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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Marriage Plot

Having read and enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, I was looking forward to his latest, The Marriage Plot, and it starts strongly, right in an area that clicks for me--college students, circa 1982. The story focuses on three graduating seniors from Brown and the love triangle they form, and how they seek to find their way after graduation.

The woman in the apex of the triangle is the beautiful Madeline Hanna. She adores Victorian novels, and in particular those that hinge on the marriage plot: "In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sangs of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely."

Of course Eugenides will craft something of his own marriage plot, which becomes undone. Manna is in love with Leonard Bankhead, a moody scientist, and after graduation they will live on Cape Cod while he has a research fellowship, studying the reproduction of yeast. But Leonard has depression, and Madeline suborns herself to become his caretaker.

Meanwhile, Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major from Michigan, is in love with Hanna. He had his chance, when visiting her parents house during Thanksgiving break, but didn't make his move. The two then went on to have an on-again off-again platonic relationship, though Mitchell never lost hope that he would one day marry Madeline. "Madeline thought to herself, as she'd thought many times before, that Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart."

Mitchell, after graduation, goes with his friend Larry to Europe, and then on to India. Mitchell struggles to find his spiritual identity, and while volunteering for Mother Teresa, discovers that he can't quite hack it. He entertains thoughts of going to divinity school, but is devastated when he receives a letter from Madeline.

The Marriage Plot has some of the elements of the unrequited romantic yearning of a college student, but written through the many years of filtration that come afterward. I think most men can feel for Mitchell, as many of us have been in that situation, realizing we are perfect for a girl, but she doesn't love us anyway. Eugenides gets the college experience down perfectly, from the unspoken rules of mating: "In the sexual hierarchy of college, freshman males ranked at the very bottom," to the empty feeling on graduation day: "The problem was that Madeline, for the first time in her life, wanted no part of it. She wasn't proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She'd lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented."

The trouble with the book is that as it goes along, it bogs down on certain aspects that I didn't find all that interesting, especially Leonard's mental state. He becomes to the novel what he is to Madeline--an anchor. We get a lot of talk about his medication and his manic behavior while trying to self-reduce them. The stuff is well-written, particularly a scene in which he scares a teenager in a taffy shop, but it also seemed familiar. I really don't yearn to read more books about the clinically depressed.

Mitchell's time in Europe and India are more interesting, but things also get bogged down there, too, as you just want to slap him. I did find some insights interesting, such as: "The worst thing about religion was religious people," and his attitude about hippies: "Mitchell had always thought he'd been born too late to be a hippie. But he was wrong. Here it was 1983, and India was full of them. As far as Mitchell was concerned, the sixties were an Anglo-American phenomenon. It didn't seem right that continental Europeans, who had produced no decent rock music of their own, should be allowed to fall under its sway, to frug, to form communes, to sing Pink Floyd lyrics in heavily accented voices. That the Swedes and Germans he met in India were still wearing love beads in the eighties only confirmed Mitchell's prejudice that their participation in the sixties had been imitative at best."

I recommend The Marriage Plot, but with reservations. The writing is crisp and lovely and often heartbreaking, but the characters may not be people you want to hang out with. If I was this way after college, I apologize to all who knew me.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities is the third play I've seen by Jon Robin Baitz; I've also seen The Substance of Fire and The End of the Day, but I couldn't tell you much about them (other than that one of the actors in The Substance of Fire was Sarah Jessica Parker, and after the show I saw her using the pay phone in the lobby--that's how long ago that was).

Much of the critical response to Baitz' new play, which is now running at the Booth Theater on Broadway under the direction of Joe Mantello, is a sort of "it's about time"--this is the major play that puts Baitz in the big time. And indeed, Other Desert Cities is a spectacular work, plumbing the depths of not only the dynamics of a certain kind of American family, but also resonating with anyone who has ever winced at some wrong-headed statement (or Facebook posting) made by a family member about politics.

"Families get terrorized by their weakest member," says Polly Wyeth (Stockard Channing), and this play proves it so, although who is the weakest member? Polly wouldn't say herself. She and her husband, Lyman (Stacey Keach), are old guard Hollywood, modeling themselves after the Reagans. He was an actor, later a politician, while she was a screenwriter who became a steely politician's wife. Lyman says of her, "She's the only woman to have faced down Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Mrs. Annenberg at the same lunch and reduced them all to tears."

The time is 2004, Christmas Eve. The setting is the Wyeth's home in Palm Springs, California. The Wyeth's adult children are visiting. They are Trip (Justin Kirk), a seemingly-happy-go-lucky TV producer. He makes a hit reality show that uses washed up stars as jury members for real trials. Given his upbringing, he's slumming, but he says, "People need to laugh today. It's all so serious and goddamn, you know, horrible out there. We could all get anthraxed any minute--people need a laugh!"

Then there's Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), his older sister. She's a writer, living in Sag Harbor. Her parents wished she lived closer, and mention that the house next door is for sale. "I think living on the East Coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming. It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals," says Polly.

Despite good-natured bickering about culture, "It's all or nothing with your generation. Either vegans or meth addicts or both at the same time," and politics--the war in Iraq is a subject to be avoided, things are cheerful. Brooke has a new book, Trip's show is going well, and Polly's sister, Silda (Judith Light) is drying out after falling off the wagon. She was Polly's former writing partner, and a kind of larger than life character, who enters a room and proclaims, "You know what happens when you don't drink? You dream. I hate dreams. I have more Nazi dreams than Elie Wiesel. What does that say about, always being chased by the SS?"

There's also good news that Brooke, who had written one novel, has finished and sold her second book. This is big stuff, considering that a few years earlier she had a nervous breakdown. But the big first act plot point is that the book is a memoir. It seems that she had an older brother, who during the Vietnam War ran with a radical group that planted a bomb at a recruiting station, killing someone. He later committed suicide, and that has haunted her ever since. She blames her parents for pushing him away in his time of need.

The remainder of the play is the back and forth as Polly is outraged by this. Lyman, at first, prefers to stay out of the fray, but later, when he learns that in just a few months an excerpt will appear in The New Yorker, implores his daughter to wait until they are dead to publish. A big reveal will occur in the second act which changes the color of everything, including what Brooke had thought of her parents all these years.

Other Desert Cities has a lot of balls in the air. Baitz, who I assume is a liberal, doesn't disguise his contempt for the kind of Republican that the Wyeths are--Nancy Reagan is a kind of Satanic presence in the play. Brooke had assumed that because her brother Henry's radicalism reflected badly on her parents' standing in the Republican community, they spurned his efforts to get help. Silda, an old-fashioned liberal, who helped Brooke right the book, much to Polly's horror, agrees with that view: "The zealots who have taken over your party and marinated it in intolerance. You guys let it happen. You are incapable of speaking out, even while finding fault with it in private. And you live in that complicity every day. A war in which so many people are dying in the desert, thousands of miles away. Because it's a war declared by a man whose father is someone with whom you occasionally dine, you keep silent. That is what true believers do. That, that's what your daughter has written."

Other Desert Cities is a wonderful play, and it surprised me in a few ways. I found the characters sharply drawn, but at times they said things that don't conform to what we might expect. Polly is so tough that she is willing to sever contact with Brooke over this. Channing, a marvelous stage presence, invests her role with so much resolve that one can't help feel a little frightened of her. Keach's performance is the leveler, an oak of a man, firm in conviction, but softer than this wife, but even he is not ready to forgive his daughter for a breach of trust.

At times the play falls into typical dramaturgical problems. Since the characters all know the past, exposition becomes clumsy, especially when the audience must be ladled information about Henry. I also struggled with the ages of the actors. When I learned that Henry's incident took place during the Vietnam War (at first I thought it must be during the Iraq War), I had to adjust--clearly Brooke must be in her mid-40s, while Trip is much younger (indeed, the script says he is ten years younger), though Griffiths and Kirk are roughly the same age--it isn't often that an actress will hear she looks too young for the part.

Griffiths has a tough part to play. She's pretty much a pill--she clings to her book, even after her parents' protest (I would never write about my parents while they were alive). But Griffiths also makes it plain that this death is the dominant feature in her psyche, and that she must address it, come what may. Kirk plays a character much like his role of Andy on Weeds--a sybarite and something of comic relief, though he has a speech that lays out his hidden pain.

As I thought about the play later it occurred to me that Mantello has divided the stage in twain. For most of the action, Polly and Lyman stay stage left, while Brooke, Trip, and Silda remain stage right. Of course, to the audience, this is reversed--the leftists are to our left, while the conservatives are to our right. Not only is there a political schism, but also a family schism. When Trip is asked whether he supports Brooke or not, he is in his parents' domain, but he takes a centrist view, and thus retreats upstage, in the direct center of the set.

The other major character, as the title may suggest, is the desert. Palm Springs is an enclave that the Wyeth's are hiding in--Trip points out that they don't even get to L.A. much. It's a place where one can get lost staring out the window at the desert, perhaps secure in being protected from the world at large, both by geographic isolation and the knowledge that there probably isn't a Democrat for miles. An accidental death has the ring of stature--a woman is run over by a garbage truck, but on Bob Hope Drive. But, as Silda says, "Palm Springs isn't a refuge, it's King Tut's Tomb.The whole town is filled with mummies with tans."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Albert Nobbs

Nominated for three Academy Awards, Albert Nobbs is a gentle, almost ephemeral film about gender identity. I don't think it goes nearly far enough, though, other than scratch the surface of a significant issue--just what makes us the gender that we are?

Set in turn of the century Dublin, the film concerns the title character, a waiter at a hotel. Nobbs seems to think about only two things--his duties, and the money he's saving under the floorboards, in the hope of one day opening a tobacco shop.

Nobbs keeps to himself. He gets along with the other staff, but it seems they don't know anything about him. His age is impossible to guess. When a housepainter, Hubert Page, is hired to do some work, the owner (Pauline Collins), tells Nobbs he is to share his bed with Mr. Page. This horrifies Nobbs.

It would have been interesting to view this film through a different prism. As it is, everyone who sees it will know that Nobbs is played by a woman, Glenn Close, and that Mr. Page is played by Janet McTeer (both are Oscar nominees). Thus there is no Crying Game surprise--early on McTeer sees that Nobbs is a woman. In order to calm fears that McTeer will tell her secret, McTeer, spectacularly, reveals that she shares the same secret. What if the film had unknown actors, and we didn't know what Nobbs was hiding? That would have been a different movie, and perhaps a better one.

McTeer is a revelation to Nobbs in more ways than one. Not only does she learn that she's not the only person living this kind of lie, but McTeer is happily married--to a woman, a feminized woman. Nobbs, with new purpose, seeks to court a maid at the hotel (Mia Wasikowska). But Wasikowska is sleeping with a handyman (Aaron Johnson), who urges her to exploit Nobbs for gifts. We know that Nobbs is headed for heartbreak.

This is a fairly interesting story, based on a novella by George Moore and with a script by Close and John Banville (Close was so involved she even co-wrote the closing song). It is directed lovingly but gingerly by Rodrigo Garcia. I found, though, that it didn't really grab my attention, and I fear the problem is in the central character. Close is quite good, expressing the character with a minimum of expression--after all, she has been a waiter since the age of 14, trained to react, and not speak unless to spoken to. Close's characterization is all observation and waiting.

But I couldn't help but wonder, is Nobbs some kind of simpleton? She is seen counting her money, speaking aloud, confronting things as if they were difficult equations. When she courts Wasikowska, asking her to marry him, is there any reason that a different outcome could have been expected? There is very little background to the character--an orphan, masquerading as a boy to get a job, and then being trapped in that charade for the rest of one's days--but I couldn't tell what made the character tick. Maybe all there was was what we see.

McTeer, on the other hand, has a wider berth, and I found to be a more moving characterization, even in her brief scenes. She's also more convincing as a man. It is a testament to both performances how, late in the film, when they don more traditional female garb, that both looked like men in drag.

I found Albert Nobbs worthwhile, but just barely. See it for the performances, but don't go expecting to be knocked out or provoked in thought.

My grade for Albert Nobbs: C+.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

No Strings Attached

Ricky Gervais, during the recent Golden Globes telecast, introduced presenter Natalie Portman with a joke about how she wasn't nominated for anything this year because she had a baby. That isn't precisely true, as Portman actually had four releases during the calendar year. It was just that none of them were particularly well received. I yield to no one in my enchantment with Portman, so I will take a look at those four films here over the coming week.

In No Strings Attached, Portman shows a gift for comedy, even if she can't completely keep afloat another film that signifies the sorry state of romantic comedy these days. She plays an intern that has the hots for an old acquaintance (Ashton Kutcher). She's commitmentphobic, so they arrange to have sex without the accompanying relationship tropes. Of course, this will go wrong, and love will triumph after all.

I liked the first half or so of the film. I haven't seen Kutcher in much, but he has a likable casualness. He's wasting his career on low-level stuff like this, though. There are also several notable actors in supporting roles. Kevin Kline is Kutcher's dad, a TV star who has stolen his son's girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond). Portman has roommates who are also appealing actors--Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling--but neither are given much to do.

Instead we get a lot of smirking, smutty jokes. The writer, Elizabeth Meriweather, seems like a child who has just discovered words like "penis," and realizes she can get away with them, so they are repeated with impunity. This replaces character development. The film was directed with no particular distinction by Ivan Reitman.

I appreciate Portman's attempt to spread her wings a bit, and urge her to try comedy more often, but choose a better script.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pulphead

John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of magazine pieces, titled Pulphead, is a bit of a marvel. It is a kind of journalism that may bother some--in almost all instances, Sullivan is an "I" in the pieces--he takes an active part, whether he is writing about caves or pop stars. But as I write this blog in exactly the same way, I can't very well criticize him for it. I think this style works when the person writing is interesting, and Sullivan certainly is (whether I'm interesting I'll leave you, dear reader, to judge). How can anyone dislike someone who clarifies the pronunciation of the name "Jan" by distinguishing, "Jan as in Jan Van Eyck, not Jan as in Brady."

Sullivan was born in Louisville, and grew up in southern Indiana, which makes him a southerner, and thus his work bears that stamp. As he points out, the South has given birth to many geniuses, but it's not known for its sophistication. But his parents went to the vividly named Transylvania State College in Kentucky and he went to the University of the South, where he spent some time working for a local writing legend, then in his 90s, which is the topic of one of his essays. "The South...I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can. Merely to hear the word Faulkner at night brought gusty emotions."

Sullivan, for lack of a better word, is a pop culture critic. About half of his pieces are about music: a visit to a Christian rock festival, exegeses of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose, an interview with reggae star Bunny Wailer ("It had long been a dream of mine to meet Bunny Wailer--a pipe dream, sometimes a literal one in the sense that I dreamed it while holding a pipe") and old blues musicians. The opening essay is on the Christian rock festival, a mini-masterpiece that has him attending alone (first he tries to recruit kids on the Internet, and is mistaken for a perv) but meets some guys from West Virginia. I knew I was in capable hands early on, when he describes the RV he rented: "The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains left in the sun. I was physically halted at the threshold for a moment. Jesus had never been in this RV."

With these essays he at times turns a gimlet eye on his subject, but more at the culture in general. In an essay on Real World cast members, he writes, "People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It's all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching."

Other essays fly far afield. There's one about an oddball Kentucky naturalist who rubbed elbows with Audubon, Constantine Rafinesque. There's another about caves in Tennessee with glyphs on them created hundreds of years ago by Indians. Sullivan visits an evacuation center after Hurricane Katrina, and Tea Party rally.

He also writes personally. There's an essay about when his brother was nearly killed (technically, he was dead for a short time) by electrocution, and about when his family's house was rented for use by the TV show One Tree Hill (people still drive by and take pictures).

But the strangest essay, "The Violence of the Lambs," is one about the trending upwards of animal attacks. Sullivan notes that all kinds of species, from chimps to beavers to chickens, have increased their attacks on human beings. He notes the statistical anomaly of Steve Irwin being killed by sting ray's jab to his heart, which had never been known in human history before, only for it to happen again a few months later. This is the province of crackpots, so Sullivan pulls the rug out on us by creating an expert out of whole cloth, though he swears that all the animal attack incidents, such as chimps learning to use sticks as tools, are true. What's the explanation? It seems that evolution happens quicker when the Earth is warmer, another reason to despair against global warming.

"What this means is the we picked a bad time to have all the animals enraged at us, since just at the moment when their disposition might be expected to turn, they happen to be evolving like crazy." Wasn't this the plot of an M. Night Shamalyan movie?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wings

Longtime readers of this blog will recall when I worked my way through the films that have won the Best Picture Oscar (at 1957, I started, once a year, to go through all the nominees for Best Picture). I had to skip the very first film that won the honor, Wings, because it was not on DVD. That has changed, and the film has been released on a startling pristine disc.

I did see Wings once before, years ago on Turner Classic Movies, but I was glad to see it again. For an 84-year-old film, it really holds up well, and is a smashing entertainment. Sure, some of the acting is of the silent, melodramatic style, but that has to be taken in context. Director William Wellman, who would go on to make many great films over the next thirty years, gave Wings a look that has transcended time.

The story is a tribute to the World War I flying aces. The war was still fresh in everyone's minds, though no film had been made about the war in the air. Logistics was a major problem--usually miniatures were used. Wellman, who was a flying ace, did something that today (mostly due to insurance problems) couldn't or wouldn't be done--he bolted cameras to the planes and had his lead actors fly those planes, thus giving the viewer a thrilling sense of being in the air.

The plot itself is kind of hoary, even for 1927. Two young men from the same small town enlist in the Air Corps. Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and Dave (Richard Arlen) are from different sides of the tracks. Rogers is a working class kid, who builds hot rods, while Arlen is a rich kid. They are both in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), though she is in love with Dave. Rogers' next door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is in love with Jack, though he sees her as only a friend.

The boys both go off to war, and Wings is at its best during the dogfight scenes. The film was shot near San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. Army donated about 15 million dollars worth of men and equipment to the making of the film. Wellman would wait for days for the sky to be cloudy, realizing that without the clouds there was no perspective. Watching those plays circle through the clouds is pretty amazing, even today (of course it would all be CGI today). There were a few "special effects"--flames hand-tinted (in color) were added to the film negative.

Rogers and Arlen are at first rivals, but bond to become great friends. Bow goes over as a nurse, and there's a long scene where she tries to get a drunken Rogers away from a French floozy so he won't be arrested for failing to end his leave. As this was pre-code, there's kind of a racy scene when Bow undresses behind a screen. Bow, at the time, was by far the biggest female star in the world--the original "It" girl.

The film's tragic ending, while melodramatic (and a shade homoerotic, given today's standards) is nail-bitingingly exciting. Wellman, over the course of his career, would use the closeup to great effect, and he certainly does so here, especially when one friend sees the other, lying in a bloody heap. There are also some other nifty shots: when Arlen and Robson are on a swing, Wellman has mounted a camera on the swing, so the viewer goes back and forth a few times (and could get vertigo). There's also a great shot that zooms in on a dolly on Rogers in the Parisian nightclub, which goes over several tables until it's close on his face.

The photography was done by Harry Perry. He is responsible for about 90 percent of the aerial stuff, though several cameramen were used. Yeoman work was also turned in by the stunt pilots. There are some spectacular crashes, including when a Fokker slams into a house. Seen in a film today that would mean nothing, as one would assume it's all computer generated, but back then it was an actual plane and an actual house.

A few other notes of trivia--early in the film look for a short scene featuring a very young Gary Cooper. Also, Wings is the only silent film to win Best Picture, although that may end in a matter of weeks if The Artist wins. Of course, The Artist is not a true silent picture, as it does have a soundtrack.

I highly recommend film lovers check out this disc--it's also in Blu-Ray. It's a great part of cinema history, and also a damn fine film.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Entourage

Entourage ran for eight seasons on HBO, but until recently I hadn't seen one episode. I've now seen the first season, and after initially feeling like it was a waste of time, I have to admit it grew on me.

Produced by Mark Wahlberg, it's loosely based on his experiences as a young movie star in Hollywood. Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), a kid from Queens, has hit it big and has put three of his buddies from home on the payroll. Kevin Connolly is his unofficial manager, the sensible one, who used to be the manager of a pizzeria; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is the simpleton, who doesn't really do much of anything but enjoy the perks of his friendship and stay stupid things, which leads to the invariable "Shut the fuck up, Turtle;" and Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), Vince's older brother, who once had a decent acting career but now can't get arrested, serves as the cook.

In the first few episodes, I kind of hated these guys, who drove around in a hummer from party to party, oblivious to anything but their own hedonism. Turtle, the most obnoxious of them, has no inner conflict. When told that he wouldn't get laid without Vince, he responds, "Do I give a fuck?" These guys live in their own bubble, separated from reality, spending money like it was water, wafting in a cloud of cannabis and pussy.

But they kind of grew on me. I especially like Dillon as the failed star, who sees his younger brother far eclipse him in stardom. He is a sweet guy, but you can see the terror in his eyes as he realizes he's just a hanger-on, not the star. I've met guys like this--I once met a guy who had bit parts in movies but walked around in a leather jacket like he was a megastar. I have no doubt that this is the way things are.

The other major character in the show is Vince's manager, played with ferocity by Jeremy Piven. Supposedly modeled on Ari Emanuel (Rahm's brother) he's a force of nature, the kind of character that is seen a lot in TV and movies and seems improbable, but is apparently dead on. He's got a gifted vocabulary, and would cut out his mother's heart if it helped his client.

The first season covers the period from when Vince's new film has come out to him choosing his next film, which turns out to be an indie. What's a little disconcerting is that we don't see Vince doing any work. Grenier plays him as a kind of zen figure, never angry, just bobbing along on life's lucky current. He moves from woman to woman the way most of us dream of when we were teenagers (or still do).

The show also features cameos by a variety of performers, ranging from Sarah Silverman to Larry David to Scarlett Johannson. Val Kilmer is pretty funny as a pot grower, while Gary Busey plays himself to great effect.

I'd like to think this is an accurate view of life at the top in Hollywood, though it makes me fucking envious that it's not me. I think I'll take a look at future seasons.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar 2011: Extremely Safe & Incredibly Nostalgic

After the Oscar nominations are announced, there's a temptation to try figure out what it all means, usually to no avail. I do think, though, that there are some things that resonate with this group of nominations, the 84th in Academy history.

At first blush, it would seem that studios trumped indies, or at least edgy indies. The biggest acting snubs, based on expectations (which often just feed on each in an ouroboros) were for Michael Fassbender for Shame, Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Albert Brooks for Drive. All totaled, those three films got only one nomination (Drive, for Sound Editing). But, on the other hand, some categories were fragrantly fresh. In Best Actor, there were the expected heavyweights, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but instead of Fassbender, and also instead of Leonardo DiCaprio (for J. Edgar), who had picked up a SAG and Golden Globe nomination, Demian Bichir, from the little-seen A Better Life, scored a nod. Another, milder surprise was that Gary Oldman, a longtime standout performer, got a nomination for his skillful underplaying in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For those who always say that these things are predictable and boring, I submit this category in disagreement.

There were plenty of nonsurprises, though, especially in the Actress categories. Meryl Streep extended her record of acting nominations to 17. She has sat through more losses, though, than any other performer. Everyone keeps waiting for her to win her third Oscar--she might do it this year (though I think not).

In the Best Picture category, the rules changed so that anywhere from five to 10 films could get nominated. The requirement was that a film had to get five percent of the first place votes. Nine films made the cut. Most had predicted seven or eight, so I think the party crashers are The Tree of Life, which was a big favorite on critics list but not to the general public (I loved it, but admittedly there are a lot of WTF? moments), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which didn't get a sniff from the Globes or the guilds, and has a below 50 rating on Metacritic. That it made it in may be a testimony to the power of Scott Rudin, or perhaps to its 9/11 subject matter (though this did not help United 93 or World Trade Center).

Extremely Loud is a bit of a throwback--it veers toward the sentimental, but not to the mawkish (at least I thought so). Many of the films in the nonette have a nostalgic bent. The Artist and Hugo are both tributes to silent films, while War Horse is consciously modeled on epics from the '40s and '50s. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's return to this category, is about the notion that somehow the past is better than the present, while The Help deals with a difficult time period in a nonthreatening, Oprah Book Club kind of way. The only film from this group that feels modern to me is Moneyball, but even that has some tried and true sports cliches.

Some other ruminations on the nominations: As far as music goes, John Williams received his 46th and 47th (!) nominations, scoring twice in Best Original Score. The Best Song category is a joke--a list of eligible songs are listened to by the branch, who then score them on a 1-to-10 rating. Any song that rates 8.5 are higher can be nominated, but if none of them do the top two are nominated by default. It's entirely possible that the two songs, one from The Muppets and the other from Rio, did not score higher than 8.5. This category should be ashbinned.

Brad Pitt could end up with three nominations. He's nominated for acting and producing for Moneyball, and, pending a decision by the Academy, could be one of the producers for The Tree of Life (only three producers can receive nominations for Best Picture from any one film). Pitt could be only the third person to get two nominations in Best Picture in the same year (following Francis Coppola and Scott Rudin).

From now until Oscar night I will focus on the top six categories and my thoughts and predictions, but until then I can say what winner will earn the biggest whoop of delight from me--Mark Bridges, nominated for Best Costumes for The Artist, was a classmate of mine in the theater department at SUNY-Stony Brook with me. We appeared in a few plays together, including Romeo and Juliet (he was Mercutio, I was Benvolio). He was a good actor, but obviously a better costume designer. Go Mark!

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Better Life

When the Screen Actors' Guild nominations were announced, the surprise was that Demian Bechir (excellent as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che) was nominated for Best Actor for his work in A Better Life. I dutifully have caught up with it on DVD, and it's a terrific, unshowy job in a unshowy film that speaks volumes about the lives of undocumented aliens in the U.S.

Directed by Chris Weitz, whose career has followed an interesting path (who could imagine a small, intense film like this one could be made by the man who did both American Pie and a Twilight movie?), the film is firstly impressive in its integrity. This film is about Mexican immigrants who work as day laborers and their daily struggles, but instead of the typical Hollywood solution--making the protagonist a white character who works on their behalf--Weitz chooses to tell the story from the ground up.

Bechir stars as a undocumented worker living in Los Angeles. He has it better than most, as another gardener has taken him on as a steady assistant, so he doesn't have to line up in parking lots waiting for a possible job. He has a small house, and a 14-year-old son who goes to school and is already losing his Spanish. His boss urges Bechir to buy his truck (thus buying his business), so he borrows the money from his sister. But on the first day of his new, better life, his truck is stolen.

This plot twist gives the film a template that follows Vittoria De Sica's Bicycle Thief, but that film was told in a completely different style and didn't have the added element of the character not only seeking his means of work, but also understanding than any misstep (he doesn't have a driver's license, for example) will mean his deportation.

After watching the film I felt like I could understand how these people lived. Julian's life is also fraught, as he is close to the age of being seduced by vicious gangs (he dates a girl who is in the family of these freakishly tattooed and muscled men, who know they will not live long). While attending a traditional Mexican radio, he scoffs at the sombreros and mariachi songs, but never do we feel that the connection between father and son has been broken.

This is a fine film, perhaps the best narrative film I've seen on a very complicated issue.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Poetry

Poetry, a film by Lee Chang-Dong, first entered my radar space when its lead actress, Yoon Jeong-hee, won the Best Actress award bestowed by the L.A. Film Critics. I can confirm that it's a magnificent performance in a poignant but not mawkish film.

Yoon plays a 66-year-old woman who lives a quiet life, working part-time as a health-care assistant for an elderly man who has had a stroke. She lives with her grandson, a sullen boy who instantly inspires the viewer to want to slap him. He is rude to her, but she bears this with a kind of resigned grace.

The film begins with Yoon visiting a doctor. Her arm is tingling, but more ominously, she has begun to forget words, like electricity and wallet. Still maintaining a positive attitude, she enrolls in a poetry class. The teacher asks his students to take notes on what they see, their only assignment being to write one poem before the end of the term.

Framing this is the tragic story of a young girl who has committed suicide. I hesitate to explain how this ties in with Yoon's story, but it will, turning her life upside down, and challenging her sunny optimism about life.

Poetry proceeds at a leisurely pace, much like the flowing river that is the beginning and ending shots of the film. It deals with the creative process--why can people sometimes feel the poem inside them, but not write it--but it also addresses a kind of heartbreak, the kind that can create poetic inspiration.

Yoon is a major star in South Korea, but hadn't appeared in a film since 1994. She gives her character a kind of child-like innocence. In one key scene she goes to meet the mother of the young suicide victim, but can't speak of that, and instead talks poetically about an avocado that has fallen to the ground. Later, when she meets the mother again, who now understands why Yoon came to visit her, they exchange just the slightest look of understanding.

I have long had a blind spot when it comes to poetry. I have trouble reading it, my eyes not wanting to follow the form. I couldn't tell you why one poem is better than another. Though this film didn't answer all of my questions, it did give me some insights into the motivation of those who love it, and those who write it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oscar 2011 Predictions, Final

The Oscar nominations will be announced bright and early on Tuesday morning, so here's my last two cents on who will be nominated. I expect a few surprises, but most of these picks fall in line with a consensus that has built after the guilds and Golden Globes have made their picks. As a reminder, these are my predictions and do not factor in whether I liked the films or not.

BEST PICTURE
 
The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Help

Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
War Horse


I'm going to go with eight nominations, although it could be anywhere from five to ten. If it's five, The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo and Midnight in Paris figure to be in. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was aided immensely by David Fincher being nominated for Best Director by the DGA. To be nominated, a film must receive five percent of the first place votes cast. Moneyball I have in by a thread.

If the category goes to ten, add The Tree of Life, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or Bridesmaids.
 \
BEST DIRECTOR


Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Tate Taylor, The Help

It would be boring to just parrot the DGA nominees, so I'll substitute Taylor for Fincher. It will be interesting to see if Terence Malick gets any love for The Tree of Life, and if he can get nominated here without the film being nominated for Best Picture, which hasn't happened yet since the Best Picture category expanded from five nominees.

BEST ACTOR


George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt are locks. DiCaprio doesn't belong here, but seems to have enough star power and enough good will to get by. The remaining spot should go to a man named Michael--Fassbender or Shannon, for Take Shelter. Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also a possibility, but slight.

BEST ACTRESS

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn


The consensus is, and I agree, that there are six women chasing five spots. The last spot will either go to Swinton, or to Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If anyone else gets in it will be a surprise.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

The most wide open category, there are another half-dozen or so actors who could gain a spot here, most likely Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants


As with Actress, this category is six women chasing five spots, but only Bejo, Chastain, and Spencer are locks. Janet McTeer, for Albert Nobbs, is the other possibility. McCarthy received a SAG nomination but not a Golden Globe, while the opposite was true for Woodley. McTeer received both, which means I should have her here, but for some reason I don't. Just a hunch.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Artist
Bridesmaids
Margin Call

Midnight in Paris
Win Win


Lots of room for other films here, including A Separation, 50/50, Beginners, Take Shelter, Tree of Life or Melancholia. The screenwriters branch is frequently the most adventurous.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Descendants
The Help
Hugo

Moneyball
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy



If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has a big day it could be here, too, but I'll go with the more complex Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to get the fifth spot.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM


Footnote, Israel
In Darkness, Poland
Monsieur Lazhar, Canada
Pina, Germany
A Separation, Iran

The Academy makes this easier, by winnowing it down to nine semifinalists. Don't know much about these films. Poland's is about the Holocaust, so that should be in. Pina has the distinct possibility of being nominated for both Best Foreign Language and Best Documentary, which has never happened before.

BEST ANIMATED FILM

The Adventures of Tintin
Cars 2
Puss 'n Boots
Rango

Rio

Ludicrously, the Academy will allow for five nominees in this category, because of the number of releases. Pixar, even in an off year, may get in, and though Rio kind of came and went it did get decent box office. But a relatively unknown film could knock one of them off and sneak in here.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Bill Cunningham New York
Buck
Paradise Lost 3
Pina
Project Nim


This is a real crap shoot. I could be wrong on all five, though they are taken from a semifinalist list of 15.

Find out Tuesday morning how I did!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The word problematic is thrown around quite a bit, but here's a movie that it really describes. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an often moving film that deals with grief and closure, but is also often at arm's length, because of a protagonist that I think few of us can identify with, or even tolerate for more than five minutes at a time.

The ads say this is not a 9/11 movie, but it sures seems like it to me. Tom Hanks plays the world's greatest dad (really, he never gets mad?), a jeweler who enjoys sending his son on "reconnaissance missions" that require maps and clues. They are currently working on finding New York's missing sixth borough (you would think Hanks wouldn't lead his kid so astray on geography) when "the worst day" happens, and Hanks is killed in the Towers.

The boy, Oskar, played by Thomas Horn, spends a moody year before he can even go in his father's closet, which is untouched. He finds a key, and, seeking to keep a connection to his father that is waning, endeavors to find what that key unlocks. A child who was tested for Asperger's, Horn notes that the name "Black" is written on the outside of the envelope that contains the key. He sets about contacting every person named Black in the five boroughs of New York. It's a good thing I wasn't around, because I would have been the asshole that said, "What if they live in Jersey?"

Soon Horn is joined on his expedition by a mysterious lodger in his grandmother's apartment, an old man (Max von Sydow), who does not speak, but has the words "Yes" and "No" tattooed on the palms of his hand, which is a nifty convenience. Von Sydow is such a good actor that at times I forgot he was mute, as you can read his thoughts in his expressions. Though he is a very fine performer, the character seems to exist only to get Horn over his fear of public transportation and bridges.

As I sit hear a few hours later, it's easy for me to pick apart this movie. For one, what American would name their kid Oskar? (this made me think of the main character with the same name in The Tin Drum, which is not who I should have been thinking of). The people Horn meets, most of them kind, seem like a Benetton ad (how many Chinese people people would have the surname Black?) But while I was watching it I was affected, mostly because director Stephen Daldry has managed to convince me that I was inside Oskar's head, and how overstimulated he could be by events swirling around him.

But do I want to spend two hours in the company of a kid like this? Horn, for his part, does a fine job (I was interested to read he was discovered after winning $30,000 on the Jeopardy kids tournament) but the character is so full of tics (such as carrying a tambourine to calm him down) that it made me edgy. He is also not warm and cuddly--he is extremely cruel to his mother (Sandra Bullock, in one of the better performances I've seen her give). The film was based on novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and perhaps being inside the head of a mildly autistic boy works better on the page--I haven't read the book, but I did read The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, which is another book narrated by an autistic person. When you actually have to experience the mania of this child you feel like you're trapped in a Chuck-E Cheese on a Saturday afternoon.

Daldry is a great craftsman, but as with The Reader, he isn't a particularly great director when it comes to sympathetic characters. He and his editor, Claire Simpson, have made a technically brilliant film. The opening shots of silhouetted figures falling is unnervingly gripping. However, the score by Alexandre Desplat is incessant and overbearing.

The events of 9/11 will continue to be the stuff of movies, I suppose. I think this film does not make the mistake of treating that event as an excuse for a child to find himself, which would be insulting. I had feared a mawkish film, which we do not get. But there is a kind of near-magic realism that gives that day a fairy-tale quality, which could be offensive to some, but could also be an approach that makes it easier for others to cope. Again, this is all problematic.

My grade for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: B.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mysteries of Lisbon

Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon was on several end-of-year best lists, and I expected some sort of avant-garde European film, but instead it was sumptuous, old fashioned film based on a nineteenth-century Portuguese novel that recalls the work of Dickens or Eliot. It's a beast--over four hours long, so I watched it in two parts. I found it enjoyable, if a little dry

The story, which takes place in Lisbon and France during what appears to be the early part of the nineteenth century, is an interconnecting web of characters, most of whom center around an orphan living in a church school. The boy is closely watched over by the priest (Adriano Luz), who finally tells the boy about his parentage. This is the first of many flashbacks, which are novelistically rendered: a character sits in a chair and tells the story, while it is acted out for us.

Many characters reappear in the narrative under different identities, especially a hired killer (Ricardo Pireira), who calls himself "knife-eater." He had been hired to kill the boy by the mother's father, who did not wish his daughter's reputation to be ruined. That killer is bought off by Luz while posing as a gypsy. Luz also has two backstories: one, told him to by his father, whom he didn't know was his father, and another about his time in Napoleon's army.

The story is dense, so attention should be paid. I find a few loose ends still dangling, even after nearly four and a half hours. But Ruiz's camera work is exemplary. He frequently makes use of long shots, often through windows, which gives the viewer a sense of being a voyeur. One such shot is extremely playful, as we watch, through the window of a carriage, as one character attempts to shoot another, only for that character to be chased by the man he obviously just missed.

Though there are many coincidences, Ruiz does not employ a sentimental style. One character, who at the beginning of the film is rich, ends up a blind beggar, but no heartstrings are pulled at. Another character, a poor man, simply says, "What is normal for us is notorious tragedy for the nobility."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty is one of those films that, while being erotic, tries to make you feel guilty about being turned on. Now, I admit that my sexual interests are pretty fucking catholic (small "c" catholic, natch). I've read some reviews that say this film isn't erotic at all, but if you're going to make a film with Emily Browning spending half of the film naked, you're going to turn me on.

Director and screenwriter Julia Leigh, I think, has made a film about female objectification. But, let's face it, almost every movie ever made that has women in it is about female objectification. In this one, Browning plays a college student who is hard up for money. She has several odd jobs, including doing some hooking. We do see her attend college classes, so it's hard to know when she has time to sleep.

She answers an ad in the student paper and takes a job serving rich geezers while wearing lingerie. She's new, so she doesn't show everything, although the other girls wear bizarre outfits that expose their breasts, and some squat immobile, their asses in the air, like pieces of furniture. Her new boss, the sophisticated Rachel Blake, tells her there is a great chance for promotion, and that she will never be penetrated. "Your vagina is your temple," she tells Browning.

She ends up doing gigs where she is drugged and lays on a bed while some old goat does who knows what to her. They are told not to penetrate her, but we really don't know what they're doing. One dignified old gent, after summarizing a short story while Blake patiently listens, climbs into bed with her. Another calls her a bitch and gives her a cigarette burn behind the ear. A third carries her as if he's rescuing her from drowning, but then drops her.

I have heard of men having a fetish for sleeping women, and there are videos that feature it, with actresses pretending to be asleep while men fiddle with them. But I don't think that's there's enough men that would spend that much money to make it a viable business. So what Leigh has done is not make something realistic buy metaphorical--men want their women docile and silent. That seems like an awfully angry attitude to have, especially in 2010, when this film was made. Intimacy with a woman who can not respond is only one tick away from necrophilia--at least in this case the body is warm and breathing. This is a creepy film, but not a particularly profound one.

I have to give Browning credit--it's a brave performance, what with being tossed around by naked old men. She doesn't have much of a character to play. We can assume she hates herself, but there's not much else to go on--she has roommates who hate her, and an unseen alcoholic mother, but otherwise she's an enigma. She has a relationship of some kind with a sickly man, but the full nature of that relationship is inscrutable.

Sleeping Beauty would make for a good discussion in a women's studies course, but is not all that interesting to watch, except for those who have fantasies about pixie-ish Australian redheads.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Last Werewolf

The supernatural is hot these days in almost all media: books, TV, film; from the ridiculous (Twilight) to the sublime (True Blood). You wouldn't think a book about a werewolf could possibly break any new ground, or rise above it's pulp antecedents, but Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, which puts on a literary spin on a popular genre, managed to do just that. It's terrific.

Duncan observes most of the laws that were filtered through folklore by Curt Siodmak, who wrote the Universal film The Wolfman, which created most of the familiar tropes of the genre. Sure enough, Duncan's werewolf changes at the full moon, can be defeated by silver, and becomes a werewolf by being bitten by another werewolf. Duncan adds a few elemental details, though, as if anticipating our "wait, buts," the curse requires the werewolf to eat human flesh, so no cheating by eating, say, a moose, and living to about 400 years, but looking the same age as when they were first turned.

Our protagonist and narrator is Jacob Marlowe, who was bitten by a werewolf in Wales in the 1830s. It's now modern times, and he's the last of his kind, as a worldwide anti-occult organization has tracked down and killed all the others. He's resigned to his fate, tired of living the life that is shared with his "brother," who supplies the hunger. He's tired of being on the run, and tired of being lonely, as he has sex with prostitutes whom he pointedly does not personally like.

Marlowe is a great companion--urbane and witty, and with a conscience: he has killed many people, but has taken his vast fortune and tried to do good for people. He also points out, "Two nights ago I'd eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fun specialist. I've been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants."

Marlowe is on fairly good terms with one of his hunters, Ellis, but the one who wants to kill him is a fellow named Grainer: "Forty years ago I killed and ate Grainer's father. Grainer was ten at the time. There's always someone's father, someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's son. This is the problem with killing and eating people. One of the problems."

A few plot points I won't spoil, such as the climax of Marlowe's flashback to what happened after he turned (he was married to a beautiful American woman) or the major plot twist that happens halfway through the book. Suffice it to say that the title may be misleading.

The book is very erudite, but also viscerally bloody. A few of Marlowe's kills are described in anatomical detail, and one of them has the added frisson of the TV show America's Next Top Model on in the background. Oh, and there are also vampires, and as we have been led to believe, werewolves and vampires don't like each other. In direct contradiction with Stephenie Meyers' vampire laws, Duncan's bloodsuckers can't have sex, which is why they envy the werewolf.

The Last Werewolf is the werewolf novel for the literary minded. I think the generic horror fan would enjoy it, too, although it does get a bit existential here and there and drop literary references. But most of it is thrilling stuff. Here, on describing the first time Marlowe transforms into a wolf: "A breeze stirred the honeysuckle, the hairs on my ears and delirious wet snout. My scrotum twitched and my breath passed hot over my tongue. My anus was tenderly alert. I pictured my human self jumping the twenty feet, felt the shock of smashed ankles and slivered shins--then the new power like an inkling of depravity. I leaped from the window and bounded into the moonlight."

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

Though I lived through her tenure as British Prime Minister, I don't know enough about British history to know what The Iron Lady does or does not get right. I do know that Margaret Thatcher was and is despised by liberals, and celebrated by conservatives (I remember George Will, one year in the '80s, declaring that she was his choice for person of the year).

Let's just grant that I'm not the kind of person that would be nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher. Therefore, I will try to limit my remarks to this film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, to its cinematic value only. My first response is: why?

The script is written in a familiar biographic form--the remembrances of an old person. Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, is first seen as if she were some typical woman buying milk at the corner store. Then she is seen having breakfast with her husband, Jim Broadbent. But everything is not as it seems, as indicated by the brief glimpse of a guard with a machine gun in the hallway. Thatcher is indeed a baroness, who slipped out to buy milk against the wishes of her staff, and her husband is dead. In her encroaching dementia, though, he stays with her.

Throughout the two or so days we spend with the elder Thatcher, her life flashes before her. Daughter of a grocer, who was also a mayor, she goes to Oxford, enters the man's world of politics, and after losing at least one election, gets elected to Parliament in 1959. She marries Dennis Thatcher, and decides to run for party leader. She becomes Prime Minister, and with her conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, slashes the budget, wages war on Argentina, enrages unions, and finally gets so bossy that she's pushed out.

As I walked out of the theater, I wondered, what was the point of this film? It seems to have no particular point of view. It does seem to try to bend over backwards to show us she was a loving wife and mother, but even Hitler had a girlfriend--that she seemed to have a normal home life doesn't excuse anything. Later Lloyd, along with screenwriter Abi Morgan, show us how she was not beloved by all of her people, but aside from her belief that people with problems should fix it themselves, and not look to the government, there's little of her political philosophy on hand. There's a bit of her struggle as a woman in man's world, by showing her in a sea of men in suits, the "lady member's room" in the House of Commons basically a closet with an ironing board, but Thatcher wasn't exactly Germaine Greer. I remember people, perhaps her critics, saying she was successful as a woman in politics because she thought just like a man.

So the film shows us Thatcher in her dotage, hallucinating her dead husband, who was a bit of a wag (at one point, he spoils the mystery she's reading) and shows us the highlights of her life. One critic, I'm sorry that I can't remember who, compared the film to Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire"--"war in the Falklands!" There's the obligatory scene showing her hotel room being bombed by the IRA, but there's nothing in the script that tells us how she felt about that or what she thought of the Irish situation. It's just a slide show.

As for Meryl Streep, she's uncanny in how she can inhabit a character. She's got the plummy British nuance of her voice down. The makeup focuses on her teeth, which is a bit distracting, but I think that's because we know what Streep looks like, and therefore know exactly what is real and what is not. If an unknown actress had played the part the makeup wouldn't have been an issue. I think I detected some leftover voice mannerisms from Streep's portrayal of Julia Child, though.

The Iron Lady is competently made and acted, but I'm at a loss as to what it was supposed to make me think and feel. Sympathy? Admiration? Don't judge too hastily? I don't know. It certainly didn't change my mind about Thatcher--I doubt it will for anyone, supporter and critic alike.

My grade for The Iron Lady: C-.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Tempest (2010)

Finally, finally, a DVD edition of The Tempest, which was released in late 2010, has been issued. It was the last Oscar-nominated film from that year I hadn't seen (it was nominated for Best Costumes). I can't say too much about the costumes, by Sandy Powell, There are so many period film released in a year that it's beyond me which ones are better than others, costume-wise, because of I'm not a costume guy.

I am a Shakespeare guy, though, so this was a must-see no matter the costumes. As I wrote about a stage production some years ago, The Tempest is unique among the Bard's plays for being presumably his last play, it's unity of time, place and action, and touching on the new world. Julie Taymor's adaptation, which is lean and (mostly) without the kind of visual gimmickry that Taymor's work is known for, has decidedly an emphasis on the new world.

She has done two things that might annoy the purist: she has cast a woman, Helen Mirren, as Prospero, here called Prospera, which was written as a male character. I have seen this done before, and it can be accomplished with very little textual adjustment, and somehow makes a world of sense, increasing the bond between parent and child, and the injustice she received at the hands of her brother. Secondly, Taymor has cast an African man, Djimon Hounsou, as Caliban, which fits the modern notion of him representing the oppressed indigenous population of the new world. As I noted in my earlier posting, critics such as Harold Bloom are dismayed at this interpretation--by 1611, when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, the slave trade wasn't that long in existing, nor, I imagine, was there any sense of exploitation of native peoples.

Yet there is much talk of freedom in The Tempest. Prospera, exiled with her baby daughter by her scheming brother, who took over the Duchy of Milan from her, was marooned on an island. She honed her craft in magic, becoming powerful. She has two slaves on the island--Caliban, the deformed offspring of a witch, and a spirit Ariel, whom she rescues from imprisonment. Both want their freedom keenly, but Ariel works for his, while Caliban conspires to kill her. This certainly seems ready-made for an application to colonialism, whether is historically correct or not.

As for the adaptation, I found it excellent. Mirren, a terrific actress, holds the film together magnificently. The shipwrecked are represented by an eclectic group of American and British actors, some Taymor regulars. As Antonio, Chris Cooper; as Sebastian, Alan Cumming; as Gonzalo, Tom Conti; and as the King of Naples, David Straithairn. For comic relief there is Alfred Molina as the drunkard Stephano, who teams with Caliban and imagines himself kind of the island. The gutsiest casting is Russell Brand as the clown Trinculo, and it's damn near perfect casting. Brand's persona fits the role well, and if he's not as golden-throated as John Gielgud, well, the role doesn't call for it.

Ben Whishaw, looking like David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust days, is Ariel, and it's here where Taymor uses her palette of visual effects. I don't think Whishaw is actually in any of the shots he appears in--it's all superimposed. His only colleague may have been a green screen. But it all makes perfect sense.

As the young lovers, Felicity Jones, my new crush object, makes a winsome Miranda, while Reeve Carney makes a matinee idol Ferdinand (I see, by simple Googling, that his connection to Taymor is that he stars as Spider-Man in the Broadway musical).

Filmed in Hawaii, The Tempest captures the beauty and wildness of an island setting, but Taymor never allows the language to play second fiddle. This play has some of Shakespeare's most beautiful, heart-aching lines; perhaps best remembered are these:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Warrior

Warrior, directed by Gavin O'Connor, is an example of a film that, though an absolute cliche-fest from beginning to end, is so well done that one almost embraces the cliches, as if they were long-lost friends. Not only that, but since this film has two protagonists, the cliches are doubled, and since the film is about brothers, we not only get sports-movie cliches, but the thing gets Biblical on us.

I resisted this film when it was in theaters, despite good reviews, because I can't stand the notion that something like mixed martial arts exists. I was a boxing fan when I was a kid, but that sport, savage as it can be, seems like afternoon tea compared to MMA, which seems to have few rules, and puts its competitors in cages, like animals. You would think human civilization would have advanced since the gladiatorial days, but you'd be wrong.

So, my personal distaste for the sport aside, one can't deny that it's popular now, certainly more popular than boxing (try and find someone who can name any of the heavyweight boxing champions, I dare you). Of course, years ago, maybe even only ten years ago, this would have been a boxing film.

The core of the film is two brothers and their father. First we meet Tom (Tom Hardy), mysteriously appearing on his father's (Nick Nolte) doorstep. Nolte was an abusive drunk, but is now sober and churchgoing. Hardy had left with his mother as a teen, and now carries her name. He is not there to forgive, but wants his father to train him, as he did in his high school wrestling days. He wants to enter a competition called "Sparta," which will pit, in a bracket-style tournament, the best MMA fighter in the world.

The other, elder brother is Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who stayed with his father, mostly because he had a serious girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison), who he married and had two little girls with. He has left behind fighting and become a high school physics teacher, but financial trouble has him fight in a match in a strip-club parking lot. This gets him suspended from school, so he seeks out his old trainer to earn money. Through a series of fortuitous events, Edgerton finds himself in Sparta, as well.

Of course the two will end up fighting for the championship--that was in the trailer. But of course each will have an obstacle or two to overcome--there's the undefeated Russian, and the grudge match between Hardy and the guy he pummeled in a sparring match. And of course each will deal with their father, whom neither can forgive, though Nolte wants that so desperately. Of course Hardy's reasons for entering the contest and earning the five million dollar prize are selfless, and are uncovered in layers.

But if this film is as predictable as Mussolini's trains, it does keep you guessing as to what will happen in the final match. As a putative screenwriter, I had my own thoughts on who must win, and was right, though how the script takes us there is poignant. There's also some interesting subtlety that I'm sure many won't pick up on--after the match (I'm not telling who wins), there are fierce whispers between the promoters, indicating, at least to me, that the prize money will be split.

Of course, when you pile up the cliches, things are bound to get soggy. The film overreaches in some of its cultural pretensions, such as Nolte listening to Moby-Dick on audiotape, or the use of Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the score. And is it really popular in such a sport that a guy who was mediocre as a professional, then returns to fighting years later, could just waltz into a championship that has only 16 participants? Are the pickings that slim?

But these thoughts are easily banished with the sheer enjoyability of the project. Warrior may not be Rocky, but it's close.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Colonel Roosevelt

I haven't read the first two volumes of Edmund Morris' trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, but I did read, last year, Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior, which covered Roosevelt's life from birth to the end of his presidency. Morris' final volume in his definitive study of one of the most interesting men ever to occupy the White House conveniently picks up after his presidency ended.

The book begins with a prologue describing the Colonel (as he preferred to be addressed, dating back to his Rough-Rider days) on a hunting trip to Africa. He then tours Europe as the most famous of Americans, coincidentally there when Edward VIII dies. He attends the funeral, and is fawned over by royalty. "Confound these kings; will they never let me alone?"

Then, being thoroughly disappointed in his had-picked successor to the presidency, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt "throws his hat in the ring" (he coined the phrase) and goes after the nomination for the Republican Party in 1912. Morris vividly recreates one of the most fascinating election years in American history, as Roosevelt, spurned by the party faithful, breaks away and starts his own party, the Progressives, symbolized by the Bull Moose. Roosevelt manages to come in second, ahead of Taft, despite garnering sympathy by being shot in the chest in Milwaukee. Famously, his written speech slowed down the bullet, a speech he insisted on giving, even though he was bleeding.

The winner of the election was Woodrow Wilson, and Roosevelt would spend much of the remainder of his life railing against him. Mostly it was about Wilson's reluctance to fight back against Mexico, then for his dogged neutrality during the European war that would become known as World War I. Roosevelt was stunned by German atrocities in Belgium, then it was the Lusitania torpedoed by a German U-boat. But Wilson, following his own professorial reasoning, did not commit troops to the war, which drove Roosevelt crazy. In fact, Roosevelt was ready to assemble a volunteer troop of his own. He had a thirst for dying gloriously in battle.

But before the war Roosevelt had an adventure in South America, exploring the River of Doubt, and determining whether it linked with the Amazon. This was really roughing it, and along with the election race, Morris makes it come alive: "Clearing skies and baking heat.  Rapids, rapids, rapids. Portages too numerous to count. Rare fish dinners, but still no meat. Evasive tapirs. Grilled parrots and toucans. Monkey stew. Palm cabbage. Wild pineapples. Fatty Brazil nuts. Disappearance of fifteen food tins. Three weeks or rations left. Oxford Book of French Verse. Mountains crowding in. Men hit with fever, dysentery. Malcontents multiply, Daily chapter-writing."

Roosevelt and his son Kermit would emerge from this trek emaciated, the father suffering a bad leg wound. He would recover enough to be a constant fly in Wilson's ointment. When the 1916 election came around, Roosevelt played Hamlet, and professed not to be interested, but then was hurt when the Republican spurned him for Charles Evans Hughes, who lost a squeaker to Wilson. Following the election, the U.S. finally entered the war, and Roosevelt was stung again when the Defense department refused his offer of starting a volunteer regiment, saying he wasn't experienced enough.

Roosevelt's four sons all went, though. Ted, Jr. and Archie were wounded, but the youngest, Quentin, who joined the air corps, was killed over France. It was a blow that the Colonel could not recover from. As Morris puts it. "what made this loss so devastating to him was the truth it conveyed; that death in battle was no more glamorous than death in an abattoir. Under some much-trodden turf in France, Quentin lay as cold as steer fallen off a hook. Look now, in your ignorance, on the face of death, the boy had written in one of his attempts at fiction. The words seemed to admonish a father who had always romanticized war."

Roosevelt was a figure from a different age that has no parallel today. He was bellicose, but he was also progressive--Wall Street was glad to be rid of his presidency. He favored women's suffrage, but mocked pacifists in terms that equated them with women. But he was certainly an expansively brilliant man. He knew about birds and poetry, and befriended and rescued the career of Edward Arlington Robinson, whose lines Morris uses as his epigraphs for each chapter.

With the excitement of the 1912 race and the South America trip, some of the rest seems dull, but Morris in there, swinging. There are two chapters concerning libel trials, with Roosevelt a plaintiff in one and a defendant in the other. It was also surprising to learn that Roosevelt's financial situation was not taken for granted--he needed to work, and did so as a writer, publishing several books (shortly after his death his complete works would equal 24 volumes) and magazine and newspaper articles.

Morris, who worked more than 30 years on this project, oozes knowledge of the man through every sentence. I liked this passage about his Oyster Bay home, Sagamore Hill: "Never elegant--it was too darkly paneled, too cluttered, with horns protruding from the walls and flattened animals snarling underfoot--it had gone through its comfortable and luxurious phases and begun to be shabby. Between faded oriental rugs, the hall floorboards were parted from the pounding of hobnail boots. Foundation cracks ran around the hall mantel. Years of creosote deposits had darkened the cannonballs that lay like testicles at the base of two penile, brass-sleeved shell cartridges serving as andirons in the hearth."

Morris mentions that his first volume was published in 1979, so I can only imagine how he felt as he wrote of Roosevelt's death. As 1919 began, the Colonel was primed to be the favorite for the Republican nomination in 1920; after all, he was only 60. But as a sickly young boy, told he would not live long, Roosevelt told his doctors he would live life vigorously until he was 60. It was time for the reckoning. The illnesses he had struggled through all his life, the bullet wound to the chest, the trials in South America, and Quentin's death, slowed him for good on January 6th of that year. As Morris puts it, "In a more sophisticated era of professional diagnosis, a review of his medical history would indicate that 'the cause of death was myocardial infarction, secondary to chronic atherosclerosis with possible acute coronary occlusion.'

"If so, he could be said in more ways than one to have died of a broken heart."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Parent Trap

Another big hit of 1961 was Disney's The Parent Trap, a fairly charming family comedy that has an interesting subtext--divorce. In 1961, divorce wasn't all that common, but "broken home" was becoming part of the vernacular. In this film, divorce is seen as regrettable and simply a mistake in judgment, something that can be corrected by the determination of children.

Hayley Mills has a dual role as twins. In a plot form that is as old as Plautus, the twin girls, who were separated as babies and don't know of each other's existence, meet at a summer camp. Initially they are hostile to each other, playing a series of pranks. They are punished by being sent to live in a cabin together, where they figure out they are sisters. Susan's father (Brian Keith), lives on a ranch in California, while Sharon lives with her mother (Maureen O'Hara) as part of the upper crust in Boston.

The girls conspire to switch places so they can get to know the parent they've missed. When Sharon discovers that her father is going to marry a young woman (Joanna Barnes), the twins realize they must work to break that up and get their parents back together. Much of this takes place on a camping trip, where the sleek and sophisticated Barnes is undermined by both nature and the twins.

This all seems familiar (like I said, the plot is an old one, used again by Shakespeare), and the film has many sequels and a remake that gave Lindsay Lohan her film debut. But it's easy to take, and even touching at several moments, especially when the girls are reunited with their absent parents. But there is little mention of how cruel it was to not only separate them, but to deny them the knowledge of the other's existence.

The film is written and directed broadly by David Swift. The special effects, allowing Mills to be on screen with herself, looks good--initially much more use of a body double was to be used, but Walt Disney liked the way the split screen looked and that the film reconfigured to allow more use of it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blue Hawaii

Blue Hawaii was one of the top box-office earners of 1961. Believe it or not, this is the first Elvis Presley movie I've ever seen. I'm not a big Elvis guy--I certainly respect his place in rock and roll history, but I don't own any of his music. I certainly don't dislike his music, but his movies don't have a great reputation. According to Little Steven Van Zandt and my friend Lora, who is a big Elvis fan, Kid Creole is the only good movie he made.

Blue Hawaii certainly is not any good, but it's pleasant enough and not aggressively awful. Elvis plays a Hawaii kid who is back from the army. He just wants to surf and hang out with his Hawaiian native friends, and his girlfriend (Joan Blackman), who is half-Hawaiian. His parents, though, including his Southern belle mother (Angela Lansbury, in a way-over-the-top performance) want him to go work for the family's pineapple business.

A compromise is struck by Elvis getting a job as a tour guide. He's assigned a pretty young schoolteacher and four of her charges. Sit-com like plot situations arise, along with several songs, including "Can't Help Falling in Love," one of Elvis' loveliest recordings. It's stupid but innocuous. At first I was uncomfortable with native Hawaiians being depicted as kind of mythical beings, like the way Irishmen are frequently depicted as being like leprechauns. But I found, as the film went on, that the film was respectful of Hawaiian culture.

A few weird things: the script, by Hal Kanter, was nominated for a Writer's Guild Award. Granted, the category was for Best Written American Musical, but please. The film was directed by Norman Taurog, who still holds the record for the youngest to ever win an Oscar for Best Director.

In the unpleasant category, Jenny Maxwell, who plays one of the teen girls, died in 1981 when she and her husband were shot to death during a supposed botched robbery.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Children's Hour

Sometimes, happily, a movie exceeds my expectations. In watching the major films of 1961, I turn to The Children's Hour, based on the play by Lillian Hellman and directed by William Wyler. I expected a soggy spectacle like Peyton Place, but instead it was surprisingly tough and moving.

Set in a girl's boarding school, the film covers two themes: gossip and Lesbianism. Hellman's play, written in 1934, was certainly ahead of its time, but when made into a film in 1936 all elements of the love that dare not speak its name were removed, instead changed to a heterosexual scandal, and retitled These Three.

But this confronts homosexuality head on, and not in namby-pamby way. So many films about McCarthyism and the blacklist, for example, deal with people who are wrongly accused of being a communist. Why not make one about an actual communist--after all, there's nothing illegal about that, just as there's nothing wrong with being a Lesbian.

The setting is a boarding school just started by two enterprising young women, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Friends from school, they own and operate the school, with MacLaine's dotty actress aunt (Miriam Hopkins, who incidentally starred in These Three) as a teacher. Hepburn is engaged to marry a doctor, James Garner, which makes MacLaine jealous. Immediately my gaydar was activated, but I was waiting to see whether the film would actually state that MacLaine was a Lesbian.

A troublesome girl, Karen Balkin, decides to get back at her teachers by exaggerating things she heard and saw and tells her patrician grandmother (Fay Bainter, who was Oscar-nominated) her suspicions. Soon the entire school has lost all its pupils. When Hepburn and MacLaine find out the rumor and its source, they and Garner confront Bainter, but Balkin blackmails a schoolmate (Veronica Cartwright, who would later be eaten in Alien) into backing up her story.

Hepburn and MacLaine become outcasts, losing a slander suit (which was entirely off-screen) when Hopkins, who could have cleared things up, refused to respond to a summons, citing a "moral obligation to the theater."

I found almost all of this gripping, and at times difficult to bear, as gossip and innuendo ruin these women's lives. But the film kept challenging the audience, with a key scene late in the film in which MacLaine admits that she loves Hepburn in the manner of which she has been accused. One can see in MacLaine's brilliant performance the horror that closeted homosexuals, or those who can't come to grips with their sexuality, go through.

All of the acting is superb. I've never seen Garner so good. Usually he's playing some casual role that he made famous with Maverick and Rockford, but this role requires depth of feeling and he nails it, particularly a scene in which Hepburn lets him confront his doubts about whether she's telling the truth. And then, my god, Hepburn's face during the climactic moment of the film--absolute genius of expression.

Wyler's direction is also superb. I spent several moments appreciating how he used closeup and deep focus to frame two or more people in a shot. Watching this film was like taking a master class in composition.

Thankfully in fifty years we've progressed, but not nearly enough, not when a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president is an unrepentant homophobe. We've still got a long way to go.

Monday, January 09, 2012

One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the highest-grossing film of 1961, with an impressive take of 60 million (which would be roughly 450 million today). I was interested to read that it followed Sleeping Beauty in the Disney canon, which was a big money-loser, and stirred talk of closing down the animation department. Ub Iwerks, though, developed a method of using Xerox photography, thus the inking process was eliminated, and Dalmatians could be made for half the cost.

If I had seen the film before yesterday, it is lost to the mists of time. I do know that our family was indirectly influenced by it. We got our first dog in 1965, when I was four, and apparently my parents got a dalmatian because I wanted a spotted dog. The popularity of dalmatians as a breed went through the roof after this film (never a good thing, as overbreeding takes place), so perhaps our dear sweet Betsy, who was more black than white, came to me as a result of this film.

Although One Hundred and One Dalmatians can't be considered top tier Disney, as would Pinocchio or Bambi or parts of Fantasia, or even the renaissance the studio experienced in the late 1980s-early '90s. But it is thoroughly charming, and the animators magically capture the cuteness of a puppy. As Charles Schulz wrote, "Happiness is a warm puppy," and this film has that in spades.

Based on book by Dodie Smith, the film is thoroughly British, set in London. A dalmatian named Pongo has a human "pet," a composer named Roger. They live in quiet bachelorhood, but Pongo is determined to get them both a mate. He spots a promising match with a lovely young girl walking a lovely young dalmatian, and through canine shenanigans we cut to the wedding. Roger's new wife is Anita, Pongo's is Perdita.

Perdy, as Pongo calls her, is soon pregnant, but cowers upon visits by Anita's school chum, Cruella da Vil. Cruella, in a bit of prescience, is depicted as evil by primarily two traits--she smokes, and she loves fur. This film may have inspired a generation of PETA members. She wants to buy the puppies to make a dalmatian-skin coat, but when Perdy has 15 puppies, Roger refuses to sell. So Cruella's loutish henchman, Jasper and Horace, dognap the puppies.

My favorite part of the film is the imagining of a primitive but effective "twilight bark," a chain of communication existing throughout the land. It reminded me of the sequence of signal fires in The Return of the King. Pongo barks out his alert, a Great Dane passes it along to a Scottish terrier, and so on, until it reaches the countryside, where a mutt called Colonel, in a parody of British World War II films, organizes a rescue. By now Cruella has acquired 99 dalmatian puppies, watched over by her doltish thugs, and when they escape, it's good versus bad as the dogs makes their way across a snowy landscape.

In this era, animated films typically did not have above-the-line voice talent. Only the sharpest trivia experts for example, know who voiced Snow White. The only star in this film was Rod Taylor as Pongo, a fairly substantial star at the time (he would appear in Hitchcock's The Birds two years later). But credit should be given to Betty Lou Gerson, who voiced Cruella da Vil.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, is an interesting hybrid--a mixture of the old-fashioned baseball story, such as Ring Lardner's Alibi Ike, with the contemporary campus novel, of which there are many (since so many literary novelists teach for a living). The result is a lovely work, if not at times overly precious.

The book is set at the fictional Westish College, on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. The characters are mostly on the baseball team. Mike Schwartz is the burly captain and catcher, and when, at an American Legion game, he spots a weak-hitting but brilliant-fielding shortstop, Henry Skrimshander: "Putting Henry at shortstop--it was like taking a painting that had been shoved in a closet and hanging it in the ideal spot. You instantly forgot what the room had looked like before. By the fourth inning he was directing the other fielders, waving them left or right, correcting their tactical miscues."

Mike convinces Henry to come to Westish from his home in South Dakota, and a few years later, they have put together a great team. Henry's bible is "The Art of Fielding," by his hero, Aparacio Rodriguez (also fictitious, but certainly an amalgam of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith). Through a strict training regimen, Mike has turned Henry into a good hitter, and scouts are hovering, telling him he'll be the first shortstop taken in the draft.

Meanwhile, the other thread of the novel involves the college's president, Guert Affenfelt. He was a Westish alum, and discovered, in the dingy library archives, that Herman Melville once visited there, giving the school some cache. A Melville statue now sits on the campus, facing the lake, and the team is renamed the harpooners. Two things are going on with Guert: his daughter, Pella, has returned after a bad marriage, and Geurt is in love with a male student, Owen Dunne, who is Henry's teammate.

A book like this is deceptively brilliant because it seems so easily written. Nothing is strained--each sentence flows beautifully, without gilding. It's not exactly Hemingway-esque, but neither is it Melville-esque. At one point, Guert reads Chekhov to Owen, and that's what it seems like to me--these characters are like Chekhov's, constantly searching, futilely, for happiness.

Owen, who is gay, is on the team, but is openly so, and this is not a story like The Dreyfus Affair or Take Me Out--he announces he's gay to the coach when he tries out, and nothing more is spoken about it. Instead, the baseball story is one of the mysteriously sudden inability to perform. Henry, who has tied the record for error-free games in college baseball, throws wildly one day and hits Owen in the head while he's sitting in the dugout. He's ultimately okay, but Henry is not, and like Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, and Steve Sax, it gets into his head. Suddenly he is unable to throw.

All of this builds toward the Division III three college championship game, and I won't say more than that. Harbach, who obviously knows his literature, also knows his baseball, and when I read a novel about baseball that doesn't raise my hackles about something inconsistent or wrong, then that's a real compliment. There's a love triangle between Mike, Henry and Pella that is a bit sudsy, but the nonbaseball conclusion, in which a story from Ralph Waldo Emerson's life is replicated, is not as realistic as the baseball, but moving none the less.

Harbach slips into the overly precious with some of his character's names. Skrimshander and Affenfelt are odd but feasible, but Sooty Kim, Quentin Quisp, Adam Starblind and Craig Suitcase? I could see the Starblind as a nod to Melville, but Quisp is a serial, and who has ever heard anyone named Suitcase? These names aren't even worthy of Thomas Pynchon.

Baseball fans and bookworms frequently intersect in a Venn diagram, and that's no different here. To wit: "But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric--not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Better versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?"