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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Catherine the Great

Previous to reading Robert K. Massie's biography of Catherine the Great, the only thing I knew about her was some sort of scandal involving a horse. There is no mention of that in Massie's book, other than an unwinking statement that she was a good horsewoman; instead is a lucid, often fascinating tale of how a minor German princess became the most powerful woman in Europe.

Catherine was born with the name Sophia in 1729. She was matched, as was custom in those days, with the heir to the Russian empire, Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great: "Beneath her title and her diamonds, she was only a little German girl brought to Russia for the sole purpose of providing the son of the house with an heir."

Catherine and Peter were under the thumb of the Empress Elizabeth. Peter was something of a simpleton and was pro-Prussian, which wasn't popular. He and Catherine were wed for nine years without producing a pregnancy, and Massie conjectures it was because Peter was either asexual or had a penile condition that made sex painful. He was very fond of military matters, but in a childish way. "The situation was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. Behind this farce lay the greater absurdity of a young husband playing with toys in the marital bed, leaving his young wife with nothing to do but watch."

Much of the first third of the book deals with the intrigue of Catherine maneuvering to get her way. There were those assigned to watch over her that she liked and did not like, and people in court who she lobbied for favors. She grew into a savvy politician, and when Elizabeth died and Peter took the throne, many thought she should be the Empress. Peter was a complete disaster, and when he led an military expedition to Denmark that had nothing to do with Russia she took the opportunity to stage a coup. She got the palace guards on her side, and when Peter returned he was forced to abdicate and was imprisoned. He died shortly thereafter under suspicious circumstances. Frederick the Great of Prussia termed it, "He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed."

Catherine believed in a benevolent monarchy. She was personally against serfdom, but something like Jefferson in the United States, realized it couldn't be dismantled: "Catherine, familiar with Enlightenment belief in the Rights of Man, was intellectually opposed to serfdom. While still a grand duchess, she had suggested a way to reform and eventually abolish the institution, although it might take a hundred years to accomplish." Catherine was fascinated with the Enlightenment, became friendly with Voltaire and Diderot, and was a devotee of Montesquieu. However, when the revolution in France took place she was aghast, and Voltaire ended up being censored in Russia.

"In the middle of the eighteenth century, most Europeans still regarded Russia as a culturally backward, semi-Asiatic state. Catherine was determined to change this." Massie notes her success in making Russia an arts center, as she founded the Hermitage and became a major collector of art. She was also a key player on the world scene, manipulating one of her lovers into being the King of Poland, and then, much later, took part in the elimination of Poland from the map, as it was divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, not to return as a nation until the 1910's. She waged war with Turkey, which successfully opened up the Black Sea to Russia, giving them a southern port.

For those seeking scandal, Catherine did, according to Massie, have twelve lovers, not exactly shocking by today's standards. Her three children (one who died in infancy) were fathered by three different men, none of them Peter III. In her later years, she took "favorites," who were both her immediate adviser and her lover. "The outstanding figure of Catherine's reign, other than Catherine herself, was Gregory Potemkin. For seventeen years, from 1774 to 1791, he was the most powerful man in Russia. No one else during her life was closer to Catherine; he was her lover, her adviser, her military commander in chief, the creator of her new cities, seaports, palaces, armies, and fleets. He was also, perhaps, her husband." Ironically, one of the cities Potemkin created was Odessa, which figures so prominently in Sergei Eisenstein's film masterpiece which bears his name, which was the name of the ship in the film.

Massie's prose was very easy to grasp; at many points he repeatsd information lest the reader be confused. At times he goes off on tangents that are too far from the main thread--in one chapter he basically summarizes the French revolution. But I found it all interesting and enlightening. As he summed up, "She was a majestic figure in the age of monarchy; the only woman to equal her on a European throne was Elizabeth I of England. In the history of Russia, she and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over the other fourteen tsars and empresses of the three-hundred-year Romanov dynasty. Catherine carried Peter's legacy forward."

Perhaps most telling, Catherine's son, Paul, who worried that his mother would name his eldest son, Alexander, to replace her, bypassing him, changed the law of succession after he became Tsar. He changed it to primogeniture, which meant that no woman would ever rule Russia again.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Snowman

Those Scandinavians love their murder mysteries. From Norway comes The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo, which is part of a series featuring the alcoholic, self-loathing detective Harry Hole. It is about a serial killer who leaves a snowman as his (or her) calling card.

That Norway doesn't seem to have serial killers has not stopped Nesbo. It is pointed out, more than once, that Norway has never had one, but Hole (perhaps in an earlier novel), got training on how to deal with them in the U.S. and Australia. As an American, I can be so proud that we lead the world in serial killers!

The book is very well done for this sort of thing. Just the notion of a snowman in a yard facing the house (I had never thought of it, but I imagine most kids build snowmen so they are facing the street) sends a frisson of chill up and down the spine. Nesbo is also very grisly in his descriptions of the killings. One woman is beheaded with a heated wire used for birthing calves and her head is placed on top of a snowman. In another scene, our intrepid detective and his female partner go to an abandoned cabin, force open a locked refrigerator, and find a long missing man who has been altered to look like a snowman (a carrot in place of his nose, for example).

Though this book is a lot of ghoulish fun, it does go on a bit long. I know the Norwegians love herring, but there are too many red ones here--there are not one, not two, not three, but four false suspects. If I were Norwegian, I would have no trust in the police department.

The translation, by Don Bartlett, is also crisp and effortless. Characterizing Scandinavian thrillers, there is a lot of pop culture references, but unlike say, Stieg Larsson, it's done to good effect: "The fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror were original Fuzzy Dice, which expressed the right mix of genuine affection for and ironical distance from a bygone American culture and aesthetic that perfectly suited a Norwegian farmer's son who had grown up with Jim Reeves in one ear and the Ramones in the other, and loved both."

Hole, in the great tradition of the loner hero, could have been played by Clint Eastwood, circa 1974. He is tortured by the crimes he investigates, and is dour, as a Norwegian might be expected to be, and has a thing for Slipknot. If this were to be made into a film, I would hope the Norwegian setting would be included, even if they have no serial killers: "Harry stared at the road, at the leafless trees along Huk Averny leading down to the sea and the museums for what Norwegians regarded as the nation's greatest achievements: a voyage in a raft across the Pacific Ocean and failed attempt to reach the North Pole."


Monday, February 27, 2012

Angelina's Leg, J-Lo's Nipple, and Other Oscar Nuggets

Once again, as I have for over 20 straight years, I spent Oscar night in the company of good friends, which also makes the show more palatable. I listened to my female friends critique the dresses, and then we watched the show, which was deemed good by those I was with. I liked the vibe that was presented. Nothing, except for perhaps baseball, is in love with its own past as much as the film industry, and the Oscar telecast is always geared to celebrating a time that is presumed to be better than this one.

Though I enjoyed the show, when I analyze it in pieces it wasn't all that funny. I like when Billy Crystal, who hosted for the ninth time and the first time in eight years, inserts himself into movies (the kiss with Clooney was funny) but his medley of songs about the nominated films was tired and forced. Having to deal with a movie about 9/11, he simply sang, to the tune of "Thanks for the Memories," "Hanks is a memory." Oy.

I also wasn't crazy about Christopher Guest and company's sketch about a focus group on The Wizard of Oz, or the interviews with prominent actors about how much the movies means to them. The Cirque du Soleil performance was impressive, but I didn't find it appropriate. I did like the use of clips for almost all categories, but the screenplay selections were odd. They seemed to find the least interesting part of Woody Allen's script for Midnight in Paris to showcase.

As for the folderol that surrounds the Oscars, I lapped that during up the evening entertainment news shows like a pothead in a 7-11. Most of the talk was about two body parts: Angelina Jolie's right leg and Jennifer Lopez's nipple. If superior alien races are watching us, readying for attack, they must feel confident. Jolie, who dutifully attends these awards but has a constant expression of sedated bemusement on her face, got a little frisky while presenting the screenplay awards and thrust her right leg through the slit of her Versace dress as if she was responding to Madonna's "Vogue." Jim Rash, who won for co-writing The Descendants, promptly used his improv training to do mimic her pose. I wondered what was going on--did she want to show us she still had it? My mother thought she looked emaciated. It looked pretty good from where I sat.

Lopez, who favors gowns with plunging necklines, set tongues wagging with what may have been a hint of areola edging from underneath the material. Stylists and others say its just an allusion; but we'll see if there's a congressional hearing that stems from it.

This red carpet gauntlet the stars run is kind of an amazing spectacle. I marvel at the good will and graciousness that some, like George Clooney, display when they stop and talk to every reporter. Entertainment reporters, as a rule, include some of the dumbest people who appear on television, and their questions are routinely inane, but these performers, most of them, go through it with aplomb. I found the most bizarre exchange to be between Nick Nolte and a towering British women from ABC, who pried from him that he has pet crows.

The awards themselves had just enough surprises to make it interesting. The two biggest surprises, to me, were in the Best Editing and Best Actress categories. In the former, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo won, not in and of itself a huge shock, considering the film did have showy editing. But, since 1969, only five movies have won this award without being nominated for Best Picture.

In the Best Actress category, the fact that Meryl Streep won an Oscar is not a shock; it was to be sure that she would some day win her third, but I didn't think it would be this year. I thought the liberal-leaning Academy would allow their white guilt to sway them to vote for Viola Davis (plus, she deserved it). Apparently the Academy got tired of Streep showing up every year and losing graciously. She is now in a select group of people who have won three or more acting Oscars: Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn (with four), and Jack Nicholson.

Also setting records were Woody Allen, who became the first writer to win three Best Original Screenplay Oscars, and Christopher Plummer, who became, at 82, the oldest person to win an acting award. Plummer also gave the best speech, which he said he has been rehearsing since he came out of the womb. The Artist is only the second silent film to win for Best Picture (the first being Wings at the very first awards), although I argue that The Artist isn't really a silent film, not in the way silent films were made back then. It is also only the second black and white to win since 1960, the other being Schindler's List in 1993.

It's now time to turn the page and look forward to 2012's slate of films. Surely there will be an Oscar ceremony for everyone to disparage--Zach Galiafanakis and Emma Stone might be good hosts. Let the speculation start.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar 2011: Best Picture, Director

After the lead acting awards have been given, the suspense will be over tonight. The Best Picture and Best Director awards are dead solid locks.

The favorite for Best Director is Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, a film that has steadily built momentum since it premiered at Cannes in May. This marks the second year in a row that a comparative unknown will win this award. Why am I so sure? Hazanavicius won the DGA award, which is one of the most certain indicators of an Oscar.

The rest of the nominees, an august group, don't stand a chance. If, for some reason, I'm wrong, I'd be at a loss to name the winner. Perhaps Martin Scorsese for Hugo, but that he finally got the nonwinner monkey off his back five years ago there isn't a swell of sentiment behind him. When the awards talk started, I thought that Alexander Payne might have been the winner for The Descendants, but that film has lost whatever steam it might have had.

The other two nominees won't sweat losing, as they won't even be there. Woody Allen, director of Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick, for The Tree of Life, are consistent no-shows at award shows. Allen will win for Best Original Screenplay (the first to win that award three times), while Malick is so camera-shy that there appears to be only one photo of him, used over and over again in magazines.

Will win: Michel Hazanavicius
Could win: No one else
Should win: Terrence Malick
Should have been nominated: Bennett Miller, Moneyball


To handicap the Best Picture race, one should eliminate any film that does not have a director nomination, which takes out Moneyball, The Help, War Horse, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Since 1932, only one film, Driving Miss Daisy, has won a Best Picture Oscar without getting a Best Director nomination. Then, you can eliminate the films that don't have a Screenplay nomination, which knocks out The Tree of Life. The last film to win an Oscar for Best Picture without a screenplay nomination was Titanic. Finally, you can knock out films that don't have a Best Editing nomination, which knocks out Midnight in Paris. The last film to win in that instance was Ordinary People.

The films that are left are The Artist, Hugo, and The Descendants. Here, look to one of the more reliable matchups in Oscar history: whomever wins Best Director, that film wins Best Picture, and I see no reason to see a split this year. I will admit I'm puzzled by the enthusiasm for The Artist, which is an amusing trifle, but apparently the audacity of making a black and white silent film in this day and age has impressed a number of people. It was a pleasant enough experience, but as the years go by it will be one of those Best Pictures that people look back and say, "WTF?"

Hugo, despite a win for Scorsese at the Golden Globes, has never gained traction during awards season, and, as mentioned, The Descendants was set up to be the favorite, but didn't catch on. If you came from the future and told me that The Artist didn't win, I think the winner might be The Help, due to it being a favorite among actors (it won the SAG award for Best Ensemble). It would set Oscar ninnies back on their heels, though, since it would be the first Best Picture without a Director, Screenplay, or Editing nomination since Grand Hotel.

Will win: The Artist
Could win: The Help
Should win: Midnight in Paris
Should have been nominated: Take Shelter


Here is my complete slate of predictions:


Best Picture: The Artist
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin
Best Actress: Viola Davis
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer
Best Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants
Best Foreign Language Film: In Darkness
Best Animated Film: Rango
Best Cinematography: The Artist
Best Editing: The Artist
Best Art Direction: Hugo
Best Costume Design: The Artist
Best Song: Real in Rio
Best Musical Score: The Artist
Best Documentary Feature: Paradise Lost 3
Best Documentary Short Subject: God is the Bigger Elvis
Best Makeup: The Iron Lady
Best Animated Short Subject: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Best Live Action Short Subject: The Shore
Best Sound Editing: Hugo
Best Sound Mixing: Hugo
Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Eat My Shorts

This year Comcast On Demand is making available the programs of Oscar-nominated short subjects in the animated and live action categories. Nine of the ten nominees are part of the programs, and I happily viewed them over the past two days.

In the animated category, all the nominees are there except for Pixar's La Luna. Perhaps this is because it will be shown before Brave this summer, and they didn't want to let the cat out of the bag until then.

The other four nominees are accounted for. Two are from the National Film Board of Canada. Dimanche/Sunday is a charming but slight tale about a boy's typical Sunday. He hangs out by the railroad track near his house, putting coins on the track. He goes to church, and visits his grandparents, and has what may be a hallucination about a bear trophy on his grandfather's wall. Wild Life is about a proper Englishman who goes to western Canada to be a rancher, but finds himself overwhelmed by the harshness of the land. The film attempts to be more intellectually rigorous by comparing his life to that of a comet's.

Many of these films are hand drawn, which is refreshing in this age of CGI. The Morning Stroll is mostly made of line drawings, and is a three-act story about a person walking along the street and seeing a chicken waddle by. By the third act, it is a post-apocalyptic future and the chicken is chased by a mutant, and then ends with a punchline. Cute.

But the best of the four in the program is the poetic The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. A Buster Keaton-like character and his house are picked up in a windstorm, and like Dorothy Gale of Kansas is deposited in a dream world, where books are sentient beings and can fly. They communicate by flipping their pages, registering emotion. The Keaton figure, Morris Lessmore, becomes guardian for a house full of books, even doctoring them when their pages fall out. The emotional connection between people and books, fast disappearing, registers wonderfully, and the animation is beautiful.

In the Live Action category, all five films are included. Two of them are very short comedies. Pentecost, from Ireland, is about an altar boy who lets his attention wander, constantly thinking about football. There is an amusing scene in which the priest gives a pep talk to the boys as if it were before a soccer match. Time Freak is a very cheaply-made gag about a scientist who has invented time travel, but spends over a year just trying to get his day perfect. It's like something you might see on Saturday Night Live, but not Oscar-winning material.

Also in a comic vein is Tuba Atlantic, a Norwegian film about an old coot who has been give six days to live. He wants to communicate with his brother, who he hasn't spoken to in thirty years, but the only way to do it is by blowing a tuba through a sound-enhancing contraption they invented. A teenage hospice worker helps him. The film is far too overloaded with whimsy, and I know seagulls are annoying, but there's a little too much giddiness in enjoying seeing them killed.

The best two films are the dramas. Raju is a German/Indian co-production about a pair of Germans who have adopted a four-year-old Indian boy. They are in Calcutta, and he becomes lost. While searching for him the parents learn something that tests their resolve.  It's a very well done morality play.

The win should go to Terry George's The Shore, set in Northern Island. It concerns the return of Ciaran Hinds, who emigrated to America and hasn't been back in 25 years. He brings with him his daughter (Kerry Condon), who finds out that he was previously engaged to a woman not her mother. Hinds tells her the full story of his best friend, his fiancee, and how they drifted apart. Condon insists he get in touch with them, and the reunion has both broad comedy and pathos. Though the film stops a bit dead while Hinds tells the story (certainly a longer, more funded film would have included a flashback) I enjoyed the richness of the tale.

George has been nominated twice for Oscars before, for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda. Here's hoping he wins this time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Kung Fu Panda 2

Here's a bit of trivia: who is the most successful, in terms of box office, female director? It's Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of Kung Fu Panda 2, which has earned 665 million dollars worldwide. She is also the first female to direct a Hollywood animated film by herself. That's all great for women, but the movie itself isn't so great.

Picking up where the original Kung Fu Panda left off, Po (Jack Black) is now the Dragon Warrior, and along with the Furious Five, protect the citizens from evil-doers. A peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman), uses gunpowder to invent a cannon, which makes kung fu obsolete. Can he be stopped before he takes over all of China?

As with the first film, there is a lot of fighting action alleviated by humor, as Po, even though he is now a trained fighter, is still something of a klutz and a glutton. In this film he is told by his master (Dustin Hoffman), that he must learn how to reach inner peace. But no one could gain inner peace while watching this film, which is full of sound and fury. Although ninety minutes long, there is perhaps only a third of that in actual story.

I'm amazed that they got all of the big-name cast back from the first film, including Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu, and added Oldman, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dennis Haysbert. Granted, I'm sure Van Damme probably answered the phone before the first ring ended, but I would imagine the talent budget was pretty steep. This is odd, considering some of the characters hardly speak at all.

The film did get nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which is an indication that there are too many nominees in this category. There were 18 animated features, and five of them get nominated, so if my math is correct, about 28 percent of all films get nominated. If this worked in the Best Picture Oscar, there would be over 100 nominees.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscar 2011: Best Actor

I think the race that most Oscarphiles is looking forward to is Best Actor. When awards season started, it looked like a showdown between two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but the award may end up going to a Gallic interloper.

It seemed, early on, that George Clooney was the favorite for his emotionally deep performance as a cuckolded husband in The Descendants. Critics, who hardly ever have a bad thing to say about Clooney (except for Batman and Robin) were impressed by his stretching his range. He won the Golden Globe and seemed to have the Oscar sewn up.

In a way, I was surprised by this turn of events, given that Clooney has already won before, for Syriana. I thought that Brad Pitt, playing baseball executive Billy Beane in Moneyball, stood a great chance, considering he's never won before and he's one of the few who are in the same stratosphere as Clooney. I would vote for Pitt, who showed me things I haven't seen from him before, and looked completely at ease in the skin of Beane. But Pitt has won nothing in the precursors, and it would be a shock if he won.

Instead, Clooney may have been eclipsed by Jean Dujardin, the heretofore unknown French star for his almost silent role in The Artist. Dujardin, who would be the first Frenchmen to win an Oscar for acting, won the Golden Globe, but it was for Comedy/Musical. The win for SAG two weeks later was telling--the last eight winners of the SAG Award for Best Actor have won the Oscar (granted, the last time these two did not match up was when Johnny Depp won the SAG for Pirates of the Caribbean). As The Descendants sinks in the minds of voters while The Artist is poised to win a bundle, Dujardin is my pick to win.

The other two actors in the category can just enjoy the ride, which is precisely what Gary Oldman has said he is doing. Most of the commentary about this venerable actor is surprise that his role as master spy George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is his first. Given all the outrageous villains he has played, it is ironic that his first nomination is for the quiet, almost stationary Smiley.

And Demian Bichir has got to be pleased with the nomination. His role as the undocumented Mexican worker in A Better Life is the least seen of the pack, and though a fine piece of work he doesn't have the proverbial snowball's chance. I hope it leads to many more great roles for him.

Will win: Jean Dujardin
Could win: George Clooney
Should win: Brad Pitt
Should have been nominated: Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In Darkness

The second half of my bill at the Angelika on Monday was In Darkness, the grueling but frequently gripping Best Foreign Film nominee from Poland, directed by Agnieszka Holland. You would think that we've seen just about everything in the Jews-hiding-from Nazi movie, but this one adds a new wrinkle: Jews hiding in sewers.

The film borrows heavily from the standard archetypes of Holocaust films: Schindler's List (the gentile helping the Jews at first does it for money, but then develops a conscience and does it because it is the right thing to do); and The Diary of Anne Frank (the hidden must remain quiet and cramped; screaming babies and slips of the tongue could mean death).

The Schindler for this film is Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector in Lvov (which is today part of the Ukraine, but has always had a sizable Polish population). He is also a small-time crook, and at the beginning of the film he and his co-worker have robbed a house at gunpoint, clubbing a Hitler Youth in the process. On their dash through the forest to safety, they see the unworldly spectacle of German soldiers herding a group of running naked women, their skin of ghastly pallor. Later they see the women all murdered, in a pile.

Socha (played effectively by Robert Wieckiewicz) knows the sewers like the back of his hands. He's used to hiding the loot from his robberies there. But then he hears some noise from the Jewish ghetto, and finds that a group of Jews have tunneled in. He offers to be their guide, demanding 500 zlotys a day.

The tension between the Polish sewer worker and the Jews is tense at first, as Socha sees them as ungrateful and demanding, while the Jews see him as craven. A few of the Jews cannot face spending time in such a miserable place--Holland uses natural light (hence the deeply accurate title) and filmed in actual sewer tunnels. It was wet, rat-infested, and cold. Only the prospect of the ghetto being cleaned out, the remaining people being shipped to concentration camps, keeps them down there.

A few plot dynamics take place. There is infighting and even a little sex between the Jews, while above ground Socha involves his wife. He has an old buddy, a Ukrainian soldier collaborating with the Nazis who often asks him to search for any signs of Jews--Socha has to play both sides of the fence.

As time goes on, of course, Socha tends to think of them as "his" Jews, which is sweet if not infantilizing. Time is not strictly kept during the film, but that one woman conceives and gives birth to a baby tells us the stay is several months.

As with almost every type of this film, the banality of evil is shown in such ways that it's difficult to wrap our minds around. An Orthodox Jewish man is made to dance on top of a barrel, and then his beard is ripped out by the roots. Another man is to be shot in the head because he has lost his cap, but an officer intervenes, shooting the man next to him instead, because he is not as healthy. There is no examination of the deeper meaning of all this--it's just another story among thousands of one of the darkest periods in human history.

Though the film is long--two and a half hours--I was in it until the end. Holland does excellent work of making us feel like we're down in those sewers--claustrophobes are hereby warned. When, after long sequences that take place in the sewer, we are back in the sunlight, we squint like the characters might.

If In Darkness doesn't strike new ground, it's very good filmmaking. The characterization of Socha is very interestingly rendered; he's a more deeply divided figure even than Oskar Schindler (Socha and his wife were also named Righteous Persons). The movie isn't as good as A Separation, but given the Academy's weakness for anything concerning the Holocaust, it just might win.

My grade for In Darkness: A-.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bullhead

Yesterday I went into New York City to spend a full day watching foreign films--two of the nominees for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (my review of one of the nominees, A Separation, is below). They both were playing at the Angelika, which is a prime location for art films in New York. I checked my records and realize I have now seen almost 50 movies there in the 22 years since it opened (the first was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). The Angelika positively reeks of classy cinemaphilia, even though it's not necessarily a great place to see a movie.

The first film I saw was Bullhead, a Belgian film from Michael R. Roskam. I learned two very important things from this film: one--Belgium is made of two regions, Flanders and Wallonia, that speak different languages and hate each other; and two--there is something called the "hormone mafia," which sounds like the name of a punk rock band but is instead a criminal network that traffics in illegal growth hormones for cattle.

It is in this world that Bullhead is set. The main character is Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a vacant-eyed thug who works for his family's farm, mostly intimidating others into buying from his outfit. His farm is set to do a deal brokered by a crooked veterinarian to supply hormones to a criminal syndicate. But when a policeman who was working on the case is murdered, Schoenaerts wants to pull out. Things are also complicated in that one of the criminals is a childhood friend who witnessed a particularly vicious attack on Schoenaerts as a boy. I won't go into detail on this attack, but suffice it to say men in the audience will likely be crossing their legs.

Bullhead, as the title may suggest, is about masculinity. Schoenaerts is like a bull, but without all the components that make up a man. He overcompensates, injecting himself with a wide variety of types of testosterone that make him rage. He is sweet on the sister of the boy who attacked him, but doesn't quite know how to go about courting her.

The quarrel between the Flemish and the Walloons is also a theme. The Flemish speak Dutch, the Walloons French, and some don't speak the other's language. A hapless pair of Walloon auto mechanics, who are enlisted to get rid of a stolen car, are at the mercy of the Flemish syndicate, and both belittle the other. According to these mechanics, some of the Flemish crooks are also nationalists who believe in all-Flemish Belgium, and thus are labeled fascists.

I enjoyed this film, though the script and direction both hammer the theme home a little too hard, as if the main character were trying to bludgeon it into our heads. In some respects it is a routine crime drama that is enlivened by its unusual setting. It is in no way, shape, or form better than A Separation. Tomorrow, the review of the second film I saw.

My grade for Bullhead: B+.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Oscar 2011: Best Actress

Unlike the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, there is real suspense for both of the lead categories. In the Best Actress race, it's all about Streep v. Davis. Viola Davis, as the maid who tells her story in The Help, has won the Online Critics and the SAG. Meryl Streep, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.

I think Davis will win. Though the film was somewhat polarizing, everyone agreed that Davis was a standout, and if I had a vote I'd cast it for her on that alone. Although it is something of a racial insult to call an African American "dignified," in a movie, as if it were a surprise, Davis' performance drips with it, keeping her dignity in an untenable situation, while also understanding the precariousness of her place in society.

I suspect that Academy voters are keen to give Streep a third Oscar--she hasn't won in almost thirty years, and she's been doing these chameleon performances all this time, and gamely showing up for the ceremony each and every time (I loved Robert De Niro's quip at the Kennedy Center Honors: "Meryl has been nominated for sixteen Academy Awards, which means she has attended the Academy Awards sixteen times"). The Academy had a great chance to honor for her Julie and Julia, but lost their collective minds and gave an Oscar to Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side. Streep very well may win, but will an overwhelmingly liberal organization choose to honor a performance as Thatcher? It's instructive that Streep won the BAFTA, where Thatcher is hated more than she is in America.

The other three performers here can dispense writing speeches. Glenn Close, as the woman pretending to be a man in Albert Nobbs, must certainly feel snake bit. She was nominated five times in seven years in the '80s but came up empty. Now, twenty-three years after her last nomination, she's back in the game but there's no room this year for the sentiment it would take for her to win.

Michelle Williams is one of the best young actresses in Hollywood, and gets her third nomination at only 31 years old as one of the most enduring icons in film history, Marilyn Monroe, in My Week With Marilyn. Given the Academy's penchant for honoring performers playing real people, and their love for anything Hollywood related, this might be a winning performance in weaker years.

Finally, Rooney Mara is nominated for her performance as another icon, albeit one from fiction and one very recent, Lisabeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I liked her performance, and thought she brought to it shading that was not in the novel, but she's a newcomer and stands the least chance of cracking through the veterans ahead of her. What will be interesting to see in the coming years is it she can establish a career beyond the "Girl" films.

Will win: Viola Davis
Could win: Meryl Streep
Should win: Viola Davis
Should have been nominated: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Laura Nyro

The second 2012 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I'll discuss is Laura Nyro. Frankly, I knew next to nothing about her before I picked up a two-disc collection called The Essential Laura Nyro. What I found out is that she wrote many well-known songs recorded by other artists, and many of them when she was very young.

Born in 1947, Nyro played the Monterey Pop Festival. One of the first songs she wrote, when she was 17, was "And When I Die," which was recorded by both Peter, Paul, and Mary and the version I know, by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. To listen to the lyrics one can hear the youthful attitude about death, which seems so far away: "And when I die, and when I'm gone, there will be one child born in a world to carry on." At the end of the collection is a live version she recorded much later, only a short time before her own death at age 49 from ovarian cancer, which takes on a whole new meaning.

Most of Nyro's most famous songs were recorded for The 5th Dimension, including "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stone Cold Picnic," "Blowin' Away," and "Sweet Blindness." "Wedding Bell Blues" is an almost-perfect pop song, written when she was only 19. It's terrific structure and her lilting voice hides that is a song about a woman begging for her boyfriend to marry her: "I love you so, I always will. In your voice I hear a choir of carousels. But am I ever going to hear those wedding bells?"

Nyro also wrote "Eli's Coming," a hit for Three Dog Night, and "Stoney End," for Barbra Streisand. Other artists who covered her songs include Suzanne Vega, Carmen McCrae, Chet Atkins, Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, Maynard Ferguson, Patti Larkin, and Thelma Houston.

After her early days of writing pop influenced by folk and soul, Nyro got more experimental, and this is where she loses me. Her writing took on a more free-form, jazzy style,  the lyrics tending toward the earnest, Lilith Fair stuff. She wrote about motherhood, Native American causes, and animal rights, often in down tempo songs that seemed to blend into one to me. She has a song called "Smile" that includes an instrumental portion, complete with Asian instruments, that sounds like something you might hear while getting a massage.

It's pleasant enough stuff, music that is lovely in the background, but can kind of boring if you listen to it actively. Her voice was wonderful, as clear as a bell, with a wide range.

Her inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is tenuous, given that she really didn't have hits performing her own stuff. That Hall, unlike others, is much more generous in certain circumstances, especially given that I'm not sure Nyro wrote or performed what can be called rock music. I'm glad to have learned more about her, though.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Middlemarch (1994)

After reading George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch, I decided to watch the BBC miniseries, released in 1994. The series was a huge hit in England, where it launched a Middlemarch craze, propelling the book to number on the best seller lists, and the filming location became a tourist site. In six parts, and a little over six hours, the series is quite faithful to the book.

I won't go to great lengths to recap the plot, as it is in my review of the book. Though six hours, it trims the novel to something of its bare bones. It was fascinating to see actors take the role I had imagined in my mind. Most interesting to me was seeing Casaubon, the pedantic scholar, played by Patrick Malahide as a somewhat cadaverous introvert (he looks a little like Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). It's a wonder he was part of society at all, given the actor's displaying a repulsion to contact with other people.

The other performers seemed right--Juliet Aubrey, who won a BAFTA award for Best Actress, is perfect as Dorothea, who burns to good with her life, but ultimately finds failure. The same is said for David Hodge as Lydgate. In fact, the crushing of these two characters is more keen in the film than in the book. Failure is a strong word--Dorothea ends up marrying her true love, Ladislaw (played smolderingly by Rufus Sewell), while Hodge finds a kind of peace with his wife Rosamund (Trevyn McDowell), but both have their ultimate ambitions unfulfilled. After reading the book I was left with an uplifted spirit, since it ends with the union of Fred Vincy (Jonathan Firth) and Mary Garth (Rachel Power, perfectly cast).

There are other terrific performances: veteran Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern makes a very cranky Featherstone (it was his last television role), and Robert Hardy brings out the ditheriness in Uncle Brooke. Peter Jeffery manages to bring out the full humanity in the otherwise villainous Bulstrode, and John Savident makes a properly repulsive Raffles, with what I hope are dental prosthetics of a ghastly kind.

Overall I found the series dutiful but soggy--it has a kind of decorum that kept it from really plumbing emotional depths. The direction by Anthony Page was reverent but sedate, the screenplay by Andrew Davies witty but tempered. I liked how the gossips of the town acted as kind of a chorus, but the ending felt curiously anticlimactic. The ending of the book is seen by many as unhappy but realistic, more complex than the usual endings of the day. The series uses the same words as the novel: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


Friday, February 17, 2012

Real Steel

Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy, was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar, and that's a deserving honor. The rest of the film, though, is an amiable but not very original tale that will be familiar to most sentient beings. It's a lot of Rocky, The Champ, and a bit of The Iron Giant.

In the near future, human boxing has been replaced by battling robots. As explained by the star, Hugh Jackman, it's because people lusted after the violence that humans couldn't provide. This strikes me as a dubious premise, given that mixed martial arts seems to have done just the trick.

In any event, Jackman plays a roguish character who used to be a boxer, but now operates boxing robots. He is highly irresponsible, heavily in debt and impetuous to the point of us wondering how he even manages to make it through the day alive. After his robot is destroyed at a state fair, where he also loses a $20,000 bet, he's told that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him custody of an 11-year-old son who he seems to have never seen.

That boy, Dakota Goyo, has been staying with a rich aunt and uncle. Jackman, sniffing cash, agrees to let the uncle have custody for a large cash settlement, but first will take the boy on for the summer. Goyo, who sees through Jackman immediately, is disgusted, but the kid loves robot boxing, and along with Jackman's buddy, Evangeline Lilly, gets involved when Jackman buys a new robot.

Eventually Goyo, while on a raid of a junkyard, finds an old robot, one that is obsolete and used for sparring. Somehow, and this is not completely explained to my satisfaction, the robot, "Atom," understands what Goyo is telling him. This, and a component called "shadow response," in which the robot can mimic it's controller's physical actions, allows him to get a chance at the championship, against a much larger, much more technologically advanced robot called Zeus.

All of the boxing film cliches are here, mostly from Rocky and The Champ, as the father and son grow to love each other, brought together by a hunk of metal. Though it's entirely predictable and doesn't aim very high, it therefore doesn't have far to fall, and I didn't hate it. Jackman is a good screen presence, and though Goyo can be annoying, he didn't ruin the film for me.

The special effects are terrific--at no time did I question that these were really robots fighting, when I'm sure they were all digitally created and the actors were performing in front of green screens. There already are robots designed to fight each other--the BattleBots. I don't think the technology for these things is that far away. If they can replace the savage spectacle of two people put in a ring pummeling each other until one is knocked out, I'm all for it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oscar 2011: Best Supporting Actor

One thing seems sure about the race for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor: a record will be set for the oldest Oscar-winner in any acting category. The current record holder is Jessica Tandy, who was 80 years old when she won for Driving Miss Daisy, but the two leaders in this race are both 82.

The prohibitive favorite is Christopher Plummer, playing a man coming out as gay in his 70s in Beginners. Plummer has steamrolled through the precursors, and in some ways this is a surprise. Beginners was a little-seen indie from the summer, and while Plummer has been a well-respected actor for many years, he has been more noted for his stage work than his films. His most famous film role, by a large margin, is as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, over 45 years ago.

If there's a sentimental choice, it might be Max von Sydow as the mysterious mute man who aids the young boy in his quest in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Von Sydow deserves an honorary Oscar for his body of work, especially for his work with Ingmar Bergman (so does Liv Ullman). Perhaps that will earn him a few extra votes for his work here, which is rich and expressive despite his lack of dialogue. There is a history of mute characters winning Oscars, most notably Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda and John Mills for Ryan's Daughter, as well as Marlee Matlin as a deaf person in Children of a Lesser God.

Actor who play real people do well in Oscar races, and Kenneth Branagh is a delight as Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, though it would seem unlikely that the role has the kind of oomph required to win. Similarly, Jonah Hill, as the sabrematician who helps change baseball in Moneyball, lacks the kind of big scene that wins an award. Perhaps Hill's change of pace from comedy to drama impressed voters, otherwise it's a sound but not a flashy performance.

It's a tough call, but I think my vote would go for Nick Nolte as the recovering alcoholic, trainer, and father of two mixed martial arts fighters in Warrior. Nolte's work in his golden years just gets better and better, and his work in the last ten years or so, including Affliction, The Good Thief, and Warrior is so stripped down and raw that it almost aches to watch him. He has a few big scenes in the film and kills in each one, and when he falls off the wagon, quoting from Moby-Dick, it's devastating.

Will win: Christopher Plummer
Could win: Max von Sydow
Should win: Nick Nolte
Should have been nominated: Kevin Spacey, Margin Call

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Separation

For the last couple of years I've seen ironically titled films on Valentine's Day. Last year was Kiss Me Deadly, this year, A Separation, an Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi that is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

Given the title, and what little I knew about the film going in, I thought it was about the dissolution of a marriage, but it's much, much more than that. The plot, which grows more intricate and intriguing as the film goes on, starts with a couple's separation, but it's not the Iranian Scenes From a Marriage. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) are before a judge, who is deciding whether they have grounds for divorce. The only disagreement is that Hatami wants to emigrate, due to an unspoken "situation" (presumably the political climate, but given the nation's draconian censorship laws, we fill this in ourselves). Nader wants to stay to care of his father, who has Alzheimer's.

The judge refuses their petition, but Hatami leaves to stay with her parents. This means Nader must hire a caregiver for his father. He hires a woman from well outside the city, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim who takes the job to help her family's economic situation. Her husband, a hot-tempered fellow (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work. However, she has taken the job without gaining his permission, which is against custom.

This sets off a series of events that will lead to a boiling cauldron of lies, slippery morals, and faith. I do not want to reveal anything more than that, as I had no idea what was going to happen and this is the best way to see the movie. Suffice it to say that we can't be sure who is telling the truth and what is being concealed, even from those we can presume to be honest.

Because this film is from a deeply religious country, the laws of religion are noted, but if this were to take place in any other country it would still be fascinating, for different reasons. At the core is a basic human trait--the urge to lie to save one's skin, or the skin of a family member. Loyalty is tested repeatedly throughout the film, with different results. It's easy to put yourself in each character's skin and think if you would do any different.

But since this film is from Iran, a country we might be at war with any day now, it provides an interesting glimpse into that culture. It is somewhat westernized, at least for the upper-middle-class Simin and Nader. But the traditions of patriarchy and the Muslim medieval treatment of women is still in force. The fact that Bayat wears a chador will come into play. I was also interested to see the Iranian justice system at work--it looks like the American DMV, with a judge sitting at a simple table in a small room.

The performances by the four principles are all first rate, as is a juvenile performance by Farhadi's daughter, Sarina, as a girl torn between her warring parents, which will lead to the film's final, gripping, scene. I found the most interesting performance to be by Bayat, as the devout woman who primary motive at any one time shifts between loyalty to God and to her husband.

A Separation starts slowly, but builds to climax that is as powerful as anything I've seen all year. I'm not sure if it will win the Oscar (there is a Holocaust film in the mix), but I doubt any of the four competitors could be any better.

My grade for A Separation: A

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rio

Rio, directed by Carlos Saldanha, is a bright, colorful animated film that, at the heart, is more about motion than story. It may keep young viewers occupied, but I found it routine and a bit of a bore.

One thing the film has going for it is its exotic location--Rio during Carnaval. We begin in the rain forest, as a variety of birds are captured by poachers. A baby bird, not yet able to fly, is trapped. He ends up on a truck owned by an exotic pet store, but falls loose in the snows of Minnesota, where he is rescued and adopted by a young girl.

That girl grows up to be a bookstore owner, and she and Blu, as he is named, are the best of friends. One day a Brazilian ornithologist stops by, telling the girl that her bird is the last male blue macaw on the planet, and he would like to take him back to Rio to breed with the only known female.

Once in Brazil, Blue (voiced as a typical nebbish by Jesse Eisenberg) meets Jewel (Anne Hathaway). He's not exactly a Romeo, and discover their differences--she's used to the freedom of the jungle, he's happy with his cage. Then they are stolen by smugglers, and try to escape as they constantly bicker, while Blue's owners tracks him down.

Technically speaking the film is very well done, with lots of speed and motion, particularly when the birds fly. Blu can't, but of course we all know he will when the chips are down. There are also a multitude of supporting characters, both for comic effect (Tracy Morgan as a bulldog), and villainy, such as a cockatoo with an English accent.

But the film doesn't have the substance of the best of Pixar, and is pretty disposable. It certainly doesn't suck, but will be washed out of my memory in a few days. It was nominated for an Oscar for best song; one of the composers is the legendary Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Play)

"What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?--I wish I knew. Just staying on, I guess, as long as she can," says Maggie "the Cat" Pollitt in Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As I continue my year-long look at Williams' work, I read this play for the first time last night. I have seen the film version, which Williams hated, but due to the restricted time period, played down the homosexual aspects.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a simmering cauldron of sex, lies, and recriminations. It takes place on one night in the bedroom/sitting room of Brick and Maggie. He is a washed up football player, and most recently a sports announcer. The early morning of the play he was out, drunk, on the high school athletic field, and broke his ankle trying to run the hurdles. Now he hobbles around on a crutch, continually drinking.

The occasion is the birthday party for Brick's father, Big Daddy, the biggest cotton grower on the Mississippi delta. Big Daddy is larger-than-life force. He has been to the doctor, who has given him a clean bill of health, but the truth, known to Brick, Maggie, and Brick's brother Gooper and sister-in-law, Mae, is that Big Daddy has inoperable cancer.

Over the course of the play we will learn that Brick will not sleep with Maggie, despite her enticements. Gooper, who has five children with shrill Mae, is the elder son, but is unliked by Big Daddy, who would like to leave his estate to Brick. The mother, Big Mama, has been emotionally abused for forty years by Big Daddy, but she chooses to overlook it.

The lurking secret of the play is that Brick is drinking heavily since the suicide of his football buddy, Skipper. Maggie suspected a relationship that was closer than friendship--she voiced this to Skipper, who slept with her to prove his heterosexuality. The suspicion is that Brick spurned Skipper, which caused his suicide. The film doesn't contain any mention of this at all, but it's spelled out in the play, in a confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy that is built around the word "mendacity." "You think so, too? You think so, too! You think me an' Skipper did, did, did!--sodomy!--together?...You think we did dirty things between us, Skipper an'--me, is that what you think of Skipper?"

To further amplify this, it is discussed that the two previous owners were long-time bachelors who shared a bed. Clearly, this could not be mentioned in a film from 1958.

The film, on the page, seems a cacophony, as often there are many characters on stage at the same time, buzzing around, including Gooper and Mae's obnoxious children. Sex is ever present--Maggie says, "You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again--I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart." Big Daddy, in his conversation with Brick, mentions that until recently he had still slept with his wife, despite his general contempt for her. But breeding, as seen with Gooper and Mae, is portrayed in a negative light--there is not sentimental view of family going on here.

Death is also an ever-present theme. In addition to Skipper's suicide, there is Big Daddy's mortality, which he is clearly not ready for: "Ignorance--of mortality--is a comfort. A man don't have that comfort, he's the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without any knowledge of it, and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it."

The three main characters of Brick, Big Daddy, and Maggie are sharply drawn. Brick, of course, literally has a crutch--he is often separated from it and has to beg for it. At the end of the play, Maggie, in an attempt to get him to impregnate her, throws it out the window. As the title character, Maggie is the most sympathetic character. Williams, who writes voluminous stage directions, indicates that she is "the only one there who is conscious of and amused by the grotesque."

Williams rewrote the play a few times. The American Library edition of Williams' plays contain both third acts--the original does not have Big Daddy return to the stage in that act, but director Elia Kazan thought it best. The original production starred the recently departed Ben Gazzara as Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy, who would reprise the role in the film.

Williams, in another long stage direction, writes, "The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem. I'm trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy flickering, evanescent--fiercely charged!--interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in ones own character to himself."

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Williams' personal favorite of his plays. I don't find it as moving as The Glass Menagerie or as powerful as A Streetcar Named Desire, but it certainly packs a wallop. I'd like to see it on the stage to fully absorb it's effects.




Sunday, February 12, 2012

Donovan

Once again this year I'm going to take a look at some of the artists who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Starting chronologically, I turn to Donovan, the Scottish troubadour who was instrumental in creating the flower power, psychedelic sound.

I picked up a copy of Donovan's greatest hits, in which, from a vantage point of some thirty or so years, he wrote a few liner notes. Born in 1946, he first achieved stardom in 1965, when he was part of the British folk scene. His earliest hits, "Colours" and "Catch the Wind," are very much in the style of Bob Dylan, who of course was influenced by Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Donovan's vocals, though, seem a conscious aping of Dylan's nasal drone.

But in 1966 he hit it big with the album Sunshine Superman, which included the eponymous single, a mixture of hippie radiance and pop culture references to comic book heroes. This is the Donovan that everyone remembers today, and he had a string of hits until 1970 that today are like a whiff of patchouli.

It's hard to say what my favorite song of his is. There is, of course, "Mellow Yellow," which he wrote after the rumor swirled that smoking banana skins could get you high. The lyric, "Electrical banana, is going to be a sudden craze, electrical banana, is bound to be the very next phase" seems a nice capsule of the hippie ethos. Then there is "Atlantis," which begins with a spoken word section about how the continent of Atlantis was the precursor to all the great civilizations, or "There Is a Mountain," a "Zen ditty" that includes the koan-like lyric, "First there was a mountain then there was no mountain then there is."

Other Donovan hits were "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," which was written in India and was influenced by transcendental meditation and was written for Jimi Hendrix. He didn't play on it, but three future Led Zeppelin members, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham did (Bonham's drums are particularly effective). It's interesting that this song was used so effectively in the film Zodiac, which would seem to be about as far away from the principles of TM as possible.

In that vein, I very much like "The Season of the Witch," which seems intentionally to be spooky, and the unspeakably pretty "Jennifer Juniper," which is so delicate it feels like it wouldn't survive a stiff breeze. And what to make of the catchy "Epistle to Dippy":

"Look on yonder misty mountain
See the young monk meditating rhododendron forest
Over dusty years, I ask you
What's it been like being you?"

Donovan tells us that, "Whatever you think this song is about, it probably is."

Donovan also experiment with different styles of rock. "Epistle to Dippy" was an early example of Indian-flavored raga-rock, which George Harrison would embrace. With the Jeff Beck group, he also record "Barabajagal," and an early reggae song, "Riki Tiki Tavi."

Donovan's career was pretty much over after 1970, and he became seen as an artifact of hippie-dippie culture. He still performs, though, and is connected to another Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entry this year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers--his daughter, Ione Skye, was at one time an inamorata of their front man, Anthony Kiedis, and was on the cover of their album, Mother's Milk.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oscar 2011: Best Supporting Actress

Octavia Spencer
Over the next two weeks until the Oscar ceremony I will take a look at each of the "major" categories and analyze who I think will win and why, plus some other pontificating. I start with the easiest contest to call, Best Supporting Actress.

The runaway favorite is Octavia Spencer, who played the sassy maid Mnnie in The Help. It's the kind of showy part the Academy loves, in a popular film, and Spencer has won all the precursor awards. It is very possible that there will be two black women who will Oscars in acting this year, a first. It will then be true that of the seven women who will have won Oscars (Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Monique, and then Spencer and Viola Davis), three of them will have played maids, and another two were characters on welfare. I guess this is progress--remember that McDaniel said she's rather play a maid than be one.

If for some strange reason Spencer doesn't win, who would it be? My guess is Melissa McCarthy, as the blunt force of nature in Bridesmaids. A lot of people who write about this sort of thing complain that broad comic performances are almost never honored--Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou or the only two I can come up with off the top of my head--so perhaps this would be a chance for that to addressed. But it's an unlikely outcome.

The other three nominees are in the "happy to be nominated" category. Only an absolute sweep by The Artist could get Berenice Bejo, who played the star who made the transition to sound pictures, Peppy Miller. Bejo was fine in the role, but I didn't see anything award-worthy about it. Jessica Chastain made about a zillion films this year. I didn't see them all, but I did see four of them, and Chastain, as the flibbertigibbet Southern woman in The Help, was, to me, her weakest performance, behind roles in The Tree of Life, The Debt, and Take Shelter. But The Help was the most popular of these films, and Chastain does some scenery-chewing, so there it is. She won't win. If there was an award for quantity, as the New York Critics can be, she'd win that.

Perhaps with the least chance is Janet McTeer, as a woman pretending to be a man in Albert Nobbs. The film is dishwater dull, except when McTeer is on the screen. She creates a very realized and interesting character, and to see her a few weeks later in full feminine dress in The Woman in Black only made her performance that more amazing for me. She doesn't stand a ghost of a chance, but I'd vote for her.

Will win: Octavia Spencer
Could win: Melissa McCarthy
Should win: Janet McTeer
Should have been nominated: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Friday, February 10, 2012

Anonymous

When Anonymous was released in theaters last fall, I avoided it for two reasons: one, director Roland Emmerich is a hack of the highest order. I've never seen a movie of his that I liked. Second, the subject matter, conjecture that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone else, is ludicrous, the literary version of the Flat Earth Society. However, the film did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Costumes (by Lisy Christl), and though I don't usually watch a movie because of the clothes, I figured I would give it a chance.

It wasn't half bad. As to the history, I'll let others more knowledgeable speak for me, such as this article by Stephen Marche that does a complete take down of the argument. I'll add some other problems that Marche doesn't mention, concerning the character of Ben Jonson: Jonson was much younger than Shakespeare, and did not have a hit play until 1598, almost ten years after Shakespeare had started writing. In the film, Jonson is an established playwright when Henry V (not Shakespeare's first production) was staged.

The idea that Shakespeare did not write his plays is old, but the film supports the Oxfordian view, which started in the 1920s. The theory is that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and used Shakespeare, a dumb actor, as his front. This theory seems to stem from the most arrogant of positions--that genius can not spring from anywhere but good breeding and education, but of course this has proved wrong over and over through history.

However, this is a movie, not a history (for Emmerich's other history-butchering film, check out 10,000 B.C.). If one views it as a fantasy, it's a decent film. De Vere is played beautifully by Rhys Ifans as a nobleman who burns for literature but is denied that by his station. To further push history askew, De Vere is seen having an affair with Queen Elizabeth (played as a young woman by Joely Richardson, and an older woman by Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave). There's nothing I found on the 'Net to support this theory, nor is there anything to suggest, as the film does, that Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen," had three (!) bastard children, including Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, which, if true, gives the film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, some interesting subtext.

Shakespearean scholars must have really hated this film for portraying their guy as a barely literate oaf, but it was kind of funny. The only harm this film can really do is if some person sees it and believes it is true. The next thing you'll know people will believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

If a Tree Falls

The second of the current nominees for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature which is now available on DVD is If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, and it's a terrific, and most importantly, even-handed look at the radical environmental group. For the likely viewers--liberal tree-huggers like me--the journey taken on viewing it is fascinating, and all viewers may be both more enlightened and confused after watching.

The story is framed around Daniel McGowan, who was arrested by the F.B.I. and accused of committing arson, for which he freely confessed. He was part of the Earth Liberation Front, a group that was formed in the 1990s, mostly out of Eugene, Oregon, that was frustrated by the lack of progress in derailing corporate interests in cutting down old growth forests. They decided to hit the companies where it hurt most--the pocketbook--and did so by committing property damage by arson. They struck a ranger station, a lumber mill, an SUV dealership, and condominium development under construction. No one was ever killed or injured in their actions.

They were nevertheless considered a domestic terror organization, and were hunted down by the U.S. Attorney's office. It look a long time--the E.L.F. was fastidious about not leaving clues, and had a network where many members didn't know who the other members were. It was only when Jacob Ferguson, who was a heroin addict, became an informant that the dominoes fell.

There are a few words that have nebulous definitions that are considered here. One is environmentalist. Everyone interviewed in the film, from the owner of the lumber mill to McGowan to the law enforcement assigned to track him down, consider themselves environmentalists. One interviewee says that he doesn't have a problem with the cutting down of trees--where would we get wood, after all--but has a problem when 95 percent of the forests have been cut down, and would like to preserve the last five percent. The lumber mill owner says that by law, he has to plant six trees for every one he cuts down. But when one sees a tree that is likely over 500 years old cut down, one can't help feeling sad.

The other word is terrorist. A key to McGowan's plea bargain becomes whether he is considered a terrorist, which will earn him a ticket to the super-maximum security wing of a federal prison. Does terrorism require the injury of others? Is burning down an empty building the same as flying airplanes into buildings full of thousands of people? A cop acknowledges the dictum, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," but he is sworn to uphold the law.

Early in the film, liberal viewers such as myself will see the E.L.F. as Robin Hood-like figures, and will delight in their success, such as their burning down a slaughterhouse where wild horses are butchered, putting them permanently out of business. This is especially true in contrast to the barbarity of some policemen, who liberally use pepper spray on peaceful protestors. But then the E.L.F. try to pull off two arsons on the same night. One is at the office of a professor at the University of Washington, and the other is at a tree farm, where the E.L.F. have been led to believe genetic research has been going on. The fire at the university spreads to a library, while the information about the tree farm was faulty. Both backfired in public relations terms, and our view of the arsonists starts to sour, much as the cause among themselves starts to waver.

If a Tree Falls was directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, and they have worked wonders in getting to speak with the principals, all of whom are given a fair chance to speak their minds. This is not a Michael Moore-style film; the filmmakers are not behind the E.L.F., nor necessarily against them in principle. Perhaps the most telling statement is made by U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall, who says that, driven by curiosity, he sought to find out the motives of the arsonists he was investigating, and grew to understand them, if not forgive their crimes. It's a testament to the filmmaker's level approach, and to the problem that we face--preserving the Earth's resources, while still enjoying their benefits.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but--mainly--to ourselves."

I've read one other book by Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is an examination of attitudes about death. In his novel The Sense of an Ending, which won the U.K.'s Mann Booker Prize, Barnes is interested in memory, and how time changes it.

The narrator is Tony Webster. In the first half of the book he is a schoolboy: "Yes, of course we were pretentious--what else is youth for? We used terms like 'Welteschauung' and 'Sturm und Drang,' enjoyed saying 'That's philosophically self-evident,' and assured one another that the imagination's first duty was to be transgressive."

Into Tony's small circle of friends is admitted Adrian, a new boy who fits into the group but also manages to stand outside it. Tony also gets a girlfriend, Veronica, who is a bit of a snob and a prig. They end up ending badly, and Tony goes off to college. He hears from Adrian, who tells him that he is seeing Veronica, and he hopes that's okay. It is Tony's recollection, some 40 years later, that the had no problem with it. Sometime later he hears that Adrian has killed himself.

"It had seemed to us philosophically self-evident that suicide was every free person's right: a logical act when faced with terminal illness or senility; a heroic one when faced with torture or the avoidable deaths of others; a glamorous one in the fury of disappointed love (see: Great Literature). None of these categories had applied in the case of Robson's squalidly mediocre action. Nor did any of them apply to Adrian.

In the second half of the book, Tony is retired, divorced, and a grandfather. He hears from a solicitor that Veronica's mother, whom he only met once, has died and left him a small sum of money, plus another surprising item. That item is currently in Veronica's possession, so he reconnects with her in an attempt to get it back, and also, he must admit, because he is once again in her thrall (though when he discusses her with his ex-wife, she refers to her, through Tony's description of her, as the "fruitcake.") Veronica agrees to meet him, and they have enigmatic exchanges, that leads to Tony having to confront something ugly he did from his past.

Most of the book's slim pages are filled with Barnes, as Tony, ruminating on the nature of history, time and memory. Though much of it has an epigrammatic quality, I found it lyrical and engaging. We get Bartlett's stuff like: "History isn't the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated," or, "When we're young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren't that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young."

This book can only have been written by a person of mature years; Barnes just turned 66. This is the type of work that comes from living a life in which memory plays tricks, and recollections of actions we are not proud of get buried, but then can surface again after a hard rain. It's a lovely, quick read, but also full of profound insight, which is philosophically self-evident.



Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Woman in Black

I love me a good ghost story, and the great ones that have put on film can be counted on one hand. Usually the set up is terrific, only to peter out with a weak conclusion. The Woman in Black follows that structure, but the beginning is so good that I am willing to forgive the somewhat rote ending.

To be sure, the film is full of every haunted house cliche you've ever seen, but writer Jane Goldman and director James Watkins seem to be saying, "We're going to use these cliches and do them right," and they do. The whole enterprise looks and sounds spot on. I give special props to the production designers, sound designers, and cinematographer (Tim Maurice-Jones), who have made this look and sound so perfect.

The film stars Daniel Radcliffe, his first film post-Hogwarts, as an attorney in Edwardian London who is still grieving his wife's death during childbirth. He's been so out of it that his firm has lost patience with him, and gives one last chance to shape up. Like Jonathan Harker in Dracula, he's sent to a spooky house to go over paperwork, this time following the death of a widow.

When he arrives in the village in the fens of England, he finds almost every one inhospitable. A local businessman, (Ciaran Hinds), shows him kindness, as he's a forward thinker, not caught up with superstition (he has the village's only motorcar). Everyone else gives him the stink eye, and the local attorney he's to work with urges him to leave town. But Radcliffe doesn't want to botch the job (this plot point also serves to reinforce why he doesn't leave town after most of us would have been frightened out of our wits) and goes to Eel Marsh House, which is one of the creepiest houses you'll ever see. Whoever found this house deserves kudos.

We get the usual false scares (not a cat this time, but a bird) and creaking doors, but soon things aren't right. If you've seen enough of these films, you know to look in the background for things that move that shouldn't, or to keep a look out for reflections in mirrors. We get all that, and it's a gas. Radcliffe sees a woman dressed in black, standing out in the house's graveyard, an arresting image. He learns that she is likely the spirit of a troubled young woman who hung herself after her son, who was taken away from her by her sister and husband, died in an accident. He was entombed in the mud that separates the house from the mainland.

Whenever the woman in black is seen, a child in the village dies. Turns out that the woman has the power to tell children to jump out windows or head into the sea, and she's keen on revenge. Hinds' son died this way, and his wife (Janet McTeer) has never gotten over it. Radcliffe figures if he reunites the woman with her boy (whose body was never found), she'll stop killing, and he and Hinds, like the opposite of Burke and Hare, set to put things right, especially before Racliffe's small son arrives.

Once a ghost story gets into the mechanics of who is doing the haunting and why, it usually bogs down, as does The Woman in Black, but it still maintains a high concentration of dread. The scene where Radcliffe sets the boy's body out and winds up all his toys, luring the mother to appear, is top-notch.


The film is from Hammer Film Productions, who made some of the greatest horror films ever made, went moribund in the '80s, but has been resurrected. I hope this film makes enough money to continue it's good work in the genre, because many recent films have given horror a very bad name.

My grade for The Woman in Black: B.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Blackout

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis' Blackout is yet another science fiction novel that has left me disappointed, but for different reasons. This one, though set in the future, takes place mostly in the past, specifically 1940, but a promising idea gets bogged down in minutiae, and then doesn't wrap up before the end of the novel.

The book begins in Oxford in 2060. Time travel has been invented, and historians routinely travel back to observe history first-hand. This is not the first book Willis has written about time travel, so not all the rules are clearly spelled out, but I grasped that those traveling back in time could not, by the rules of the system, change events. However, one character spends a lot of time worrying about just that, which made me wonder how it could be a rule. There is also talk about divergence points--those places in time in which momentous events happen--supposedly historians could not be present at them, but again, the rules aren't clear.

The book follows three such historians: Merope is back and working as a maid in a country house that took in evacuated children during the Battle of Britain; Michael went back masquerading as an American reporter during the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk; and Polly is observing the blitz by getting a job as a shopgirl. They each have thoroughly studied the records of the time, so know when certain bombs will drop, etc. However, Michael and Polly both experience "slippage," that is they arrive not in the exact date and time in which they will think they appear. All three also have trouble with their "drops"--the portals they go back and through to their current time. If the drop is seen by a person from that era, a "contemp," it will not open.

Though each of them went to different times during 1940, they will each have trouble getting back home, and one waits the whole book for their inevitable meeting. Along the way they will experience the quotidian parts of life that are interesting to historians, but maybe not to the casual reader. I found it all a bit of a slog, as they struggled with catching buses, or trying to figure out where a "retrieval team" would be--they are the persons that ordinarily would come after them should they be slow to report in.

The book ends telling us the exciting conclusion will be in the next book, All Clear, which I knew when I started but doesn't lessen the frustration that I will have to read another tedious book to get the answers. Willis' style of writing is a gee-whiz, juvenile, and not for a minute did I believe these were actual historians. One of them asks, I kid you not, "When was Pearl Harbor?" I know they're British, but for goodness' sake, how could anyone get a history degree and honestly ask that question?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hell and Back Again

After the Oscar nominations are announced, I like to see all the nominated pictures that I haven't seen yet (although I'll skip the Transformers). In the Best Documentary Feature category, I hadn't seen any of the nominees, so I start with Hell and Back Again, directed by Danfung Dennis. I haven't seen any of the other films that may have been "snubbed," but I am mystified why this did get nominated.

There have been many films about the problems that combat soldiers have had readjusting to American life, from The Best Years of Our Lives to Coming Home to The Hurt Locker. This one focuses on a marine, Nathan Harris, who has returned home after being severely wounded (as far as I could tell, his hometown or even state is never identified, but by the accents I guess it was the South). There is no voiceover narration or talking head footage--it's all observation, from Harris in Afghanistan to his rehabilitation at home.

I don't mean to pick on Harris, who I thank for his service, but he's not especially compelling. In fact, the only time he comes to some kind of vividness is when he's playing with his guns. If this were a narrative film, following Chekhov's rule, Harris would have shot himself or someone else; instead we look on alarmed as he mimics Russian roulette, while his wife watches, smiling.

His wife, Ashley, is another problem with the movie. She's seen only as an appendage, dutifully helping him. I would have liked to know more about her, but we only her voice an opinion once in the movie, when Harris isn't there, to a pharmacist, describing his rage.

The scenes in Afghanistan, in which Dennis appears to be embedded with Harris' company, bullets whizzing around, are not particularly great, either--we've seen this before. Most of the action in Afghanistan consists of American soldiers negotiating with locals over their losses, and Harris doesn't even take part. I am at a loss to explain how these scenes have anything to do with Harris back in the U.S.A.

I do appreciate the plight Harris is in. Editor Fiona Otway makes some indelible cuts, such as going from marines working their way through a village, guns poised, to the recreation of that in the video game Call of Duty, which Harris plays at home. Harris, frustrated at a lack of parking spaces at Wal-Mart, wishes aloud that he was back in the desert, where he says things were simpler. Me--I'd rather deal with a lack of parking than getting shot at, but it's a testament to the psychological damage these guys go through that he would even voice such a thing. Harris, recovering from a gunshot to the hip which will likely leave him with a permanent limp, wants to return to action.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Hesher

I end Natalie Portman 2011 week with Hesher, which is basically a retelling of Mary Poppins, except instead of an English nanny, Mary is a sociopathic metalhead drifter.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of my favorite actors, is the title role, and he goes to town, relishing the chance to play against type. Hesher (who goes by only one name) has no real backstory, which lends him a kind of magic persona. He does have some vivid tattoos, including a giant fist flipping the bird on his back.

The other major character is a boy played by Devin Brochu. His mother has recently died in a car accident, and the family is wallowing in grief. His father, Rainn Wilson, can barely get off the coach. His kindly grandmother (Piper Laurie, whom I didn't recognize) has cancer. Brochu is full of anger, and after his dad sells the totaled car in which his mother died, he is determined to get it back.

He accidentally finds Hesher living in an abandoned house. After inadvertently alerting the police to Hesher's presence there, the long-haired imp of the perverse moves in with Brochu's family. Wilson is so numb with depression that he says nothing in objection to this, which gnawed at me as a real plot problem.

Of course, even though Hesher commits wanton acts of violence and destruction, he teaches the family lessons on how to move on with their lives. Though the script, written by Spencer Susser, who also directs, is not sentimental, it was still straining at the joints trying to make these points. A speech by Hesher at the end of the film, comparing the death of a loved one to a missing testicle, is a jaw-dropper, and not in a good way.

Portman shows up as a mousy cashier who rescues Brochu from a bully. He develops a crush on her, and the two become good friends as they both are down on their luck. Portman was an executive producer of the film, which certainly accounts for her presence, but there's no way someone who looks like her is going to be that pathetic. She can't play homely and alone. Nice try, but no.

Hesher has it's interesting moments, and I can recommend it on certain levels. Gordon-Levitt is a hoot, and though for much of the film felt like a suicide note, it has dark humor that I responded to. As a kid who experienced some bullying, I've always liked characters who were sort of protectors of the meek, whether they be the robot from Lost in Space, Adam Baldwin in My Bodyguard, and now Hesher.