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Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained

It's clear after watching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest film, that he missed his calling. He should have lived about sixty or seventy years ago, making Warner Brothers cartoons. Django Unchained is a live-action cartoon, clever and frequently funny, but not very substantial. In fact, I'd say that a cartoon like What's Opera, Doc? is more of a serious piece of art than Django Unchained.

There have been sings of this. Inglorious Basterds had its cartoonish moments, with Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine essentially a stand-in for Bugs Bunny. Django Unchained also has a Bugs Bunny, this time played by Christoph Waltz. He's a German bounty hunter in the antebellum South. When we meet him he's searching for a particular slave, called Django and played by Jamie Foxx.

Waltz's character is totally self-assured and three or four steps ahead of his enemies. He calmly tells Foxx that he kills people for money, and three overseers that Foxx can identify are on Waltz's kill list. Once that is accomplished, the two pair up as bounty hunters, but Foxx wants to find his wife, separated from him by sale, and Waltz agrees to help.

Mel Brooks always defended "Springtime for Hitler" by saying that the way to deal with Nazis was to make fun of them. Tarantino tries that here, as the issue of slavery is dealt with a comic interpretation--at least slaveholders are. A long and only mildly amusing scene of proto-Klansmen struggling with the bags they are wearing over their heads is Brooksian, but not as funny. On the other hand, Tarantino deals with the effects slavery has on its victims in a gruesome fashion, as there are medieval torture implements, a slave is put into a box in the ground to suffer from heat, and another is torn apart by dogs. The tone is thus wildly uneven, and while I have no problem with a film that includes both comedy and horrific tragedy, it demands a lighter touch than Tarantino's.

What is perhaps most unforgivable about this film, which I consider to be Tarantino's worst, is that it is frequently boring. He uses many tropes from the Spaghetti Western, even recycling old music scores and imagery of that genre, but they ring hollow. We are again left to wonder if Tarantino has anything original to say, or anything to say at all, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of the lesser genres. Sword and sandals may be next, as Tarantino focuses on "Mandingo fighting," a pastime of Southerners that involves watching slaves fight each other. In essence, it's an updated form of gladiatorial combat. Though this was a practice in those days, the term Mandingo fighting was not--this is a nod to the exploitation picture of the same name.

There is stuff to like here. Robert Richardson's photography is top-notch, though Tarantino's use of the camera is often baffling--why the fetishistic look at Waltz drawing a mug of beer? But the shot of a patch of cotton being sprayed with blood may be the most definitive representation of the Civil War I've ever seen.

Leonardo DiCaprio, as the evil plantation owner who owns Foxx's wife (Kerry Washington, who doesn't have much to do except speak German) overacts with panache. I liked the appropriate taciturn performance by Foxx, and Waltz is a delight, with a huge vocabulary. A lot of faces show up as surprises, such as Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Franco Nero (the original Django) and Tarantino himself, attempting and failing at an Australian accent.

The most notable performance is Samuel L. Jackson as the dean of DiCaprio's house slaves. He's an old man, and instead of fighting for his race, he chooses DiCaprio, knowing that's where his security is. I've read of his character as being an Uncle Tom, but that is an offensive term and is inappropriate anyway. Jackson's character reminds me of the Posca, the slave and confidant of Julius Caesar on the show Rome. Jackson may be a slave, but he speaks up to DiCaprio, offering him counsel. This characterization is the bravest thing about the film.

There has been discussion of Tarantino's use of the N-word, which is silly since certainly Southerners of 1858 freely used that word. I'm not sure the word "motherfucker" was in common use then, but neither was Jim Croce or rap music, which is used on the soundtrack.

The bottom line is that Django Unchained is an only intermittently entertaining film that is self-indulgent, over long, and cartoonish in its approach to history, as well as its gore. The body total is high and bloody. It appears Tarantino is running on empty.

My grade for Django Unchained: C.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Midnight Rising

John Brown is one of the most vexing figures in American history. Is he hero or villain? Traitor or martyr? Visionary or maniac? By all definitions of the word, he has to be considered a terrorist, but of course that depends on your point of view. As Tony Horwitz writes in Midnight Rising, his excellent book about Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859: "Viewed through the lens of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Qaeda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war."

But of course almost everyone today would view Brown's cause as righteous--he hated slavery, and wished to arm an uprising that would end the pernicious practice. His methods, though, are certainly suspect. Still, to those north of the Mason-Dixon line, he has become a symbol of freedom. Henry David Thoreau, with only a year of retrospect, wrote: "They called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?"

Brown was born in 1900 and led a peripatetic life, mostly in New York and Pennsylvania. He was a farmer and a very bad businessman, and had two wives and many children. He was also a firm believer in The Bible, and unlike those Southerners who rationalized slavery despite their devoutness, Brown had none of it. He believed in the Golden Rule, and despised the institution. Unlike many abolitionists of the time (including Abraham Lincoln), he also believed in the full equality of the black race with the white.

He ended up in Kansas in the mid-1850s when it was called "Bleeding Kansas;" a state that had both pro- and anti-slavery forces, and "border ruffians" who came into the state from Missouri to wreak havoc. Brown and his sons participated in a raid on a pro-slavery town and committed murder.

Brown would later hatch a plan to take his war into the South, which he called "Africa." He met with Frederick Douglass, who admired his commitment but thought the plan foolish. But Brown was not dissuaded. With a force of both blacks and whites, he moved to Maryland to set his sights on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, which was across the Potomac in Virginia (today it is West Virginia). In October, 1859, he and his men crept in at night and seized the guns, and went to a few slaveholding households to take hostages.

His plan, though, didn't work to his desired effect: "By all appearances, the mission he called 'the great work of my life' had just ended in abject failure. Instead of a months-long campaign reaching across the South, his attack had withered in thirty-two hours, a stone's throw inside Virginia. The climactic battle lasted five minutes, with the insurrectionists' brick citadel easily breached and its commander beaten to the floor with a parade-ground sword. The few slaves Brown had briefly liberated were now returning to bondage. And two more of his sons had been sacrificed."

But Horwitz speculates that Brown's ultimate goal was achieved. Brown was taken alive, and convicted to sentence to hang. His bravery in going to the gallows, though, won over public sentiment in the North, and he was allowed to make speeches at his trial that galvanized the abolitionist movement: "Now, it if is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"

Brown was hanged and did become a martyr. He looked the part--a tall, gaunt, severe-looking man, he grew a long white beard as a disguise but this only made him more like an Old Testament prophet (he identified with several, mostly Gideon and Samson). A song set to an old hymn that started "John Brown's body is a-moulderin' in the grave" inspired Julia Ward Howe to write new lyrics to it that became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Although the shots fired at Fort Sumter officially started the Civil War, the raid on Harpers Ferry was the spark that lit the fuse.

Horwitz is a great writer--I thoroughly enjoyed his Confederates in the Attic--and the story has a lot of famous cameos. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, future Confederates, were among the small force that retook the armory. Witnesses to Brown's hanging included Thomas Jackson, who would end up being known as Stonewall, and John Wilkes Booth. If Brown started the Civil War, Booth ended it.

There's a really good movie in all this. Horwitz suggests Chris Cooper or Tommy Lee Jones as Brown, I thought of David Strathairn. A little over ten years I paid a visit to Harpers Ferry, which has a National Park devoted to the raid. As I recall, the man has a presence there that makes him much more hero than villain, and after considering the facts I have to agree.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Continuing my look at prominent films of 1962, Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a contemporary horror story that had the coup of teaming legendary movie stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As anyone who knows a bit of Hollywood history would know, those two were also legendary divas, and the Oscar results would be shaped by their intense rivalry.

But first, the film, which today seems awfully dated and tame. We begin with a prologue, when Baby Jane Hudson is a Shirley Temple-like vaudeville star. She's spoiled by her father, while her older sister Blanche is a stuttering and neglected child. Years later, Blanche will be a big movie star, while Jane is thought of as untalented, but she makes movies because her sister has put in her contract that the studio must hire her. Then it all ends, when Blanche is crippled in an auto accident that everyone thinks is Jane's fault.

Flash forward to the present day, when Blanche (Crawford) is a kind woman relegated to a wheelchair. She enjoys watching her old films on television, and doesn't seem to have a mean bone in her body. That's the opposite of Jane (Davis), who still dresses like a little girl, with golden curls and a face coated with pancake makeup, and cares for Blanche, though not with pleasure. As the story begins, Jane begins plotting her comeback, which means eliminating Blanche.

Though the film is too long and the direction is clunky, there is a palpable, vicarious fear as Blanche is a prisoner in her own home. A housemaid (Maidie Norman) is sympathetic to Blanche, but Jane is able to hold her off. When Jane removes the phone from Blanche's room, she's completely cut off from the outside world.

The film was a sensation at the time, notably for a scene in which Jane serves a dead rat to Blanche for lunch. That seems kind of tame today. But in the film's last third, when Jane has tied Blanche up and is stealing her money, there's a sense of urgency that comes across well. Aldrich has shot the film as if it were a horror film, using an old Hollywood mansion and several low camera angles.

Also in the cast is Victor Buono, as a louche pianist whom Jane hires to help her with her music act. Buono was known to me mostly as King Tut on the old Batman show.

Buono was nominated for an Oscar, as was Davis, but not Crawford. The two hated each other, and Crawford was incensed. Davis, who really gives a terrific, unflattering performance (one of her old films is used as an example of how terrible an actress she is) would have been the first actress to win three Oscars. But when Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker, Crawford glowingly excepted on her behalf. Coincidentally, both had children that would write devastating memoirs of their poor motherhood skills--Davis' daughter, B.D. Merrill, has a small part in the film. It was to be Davis' last Oscar nomination.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Taken, from 2008, is the cinematic equivalent of fast food. It's tasty and filling, but nutritionally negligent.

The film did great business and turned Liam Neeson into an old guy action hero, and he's solid here as a CIA operative who has retired, attempting to forge a better relationship with his daughter. He's a tough hombre, as shown by his brief stint as security for a singer (Katie Cassidy).

When his daughter, Maggie Grace, wants to go to Paris with a friend, Neeson is against it, citing the world is a dangerous place, as he would know. He finally relents, and turns out he was right--Grace is kidnapped by Albanian gangsters before she even has time to unpack. Neeson, luckily, is on the phone with her at the time, and snaps into action. Turns out she is going to be sold into prostitution, and he has four days to find her before she disappears forever.

Neeson then leaves a body trail throughout Paris. He's superhuman, an expert in martial arts, firearms, driving, and surveillance. He's able to elude the French authorities, but finds his daughter's kidnappers easily enough. When he's shot at, the bad guys miss, but he always hits his mark. In perhaps the most ridiculous scene, he drives away from his pursuers, who are shooting at him with machine guns. Why they don't think of shooting out the tires is a good question.

It's not hard to see why this movie was a success. It's extremely well-paced (it's only 93 minutes in the unrated version) and emotionally satisfying. This is what we would want to do if our loved one were defiled, with no ethical or moral considerations. Neeson even shoots the innocent wife of an old friend who is hiding something. At least he apologizes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ten Thousand Saints

I had barely heard of "Straight Edge" before reading Ten Thousand Saints, which is set in the late '80s. A sub-genre of the punk movement, straight edge kids rebelled in the opposite direction--they swore off drugs, cigarettes, drinking, and sometimes even meat and sex. Eleanor Henderson uses a handful of teenagers to create a world, divided between the Lower East Side of New York and a thinly-veiled Burlington, Vermont, that is ground zero in the straight edge community, as well as a portrait of the connection between parents and children.

The story begins with two sixteen-year-olds, Jude and Teddy. Both are taking all sorts of drugs, from pot to huffing turpentine. It is New Year's Eve 1987, and they meet Eliza, who is Jude's father's girlfriend's daughter, who is up from New York. They all go to a party and she hooks up with Teddy in a bathroom, his first time. Teddy will ingest cocaine and die before the night is over, after huffing air conditioning coolant. Eliza is carrying his child.

She wants to keep the child, and ends up enlisting Johnny, Teddy's half-brother, to act as father and marry her. Johnny is a punk musician, tattoo artist, and local straight edge legend. He is also gay, and secretly has an affair with his bandmate, who has AIDS.

"Now that the scene was exploding in New York, everyone had started to look the same--kids from Westchester and Connecticut loitering on the sidewalk in front of CB's, sporting the band t-shirts they'd brought the previous weekend, looking for drunk kids to beat up." So writes Anderson about the scene around Tompkins Square Park, where squatters will eventually be forced out in police riot. I knew nothing about this scene, remembering walking down St. Mark's Place and looking at punks as if they were zoo animals, but she brings it to life and helps me understand the raw excitement of the time period.

Jude goes from drug freak to straight edge, much to the amusement of his father, who is a pot dealer. His mother, back in Vermont, makes glass bongs. In some ways, though he he may have fetal alcohol syndrome (he is adopted), Jude matures faster than his parents do. The father, Les, is a fun character, the kind of father you might wish you had, who gives you the best dope, and is there when you need to go to the hospital, but is emotionally retarded.

Eliza's mother, a British ballet dancer, tries to find her daughter in hopes of getting her to give up the baby, but the little family eludes her. A few references are made to S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and there is a sense that these kids are taking care of themselves in a parentless world, as the boys in that book are: "They liked to conceive of their situation in terms they were familiar with. Punk bands, musicals, young adult novels. Jude and Johnny were the Greasers fleeing the Socs, and Eliza was Cherry Valance, the girl from the right side of the tracks. They were the Runaways, betrayed by their parents, only they'd stitched their way into and out of so many states it was hard to keep track of which one they were running from."

Anderson's prose is butter, going down easily. It's so good that only after putting the book down for awhile does one realize this is just a very well-written Afterschool Special, with a lot more drugs. Structuring a book about a dead teen and his unborn child isn't exactly breaking ground, but setting in the relatively unmined world of punk in the 1980s is.

I also appreciated the fear of girls that is exhibited by the boys in the novel, or should I say men, as Jude's father doesn't fear women, but he certainly doesn't understand them. From Jude's perspective: "Girls were incubators, they were ovens, they were uteruses. He could barely look at one without projecting a diagram of her reproductive organs over her clothes. He hated the associations that girls now engendered in him. He hated thinking about Harriet's fallopian tubes. He hated thinking about the insides of his birth mother, a teenager herself. A vagina was a thing he had squeezed bloodily out of before being given away."

Even if you don't care for punk rock or drug abuse, read for amazing paragraphs like this one: "At the Texaco station on Grammer Streeet, the only gas station in Lintonburg open in the middle of the night, two cars sat in the parking lot, and one of them was a shit-colored Camaro with a Black Flag bumper sticker and a Pizza Hut dome on the roof."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

While watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was reminded of a Simpsonn s episode, the one where Homer and friends form a band called the Be Sharps. They perform their last concert on the roof of Moe's Tavern, a nod to the Beatles rooftop concert in London. As they perform, George Harrison stops by and says, disdainfully, "It's been done."

That's what I felt with Peter Jackson's revival of the characters of J.R.R. Tolkien--it's been done, and it's been done better, and it's been done better by Peter Jackson. I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and have watched all of the films multiple times, but this film lacks the spark that they did, not to mention the originality.

The problem is that The Hobbit, which was written before the Lord of the Rings, was in a completely different literary tone. It was a children's story about a quest for gold and a big dragon. But Jackson has made the story in the same, darker tones of the Lord of the Rings, with Middle Earth politics layered on. He's also stretching out a book of about three hundred pages into three long films. The thought that there are six hours to go is mind-boggling.

But of course The Hobbit is a beautiful film--the New Zealand settings are magnificent. But watching the characters traverse the mountainous landscape, Howard Shore's soaring score behind them, leaves me feeling a little empty, and is too close a recollection of how George Lucas ruined Star Wars by making three more films.

Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, who will one day look like Ian Holm. He is writing down his story for his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood, back again). One day he was minding his own business when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, wily as ever) stops by and asks Bilbo if he would like to go an an adventure. As Hobbits are wont to do, he declines, and is shocked when a dozen dwarves show up unannounced. They are going back to their mountain home, where they were kicked out by the dragon Smaug. The grandson of the king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, basically playing Aragorn from LOTR) wants his kingdom back.

Along the way they encounter trolls and orcs, and end up captured by a large king who has a goiter the size of a bathtub. Bilbo gets separated and encounters Gollum, and he will find the ring that is all the fuss in the next trilogy (this scene, in which he and Gollum play riddles, is very well done and the highlight of the picture).

Perhaps if this had been made first it would have been better received by me; as it is it's just a whirlwind of activity without any substance. Out of some sense of misplaced duty I'll see the next two, but I won't particularly look forward to them, as I was bored during this one, bored enough to be recalling Simpson's episodes.

My grade for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: C.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Birdman of Alcatraz

Also from 1962, John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz is based on the true story of Robert Stroud, a violent convict who became one of the world's authorities on the diseases of birds. It stands among the better dramas about prison, which have long held a fascination for viewers. I suppose it's a vicarious way of learning about a place we'd never want to be.

Burt Lancaster stars as Stroud. He was also a prisoner in another great prison drama, Brute Force. The film starts with Stroud, a convicted murderer, being transferred to Leavenworth in 1912, as he is incorrigibly violent. The warden of Leavenworth, Karl Malden, vows that Lancaster will find the straight and narrow.

But Lancaster is uninterested in playing by any rules. He is antisocial, and his only good relationship is with his mother (Thelma Ritter). After killing a guard, he is spared the hangman's noose when Ritter appeals directly to President Wilson for a commutation. She wins, but Lancaster ends up with a life sentence to be spent in isolation.

One day, alone in the exercise yard during a storm, he finds a broken branch with a nest in it. A lone baby sparrow is tucked into it. Lancaster, begrudgingly, saves the bird and brings it back to health. Before long he has trained the bird, and the new warden allows him to keep it. This spurs an interest in birds throughout the cell block, as other inmates buy canaries. Lancaster's next door neighbor (Telly Savalas), a tough mug, gets soft when his canary lays eggs. "You're a godfather," Lancaster tells him when the egg hatches.

Soon Lancaster has a cell full of birds. When they get sick, he researches his own cure for the illness, and ends up writing a book about bird pathology that becomes the standard. When the Federal Bureau of Prisons is started, and pets are banned from federal prisons, Lancaster teams with a bird enthusiast (Betty Field) to stir up public opinion, even marrying her.

Malden, who never forgot that Lancaster killed his friend the guard, finally gets his revenge by having the prisoner transferred to Alcatraz, where he will have no birds (the title is a misnomer--he was really the Birdman of Leavenworth).

This is a fine film about the redemption of a man's soul, even if it isn't quite accurate. By all accounts, Stroud was not the cuddly figure that Lancaster portrays in the second half of the film. The film is stacked toward a sympathetic view of him, but one can see the point of prison officials, as he ends up with two adjacent cells full of birds and equipment. This also ties into to the thread running through the film that Malden, who wants to turn prisoners into models of his own making, is wrong about rehabilitation. Lancaster tells him that he doesn't know what the word means, and that the American penal system, which seeks to remove the individuality of a man, is wrongheaded.

Stroud never did get released, but was transferred to a minimum-security prison for ill convicts just before he died. He was alive when the film was released. We are supposed to be convinced that it was injustice to keep him locked up, even if he did kill two men, because he was so brilliant, but I'm not sure I agree with that--he should have been released if he was no longer a threat to the general public.

Lancaster, Ritter, and Savalas were nominated for Oscars. This is an interesting film about a stranger than fiction story, but I'm not sure it works as call for social change.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On the Road (2012)

On the Road is one of my favorite books, and I was eager to see the much-awaited film version. The adaptation has vexed filmmakers for decades, with Francis Coppola attempting it for years. He finally gave the reins to Walter Salles, who has directed Jose Rivera's script.

The difficulties in adapting this film are many. For one thing, the book was more about language than story. Jack Kerouac wrote the book in a three-week burst of creativity, without using paragraph breaks or even changing paper, as he inserted a scroll of paper into his typewriter. The book consists of four connected sections, each depicting a different trip that Kerouac's avatar, Sal Paradise, takes. He visits Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Mexico, and the only thing tying them together is the sense of reawakening that the American Bohemia undertook in the post-war era, which would turn into the Beat Generation.

Therefore, I was stunned that this film is as good as it is. Salles, who made the South American version of On the Road with Motorcycle Diaries, has done an astounding job of capturing the spirit of restlessness that led to the Beats, while Rivera's script uses just enough of the original Kerouac to give us a sense of the book, but also manages to give a story arc to the narrative.

Sam Riley stars as Paradise, who is an ex-G.I. living in Queens with his mother. He meets Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) through Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Moriarty was based on Neal Cassady, while Marx was the stand-in for Allen Ginsburg. Moriarty is visiting from Denver, along with his teenage bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart).

After Moriarty heads home, Paradise will cross the country to meet up with him in Denver. The film is very faithful to the book, but I missed the omission of Sal giving up on hitchhiking after one rainy night, and taking the bus to Chicago. Paradise is caught under Moriarty's charisma, which attracts men and woman. Carlo is in love with him, and the film is much franker about sex than the book is. Moriarty bounces from woman to woman, divorcing Marylou and marrying a woman in San Francisco, Camille, (Kirsten Dunst) who bears him a child. Moriarty is pretty much pansexual, which is only hinted at in the book.

Sal ends up traveling to Southern California and falls in love with a Mexican migrant worker, then heads back home. He and Dean will visit their friend Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, doing a dead-on William S. Burroughs impersonation), and after Camille throws Dean out, they go to Mexico and smoke weed and hang out in a whorehouse.

There are also visits to jazz clubs, getting pulled over by cops, smoking lots of pot, and doing a lot of Benzedrine. While the 1950s is legendary for being the era of the man in the gray flannel suit, there was a lot of fucking and drug-taking going on.

Before seeing the film, I only knew that Stewart was in it. The parts of the women have been amplified in the film, but I was glad to see that the script does not try to gloss over the essential misogyny of these guys. They worship women but are shit to them. Dean actually had three wives in the book, but he's more than horrible enough to the two in this film. Also showing up in the cast is Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee's wife (when he is shown shooting at tin cans, those who know his wife's fate may have a little shudder go through them). Terrence Howard is uncredited as a jazz musician, and just when you think you've seen all the stars Steve Buscemi shows up, wearing a John Waters mustache, playing a guy who shares a ride with Sal and Dean and ends up paying Dean to sodomize him.

As is usual in stories like this, the narrator is the least interesting character, as he is the one who is reflecting everyone else. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Sal Paradise is the conduit by which we learn about the brilliant madness of Dean Moriarty. Riley, with a raspy voice and DiCaprio eyes, is solid as Sal, but Edlund really shines as Dean, which is a role that makes or breaks the picture. If the actor playing this role isn't seductive, both as a friend and as a lover, it won't work. Well, Edlund convinced me. I would have hitchhiked across the country for his Dean.

My grade for On the Road: B+

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Karou leads an interesting life. She has blue hair, and tattoos of eyes on her hands that's she had ever since she remembers. She's an art student in Prague, but her family, so to speak, is in a shop that no one else can get into. It is manned by a fellow named Brimstone, who has the body of a man and the head of a ram.

In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a young adult novel by Laini Taylor, Karou will eventually learn her origins, and discover that there has been a war waged for centuries between Brimstone and his kind, called the Chimerae, and angels, or Seraphim. In a development out of Romeo and Juliet, she will fall in love with an angel named Akiva, though when they first meet they battle each other.

The novel, though clearly intended for teenage girls, was a nice read, full of imagination. Brimstone is a wishmonger--people come to his shop to get wishes by exchanging teeth, and Karou doesn't know what he does with all those teeth. She runs errands for him, since the shop, which is in an otherworld, leads to several different cities.

Karou, being seventeen, has to deal with worldly problems like boys, and as the book begins has told no one about her foster family: "Karou was mysterious. she had no apparent family, she never talked about herself, and she was expert at evading questions--for all that her friends knew of her background, she might have sprung whole from the head of Zeus."

The first half of the book, when Karou and Akiva meet, is more interesting, as the payoff, which takes place in the Chimarae's world and reveals Karou's origins, doesn't quite meet expectations. The world is lovingly created, and we meet a Chimarae named Madrigal who has wings, the hooves and horns of a gazelle, but is also beautiful.

Taylor creates some lovely prose, though, and reading this book makes me want to go to Prague: "The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century--or the twentieth or nineteenth, for that matter. It was a city of alchemists and dreamers, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies. Tall houses glowed goldenrod with carmine and eggshell blue, embellished with Rococo plasterwork and capped in roofs of uniform red. Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels."

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Miracle Worker

Writing about other key films from 1962, I start with The Miracle Worker, whose stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Due won Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Directed by Arthur Penn, and based on the play by William Gibson (who also wrote the script), it is the story of how blind and deaf child Helen Keller was taught by Anne Sullivan.

Keller, who became world famous for overcoming her disabilities, had a near fatal bout of scarlet fever. "She'll live," are the first words of the film, as the country doctor finishes his tending to the infant Keller. This relieves her parents (Victor Jory and Inga Swenson), but the mother soon realizes that the baby is deaf and blind.

Some years later, Helen (Duke) runs amok through the house, like a feral child. She can not be communicated with. Jory considers putting her in an asylum, since it assumed she is feeble minded. Swenson begs him to give a teacher from the Perkins School in Boston a chance. They are surprised when Anne Sullivan (Bancroft), who is nearly blind herself and a former pupil at the school, arrives.

Sullivan, like an ornithologist coming across a rare bird, zooms right in on Helen, getting down on the floor to observe her. There's a great moment when Duke first slaps Bancroft, but the latter, instead of showing any sign of reluctance, merely brushes it off and again enters the fray. A scene in which Bancroft tries to teach Duke to eat off a plate with a spoon (she is used to simply grabbing food off of other's plates) is exhausting to watch--it seems like it lasts ten minutes, with the two wrestling and almost destroying the room. Later, Bancroft emerges, telling Swensen, "She ate off a plate, with a spoon. And folded her napkin. The room is wrecked, but she folded her napkin."

The parents are astounded by Bancroft's success, even if Jory, an unreconstructed Civil War Confederate, finds her manner unbecoming. But Bancroft is not satisfied. Obedience isn't enough--an animal can be trained. She realizes Helen's intelligence, and wants her to learn language. The film will culminate in a famous scene taken directly from real life, when Helen will learn her first word--water.

The film is shot in stark tones of black and white with an art-house flavor. Penn was clearly influenced by the work of Ingmar Bergman during the same time period, and maybe even a touch of John Cassavetes. The film frequently takes on a hallucinatory tone, especially when Bancroft recalls her childhood in an asylum, where she was sent with her brother. She tells the horrified Kellers that that is what Helen has avoided--places where children play with rats because they have no toys.

Bancroft and Duke deservedly won Oscars, if only for the physicality of the roles. Duke, of course, has no dialogue (except that last word), but is marvelous in conveying the frustration of a person who has no outlet to the outside world except touch. I found it interesting that Helen loved dolls--and wanted a doll with eyes (she could feel the difference), because she knew she had eyes, and wanted a representation of herself.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2012)

In my discussion of Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I mentioned that I wanted to see it's full effects on stage. That has been satisfied by seeing the very first preview of the new production, directed by Rob Ashford, of the classic play on Broadway. I have a mixed opinion.

The marketing, as you can see, is built around Scarlett Johansson as Maggie "the Cat," with her giving a come-hither look in the poster. What's interesting is, despite her alluring figure, her Maggie isn't particularly sexy. She makes a sympathetic character--as Williams noted, she's the only one who seems to have any sense--but she doesn't ooze sexuality. This is by no means a bad thing, and we (which means I) got to see her in a slip. Her Maggie is brassy, with more than touch of Kathleen Turner in the performance.

I've written about the plot of the play already, so I'll stick to the production. The set, designed by Christopher Gram, is Maggie and Brick's round bedroom, with the bed smack dab in the middle of it. Behind the head of the bed is the dry sink, where Brick repeatedly returns to get a drink (between this play and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I saw last month, there are gallons of spirits consumed). The bed is used for almost everything but sex, as Maggie can't get Brick to go to bed with her, because he's pining for his dead friend, who was likely his gay lover (in a directorial touch, Ashford has an actor playing Skippy wandering around the stage as Brick imagines him).

While Johansson, who surprised people with her performance on Broadway in A View from the Bridge (she won a Tony), ably handles Maggie, I wasn't thrilled with Benjamin Walker as Brick, but I think it's more the writing--this is a tough part to make sing. Brick literally carries a crutch, a forced metaphor, and is almost always looking out the window, wanting to be anywhere else but there. When people speak to him he tends to repeat the lines back. I don't remember this problem with Paul Newman in the film version, but it sticks out in this production.

The highlight of the production, as it is surely almost always, is Big Daddy, the patriarch of the family who is celebrating his 65th birthday, unknowing of his terminal cancer. Here he is played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, who drawls a bit like Foghorn Leghorn, but commands the stage as the man should. He is verbally abusive to almost everyone, especially his wife (Deborah Monk), his favorite epithet "Crap!" which I'm sure would have been more vulgar if Williams had written the play today. In his crisp white suit, slight mullet, and pointed beard, he suggests Colonel Sanders on a rampage.

The long conversation between Big Daddy and Brick, in which the father finally comes out and suggests that Brick is drinking because he misses Skippy, is the highlight of the production, and is when Walker is able to shine and Hinds is spellbinding. The third act, when Brick's obsequious brother (Michael Park) and his shrewish wife (Emily Bergl) realize they may not inherit the estate also makes for some enjoyable fireworks. Park's face, even from my vantage point in the cheap seats, turned a vivid scarlet as he voiced his resentment at the favoritism shown to his younger brother (at one point Monk refers to Brick as her "only son," right in front of the brother).

Ashford, judging by his biography, is mostly a helmer of musicals. He's a choreographer, which helps when there as many as a dozen characters on stage, five of them small children running through the room shooting cap guns. But at times there is an awkwardness. Granted, this was the first performance, and there might be tweaks before the opening, but it doesn't appear the director has a grasp of the material.

Still, though it's a mixed bag, I'm glad I saw it. When I left the theater, a line had already started forming by the backstage entrance. I'm sure it was for Johansson, and if I didn't have to get home to go to bed, I probably would have joined the line, just to get a glimpse of her.

Monday, December 17, 2012


When Alfred Hitchcock takes a look at his rough cut of Psycho, he pronounces it stillborn. His wife, Alma, and he will shape it into one the great movies ever made, but unfortunately this film about the making of Psycho, simply called Hitchcock, has no such luck.

Directed by Sacha Gervasi, the first question about this film is, "Why?" I enjoyed the first few scenes, which were about the great director searching for his next project. It made me long to be a film director, ferreting out my next work, and there are some amusing moments, such as when Toni Collette, as Hitchcock's secretary, reminds him that he has been offered The Diary of Anne Frank. Never mind that in 1959, when the film begins, The Diary of Anne Frank had already been made.

But then the movie takes a disastrous turn and tries to do two things: psychoanalyze Hitchcock and painstakingly point out that Alma (Helen Mirren) is integral to his success. I'm sure that has some truth, but this film bends over backwards to prove it. It also has a long and pointless plot thread involving Mirren and a fictional writer (Danny Huston). They collaborate on a script, and Hitchcock becomes unhinged with jealousy.

Those who deal in the horror genre are often overly-psychoanalyzed, as if sane people couldn't possibly make such things. Hitchcock certainly had his quirks, such as a fear of being imprisoned (or falsely accused) and his obsession with icy blondes. But this film is almost unseemly in the way it casts him as something of a pervert. I feel bad for his family.

But beyond that, the film just doesn't hold together. It doesn't offer any insight into Hitchcock's genius, or what made Psycho great. Yes, it was shot on a shoestring, but we don't learn that Hitchcock used his TV crew to save money, or that a body double was used for Janet Leigh in the shower scene (Scarlett Johansson is Leigh, making her look like the world's nicest woman).

Instead we get Anthony Hopkins, wearing horrible makeup, do a lugubrious impersonation of Hitchcock. I never thought of him as Hitchcock--it was always Hopkins in a fat suit.

This movie might have been good had it stuck to Psycho. I kind of liked the inspiration for the film, serial killer Ed Gein, being used as Hitchcock's muse. But it's all surface stuff, like Anthony Perkins being creepy and Vera Miles being hated by Hitchcock because she got pregnant before Vertigo. Watching his is like reading a short, poorly-researched magazine article about the subject.

My grade for Hitchcock: C-.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

The winner of the 1962 Oscar for Best Picture was Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean's epic about T.E. Lawrence, a scholar-soldier who led the Arab fight against the Turks during World War I. It would have been difficult to imagine that Lean could have topped himself after The Bridge on the River Kwai, but he did. Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece, one of the great achievements in film history.

At almost four hours long, the film requires a commitment, but it is never boring. It has a tremendous visual sweep--the film is ideally seen on a big screen, a really big screen (fortunately I had a chance to see it at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York after its restoration). The panoramas and vistas of the Arabian desert are breathtaking, and the editing is both brilliant and witty--the cut that goes from Lawrence blowing out a match to the desert is rightly one of the most famous in history, but there's also a great one when a reporter is told that Lawrence is the man to attract Americans to war, and we cut immediately to a gleeful Lawrence pressing a plunger to blow up a train.

Where Lawrence of Arabia works best is that it is really a character study. Peter O'Toole plays Lawrence as something of an enigma. He is not the typical soldier, as he is unpunctual and given to irreverence. He is fascinated by the desert, and when assigned to find Prince Faisal by trekking across it he tells his government sponsor that it will be fun, almost as if telling the audience that the film will be fun, which it is.

But there's more to Lawrence through O'Toole's brilliant performance. After the success of taking the city of Aqaba by the miraculous crossing of a previously impossibly crossable desert, which occupies the first half of the film, Lawrence starts to believe his own press. He sees himself as something of a prophet, and that it is his destiny to lead the Arabs to freedom. After being winged by a German soldier after a train derailment, he tells a colleague that he can only be killed by a "golden" bullet.

But this megalomania does not sustain, particularly after rough treatment after being captured by the Turks. A Turkish bey, Jose Ferrer, does something terrible to him (we might construe that he was raped). Lawrence's sexuality has been speculated about for years, as he was possibly gay and possibly a sadomasochist (one of the famous lines in the film is when he tells a soldier that the trick to putting out a match with one's fingers is not minding the pain). He comes to realize that he can never be an Arab, and that he belongs in Britain.

The film is full of both wonderful action sequences and plenty of office talk, but fortunately the office talk is witty and well written by Robert Bolt. O'Toole, who was an unknown at the time, was chosen after Albert Finney and Marlon Brando turned Lean down (after seeing Brando attempt a British accent in Mutiny on the Bounty we can all be happy he did turn it down). O'Toole is ably supported by a who's who of British actors of the period, including Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, and Claude Rains. Alec Guinness makes a sly Faisal, although today it seems slightly offensive that he should play an Arab. It's less objectionable that the racially-mixed Anthony Quinn would play the leader of a tribe of mercenaries. Fortunately Omar Sharif was asked to play Sharif Ali, at first an enemy of Lawrence's but then a trusted associate. Sharif, as well as O'Toole, were nominated for Oscars.

There are too many great scenes and lines to recall here, such as the scene when Sharif is introduced, a flickering mirage-like image on the horizon, to the shadow of Lawrence as he exults on top of a wrecked train. Lean always knows how to make the right shot, and uses extreme long shots effectively to suggest the majesty of the landscape. Or when the reporter, played by Arthur Kennedy, asks Lawrence why is drawn to the desert. "Because it's clean," it's the answer. But I think my favorite line is when Lawrence is excused of being a clown. "We can't all be lion tamers," he replies.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let's Keep the X in Xmas

I'm kind of skipping Christmas this year. I'm working two jobs, and neither is particularly enriching for the soul. For economic reasons I'm passing on getting gifts for my brood of nieces and nephews, which breaks my heart. I'm not decorating at all. I did buy a box of Christmas cards, though, which I addressed last night.

I found that they are all religious in nature, with depictions of the nativity or angels. Normally I get secular cards, since I'm an atheist and I don't want to offend any Jewish friends. But I got the cheapest box (and you get what you pay for--some of the envelopes included were the wrong size).

This reminds me of the inanity that it is "The War on Christmas." A figment of the imagination of the hosts on Fox News, it's a phony story because some people actually have the courtesy to remember that there are other faiths in this nation besides Christianity, and to tailor there comments to "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Or calling a decorated conifer a "holiday tree" instead of a "Christmas tree."

This boggles my mind. Christmas is doing just fine. The war, as they call it, is merely an acknowledgement that this is not a Christian nation--it is a secular nation, whether they like it or not. People like Bill O'Reilly can celebrate this time as the birth of Christ, that's his prerogative. Why it bothers him that others may not indicates more about him than the society at large. My guess is that he just does it to get his name in the paper.

The birth of Christ was not on December 25th, as far as anyone knows. For example, shepherds would not be tending their flock in the winter, so that's kind of an indication that if the nativity story is true, it wouldn't be in December. The church chose this date, as they did so many other (Easter, Assumption, Candlemas, All Saint's Day, etc.) to coincide with the pagan holidays, which are attuned to the Earth's orbit around the sun. The winter solstice, on December 21, is a key date in the pagan calendar. The "Christmas" tree, for example, has as much to do with Christ as a banana split does. It was brought to England by Prince Albert during Victorian times. It's not a Christmas tree, it's a Solstice tree. Or, yes, it is a holiday tree.

And the carping about "Xmas." This is not an abbreviation that removes Christ from Christmas. The bumper stickers that say "Let's keep the Christ in Christmas," while certainly well-intention, have faulty reasoning. X, in this case, represents the Greek letter Chi, which means Christ (the cross shape, get it?) It's been around for a long time, as indicated by this postcard, and is not a creation of some ad man in the 1906s. Xmas has just as much holiness as Christmas.

There is no war on Christmas, just as it is still, despite the noise from the right, best to be a white male.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

The fourth nominee for Best Picture in 1962 was Mutiny on the Bounty. It is one of the few remakes ever to earn that honor, as it is a retelling of the events of the 1935 Best Picture winner of the same name.

This version of Mutiny on the Bounty is a strange bird, mostly because of Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. As is usual of the films he made from the late '50s until his virtual oblivion before being revived by Francis Coppola, he invests his part with a weirdness that can be both captivating and eye-openingly wretched.

The Bounty was a ship that was sent to collect breadfruit from Tahiti (it was hoped it could be used as food for slaves in Jamaica). This was in 1789. The Captain was William Bligh (Trevor Howard) a humorless martinet who is interested only in pleasing his superiors. This version of the film hones in on that as the reason for his tyranny. First, he tries to save several months by sailing west, around Cape Horn, but is pushed back by fierce storms. Then, after collecting the fruit, he is told that there is insufficient water to keep them all alive. He responds by cutting water rations to the men, forcing a few to die.

This is too much for Christian, a foppish dandy who is appalled by Bligh's brutality (he has had several men flogged for minor infractions, and had another keelhauled). He finally erupts, seizing control of the ship and putting Bligh and his supporters on an open boat. Bligh manages to take the ship on a 3,600 mile voyage to safety, while Christian and the mutineers alight on Pitcairn Island.

Those are the basics of the story, if not historically accurate (no one was keelhauled, and only two men died, not from Bligh's cruelty). But the 1962 version takes a different approach. For one thing, the character of Byam, played by Franchot Tone in the original, is gone. Secondly, there is a much longer sequence of the crew on Tahiti, where they take delight in the sexual openness of the women. Christian becomes enamored of the daughter of the king (she is played by Tanita, who would become Brando's wife). It could almost be said that the mutiny is this film is induced by lust.

Directed by Lewis Milestone, this is Brando's picture, for good or ill. It took some getting used to his voice, as his English accent is kind of a high-pitched squeak. For the first half of the film he looks perpetually amused, as if enjoying a private joke. Apparently he was hated by almost everyone involved, as he would rewrite his lines. Richard Harris, as one of the lead mutineers, refused to act to him in some scenes, delivering a key speech to a log instead to the man himself.

The ending deviates from the original film and history itself. Fletcher Christian and his men did settle on Pitcairn Island, and 67 of their descendants live there today. Christian was murdered some years later, but the film gives him a gloriously hammy death scene that has to be seen to be believed. I can't decide whether it was brilliant or the height of silliness.

A technical note: Mutiny on the Bounty was the first movie filmed in the Ultra Panavision 70 screen process. The location shooting in Tahiti looks great-- no wonder Brando fell in love with the place.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Music Man

During the 50s and 60s, large-scale musicals popped up every year. Almost none of them were any good (West Side Story excepted. The Music Man bored me, but I imagine it thrilled the hinterlands during 1962, and it was nominated for Best Picture.

Based on the Broadway musical by Meredith Willson, which was a huge hit (and defeated West Side Story in the 1957 Tony race), The Music Man is thoroughly Midwestern. Willson based the story on his boyhood Iowa home, and the cast is largely the stern but ultimately warm-hearted citizens of River City.

Into their mix comes Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a con man. His scam is to pose as a professor of music and sell instruments and uniforms for a band, and then leave town. I'm not sure how this works--he takes money for the instruments, but does deliver them. What is his profit margin? Also, I wonder about his sidekick, Buddy Hackett, whom he serendipitously runs into. Hackett says he's happy having gone straight and living in the town, but he has no compunction aiding his old friend in fleecing his new townspeople.

Anyway, Preston, a master salesman, is able to convince most of the citizens to buy, usually using flattery. He avoids the school board's requests for his credentials by convincing them they're a great barbershop quartet (they're played by an actual barbershop quartet). The only people who see right through him are the mayor (a funny Paul Ford) and the town's spinster librarian, Shirley Jones. But when Preston is able to bring her young brother (Ronny Howard, as he was then known) out of his shell, she falls for him and helps him hide his secret.

Though the line "corny as Kansas in August" comes from South Pacific, this film qualifies. It has absolutely not sophistication at all, with bad jokes and few good songs. Sure, there is "76 Trombones," and "Ya Got Trouble," but there's also "Till There Was You," which is the oddest song the Beatles ever covered. Let's face it, any musical with a song called "Shipoopi" has got problems.

The film looks great, almost too good. Set in 1912, the colors are candy-coated. This is the past as people want to remember it. There are no nonwhite faces, no social problems.

I was charmed by this film for the first half hour or so, but that wore off. Preston works really hard, but ultimately I just didn't care, and I hated everyone in the film. A meteor strike would have been welcome. The Simpsons episode, "Marge vs. the Monorail," is a much better example of this story.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2012 Oscars Predictions, Pre-Globes Edition

Thursday the Golden Globe nominations will be announced, further clarifying a rapidly focusing Oscar picture. Critics awards are coming in almost every day, giving a boost mostly to Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Also, all films that are on the release calendar have been seen by at least some critics, giving them either negative or positive buzz. Here is breakdown of the likely nominees:

Best Picture

Locks: Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty

Safe Bets: Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi

In the Mix: Django Unchained, Flight, The Master

Best Director

Locks: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper, Les Miserables

Safe Bets: Ben Affleck, Argo, David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

In the Mix: Michael Haneke, Amour, Benn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master

Best Actor

Locks: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln, John Hawkes, The Sessions

Safe Bets: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables, Denzel Washington, Flight

In the Mix: Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained, Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock

Best Actress

Locks: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Safe Bets: Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone, Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

In the Mix: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour, Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor

Locks: Tommie Lee Jones, Lincoln, Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook

Safe Bets: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained

In the Mix: Alan Arkin, Argo, Matthew McConnaughey, Magic Mike

Best Supporting Actress

Locks: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables, Sally Field, Lincoln

Safe Bets: Amy Adams, The Master, Helen Hunt, The Sessions

In the Mix: Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook, Kelly Reilly, Flight

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Longest Day

The second nominee for the Best Picture Oscar of 1962 was The Longest Day, a three-hour, highly historical look at D-Day. It's unusual that it was directed by four credited directors (and an uncredited Darryl Zanuck), each of whom was responsible for a different portion of the movie. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but this movie is better than it has a right to be.

Written by Cornelius Ryan based on his book, the film is about 24 hours, starting at about 8 PM on June 5, 1944. The weather has been bad on the English channel, but the Allies have postponed the inevitable invasion too many times. A clearing in the weather is promised, so Eisenhower, at about 9:30 that night, gives the green light.

The troops, massed on England for months, snap into action. John Wayne is the commander of the paratroopers, who will go ahead of the landing to take the crucial city of St. Mere-Eglise. Richard Todd, as Major John Howard, sees the first action, taking a crucial bridge before dawn. Robert Mitchum plays Norm Cota, who heads the 29th infantry, who will land on Omaha Beach.

Meanwhile, the Germans are arrogant and complacent. They expect an invasion, but not in bad weather and not at Normandy. When the attack comes, reports are scoffed at. Too late, they snap into action, but an entire reserve of Panzers can't be used because Hitler is asleep and is not to be awakened--he has taken a sleeping pill. "We will lose the war," one general says, "because the Feuhrer has taken a sedative."

This is one of those movies that has a cast of thousands, but no one has much screen time. Just when you think you've seen everyone, up pops Henry Fonda, who plays Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He insists on being the first to land on the beach, even though he has arthritis (he would die just over a month later of a heart attack). Richard Burton is in it, though he has only two scenes--one at the beginning, and then one in the penultimate scene, when he lies wounded, contemplating a German soldier he has killed, who is wearing his boots on the wrong feet. Red Buttons also has brief but memorable scenes as a paratrooper who lands on the spire of the church in town, a sitting duck to be shot by German troops.

The cast is full of all sorts of actors, from thespians like Roddy MacDowell and Rod Steiger to pop stars Paul Anka and Fabian. This type of thing has been done many times (some years later it would be tried in A Bridge Too Far, with disastrous results). What makes The Longest Day worthwhile is its almost fetishistic devotion to getting history right. Almost all of the characters are real people, and the timing is like a Swiss watch.

Above all, the film is able to give one an idea on the scale of the invasion. I've often heard it described as moving a city of 200,000 people across a body of water in one night, which basically it was. Since this film was made in 1962, and not today, the extras are actual human beings, so when we see the beach full of soldiers from the view of an airplane, it's kind of awesome.

We also glean how that day was pivotal in world history. What if Hitler hadn't taken a sleeping pill? Whatt if the weather didn't cooperate? It's kind of amazing that it all went right. In that last scene with Burton, Richard Beymer shares a smoke with him. He has gotten lost from his unit, and has no idea what's going on. "I wonder who won?" he muses.

Life of Pi

The wonderful Irrfan Khan, as the older Pi, prefaces the story he will tell by saying it will make the listener believe in God. Well, I still don't believe in God. Maybe Darwin, but certainly those who responsible for CGI.

Life of Pi is a beautiful film. It's like a nature documentary, even if the animals are just a combination of pixels. I liked the film for that reason, even if the film isn't as profound or moving as it thinks it is.

The opening credit scene is charming, as it depicts the animals in a zoo (these are all real animals). Piscitine Molitor Patel, named after a Parisian swimming pool, is born and raised on a zoo in French India. Since his name also sounds like the act of urinating, he shortens it to Pi, and even learns the sequence of numerals in pi up to several hundred.

Young Pi is inquisitive about the universe, and collects religions like others collect butterflies. He is not only a Hindu, but he becomes Christian and Muslim as well. He believes that animals have souls, even to the point of almost losing an arm to the new tiger, named Richard Parker after a paperwork mix-up.

The family decides to leave India for Canada, and the animals and family are put aboard a Japanese cargo ship. During a thunderstorm, Pi goes out on deck to glory in the power of the storm. This saves his life, as the ship sinks and he ends up on a lifeboat with a small menagerie of animals that includes a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker. Given Darwin's laws of survival of the fittest, soon it is only Pi and the tiger.

The rest of the film is the two creatures surviving in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific. At first, of course, they are enemies, as Richard Parker sees Pi as lunch (I'm reminded of a wonderful Gary Larson cartoon, where a cow and a man are in a lifeboat. The man sees the cow as a steak, and the cow sees the man as a pasture of grass). But soon Pi realizes he needs Richard Parker to stay alive, as trying to outwit the cat and keep him alive is also keeping Pi alive.

This portion of the film is suspenseful and interesting, and the tiger, which I have to believe is all CGI, is expertly done. Some of the other animals--the orangutan, and a colony of meerkats, are less convincing. In fact, a whole sequence on an island full of meerkats, which may work in a novel, does not work on film, neither visually nor metaphorically.

Also, the framing device, of Khan telling the story to a Canadian writer, Rafe Spall, is very clumsy. I love Khan as an actor--he's one of those performers I could watch read the phone book, but Spall has nothing to do but look awed.

As the young Pi, Suraj Sharma is very good, though he's often upstaged by Richard Parker. Ang Lee, who directs, has surrendered much of it to his special effects wizards, who are the story here. There's some amazing shots, such as a school of flying fish, the shipwreck, or my favorite, a whale breaching, surrounded by luminous jellyfish.

I recommend Life of Pi as a visual experience, but don't expect to have your notions of God and the universe changed.

My grade for Life of Pi: B.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Math Phobia

There are a few dreams that are said to be dreamed by everyone; being naked in public and falling are two of them. I've dreamed about being out in public in my underwear, but this is not much of a nightmare, as I have no modesty when it comes to nakedness. I've dreamed that I can fly, but I've never dreamed that I am falling.

The dream I have over and over again is another that many people have: I'm back in school (either high school or college) and it's the end of the semester and I realize that I've cut a particular class so often that I'm hopelessly behind--sometimes I don't even know what period the class falls in, or where the classroom is. Invariably, that class is math.

I remember watching astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a talk about the demotion of Pluto (which I've written about on this blog) and he talked about knowing that there is something out there if its gravity affects the orbit of another planet. He said something like, "So we did the math..." That statement grabbed me--he could do the math, but I couldn't in a million years. It's like telling me to eat Canterbury Cathedral. It's impossible.

There is a condition called math anxiety, or math phobia, that many people suffer from. I think I'm one of them. I'm pretty good with simple procedures, like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In fact, I can do some of these in my head rather quickly. But anything more complex, and my brain starts to shut down. It may be a left brain/right brain thing, or it may be that I've conditioned myself from childhood to shun higher mathematical concepts.

The first trouble I had in math was geometry. I remember in 9th grade being called to the blackboard to do a proof (I remember the word, but I forget what is involved). I would stare at the board as if it were the Rosetta Stone, not understanding a thing. In 10th grade, I actually flunked a quarter of geometry, the only F I ever got. Fortunately, that school system only required two years of math, and I was done with it.

In college, I had to take only one semester of math, and it was a basic "Math for Idiots" class. It was like a review of my life in math--it started out with basic elementary school math, got into algebra, which I can get through, and then by the end of the semester got into trigonometry and calculus, which are impossible for me. I passed the class, and that was it for me.

So my dreams are not accurate--I never cut math class. My bete noir in college was French. I never took a language in high school, so I had to take one year of it in college. I passed the first semester, but it took me three tries to get through the second. I would start it, and then get baffled (maybe learning a language and math use similar parts of the brain), start cutting, and then get so hopelessly behind that I would have to drop the class. My last class in college was in the summer, an intensive class of French, and I finally got through it.

There has always been the plaintive cry of students like me: "Why do we need to take math?" Of course, why do we need to take anything, but in junior high I had a teacher who had a good answer--learning math helps you learn how to think. Of course, in that class I lost my math book. Maybe it was a subconscious thing.

Today I don't have to take a math class, and I can use a calculator. I still struggle with figuring out percentages of things. I hear the word algorithm tossed around, though I have no idea what it means. I'm glad there are people who are good at math--it makes life easier for all of us--and am dismayed that our schools are lagging in the teaching of it. I wish there was something I could do to help, but when it comes to math, I don't know nuthin'.

Friday, December 07, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird (Film)

It's that time of year when I look back fifty years at what was going on in film by discussing the films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (and a few more). I start with To Kill a Mockingbird, which didn't win, but is probably the most beloved of all the films that were nominated, and one of the best examples of a great book that made a great film, which is kind of rare.

Based on Harper Lee's classic, which is ranked by many as the book that most influenced them (other than The Bible), the film was turned down by many studios, but eventually made by Universal with Alan J. Pakula producing and Robert Mulligan directing. Horton Foote was hired to adapt the novel, but Harper Lee was on hand during the shooting. Gregory Peck was the first person asked to play Atticus Finch, and he agreed immediately. It's difficult to comprehend anyone else playing the part, and it's one of the most indelible meldings of actor and character in film history. It's no surprise that Mary Badham, who played his daughter Scout, called him Atticus for the rest of his life.

For the two or three who don't know, the story takes place in a sleepy Alabama town in the 1930s. On the surface, it is idyllic. Scout and her older brother, Jem, play in treehouses and tire swings, and are obsessed with the recluse who lives down the street, a mysterious figure named Boo Radley, who is kind of a bogeyman to them, even though they've never seen him. It's the kind of childhood we wish we had (I think of the Twilight Zone episode called "Willoughby"). But under the surface, just out of comprehension of a child's perception, lurks something darker, and it's not Boo Radley. It's racial prejudice.

Atticus Finch is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, for raping a white girl. Her father, Bob Ewell, is the kind of small-minded mean bigot that is the real bogeyman. Atticus believes Tom Robinson's story, and in the trial easily proves his innocence, but at that time there is no way a white jury will believe a black man over a white woman. He is convicted, and there's an innocence lost in the paradise of childhood.

Like the book, the film is about so many things it's hard to wrap one's mind around it. It is certainly a manifesto of liberalism--Atticus is still today a hero to many, who scoffs at notions of bigotry and prejudice, and believes that taking the point of view of the other person is the key to getting along. He also sees the court system not as an idealist--he believes in the sanctity and reality of the law. He also resists a fight--when Ewell spits in his face, he turns the other cheek, Jem looking on, learning a life lesson. With a lesser actor, Atticus would have been a cardboard saint, but Peck invests in him a man who is holding his rage inside. Consider how he briefly erupts when, during his courtroom summation, he hits the word "temerity" when he mentions that Tom Robinson felt sorry for Mayella Ewing, an unthinkable breach of society at that time, or when he hears of a tragic loss, he clenches his fist in frustration. Peck won the Oscar that year, as he would almost any year.

Mary Badham was also nominated for an Oscar, and though her career didn't last very long it's a great performance. The production team wanted nonprofessionals who were real kids, not miniature performers. There are few scenes better with a child actor than the one between her and Peck when he tucks her in, and he tells her that she will inherit the pearl necklace of her late mother. But I also give great credit to Phillip Alford, who plays Jem. Though the book is from Scout's point of view, Jem is the real sufferer of the book--he is the one hit hardest by its events. Alford perfectly captures a boy on the edge of adulthood, and what it means to leave behind the carefree notions of childhood. And I love the scene in which he, who has wanted a gun but is not allowed, learns that a schoolmate has one.

The film has two great endings. One is Atticus' courtroom speech, and his exit from the courtroom, with the black audience standing to recognize him. The other is when Scout finally meets Boo Radley (I don't want to give anything away, but it is a fifty-year old film). Scout, though never having seen him, recognizes him, and sees him not as an enemy, but as a savior. Badham's face crosses with enlightenment, and she says, "Hey, Boo," two of the most generous words ever uttered in any film, a sentence that seems to say, "We're all in this together, and we're all brothers and sisters." Boo was played by Robert Duvall, who doesn't utter a word but transmits so much.

I mentioned in this film that viewed through the prism of history, there is some discomfort. As with many treatments of civil rights, even up to the current day, this is a story told through white eyes, and a white man is presented as the crusader for the race, while the blacks themselves are passive, stoic, and noble. But I've heard enough black people who admire the film to be swayed that this can be overlooked. One that was interviewed said that it was great, at that time, to see a black man who was not guilty--forget that he wasn't acquitted, it was great that he was actually innocent. It's also interesting to view the character of Calpurnia, the Finch's housemaid, after the film The Help was released. She is the mother to the children, and Atticus treats her with the greatest respect. But one wonders what she's thinking, just the same.

The main reason I think this film has endured, and why it is so emotionally resonant, is that Atticus Finch, besides being the exemplary figure of justice, is also the kind of father we all want. He's a man who allows his children a certain freedom--they call him Atticus--but instills in them the values he wants them to have by actually living up to those values himself. When Scout asks him why he is defending Tom Robinson, he tells her it's because if he didn't, he couldn't hold his head up in the town. And the closing scene, when he holds Scout in his arm, sitting all night by the sickbed of his son, has to tear up the heart of anyone.

I've seen To Kill a Mockingbird several times, and it never fails to get me. Yes, it's a bit square, and it may seem simplistic, but it's anything but. In some ways it's the most representative film about 20th-century America.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

And So It Goes

It's always dangerous to read biographies of your heroes; invariably they don't live up to expectations. I've always loved the books of Kurt Vonnegut, ever since I read Slaughterhouse-Five in grade school. I haven't read all of his books, but those I have have made him one of my favorite authors. But, of course, he was a human being, not an icon.

Charles J. Shields, who would also seem to be an admirer of Vonnegut's work, gives us Vonnegut's life, warts and all, in And So It Goes (this is a phrase repeatedly written in Slaughterhouse-Five). Vonnegut certainly wasn't a bad guy--he was irascible, and had some family problems, like most of us, but he isn't exactly the figure the counterculture claimed him as.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, to conservative German stock. He was never a socialist of any kind: "He believed in free enterprise. It had made his forebears rich. And he recognized that many ideas of Western freedom are intrinsically tied to capitalism."

His mother committed suicide: "The simple truth was, Edith Vonnegut deigned not to go on living if she had to be like everybody else."

Vonnegut was pushed into studying science by his older brother, a great scientist, but at Cornell he drifted into journalism. He never graduated, and served in World War II. He was taken prisoner and was held in Dresden, which endured a terrible firebombing: "They passed the corpse of a boy with his burned dog at the end of the leash; bodies of children dressed in party clothes; blackened drivers slumped at the wheels of their cars; couples who had leaped into fountains for safety and plunged into boiling water instead. The Dresden zoo, blown open by direct hits, had released its ark of animals into the wild. The men spotted a llama mounting slopes of debris. Exotic birds, with no trees to sit in, preened themselves on twisted iron railings. A chimpanzee, once popular with children, sat alone without hands."

Dresden would haunt his dreams, and he would struggle to write about it, but that would take twenty years. In the meantime, he went to work for GE in the marketing department, a job he hated. He would quit to be a freelance writer, and struggle to make ends meet by selling short stories. He and his wife, Jane, had three children, and took in the four children of his sister, Alice. They were orphaned when their father died in a train accident and Alice died of breast cancer just a few days apart.

Vonnegut would struggle financially for years. It wouldn't be until the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 that he would become rich and famous. For years it had vexed him, but Shields writes of his solution: "For twenty years, he had been strangely confounded about the book, and intellectualizing its problems hadn't helped. At base, the antagonist was death, and life forces would have to sing a stronger, more convincing counterpoint in the novel. But now, because he was experiencing sex--the psyche's match for death--in ways that inspired him, he saw how to give the novel balance. He would introduce a fantasy lover with the titillating name Montana rescue Slaughterhouse-Five's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, from the terror of existing in an empty, meaningless universe.

Vonnegut became the darling of college students, and that book, plus Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, and The Sirens of Titan, still remain popular today. His wit made him a popular public speaker, and his curls and mustache made him a recognizable celebrity. Still, he felt snubbed by some literary types because he was considered a science-fiction writer.

He was also a philanderer. He and Jane would divorce after several years of marriage, and he fell under the spell of Jill Kremetz, a photographer who Shields portrays in almost entirely unpleasant terms. He describes her as basically snaring him, as if were a trophy, and then tormenting him. He would file for divorce three times, but always went back to him, much to his children's distress.

In later years, Vonnegut became something of an eminence grise, still admired, though his later works were not well-received. He died in 2007, in a way that befits him, given the absurdity of his stories: he fell, entangled in a dog's leash, and struck his head.

The book is straightforward, and Shields writes nimble prose. Each book is briefly explicated--the literary discussion isn't particularly broad, but then Vonnegut isn't easy to summarize. Basically, we learn that his basic theme is: What is man's purpose? Also, he was a forerunner of meta-fiction, inserting himself into the action. He also had many recurring characters, none so famous as Kilgore Trout, who was modeled on author Theodore Sturgeon, but came to be an avatar for Vonnegut himself: "Kilgore Trout, the wise fool of science fiction, ignored, sold only in pornographic bookstores, and half-mad with frustration...'Kilgore Trout is the lonesome and unappreciated writer I thought I might become.'"

I would have liked more. Shields ends his book with Vonnegut's death, writing nothing about the world's reaction, or what became of his children. It kind of left me in the lurch. But otherwise, I recommend this book for Vonnegut fans. The truth is harsh, but Vonnegut believed in the truth.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Night and Day

I don't know what to make of Night and Day, 2008 film from South Korea by Hong Sang-Soo. The entry on IMDB says it's about the mixed emotions involved in traveling, but I didn't get that. Some of it is about being lost in a foreign culture, sort of like Lost in Translation, but it's really something of a shaggy dog story, meandering for two and a half hours until it stops.

Kim Yeong-ho plays a man who leaves Seoul, fearing arrest for marijuana use. He goes to Paris, because he fancies himself a painter. He falls in with the Korean community there. He meets an old girlfriend, and then gets involved with two women, roommates and students at Beaux-Arts. He falls in love with the more immature of the two (she is played by Park Eun-hye, and I would have, too), even though he is married.

The film never really reaches a crescendo, much like the musical theme, which is Beethoven's Seventh, which slowly builds, but Hong never allows us to hear the climax. Kim is something of a shaggy dog himself, a strong man physically but very weak emotionally. At times he is all id, practically draping himself over Park, even though he is much older. He meets a man from North Korea and insults him, and later apologizes, saying he did so because he was weak.

Much of the film seems like a celebration of the banal. A bird falls from a nest at Kim's feet, he gets a bug in his eye, he visits the Musee D'Orsay and (as seen in the poster here) stares at Courbet's The Origin of the World. All the while, I'm wondering why I'm watching this, because I'm missing the bigger point that I imagine Hong is making. If there is one.

I didn't hate this film, but I can't recommend it, either.

Monday, December 03, 2012

United Red Army

United Red Army is a 2007 film from Japan by Koji Wakamatsu. It chronicles, over three hours, the radical leftists of the '60s and '70s in Japan.

The film is in three acts. The first is a docu-drama style presentation that lays out how the movement started (protesting high tuition rates at Japanese colleges) and then morphed into a communist revolution. Various factions sparred with each other, and then formed one entity--the United Red Army.

This part was deadly dull, and I almost bailed on it. Watching actors argue about the inner workings of their organizations was pretty didactic, and so many characters are introduced that I couldn't keep track of them.

But I'm glad I stuck with it, because the second act was absolutely harrowing. The Army takes to the mountains, undergoing paramilitary training in a rustic cabin. They are so doctrinaire that they become obsessed with "self-critiquing"--every infraction calls for a confession and some kind of self-flagellation. The leaders (played viciously by Akie Namiki and Go Jibiki) become monstrous, forcing those found guilty of things like wearing makeup or improper cleaning of a gun, to self-critique, all in the name of the revolution. There is no way to satisfy them, though (one person tells another "You must be more revolutionary!"--how exactly does one do that?) until they are beaten and starved. One after another die, and the thing becomes like Salem during the witch trials, everyone nervous they will be accused next.

Some people intelligently escape, and the revolutionaries location is given to police. The Army heads further into the mountains, and one group takes refuge in a ski lodge near Nagano, where they take a woman hostage. This becomes the third act of the film, as they hold out as police surround them, eventually bombarding them with tear gas and water cannons.

Knowing more than a little bit about the leftist movements in the U.S. at the same time, this film had some familiar tropes, namely how these movements consume themselves, and become as tyrannical as the system they want to bring down. I was surprised to learn that the Red Army still existed all the way until the early part of this century. It reminds me of when I first got to college in 1979, and there was a small Communist organization on campus, run by one of those eternal students who was probably in his thirties, desperately trying to hold on to something that was slipping away.

This is a terrific film if you can make it through the first hour.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Anna Karenina (2012)

"Sin has its consequences" Karenin (Jude Law) tell his wife Anna (Keira Knightley), in the umpteenth adaptation of Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina. This one, though, directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, is different. I didn't find it better than the 1948 version with Vivien Leigh (still haven't seen the Greta Garbo version), but it certainly gets points for style.

Wright has set the film inside a theater, and highlights the artificiality of the action. Characters step through a door and go from palace to skid row. Drops fly in and out, and though there are scenes that are shot outside, others are purposely made theatrical, such a horse race and a train station.

I'm not sure this makes any grand point, but it is beautiful to look at. The production design by Sarah Greenwood is so amazing to behold, and the costumes by Jacqueline Durran are stunning. The sumptuousness of the film helps disguise some of the story problems.

The script is extremely faithful to the novel, set in imperial Russia in the 1870s among the nobility, but also incredibly economical. Stoppard is quite clever in boiling down concepts that may take fifty pages of a book into just a few seconds of film. For example, the opening, in which Oblonsky, Anna's brother, is caught dallying with his children's governess, is expressed in a shot of his wife (Kelly Macdonald) finding a love note.

The novel is huge, so a two-hour adaptation has to get rid of a lot of fat. This is where the problem is in any adaptation of this book. The juicy story is Anna falling in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaving her husband, and creating a scandal. The parallel plot involves Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner, and his love for Kitty (Alica Vikander). Levin's love for Kitty is contrasted with Vronsky's for Anna as the adult version of love--several times in the book and film romantic love is pooh-poohed as something being horribly out-dated. It's sort of a Goofus and Gallant interpretation of love.

But Levin's story is far less interesting, so he gets the short end of the stick. So we get the soap opera of the cuckolded husband, and there lies the problem: Anna and Vronsky are horribly selfish characters. In this film, Karenin is the sympathetic character (not true in the 1948 film, where Ralph Richardson plays him as an ogre). At one point, after Law understands the full nature of Anna's betrayal, he says "What did I do to deserve this?" Good question.

Of course, Law plays Karenin as a humorless prig, a government minister who seems to have never let his thinning hair down. Vronsky, as played by Taylor-Johnson, looks like a refugee from a boy band (I found him far too pretty and bland for the role). But though Knightey and Taylor-Johnson are allowed some steamy scenes that fall just short of nudity, I never felt any chemistry between them.

The other actors are fine. Knightley is no Vivien Leigh, but she has some nice moments, such as when she goes to the theater and is snubbed for being an adulteress. Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky as if he had studied the films of Kevin Kline (he would have made a good Vronsky--after all, he was Darby to Knightley's Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice) and Vikander makes a suitably angelic Kitty.

I do give Anna Karenina a thumbs up, though. Whenever the story lags, the world of the film is so fascinating that it carried me to the next scene. Other well-worn classics might benefit from a similar treatment.

My grade for Anna Karenina: B-.

Saturday, December 01, 2012


In addition to my job as a pizza delivery man, which I wrote about a while back, I am now temping for the holiday season at a toy company. The name of the company shall remain nameless, but one of their items is pictured at left. They have a large warehouse and offices near my home, and I will be working at the customer service call center through the early months of next year.

Relatively speaking, it's not a difficult job. Whenever I get stressed, I have to remind myself I'm not outside laying asphalt. But, as with many jobs that deal with the public, my eyes are opened as to just how despicable humanity can be.

The people I work with are lovely--they have been very patient, and in disputes with customers they invariably take the employee's side. The customer, I have learned, is not always right. And you would be amazed how horrible customers can be. One left a message for one of my female colleagues, three words: "Punk ass bitch." We play that aloud to lighten the mood.

Most customers who call are fine. They know what they want and it's a smooth transaction. But what possesses people to call up without any idea of what they want to order? Surely the knowledge that almost all commerce is transacted via computers, and therefore everything has a number, has filtered through to these people. Yet there are those who call up with a vague idea of what they want, and expect me to spend valuable time looking things up for them. I spent over a half hour on the phone with a woman who wanted spare parts, but did not have the numbers. Her purchase was about nine dollars.

Of course there are the standard gripes. If something is broken, there is a heartbroken grandchild to go along with it. I was raised not to expect anything--I was the opposite of spoiled. We will ship replacement parts free of charge, but as a parent I would take the opportunity to teach a life lesson--sometimes things don't turn out perfectly. Also, when we have to tell people that something is out of stock or discontinued, they often seem to take it as a personal insult.

And, as I learned from delivering pizzas that Indians don't tip, I have also learned that this particular toy company has a big following among Jews in Brooklyn (I don't know for sure, but judging by their accents I assume that they are Hasidim). They are very particular, and, unfortunately living up to the stereotype, will fight over pennies. They will ask, for no particular reason, for free shipping. They will ask to extend sales that are no longer in place. Stereotypes are nasty things, and for someone like me, who has tried to resist them all my life, when they smack of the truth its disturbing.

It's only December 1st now, but the holiday gift buying is in full swing. It will get worse, especially when we have to tell people that we can't guarantee shipping by Christmas. It seems that when it comes to child's play, people can get very serious.

One final note: I am grateful for the paycheck, and also grateful this particular company has not outsourced their call center to India. One friend suggested I use an Indian accent just to fuck with people.