one for director George Stevens. That year, 1951, was a weird year for Oscar, because A Streetcar Named Desire won a bunch of other awards, but the Best Picture winner was An American in Paris.

The picture viewed through the prism of today is admirable but dated, dancing around the subjects of unwed pregnancy and abortion, and with a feckless protagonist. It did mark the beginning of Taylor's stardom as an adult, as she was only seventeen when cast in the role.

Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun would seem to be about the class distinctions in American society that were probably stronger in the 1920s than in the 1950s. Stevens updated the novel to contemporary times, which undercuts a bit the separation--after World War II, it was more likely a man could rise from poverty to riches, especially if he's related to it. The main character is George Eastman, played by Montgomery Clift. He is a poor relation to the owner of a company that makes swimsuits. He arrives and his uncle gives him a menial job. Against company rules, he begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a somewhat plain and unsophisticated woman.

Winters becomes pregnant, and in a scene rife with unspoken intent, sees a doctor about an abortion. Meanwhile, Clift has been dazzled by society girl Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). In one of Stevens' less than subtle touches, the word "Vickers," presumably on a hotel owned by her family, shines brightly through the window of his rented room. The room also has a print of Millais' painting "Ophelia," another bit of foreshadowing (to add to that, whenever a character says they don't know how to swim, there might as well be a doom-like music sting).

Clift falls in love with Taylor, and she likewise with him. But what to do about Winters? When she tracks him down to Taylor's lake home, threatening to tell all unless he marries her, he decides he's going to kill her by taking her out in a rowboat by drowning her. He lacks nerve, but when Winters nervously stands up in the boat, she capsizes it and drowns. Clift swims to shore and goes back to Taylor, but his plan wasn't exactly a brilliant one, and district attorney Raymond Burr figures it out right quick.

The last quarter of the film is a trial that doesn't have much fireworks, other than Clift squirming on the stand, telling the truth, however far-fetched it sounds.

Though A Place in the Sun is a perfectly acceptable melodrama, especially for 1951, it has a hole in its center, and that's Clift. He doesn't give a bad performance; he just doesn't have much to play. The character lacks an interior life--he seems to genuinely love Winters, and then genuinely loves Taylor. His murderous intentions come from panic more than any diabolical malevolence. Because he's such a blank, it's hard to understand why Taylor is in love with him, other than that he's one of the most gorgeous men ever to make a movie. Winters' attraction is more understandable--she's a nobody, and he's related to the boss, and his rise to management is something of a hope for her future, even if it means losing their jobs if their relationship becomes open.

I found it interesting during the brief documentary on the DVD that Winters was a surprise choice for the role, because she was known as something of a sexpot. The irony is in she would go on to specialize in blowsy, victimized women, especially in He Ran All the Way, The Night of the Hunter, and Lolita.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wild Child

I'm a long time admirer of the short stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle (not so much of his novels). They frequently pop up in periodicals I read, such as The New Yorker and Playboy, and have a mordant sense of humor I respond to. His stories are all what I would consider "high concept," in that they are heavily plotted and center around a vividly expressed idea. His latest collection, Wild Child, contains some of that, but many of these works are more ambitious than his usual "ripped from the headlines" looks at the follies of mankind.

As the title might suggest, many of the stories concern the battle between man and nature, with nature always winning. "La Conchita" concerns a man trying to deliver a liver for transplant to a waiting operating room but it is waylaid by a mudslide. "Question 62" is a lovely story paralleling the experiences of two sisters--one who looks up from her gardening to see an escaped tiger, while the other falls into a relationship with a man trying to pass a law allowing the killing of feral cats.

In a similar vein is "Anacapa," about a fishing expedition in the Channel Islands, and "Sin Dolor," about a Mexican boy who cannot feel pain, and ends up exploited by his father. "Ash Monday" concerns the fears of wildfires in California exurbia, and "Thirteen Hundred Rats" is about a man who gets a pet snake, but when it comes time to feed it, ends up with an unnatural empathy for the rat purchased as food.

Off the beaten path for Boyle are "Three Quarters of the Way to Hell," which details the recording of a Christmas novelty song in New York in the 1950s, alternating between a washed-up Italian crooner and a bruised female singer. The title story is a novella about the Wild Child of Aveyron, the subject of Truffaut's film L'Enfant Sauvage, about a feral boy found in the French woods in Napoleonic France and the attempts to civilize him.

My favorite stories are more typical of Boyle. "The Unfortunate Mother of Aquiles Maldonado" is one of those ripped from the headlines stories, clearly inspired by the events involving baseball pitcher Uegeth Urbina, whose mother was kidnapped in Venezuela. "Bulletproof" centers around the debate over the teaching of evolution in schools, and the brilliant "The Lie" is something of a horror story about a man who wants to get out of work so badly that he tells one whopping lie after another. Of course he will be found out, but as we await the inevitable we are sucked into this man's despair, spiraling down the drain with him.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt's previous two films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, would be charitably called deliberate, and uncharitably, slow. Meek's Cutoff does not see a change of style, although it is a period piece, and for all intents and purposes is in the wide category called the Western. But it's on a very small scale, concerning itself with only nine characters, and has less to do with the American West than with a struggle against nature and the instincts of survival.

Three couples, one with a child, are making their way west on the Oregon Trail in 1845. They have hired a frontiersman, the title character, to guide them. But he does not inspire confidence, especially after he takes them off the main trail and into the Great Basin, the large desert of Utah and Nevada. Soon the settlers find themselves short on water, and Meek doesn't seem to have a clue what to do, especially after they come across the Great Salt Lake, which has abundant but useless water.

This occupies the first third of the film, and I was getting more than a little restless. The old metaphor, "like watching grass grow" came to mind. But things get interesting when a lone Indian is captured by Meek and the de facto leader of the settlers (Will Patton). Meek is all for killing him, but Patton reasons that he would know where water is, so they trade him a blanket for his knowledge. The Indian, though, knows no English, and none of them speak his language (another delinquency of Meek's) so they follow him, not knowing what he is leading them to.

I found this all very intriguing, as the setters, namely Patton and his wife (the great Michelle Williams) seem to trust their own humanity over Meek's warnings. One of the other women (Zoe Kazan), becomes hysterical in her fear of the Indian, and her husband (Paul Dano) vacillates between the two emotions.

But here's the thing--Reichardt leaves us hanging. I won't go too far in describing the ending, but it reminded me of John Sayles' Limbo, in that an audience member is likely to watch the screen go dark and the credits roll with an "Aaah!" I admire the artistic nature of the choice, but damn it I wanted a real ending.

As I watched the film, I realized I recognized the voice of who played Meek (he's covered in shaggy hair and beard) and only learned it was Bruce Greenwood at the end. Also in the cast was English actress Shirley Henderson, probably best known to American audiences as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series.

Reichardt is a minimalist filmmaker, and with that comes good things and not so good things. I believe only natural light is used, which gives the night scenes an extra feeling of danger, and as I said, her editing (she is also the editor) is deliberate. For example, when Williams first sees the Indian she fires two warning shots to draw the men back to camp. We see her as she loads a single-shot rifle, fire it, then load a second shot, and fire it, too. I would guess that most directors wouldn't include the entire loading sequence in the scene, for better or worse.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Washington Crossing the Delaware

As stated previously, I'm reading a massive biography of George Washington, and since I'm pretty close to ground zero for many of his campaigns during the Revolution, I thought I'd do something of a tour. Some of the sites I have already visited, but armed with some new knowledge, I thought I'd pay them another visit.

Last week I ventured east to Monmouth Battlefield, where Washington chased the British across New Jersey and caught up with them at a place called Monmouth Courthouse. This battle took place in June, 1777, and though it was technically a draw, it was a win for Washington in that it forced the British to retreat. It also hardened him against one of his generals, Charles Lee, who did not attack as ordered, prompting Washington to flip his lid. Lee, who was something of a burr in Washington's saddle, eventually was court martialed for his blunder.

When I arrived at the battlefield, which is now in the town of Manalapan, I found, to my dismay, that the visitor's center will be closed for about a year due to renovation. I took a short stroll, but there didn't seem to be anything of a marked trail, and without some assistance, there really wasn't much to do.

Yesterday I headed west to Washington Crossing State Park. Actually, there are two parks: one on the New Jersey side, and one on the Pennsylvania. On December 25, 1776, Washington's army made a nighttime crossing of icy waters of the Delaware river. They then made an arduous march of nine miles through a winter storm to attack Hessian troops at Trenton. Almost every American schoolchild has some grasp of the basics of this event, especially because of the existence of Emanuel Luetze's iconic painting, seen above, that captured the moment some seventy-five years after it took place.

As usual, the truth of the situation is more interesting. The logistics of the crossing were complex, given it was done at night. Two other crossings, meant to support Washington from the south, were scratched. He still managed to surprise the Hessians and rout them, although they were not drunk, as legend has it. In fact, they had some notion that an attack might come.

Per my luck with these things, the New Jersey park's visitor center was closed for no apparent reason. Fortunately I have been there before, so no great loss. I took a walk down to the shore of the river itself, as it wasn't too cold. Today a bridge handles car traffic where Washington's men rowed across, though as bridges go it's not too advanced; it's so narrow I crossed it once and clipped the side of it with my sideview mirror, sending the glass to the inky depths of the river.

The crossing site, as viewed from New Jersey.
The Pennsylvania side isn't as large a park, and, you guessed it, the visitor's center was closed for restoration.

Following the battle of Trenton, Washington marched north to take on the British at Princeton. That park is just a few miles from where I live, and I drive through it often. I'll put up a post about it in the coming days, hopefully, if weather permits, on the actual anniversary of the battle.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Young Adult

As an admirer of both Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody (I was one of the few to like Jennifer's Body), I was extremely disappointed with Young Adult, ninety minutes spent with one of the most unpleasant characters to shoulder a film in recent memory. But it isn't that she's unpleasant that's the problem--there is nothing inherently wrong with having a protagonist that the audience doesn't like, if she's in talented hands--but the character here is unpleasant and uninteresting.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels, which Cody has an abiding passion for (she was signed to write a movie on the Sweet Valley High series). As the film opens, we see that she is a sad and lonely person, as she lives in a messy but chic apartment, has meaningless sex, and her only companion is a lapdog. When she gets an email that her ex-boyfriend has just had a baby, she gets the absurd notion that if she goes back to her podunk hometown she can win him back, and thus will solve all her problems.

This seemed a lot like the Julia Roberts film My Best Friend's Wedding, and that, believe it or not, was a much better picture, with Roberts at least informing her role with a zany questful nature. Theron, in this film, is a tissue of psychoses, and at no point in this film will anyone be rooting for her. I will give Cody credit for the audacity of allowing her character to have a breakthrough, but then having another character, in a big speech, reinforce her insanity and send her off in a haze of delirium. I wonder what Cody's intention was for us to think about as we put on our coats--that people who live in small towns really are fat and dumb, and that living in a big city is better, even if we are mentally ill?

Theron's ex-beau is played dully by Patrick Wilson, who is oblivious to her intentions. Her confidante is Patton Oswalt, who might have been the subject of a better movie. He was viciously beaten in high school by jocks who thought he was gay. He now hobbles around on a crutch, makes his own bourbon, and paints comic book hero miniatures. Roberts sidekick in My Best Friend's Wedding was the gay Rupert Everett, and while Oswalt's character is not gay, he might as well be. Cody makes a big mistake by allowing these characters to sleep together.

I really don't think there's anything I liked about this film. Reitman's films are known for their over-reliance on qurkly direction, (he really goes wild in Thank You For Not Smoking and Juno) that I have enjoyed, but here his heart doesn't seem in it, and he lets the script just play out. That is a mistake, for this script isn't particularly witty (I think I laughed once, but I forget at what) or emotionally resonant. The attempt to have Theron's work in progress, about a high school girl who is so popular (she has the yearbook dedicated to her, even though there was another student who died) is band-aided on and laughably amateurish.

Theron gives a technically fine performance, and manages to look beautiful and off-putting at the same time, but I don't think any actress could have made this work.

My grade for Young Adult: D+

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cemetery Junction

After enjoying Felicity Jones so much in Like Crazy, I checked out her other major film performance, in 2010's Cemetery Junction, a British film that was not released stateside. Directed and written by mirth-makers Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I was surprised to find that it is not a comedy, per se, but instead an earnest coming of age story set in 1973 in a depressing part of England.

Though Cemetery Junction is based in the British miserabilist style, it has a much more colorful and bouncier attitude. It focuses on three friends just page college age: Christian Cooke, who has just landed a job selling life insurance; Tom Hughes, a factory worker who fits the classic "angry young man" portrait; and Jack Doolan, as a half-wit social misfit who can't talk to girls and has adorned himself with the world's worst tattoo. Cooke serves as our protagonist, as he wants to better himself, and is inspired by his boss (Ralph Fiennes), who made it out of the very neighborhood he lives in.

There's been all sorts of movies like this, about young guys who long to shed the dust of home towns but can't leave, while one guy makes it out (he is invariably the stand-in for the movie's writer or director). I think mostly of I Vitteloni, but there are also films like American Graffiti and Diner. Cemetery Junction is no where in their league, unfortunately, as it too simple a tale, too black and white and not enough gray. The three characters each have arcs, but they're predictable and just a bit hackneyed, especially Hughes' relationship with his father, whom of course he misunderstands until a friendly policeman sets him straight, and Doolan's flirtation with a homely waitress.

The one spark the film has is, naturally, Gervais as Cooke's blue collar dad. His dialogue, especially banter with his aged mother, is very funny and gives the film a boost. Both are casually racist but have wicked senses of humor. Cooke doesn't seem genetically or spiritually capable of springing from Gervais' loins, but that's a sin that many movies commit these days.

As for Jones, she has a small role as Fiennes' daughter. She's engaged to Fiennes' supercilious underling, Matthew Goode, and realizes, of course, that she is on the road to turning into her mother (Emily Watson), who has had any joy of life snuffed out by the domineering Fiennes. In a well-done scene, Cooke goes to the annual awards banquet for the insurance company, and realizes that a job selling insurance, though it may come with an office and a nicer house, can be just as soul-crushing as a job in a machine shop.

The film also has period music, which is kind of slapped in, but makes for some good jokes. Hughes sneers at Cooke playing Vaughn Williams on his turntable, saying he shouldn't play music by poofs. Then, he adds, "How about putting on some Elton John?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

One of the greatest comedies of all time, Sullivan's Travels was released 70 years ago this month. Despite that ripe old age, the film still makes me laugh, and is still relevant.

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, who revolutionized the American movie comedy, it tells the story of a film director (Joel McCrea), who though rich and famous from making light comedies (like Ants in Your Pants 1939), longs to make movies of gravitas and social commentary. His studio handlers don't want to hear that--his most recent film, a serious drama, died in Pittsburgh.

Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?

LeBrand: They know what they like!

Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!

Sullivan wants to make a movie about poverty in America, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, that's where the Coens got that title). The studio bosses convince him that he, who grew up privileged, kind of like Mitt Romney, hasn't suffered enough to make such a picture. That backfires, though, when Sullivan announces he's going to incognito as a tramp, with only ten cents in his pocket, to find out what suffering is about.

The genius of Sturges' script is that it succeeds on two levels: first, it is a tribute to comedy, as Sullivan eventually learns that people living in hard times sometimes need to laugh to forget about their troubles. Comedy has always played second fiddle to drama in many people's minds, even among those who make it. Woody Allen has always said that he wished he were a tragedian, and that those who make drama are sitting at the grown-up's table. Secondly, though, it also reinforces the division between the haves and have-nots in America; while ninnies in Hollywood lounge around pools, others are barely making it in shantytowns.

The tone shifts from comedy to melodrama often, and at times not easily, but I think that's the point. The first half hour is flat-out screwball, as Sullivan sets out in old clothes, but the studio has arranged for an entourage to follow him in a bus. When he tries to make a break for it, we get some well done slapstick with the bus racing after him, the inhabitants tossed about (with some wince-inducing laughs earned from a Stepin Fetchit-style black cook).

Late the film shifts to a sweet romance, as Sullivan meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake), who teams up with him on his trip. Lake, who is one of my favorite of the old movie stars, was just a teenager when she made this film, her first starring role. She was unusually beautiful, but apparently difficult. McCrea passed on making another movie with her, citing "Life is too short to make another movie with Veronica Lake." Read up on her to hear a typically sad story of failed romance, alcoholism, and madness that ended much too soon at age 51.

The film's final third dispenses with comedy altogether. Through a series of unfortunate events, Sullivan ends up arrested and imprisoned to a chain gang. He can't prove who he is, and everyone back in Hollywood thinks he is dead. It is when, as a member of the chain gang, that he attends a movie at the local black church (this expansive view of African-Americans almost makes up for the cook). When he sees how the Mickey Mouse cartoon brings a little life into the grim lives of the prisoners, he changes his tune. The closing line is "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

Now, the film doesn't always work. For one thing, the cartoon isn't that funny. It would have been nice if Sturges had gotten the rights to a Chaplin, Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy movie. I've never, even when I was a kid, laughed my assed off at a Disney cartoon. And though the film is incredibly audacious for 1941, it still seems to hold back, and can lean toward the corny and sentimental (at one point McCrea says, as if in defense, "What's wrong with Capra?").

But these are minor quibbles. The film is so rich, and Sturges such a good writer, that it continues to dazzle. The performances are good down to the minor, with several familiar faces, such as Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest (as a press agent, who's given to say things like, "It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news"), and two drolly brilliant turns by Robert Greig and Eric Blore as Sullivan's British butler and valet. Greig gives a memorable speech about how those who are poor know all about being poor, and only the morbidly rich would find it a glamorous topic.

The movie also is chock full of marvelous whimsy, such as the lines: "What about gin rummy?" "I never touch the stuff." Or this exchange, early in the film:

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.

The DVD from Criterion includes a documentary on Sturges. He was the first screenwriter to make the leap from writer to director, and at one time in the mid-40s he was the highest paid producer/director/writer in Hollywood. His success ended quickly, though. He also made some other outstanding comedies. The ones I've seen are The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story. His great rival as a maker of comedies in those days was Ernst Lubitsch, and Sturges gets an inside joke in when Lake, not knowing Sullivan is a director, and thinking he's a hobo, jokingly asks him for a letter of introduction to Lubitsch.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jack London



If you're a fan of the writing of Jack London, you might be interested in a film about him, as he lived much of the things he wrote about it. And for about an hour, this 1943 film comes fairly close to truth about his early life. But in the final third, it completely comes off the rails and ends up as propaganda against the Japanese.

London, who was one of the first Americans to become rich as a writer of fiction, was born in San Francisco and grew up on the waterfront of Oakland. In his early days he was an oyster poacher and then a sailor. After a brief stint at Berkeley, he went to the Yukon to try to strike it rich in the gold rush. The film gets all that, although it gives it a kind of boy-adventure haze.

After that, though, it departs from reality. It has him going off to the Boer War to be a war correspondent, which never happened. Although it showcases his marriage to Charmian Kittredge (Susan Hayward), probably since it is her book that the film is based on, it ignores his first marriage. It is also largely ignores his socialism and interest in unions and the poor.

Instead, the last third focuses on his experiences as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War. One poster for the film features the inflammatory tag line "He was the first prisoner of the Japs!" The Japanese are depicted in purely racist overtones, with one prescient captain revealing to London the nation's long-term plans of conquering England and the U.S. Certainly the Japanese have blood on their hands when it comes to war atrocities, but I wouldn't expect a film about Jack London to end up as boo-hiss movie about the evils of Japan.

Starring as London is the completely charmless Michael O'Shea, who I can't say I've ever seen in a film. It was directed by Alfred Santell, who has a long history from silents to the late '40s, but as far as I can tell this is his only film on DVD. Kids, if you have to do a report on Jack London, do some reading, don't base it on this. You'll flunk.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Killing

Stanley Kubrick tried almost every genre during his career (except for the Western) and in The Killing he takes on film noir. The resulting film is something of an exercise in style, and though it's a crackerjack entertainment it has something of a hollow ring to it, as if Kubrick had decided he was going to make a noir from all the pieces typically associated it, without making one organically.

Released in 1956, just as the noir style was dying down, The Killing, based on a novel called Clean Break (the title chosen for the film is indicative of Kubrick's homage--it could be the title of almost every noir ever made) is a heist movie. I love heist movies, and The Killing gets it all. The lead guy is a career criminal who wants to make one last score before retirement, and each of the team has their own reason for taking part. Of course, there's also the fatal slip up by the chain's weakest link.

The target is a race track. Sterling Hayden plays the criminal, who wants to rob the day's receipts. He has enlisted an accountant (Jay C. Flippen) who provides the money, Elisha Cook as a ticket-window cashier, Joe Sawyer as the race track bartender, Ted de Corsia as a cop in deep to a loan shark, a professional wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a marksman (Timothy Carey). Everything is planned down to the last second, but when weak-willed Cook blabs the plan to impress his wife (Marie Windsor), she in turn blabs to her love (Vince Edwards).

The Killing is full of noir stylistic flourishes, especially the use of light and shadow. The thieves make their plan at a table lit by a solitary hanging lamp from above, so when Hayden leans back, he's completely in shadow. Kubrick uses tracking shots often, especially in Hayden's railroad apartment, so that when a camera moves from room to room the camera follows him, even going through walls.

There's also a lovely ending, which prefigures the end of such films as Ocean's 11 and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Hayden's last line, "Nah, what difference does it make?" is a perfect example of noir ennui. In fact, though the screenplay was written by Kubrick, the dialogue was written by Jim Thompson, who wrote a number of pulp classics. We get a lot of zippy patter, such as when Hayden tells Windsor, "You've got a dollar sign where your heart should be."

The cast, including Hayden, Windsor and Cook, made a lot of noirs over the years. Hayden starred in the best heist movie ever made, The Asphalt Jungle, so to see him here is to remind one of that film. But this film is full of great faces, the kind that seem to be sculpted out of raw meat.

In many of Kubrick's subsequent exercises in genre, he would transcend the genre and take it a new level. He doesn't quite do that in The Killing, but it's an still above average thriller.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Like Crazy

Like Crazy is a film that is an odd hybrid of young romance and a cautionary tale about crossing the U.S. Immigration Service. It's a slight film, constructed out of gossamer, but just when my interest would flag I would find something interesting about the performance of Felicity Jones, who makes quite a splash in her first lead role.

Jones (with a name that would make a great Bond girl) plays Anna, a British student in college in Los Angeles. She is smitten with a teaching assistant (Anton Yelchin), and leaves him a note on his car. This seems a bit of a male fantasy (the film was written by two men, Drake Doremus, the director, and Ben York Jones)--that a beautiful girl would make a grand, slightly nutty play for a guy like that.

Yelchin, naturally, takes the bait and the two fall in love, but after graduation Jones' student visa expires. The plan is for her to go back to England for the summer and then return on a work visa. Impetuously and colossally stupidly, she decides to stay. When she goes home for a wedding and tries to get back into the country, they deny her and put her on a plane back to England. What will these two young lovers do?

From the accounts I've heard (I saw Jones in an appearance on David Letterman), the dialogue in Like Crazy was improvised, and it seems that way, as much of it is banal. It does ring true, though, especially the awkward moments, such as their first date and whenever they've reunited after a long absence. But in the film's middle section, when they are separated by an eight-hour time time difference and start to drift apart, it's hard to sympathize with them, because they were so dim. Yelchin even gives Jones a bracelet with the word "Patience" inscribed on it, but this gesture goes unheeded.

Nevertheless, Jones' performance is so charismatic that she kept pulling me back in. Part of this, no doubt, is because I'm a male, but beyond her physical appeal is a subtle range of acting that is most impressive. Her expression in the airport, when she's told she will not be allowed to leave the building and be put on a plane straightaway to the U.K., is such a display of devastating sadness that it's breathtaking. Compared to Jones, Yelchin comes off as a kind of non-entity; it's her film.

Aside from my mash note to Jones, there's not too much to shout about Like Crazy. It does capture some of the problems of the long-distance relationship (I should know, I specialize in them). The two end up with other people (Yelchin with Jennifer Lawrence, in an almost silent part). I would like the problem of choosing between Jones and Lawrence, though Yelchin is in torment.

Like Crazy is a nice film that may remind one of one's youthful romantic adventures, but other than Jones' performance, I will have forgotten most of it by tomorrow.

My grade for Like Crazy: C+

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cold Fish

This one's a doozy. Starting out in the vein of a Coen Brothers film, Cold Fish, directed by Shion Sono, ends up like a high-toned version of Hostel. Though the film is too long and the ending is unnecessarily bleak, there are a lot of good things about it.

At the center of the film is a mild-mannered, to put it mildly, tropical fish store owner named Shamoto. He lives in quiet desperation with a teenage daughter and a pretty second wife (the first wife died). When the daughter is picked up for shoplifting, a customer, Murata, steps in and gets her off.

He is the owner of a bigger tropical fish store, and bends over backwards to be friendly to this family. They, in gratitude and out of Japanese tradition, feel they owe him a great deal, so they accede to his wishes and let the daughter go work for him, and live with him. He has a whole staff of teenage girls, overseen by his sexy and slightly Lady MacBeth-ish wife.

At the half-hour mark I still didn't know where the movie was going, and am reluctant to say anymore, so stop now if you want to see this film with completely fresh eyes. I did know, from what little I had read about it, that it was about a serial killer, and we don't know for sure what's going on until about an hour in. There are a lot of little clues along the way, but Sono has a devilish time laying out the story for us.

After we learn who the psychopath is, Cold Fish switches to a different type of film, a black comedy with a high blood count. There's dismemberment, someone stabbed in the throat with a ballpoint pen, another person bludgeoned with a television set. Human remains are fed to fish, bones are burned, and the climax sees two people wrestling in viscera. I found this to be ghoulish (and kinky--there's some good old-fashioned adult sexuality on display) fun but not as interesting as the first hour, as the fish store owners engage in a kind of personality imprisonment. The ending sees the oppressed become the oppressor, and also some disturbing scenes of female submission that seem a little too gleeful. This is definitely not a first-date movie.

The acting is good and subtle in the first half, but kind of goes off the rails in the second. But it's a stylish, interesting-looking film, and worth checking out for those into Asian horror films.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Oscar 2011 Predictions, Round 1

Shailene Woodley
With the Golden Globe nominations announced next week, plus a slew of critics awards, it's time to try to get ahead of the curve of Oscar prognostication, but this year I gleefully throw up my hands and declare I know nothing. This year, at least in the all-important Best Picture category, is unusually fluid. I have no clue what the favorite to win is. Usually it's down to only a few films by now, but there's a wide variety of possibilities this year. Here goes nothing:

Best Picture

Locks: The Descendants, The Artist

Safe Bets: The Help; Midnight in Paris, Hugo, War Horse

Also Possible: Moneyball, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I'm really stretching the definition of "Lock," since it wouldn't unduly shock me if either of those two were left out. But I'm pretty sure the nominees, however many there are, will come from this list. The one film that could play spoiler is The Tree of Life. Incredibly Close has not had many screenings, so no one knows if its any good, but if it's even half-way decent it has all the earmarks of Oscar bait.

Best Actor:

Locks: George Clooney (The Descendants), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Safe Bets: Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Michael Fassbender (Shame)

Also possible: Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Michael Shannon, (Take Shelter), Ryan Gosling (Drive or The Ides of March).

If I'm right there are four actors pretty much set, with the fifth slot wide open, though I think Oldman is the frontrunner for it at this point.

Best Actress:

Locks: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Viola Davis (The Help)

Safe Bets: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Also Possible: Charline Theron (Young Adult), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Tilda Swinton (We Have to Talk About Kevin), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)

It's not often the Best Actress category is this deep. My guess at this point is that Theron will get the fifth slot, so the entire category will be previous nominees.

Best Director:

Locks: Alexander Payne (The Descendants)  Martin Scorsese (Hugo)

Safe Bets: Michael Hazavinicius (The Artist), Steven Spielberg (War Horse)

Also possible: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Terence Malick (The Tree of Life), Tate Taylor (The Help), David Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Bennett Miller (Moneyball), Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

Director goes the way of picture, as since the Best Picture category was expanded (admittedly a small sample size) no director has been nominated without his/her picture also nominated. That could change with Malick, who would seem to be more of a director's darling than the average Academy member. But I'm going to guess Allen in the fifth slot.

Best Supporting Actor:

Locks: None

Safe Bets: Albert Brooks (Drive), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), Ben Kingsley (Hugo)

Also possible: Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Ides of March)

This is a gloriously jumbled category, with no clear favorites at the moment. I wouldn't be surprised if the eventual winner isn't even listed here.

Best Supporting Actress:

Locks: Octavia Spencer (The Help), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Safe Bets: Jessica Chastain (The Help or Take Shelter), Berenice Bejo (The Artist)

Also possible: Vanessa Redgrave, (Coriolanus), Carey Mulligan (Shame), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)

The first four I'm pretty sure about, while the fifth is wide open and subject to a surprise.

Please note these are not my personal preferences. I will have a new slate of predictions before the nominations are announced in late January.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Films of Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo made only one feature film, another that was about forty minutes long, and two documentary shorts. Nonetheless, he is considered one of the most important directors in French cinema, and inspired no less than New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.

Criterion has put out a two-disc set of his entire oeuvre. His four films fit on one disc, and the other contains a 1964 documentary, as well as a conversation between Rohmer and Truffaut from 1968. (Both were television programs--what great TV the French had!)

Vigo was born in 1905. His father was an anarchist, who died (possibly murdered) in prison. His first film, from 1930, is a 27-minute long silent documentary called À propos de Nice, which shows the sights of that seaside city. Vigo breaks it into sections, at first showing the idle rich, stuffed into their beach chairs like curing hams, and then the workers and poor of the city. He also displays some interesting camera tricks, such as an attractive woman seated in a beach chair. The film dissolves so that she is wearing one outfit after another, from a fur coat to a sun dress to finally nothing at all.

His next film was a commissioned documentary Taris, a kind of how-to-swim instructional film featuring the French swimming champion. It's the kind of thing we saw in schools when we were kids, though Vigo again allows his creativity to seep in. He shot it in a pool that had portholes in the side, so he didn't have to use underwater cameras. A shot at the end has Taris, again in dissolve, go from bathing suit to topcoat and derby, and he appears to walk across the water.

The most important of Vigo's films are his two narratives:  Zéro de conduite, from 1933, and L'Atalante, from 1934. The former is something of a tribute to his father, as well as autobiographical, as it deals with the horrid life of boys in a boarding school. This film nakedly inspired Truffaut, who borrowed a scene from it, when a teacher leads a group of boys through the city, and the boys take off on their own without the teacher noticing.

Zéro de conduite, above all, is a masterpiece of style. The editing is crude, prefiguring Jean-Luc Godard by thirty years, and full of rebellion. The boys, who are looked after by a couple of cretinous housemasters, revolt, and in a brilliantly rendered scene in slow-motion, lead a procession out of their dormitory, holding aloft one boy on a chair while feathers from exploded pillows drift around them.

Also, believe it or not, I thought quite a bit about National Lampoon's Animal House while watching this film, and would love to ask John Landis if he had it in mind. Not only is there a food fight, but the climax is at a school celebration, attended by dignitaries (some of them are represented by garish mannequins, while the headmaster is a midget with a Smith Brothers beard). I also imagine that Martin Scorsese knows this film well. One of the boys in the film, who tells the headmaster that he is full of shit, is named Rene Tabard, the same name given the film professor in Scorsese's film Hugo.

Zéro de conduite was banned by the French government for several years, so in an attempt to revive his carer, he took on an existing script which turned about to be his masterpiece, and last film, L'Atalante, from 1934. The simple story of a couple on their honeymoon on a canal barge, L'Atalante is again full of stylistic flourishes that makes the rather banal plot into something more universal and timeless.

Jean Daste and Dita Parlo are the newlyweds. She's a provincial girl who has never left her village; he's the skipper of a barge called the L'Atalante. The opening scenes are drolly comic, as the pair walk directly from the church to the boat, with the wedding party following behind, dourly, as if they were in a funeral procession.

The first mate is Pere Jules, (Michel Simon), an old sailor who has been around the world. He is a lumpen, vulgar sort with a homely mug and a fondness for cats. Initially there is a tension between him and the skipper's new wife, but they warm to each other, and in a tremendously rich scene, he shows her his curios from his travels, including a puppet from Venezuela. He then shows her his tattoos, which he says keep him warm.

Daste reacts angrily to this, even though there is no real chance at romance between the two of them. Later, they will go into Paris and she will be enamored by a street peddler, whom Daste angrily knocks through a window. Parlo, feeling lonely, bored, and unwanted, leaves the barge and heads into Paris, where she is robbed and looks for work. Daste is devastated, and after an undefined period of comatose behavior, including being called onto the carpet by the shipping company boss, Simon goes into Paris to try to find Parlo.

L'Atalante was not a hit with theater owners, and was butchered and retitled by the studio. Vigo, who had shot the film during one of the coldest winters on record, was gravely ill, and could do nothing. He died shortly thereafter, at the age of 29, and over the years L'Atalante has had several different versions. A new print was released in 1990 to some fanfare, and I saw that one in New York City. I wondered what all the fuss was about, but to be fair, I was suffering from a wicked ear infection at the time.

The film was restored once again in 2002, and that is the print that is on the Criterion edition. It has regularly made the decennial poll put out by Sight and Sound magazine--it's highest ranking was in 1992, when it was chosen the sixth-best film of all time.

I certainly wouldn't put it that high, but it in an enchanting film, with a wonderful, big-hearted performance by Simon, as well as lovely photography by Boris Kaufman (who would go on to shoot On the Waterfront). I watched it twice in the last few days (once with a commentary by Michael Temple, author of a book about Vigo) and it's pieces of the film that stay with me, such as when Parlo, still in her white wedding gown, walks slowly along the length of the barge in twilight, looking like an apparition, or the scene when Daste jumps into the water, told by Parlo that when one looks into water one sees the love of their life.

Vigo's untimely early death certainly robbed the world of a major talent--it's something of the equivalent of the death of Buddy Holly to rock and roll. For those interested in the history of world cinema, his two later films are must viewing.