Follow by Email

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Early Bee Gees

The night before Robin Gibb died, I was listening to the radio and heard a somewhat familiar song. It was clearly something from the psychedelic era of the '60s--monk chants, violin chords in a minor key, enigmatic lyrics. I thought it might be early, Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. No, it was The Bee Gees. The song was "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You."

Gibb's death the next day launched a major Bee Gees retrospective on TV and radio, but most of it was keyed on their career from Saturday Night Fever on. This makes a world of sense, since the soundtrack album from that movie became the biggest seller of all time, and enabled Barry Gibb to be recognized as the highest-earning songwriter except for Paul McCartney. But the early Bee Gees deserve not to be forgotten, especially considering Robin, who was the main vocalist in those days.

The Bee Gees formed as teenagers. The three brothers, in addition to a couple of other bandmates, were big hits in Australia, and then became worldwide sensations, creating a hybrid of pop and psychedelia that was somewhat Beatlesque, but still with its own distinct sound. Part of this was due to Robin's tremulous vocals, which sounded like he was ready to bust into tears. Songs like "Holiday," "I Started a Joke," "Massachusetts" and "New York Mining Disaster 1941" are real weepies, and his vocals could melt the heart of the hardest man. Other songs, like "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," are excellent crafted pop songs.

Barry also contributed in those days, with "To Love Somebody," and "Words," but Robin was the focal point of the group. To be sure, some of the songs were way over the top, like "First of May," which is dreadful, but on the Bee Gees first greatest hits album, which contains songs from the '60s, almost all of them are pleasurable to listen to.

Later, the band would go full psychedelic, creating concept albums like Odessa. They would eventually slip out of of sight, and then be revived in the mid-'70s with the album Main Course, which incorporated Latin rhythms. One of my favorite Bee Gees songs, and another one that had a prominent Robin vocal, was "Nights on Broadway." It was this album, surely, that caught the attention of those making Saturday Night Fever, and that was all she wrote.

The Bee Gees weren't consciously writing disco songs. In fact, I'm not sure disco as a genre had then been established. I remember that the classic rock station I listened to in those days, WPLJ, played "Stayin' Alive" a time or two, because it was The Bee Gees, who were part of their repertoire. But when someone alerted the station that they were playing (gag!) disco, that song was never heard again on classic rock stations. So be it.

Robin, with his buck teeth and yearning stare, seemed like the odd one out in the trio of brothers, but I maintain it was his talent that made them stars in the first place. I've spent a happy week listening to their early songs, and a lot of them are still rattling around in my head.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Greed

One of the legendary silent film classics, Greed, by Erich von Stroheim, has a complicated history. Currently, it is not on DVD (it was released on VHS), so my friend Bob and I took advantage of its screening at Film Forum, part of a von Stroheim retrospective. The version was the truncated two-hour one, accompanied by a live pianist. It was a wonderful experience.

Greed, based on the American classic novel McTeague by Frank Norris, was originally close to nine hours long. This was von Stroheim's rough cut, and it is lost to history. He intended a four-hour version, and there is a restoration, with stills filling in for missing scenes. But after seeing the short version, it's hard to imagine how a longer film could be any better.

McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works in a gold mine. He is a bear of man, his head covered in a tangle of blond curls. We first see him rescuing a bird, and when a colleague tosses it aside, McTeague picks up the man and throws him into a ditch. "Such was McTeague," reads the title card.

McTeague's mother has higher aspirations for him, and apprentices him to a dentist. Without any sort of degree, he starts his own dental practice. One day his good friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt, he of the humanitarian award), brings by his girl for treatment. She is Trina (ZaSu Pitts), and McTeague is smitten. While she's under anesthesia, he struggles with himself, finally giving in and kissing her. Later, he will admit his feelings for her to Marcus. His friend willingly gives her up, and McTeague courts her. Apparently Trina has no say in the matter.

Finally they marry. The wedding ceremony, held in McTeague's office, has a bad omen when a funeral procession passes by on the street below. The wedding night is like something out of a horror movie. We definitely get a sense of beauty and the beast, as the rough-hewn, massive McTeague seems like he might break the delicate, pale girl in half.

The couple become happy, though, when Trina, after purchasing a lottery ticket, wins $5,000. As the title suggests, this will spell the couple's doom. She becomes obsessive in her stinginess, not willing to touch the winnings. Marcus feels cheated, realizing if he had stuck with Trina, he'd be rich, not McTeague. Someone (probably Marcus) turns in McTeague for practicing dentistry without a license, and the couple struggle to make ends meet, but Trina will not spend the lottery winnings. Finally McTeague leaves her, and she ends up scrubbing floors in a kindergarten.

Eventually McTeague commits a murder and takes off across the desert with the money. Marcus tracks him down, and the two men are in the middle of Death Valley, without water. The gold, of course, is meaningless at this point, and the film ends with an image that must have inspired Rod Serling.

Though the film has some dated elements, particularly in the overacting typical of silent films, it is a powerful film. Von Stroheim uses the camera well, showing a fondness for irising and closeup, but also has some ahead-of-his time use of composition, such as one where McTeague heads down a staircase, Trina above him, out of her mind. He also makes a point of focusing in tight on hands. There's a moment, right before the wedding, that McTeague's gloved hands are shown in closeup, behind his back, nervously rubbing together. Later, Trina will put lotion on her hands, but look like Lady MacBeth trying to wash the blood off them. At a few other instances, von Stroheim uses expressionistic inserts of skeletal, grasping hands, rinsing themselves with gold coins.

Birds are also a metaphor. McTeague has a pair of songbirds he keeps in a cage, and they stand in for the couple. A cat, representing fate, eyes them hungrily. And, as at the beginning of the film, McTeague will gently hold a bird in his hand, and then let it free.

The film is also surprisingly funny, and intentionally so (there are a few unintentional laughs for modern audiences; the first comes in the credits, which read, "Personally directed by Erich von Stroheim." The funeral procession during the wedding is a bit of macabre humor, as is Trina's reaction when McTeague proposes to her--it's as if he asked to her have a root canal with no anesthesia. The wedding feast is an orgy of gluttony, with characters munching on the skulls of animals and generally eating like barnyard animals. Funny, but also certainly a commentary on the over indulgences of American culture.

As a serious follower of cinema, I'm glad I got a chance to see this film in the manner that I did. I urge everyone else, should they have the opportunity, not to miss it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

"What kind of bird are you?"asks Sam Shikusky, (Jared Gilman) the shy, disliked Khaki Scout of Troop 55 on New Penzance Island, presumably somewhere along the coast of New England. He has gone wandering during the performance at St. Jack's church of Benjamin Britten's opera, Noye's Fludde, a tale of Noah's flood. He finds himself in the girls' dressing room, and a line of girls dressed in avian costumes face the mirror. He has no interest in the owl or the sparrow, but is all eyes for the raven.

She is Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), and anyone who knows Genesis knows that the raven was the unfortunate bird that was first released by Noah from the ark, but never came back. As Suzy tells Sam that she is a raven, their eyes lock and it is love at first sight. They will write for a year, until the next summer, when she and Sam will run off together.

I don't think any film director has as instantly recognizable style as Wes Anderson, as he directs Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola. To be sure, this film is full of a myriad novelistic details that Anderson is known for, particular those of the kind that are often labeled "precious." For instance, each member of the Khaki Scouts has a badge over his heart indicating his role in the troop--one is "Reptile Control," another "Petty Bugler." Another boy has a patch over his eye and is only known as "Lazy Eye" (funny, if insensitive). A major decision is made while a boy trampolines in the background. Not just scissors are utilized as a weapon, but lefty scissors, with the identifiable red handle. Sam puffs a corncob pipe, and Suzy wears blue eye shadow.

All of this makes for a very funny movie, but there is also an overall sense of loss. The use of music, also an Anderson specialty, is key. Instead of using a variety of pop songs, as he did in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he sticks to two themes--Britten (especially a recording he did for young people) and Hank Williams. I was also reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's poem Annabel Lee, what with its "kingdom by the sea."

It is 1965. Sam, with his ever present coonskin cap, busts loose from the troop, which is overseen by the diligent Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton). The island police is notified, which means Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Suzy, with her binoculars, her brother's record player, a cat, and a suitcase full of books about girl adventurers, slips out of her house, called Summer's End. Her parents are the somewhat distracted Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who is seeing Willis on the sly. Suzy found a book called "Coping With Your Troubled Child" on top of the refrigerator. Her brother calls her a traitor to the family, and she responds, "I hope I am." Soon a full scale search is launched, with the Khaki Scouts using their tracking skills.

Sam and Suzy find an idyll and frolic together, chastely, but there is a few moments where those who might recoil at watching 12-year-olds French kiss in their underwear will feel uncomfortable (Sam even gets to second base). But of course their idyll must end, and Sam, an orphan, has been banished from his foster home and will be turned over to Special Services, represented by Tilda Swinton, dressed head to toe in cerulean.

The film is about innocent love, the kind that only children can feel for each other, but it is also about loss. Most of the characters in this film are lonely--Murray and McDormand sleep in separate beds, Norton has a photo up of his mentor, the great Khaki Scout Master (played in a very funny cameo by Harvey Keitel), but apparently no woman in his life, and Willis lives alone in a trailer. There is something of Romeo and Juliet to the children's love--it is not exactly doomed, but it will bring people together in common cause.

As with Anderson's other films, the acting is of a certain style--mostly a kind of flat, declarative kind. No one raises their voice (although Murray, seeing his daughter with Sam lying together in a tent, does charge like a rhino). Statements are made with a philosophical certainty, and children are wise beyond their years. While mourning a dead  dog, Suzy asks Sam if he was a good dog. "Who's to say?" he asks. When asked what his real job is, Norton says he is a math teacher, and then corrects that, to say he is a scoutmaster first and a math teacher on the side. Murray finds some paintings Sam sent Suzy. McDormand tells him that "he does mostly watercolors, some nudes."

The film includes some nods to other films, ranging from Titanic to Buster Keaton's Cops. There is a kind of hyper-realism present, so that when a character, during a thunderstorm, runs across a place called Lightning Field, we can be pretty sure what happens (right after that character quotes Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce).

Despite those quotes, Anderson remains an amazingly original director. Even though his style is immediately recognizable, he is not stealing from himself. Certainly Sam and Suzy are kindred spirits with Max Fleischman of Rushmore, or the Whitman brothers of The Darjeeling Limited. Royal Tenenbaum would love a son like Sam. They all march to the beat of their own drummers.

My grade for Moonrise Kingdom: A.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Life Itself

For years I've thought of all the people living, Roger Ebert would be the one I'd most like to have dinner with. For all the years I've been watching and reading him, he seems to be endlessly fascinating, candid, and a raconteur of considerable talent. Ironically, he can not now eat, drink, or speak, but he can still write, and for that we can be thankful for.

His delightful and chatty memoir, Life Itself, is less about movies than about the critic. Ebert has written volumes about the movies, his favorites and least favorites, so that there is actually not that much about movies themselves in this book is to be understood. Instead it is about his life, with occasional intersections with those from the movies, and a little bit about his philosophy of film criticism.

"I was born inside the movie of my life," he writes. "I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman's Persona after the film breaks and begins again." Born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942, Ebert was an only child and a late child. His father died of lung cancer just after Roger graduated from high school. His mother became an alcoholic, as did Ebert, and the two had a complicated relationship. He realized at one point he would never be able to marry until after his mother died.

Ebert always wanted to be a newspaperman. As a teenager he asked a question of vice-presidential candidate Estes Kefauver. At the University of Illinois he would become the editor of the Daily Illini: "As editor, I was a case study. I was tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat. Against those character flaws I balanced the gift of writing well, a good sense for page layout, and ability as a talent scout."

He would end up getting hired at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1965, where he is still an employee. He loved the life of a newspaperman, and why not with moments like these: "I'd been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio...This at last was life."

In 1967, without any warning, Ebert was named film critic. He'd always loved the movies, and he details with great joy his experiences of going to movies as a kid. He basically learned on the job, and shares some of the things he's learned: "'One, don't wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going?' These rules saved me a half a career's worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I'm not faster. I spend less time not writing."

As a film critic, Ebert's maxim is: "'I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.' That was useful, and from another critic I found a talisman. Within a day after Zonka gave me the job, I read The Immediate Experience by Robert Warshow. He wrote, 'A man watches a movie, and the critic must ackknowledge that he is that man.' By this he meant that the critic has to set aside theory and ideology, theology and politics, and open himself to--well, the immediate experience."

Though the book is assembled chronologically, much of it is arranged by theme. Instead of writing about things year by year, he has chapters based on different people in his life. He gets lost with Robert Mitchum in Pittsburgh: "Robert Mitchum didn't give a damn what anybody thought about him. He never seemed to be making the slightest effort to be a movie star. But of the stars I met in my early years on the job, he was the most iconic, the most fascinating. That fits into my theory that true movie stars must be established in our minds well before we reach a certain age, perhaps seventeen."

Ebert also writes about Lee Marvin, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman: "At the Cannes Film Festival one year, Ingmar was talking about David Lean. 'What kind of crew do you use?' Lean asked him. 'I make my films with eighteen good friends,' said Ingmar. 'That's interesting,' said Lean. 'I make mine with one hundred and fifty enemies." Woody Allen: "To talk with Woody was like catching up with your smart college roommate every time you went to New York, and he reminded you that he had gone ahead and accomplished all the things you had talked about in school. He has averaged a film a year for more than forty years. Some were great, all were intelligent, none were shabby."

One wild chapter is on Ebert's great friend Russ Meyer, and how he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. "Our conversation inevitably turned to large breasts, which we were both in favor of." The chapter continues with their talks with the Sex Pistols on making a film, which sadly never happened.

Ebert avoids no personal issues. He talks about old girlfriends, his great love of his wife, Chaz, and his alcoholism. "In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house behind the Four Farthings on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn't take it anymore."

He writes about his favorite places around the world, especially London (I did not know that he wrote a book called The Perfect London Walk). He writes about old colleagues and friends, and his old hangouts. Of course he devotes a chapter to Gene Siskel, who started as a rival, and ended up as a devoted friend--with a caveat: "We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. 'You may be an asshole,' Gene would say, 'but you're my asshole.'"

And of course he writes about his debilitating health problems, which started with cancer in the salivary gland and ended with the removal of part of his jaw, and failed attempts at reconstructive surgery. But he assigns no blame to his doctors, and remains resolutely cheerful. He assures us he is in good health, and reminds us we are all dying incremently.

This was great fun to read, but I do have some criticisms. Early chapters go into great detail on all of Ebert's cousins, nieces and nephews, etc., which seems unnecessary and a bit like a guy going over the photos in a family album. At times there's too much name-dropping, and the book could have used some better editing, as certain things are repeated (some of these chapters first appeared on their own on his blog, so perhaps that is the reason, but an editor should have smoothed them out).

But those are minor quibbles. Anyone who has ever listened to or read Roger Ebert with a smile would enjoy Life Itself.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Time After Time

After reading H.G. Wells' The Time Machine last week, I was interested to see a movie about it. I've seen both of the adaptations of the movie--one in 1960, one in 2002, and have no burning desire to see them again, but I hadn't seen the 1979 Nicholas Meyer film, Time After Time, in a long while.

The film supposes that H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) himself has built a time machine, and in 1893 his good friend, who turns out to be none other than Jack the Ripper (David Warner), escapes to 1979 San Francisco. Wells doggedly pursues him, and ends up falling in love with a bank employee (Mary Steenburgen) at the same time.

Time After Time is charming, but one (at least I) can't help but notice things. One, this is such a '70s movie, from the fonts used in the credits to the music to the way the film is photographed. Today we might think of this as a TV-movie look, but I don't think even TV-movies look or sound this shoddy anymore. The special effects, given what had come just a few years before with Star Wars and Close Encounters, look especially cheap, too.

But on a grander scale, Time After Time is one of those time travel movies that get you scratching your head. For one thing, the film shows Warner, who is a respected surgeon, killing a prostitute in 1893. It had been five years since the Ripper had struck, and no reason is given for his layoff. Secondly, McDowell arrives in San Francisco, and after an enjoyable montage that shows him getting acclimated to the new wonders of the time, realizes that Warner has killed a couple of prostitutes. Why it never occurs to him to go back in time a few days before Warner's arrival, so he can be there when he arrives and stop him, is baffling. After all, he has a fucking time machine at his disposal. This strikes me even more when McDowell walks sadly down the street, thinking Steenburgen is dead. Why isn't he heading straight for the time machine, to try to fix things, instead of moping?

Finally, it strikes me that someone traveling from 1979 to now would be almost as gobsmacked as Wells is. In 1979 there were no mobile phones, no personal computers (at least not for use by the general public), and thus no Internet. Watching the film I feel like telling Wells, "you ain't seen nothing yet!"

Interestingly, this wouldn't be the first time Steenburgen would fall in love with a time traveller--she does so in Back to the Future, Part III.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Certified Copy

There are some movies that require you to check your brains at the door, and there are others that require one to think in a deep and profound way. I prefer the latter, which is why Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a feast for the intellect, as well as the senses. It is not an easy film to digest, and I dare say no one can really understand it, not completely, as there is an unsolvable problem that occurs midway through the film.

We start at a book signing and reading in an Italian city. A British author (William Shimell), has written a book on the nature of copies versus originals. He claims that a copy can have just as much beauty and authenticity as an original, and that any original is just a copy of something else; for example, all human beings are just copies of the original strand of DNA that traces back to Lucy.

A French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) is intrigued by the book. She attends the reading but has to leave because her tween son is hungry. But she buys six books, and leaves her number with Shimell's translator.

The next day Shimell arrives at her shop and she takes him out of the city, going to a small town where there is a museum with a painting that was once thought to be an original, but was discovered to be a copy (interestingly, it is always a "copy," not a "fake," or a "duplicate") but is still venerated and has a place of honor in the museum. Binoche is a fan of Shimell's, and he signs her books, but she has some disagreements with him.

The two stop for coffee and the proprietor of the shop mistakes them for a married couple. Binoche tells the woman he doesn't speak French or Italian. Shimell tells a story about a mother and child in Florence, and realizes he is speaking about Binoche and her son. Shimell, in hearing about Binoche's troubles with her son, shrugs his shoulders like a bachelor.

But then, about halfway through the film, the relationship between the two changes. Shimell begins to speak French. We are led to believe they are husband and wife, and that the son is theirs. The town they visit is the one in which they were married, and Binoche takes him to the hotel where they spent their wedding night, but he remembers none of it. His philosophy is that things change, and it is the ability to adapt to these changes that make a marriage work.

So what is going on here? Were they pretending not to know each other in the first half of the film? Not likely. Are they pretending to be married? Also not likely. The only conclusion I can reach is that Kiarostami has broken a rule of narrative, and made his characters change identity halfway through the film. The literal-minded will struggle with "wait a minute, I thought that..." but to fully grasp the enormity of this film's impact one must resist, and let it go. Kiarostami is coloring outside the lines, and in doing so has made a film that lasts long after the closing credits.

In some ways it reminds me of Michael Haneke's Cache (also starring Binoche), which also had an unsolvable mystery. There's even a hint of Vertigo, which also played with identity, and had some mysteries of its own. Others have compared it to L'Avventura, which also breaks basic rules of narrative.

I suppose the biggest clue is the title itself. If you think about it, "certified copy," though a legal term, is an oxymoron. If it's a copy, how can it be certified? Again, the word "duplicate" is never used--we are not talking about Xerox copies, or reproductions of a photographic negative. We are talking about representations of a thing that are not that thing, but close. For example, Binoche speaks of her sister (a sibling is something of a copy of one's self), who says that a good copy is better than the original, and cites a gas-burning fireplace instead of a wood fire--you just turn the switch on it and it flames up. Another example I can think of is margarine instead of butter--many people (including me) are so inured to the taste of the copy that the real thing tastes too strong.

But the key example is Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Can. A soup can, on its own, is not a work of art, but if you paint one and stick it in a museum people are forced to view it in a new light, and the perception itself is what makes it art. Perhaps this is what Certified Copy is--its a sum of the perception of the viewer's reaction to the switch in the characters' relationship. I just don't know.

I will say that the film is just about perfect. Binoche, as usual, is luminously magnificent, while Shimell, an opera singer, is amazingly self-assured in his debut role. Kiarostami's camera is always in the right spot, and makes excellent use of close-ups, particularly of both principles when are staring into a mirror. There's a wonderful shot of Shimell sitting outside the sanctuary of the church where he and Binoche might have been married. A golden tree is inside, which villagers think of as good luck for their marriages. He is asked to come inside to take a picture with a bride and groom, but resists, but Kiarostami shows the tree in deep focus in the background, with Shimell almost being spiritually tugged to leave the foreground. Finally, the bride emerges and pulls him back.

Certified Copy is a fine film, and a perfect one to argue over coffee and pie after the show.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is another example of how television has now outshone the movies in its ability to present the growth and development of characters that had heretofore been only possible in novels. I'm not ready to say that long-form television has entirely eclipsed the movies, but it's getting there.

This series, which premiered to general acclaim in 2010, is not a new idea. Those old enough will remember Upstairs, Downstairs from the 1970s, and even Downton Abbey's creator, Julian Fellowes, has done this already with the Robert Altman film Gosford Park. Simply put, it's an examination of a particular era of England through two lenses: the aristocracy and their servants.

Centered around a fictional estate in Yorkshire (but the house utilized is real, and spectacular), the comings and goings and ups and downs of the Crawley family are really a very high-toned soap opera, but to call something a soap opera is not necessarily a pejorative. It all depends on how well the characters are created and how the plot hums along--bad soap operas, with characters resurrected from the dead or previously unknown twins are garbage, but stuff like Downton Abbey is gold.

I think what makes Downton Abbey works so well is its humanity. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, (Hugh Bonneville) is basically a very good man, and we root for him right away. The servants, for the most part, are a family to themselves, managed sternly but humanely by the head butler, Carson (Jim Carter) and the head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). There are a couple of bad apples that provide the conflict, but there's a sense that everything will turn out all right, and that, as the quote by Martin Luther King goes, "the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Though there are definitely class distinctions, there is a palpable feeling of affection between the two groups. Carter, who is revealed to have an embarrassing background as a vaudevillian, really cares about the family. The maids and footmen see their employers as something of a soap opera themselves--they follow them like today's middle-class follows the Kardashians. The aristocrats can't help but feel paternally toward their employees. They are reluctant to get rid of them, and, when a cook is discovered to have cataracts, see to it that she receives the best health care money can buy. It gives one a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

The series starts with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. On board is the heir and son of Crawley. This presents a problem, as Crawley has only daughters, so his estate, as arranged by his dead father, will go to the next male relative, a third cousin, Matthew, who turns out to be a middle-class lawyer from Manchester (Dan Stevens). He and his mother (Penelope Wilton) come to Downton to learn the ropes, and there is tension at first. Crawley's mother, the indefatigable Maggie Smith, wants the arrangement broken, so that Crawley's eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), can inherit the estate. If Mary were to marry Matthew, that would solve everything, but the two get off on the wrong foot. We then have one of those long, slowly evolving romances.

Among the servants, the conflict is provided by Crawley's new valet, Bates (Brendan Coyle), a lame man. He is almost fired, but since he served in the Boer War with Crawley, the lord and master can't bear to cast him out. This inspires the ire of the footman passed over for the promotion, Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a nasty and vindictive sort, who conspires with the dragonish lady's maid (Siobhan Finneran) to get Bates fired at any cost. But the head maid, Anna, Louise Froggat, falls in love with Bates, who is presented as a man with the utmost integrity, and two battle with the baddies.
 

There are many more characters. The other two Crawley daughters are the plain Edith (Laura Carmichael), who out of envy does her best to ruin her sister Mary, and the youngest, Sibyl (Jessica Brown Findlay) who gets caught up in the woman's suffrage movement. There is a lot of humor between Smith, as the representative of the fading era, and Wilton, who only wants to do good. But even Smith's character has a heart, as evidenced by an episode when she allows a townsman to win the best flower contest. She's delightful television--a character that is all bark with no bite.

Also a delightful presence is Elizabeth McGovern, as Crawley's American wife. They married for financial reasons (she brought with her a fortune from New York) but settled into a comfortable love affair. McGovern is an actress I've admired (and crushed on) since she was in Ordinary People over thirty years ago. I once got her autograph waiting by the stage door after a play and was astounded to find Sean Penn with her (they were dating at the time), and I ended up talking to Sean Penn rather than her (in retrospect, I'm lucky he didn't punch me). Since her Oscar-nominated turn in Ragtime, her career has been kind of ragged, and I'm glad to see that in her fifties she's achieving some late but well-deserved acclaim.

This season of Downton Abbey ends with the announcement, in 1914, that England has declared war on Germany. I'm eager to see what happens next.

 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood

This quiet, understated film from Joshua Marston, an American, is spoken completely in Albanian, so no one can accuse Marston of going Hollywood after Maria, Full of Grace. It effectively deals with the medieval traditions doggedly sticking in the modern day--what can be more visually interesting than a horse-drawn bread wagon manned by a person with a mobile phone?

The opening shot, with a stone house in the rear and a field in the foreground, looks like a painting that should be hanging in the Met. Just out of the corner of our eye we see that wagon making its way across an access road. The men in the wagon, a father and his son, must move stones to allow the horse to pass.

We later learn that the owner of that land is none too pleased about his road being used as a shortcut. This trivial beef will lead to violence, and the viewer will learn that there are rules when it comes to blood feuds--they're even written down, in something called the Kanun. What this means is that the father of the bread wagon family (Refet Abazi) will go into hiding. His son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj) must show respect by not leaving the house, and his younger sister (Sindi Lacej) takes over the bread business, because it is unthinkable that a girl would be threatened in a feud.

Marston has a great cinematic theme here--the rules of a feud seem so antediluvian, but there we are, in a time where kids play video games and play with smartphones, when a family's elders will gather to decide what to do. Nik, a 17-year-old boy who misses his friends at school and deep-down realizes how stupid this all this, chafes at authority. He wants to bring in a professional mediator, but is shot down. He slips out at night to see his burgeoning romantic interest, and finally realizes that if his father were in jail, the family would be free to live their lives.

There's a lot of drama in this situation, but Marston plays it cool, maybe even too cool. There are some tense scenes when Abazi gets the idea that Halilaj may have sold him out. Lacej, a fine young actress, presents stoic courage as she goes about the family business, even adding cigarettes to the inventory. But I found the film so aloof that it didn't resonate as much as it could have. It was interesting, but lacked emotional depth.

My grade for The Forgiveness of Blood: B.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

This film has nothing in common with Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel except the title, and that's too bad. The novel is a potboiler, but its story is much better than this adaptation, which is brought to us by the same team that created King Kong: Merrian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, with special effects by Willis O'Brien. I suppose the idea was to ignore the laws of time and avoid the problem that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred over 40 years after the death of Christ.

That eruption is the only plot point in common with the novel. We begin with a happy blacksmith, Marcus (Preston Foster). He tells a nobleman, who admires his strength and suggests that he should become a gladiator, that he has everything he needs: a wife and a baby son. Of course, he will shortly lose them to a chariot accident, and his lack of money will cause their deaths because he cannot afford a doctor. Bitter, he will volunteer as a gladiator and make a lot of money.

Marcus still has a soft heart, though, and adopts a boy he has orphaned by killing his father in the arena. After Marcus is injured and can't fight anymore, he takes a job as a slave and horse trader, and will travel to Judea. He meets Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), who will assign him on a mission that brings them both great wealth. But Marcus' adopted son, Flavius, is injured in a horseback riding accident. With nowhere else to turn, he travels to see a healer passing through town. We don't see him, but we can guess who he is, and Flavius is fully restored.

But Marcus is still greedy, and does nothing while the healer is crucified. Interestingly, Rathbone's Pilate is shown in a sympathetic light--he condemns Jesus, but feels bad about it. Later, when Flavius is a young man, he will help Christians escape from slavery, and ends up captured and sentenced to die in the arena, and Marcus, who now runs the arena, is powerless to stop him from being executed. Then the volcano blows.

The condensation of time is, of course, necessary in order to make Jesus an actual character in the story. Bulwer-Lytton simply used Christians, but Cooper and Shoedsack wanted an actual tale of the Christ. This makes the film fine for a Sunday school crowd, but a lousy representation of history, and an even worse movie. The acting by Foster is mediocre, the script laughably bad.

I imagine Cooper chose this subject as a way to further the special effects that he and O'Brien had used for King Kong, but it comes off awfully bad here, with some painfully obvious rear projection and backdrop paintings. As exciting and revolutionary as King Kong was, The Last Days of Pompeii is the opposite.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Blunderbuss

Jack White has been a major player on the music scene for years now, as a musician and creative genius behind The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather, and as a producer for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, among others, but Blunderbuss is his first solo album. As such, it is perfectly acceptable, but a little bit of a let-down.

Most of the record is a pastiche of old shit-kicking blues, especially in the early cuts: "Missing Pieces," "Sixteen Saltines," "Freedom at 21," and "Love Interruption." The music is pared down and reminiscent of honky-tonks and the bayou, and certainly influenced by the place it was recorded, Nashville.

This sound reaches its zenith in White's cover of a Rudy Toombs song, "I'm Shakin'," which has a killer guitar lick and makes best use of White's unusual, yowling vocal style. When he says "I'm nervous," it comes out, "I'm noivus."

The album doesn't hit the heights of greatness though, until the last few cuts. It's as if White put aside his love of old-time music and got down to business. There really isn't a White "sound"--he's really a dabbler--but the ethereally beautiful "On and On and On" and then the mini-epic "Take Me With You When You Go," which has a Beatlesque quality, comes closest to defining what White can do. The title track is also quite lovely.

Lyrically, the album drips with venom. It's no coincidence that a vulture perches on White's shoulder on the cover, but these songs are about love gone wrong. Most pointedly, listen to the verses of "Love Interruption." I'll just start with the first and mildest: "I want love to roll me over slowly and stick a knife inside me and twist it all around." This album is ideal for listening to in the dark, post-breakup.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shame

Maybe it's because I've recently seen two versions of Alfie, but after seeing Shame I couldn't help but think, "What's it all about?" It's protagonist is something like Alfie, in that he's constantly on the lookout for sex, but Michael Fassbender of Shame seems to view it like eating or breathing, without any of the inherent pleasures that go with it.

I had heard that this film was about a sex addict, but it's not, not really. True sex addicts can hardly leave the house. They will be watching Internet porn so much that they can't hold a job or a relationship. Brendan, played by Fassbender, does like to masturbate a lot, and he keeps porn on his work computer (which is pretty stupid, considering he's got a laptop at home), but otherwise seems like a functioning member of society. Sure, he follows women off of the subway, hires escorts, and if there's nowhere else to turn, will even go into a gay club (any port in a storm). But I don't think he's clinically an addict--he's just got some seriously fucked up priorities.

The director and co-writer, Steve McQueen (the script was co-written by Abi Morgan) might be trying to tell us the modern peril of a man who can't make connections, and therefore disappears into anonymous sex, except that's nowhere near original and Fassbender is too stoic for us to understand anything about what makes him tick. Through most of the movie he's the great stone face, his eyes barely recognizing anyone around him. I think Fassbender is a fine actor, but for those who think he was robbed out of an Academy Award nomination, you're nuts. All of the five men who were nominated present much more compelling characters than Fassbender did. I don't blame him--I blame McQueen.

The conflict that arises in Fassbender's life is the arrival of his younger sister (Carey Mulligan). They have what could be charitably called a strange relationship. He finds her in his shower, and she makes no effort to cover up (both characters, in fact, are introduced while completely naked--McQueen shows off Fassbender's member as if it were an important plot point, and I guess it is). Mulligan, a fuck up, is a singer who has a gig in New York. She turns out to perform in a classy supper club, but only does one number ("New York, New York") and McQueen allows the camera to linger on her in closeup. I was reminded of Woody Allen's similar tribute to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, when she sings "Seems Like Old Times."

This is appropriate, because Mulligan steals the movie. Her presence is the only thing alive on screen, as Fassbender, like a walking dead man, has one meaningless sexual encounter after another. He goes out on a date with a co-worker, and the two hit if off, but he can't get it up, presumably because he actually likes her. So he calls a hooker, whom he bangs against the floor-to-ceiling glass of his hotel room.

McQueen directs as if this were somehow a great statement about something or other. Fassbender and Mulligan have a long scene that is shot in one take by a stationary camera, with a cartoon on a television set in the background. An interesting choice, but one that calls attention to itself. He also has Fassbender a collector of vinyl records, which is either an anachronism or some kind of statement, but I'm not sure which.

I was interested that during the early scenes of the movie, when Mulligan leaves messages on Fassbender's answering machine (another anachronism) she repeats, "Pick up, pick up." Fassbender will not, though "picking up" is what he seems to do best. For single guys, here's a tip--notice what color a girl's eyes are. Looking like Michael Fassbender wouldn't hurt, either.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Time Machine

Published in 1895, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was one of, if not the first, popular science-fiction novels to deal with the concept of time travel, which is something that is almost too common today. I've seen both of the film adaptations of it, but this is my first time reading the source material, and was interested, if not enthralled, by how it differs from the progeny it has wrought.

The Time Traveller (he is known by know other name) has a dinner party, and explains: "Any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and--Duration...There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and fourth, Time."

The Time Traveller has built a machine that can move him through time, and when next the gentlemen meet, he tells his miraculous tale. In the machine, he travels forward in time, with the sun spinning around him. He alights in the year 801,272, and finds that, "gradually, the truth dawned on me: that Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals: that my graceful children of the Upper-world were not the sole descendants of our generation, but that this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to the ages."

He speaks of the two branches of humanity that have come down to us even today: the Elois and the Morlocks. The former are small, childlike beings of little intelligence but fragile beauty. They have no technology, and he wonders how they make the make the fabrics of their clothes. The Morlocks are simian-like beings who live underground and shun the light, operating the machinery for the Elois. At first the T.T. believes that it is a master-slave relationship, but then, after exploring the Morlock tunnels and finding that the Morlocks eat the Eloi, he sees it as a rancher-livestock relationship, a truly symbiotic one that serves both peoples.

Given Wells' socialist views, The Time Machine can be seen as a parable for the time he lived in. Just as George Orwell's novel was called 1948 before he changed it to 1984, so to must Wells have reflecting the age he lived in, when the upper-class were largely twits while the downtrodden masses made everything for them. The only difference was that the working class had not yet decided to eat the benefactors of their labor. What then, are we to make of the T.T.'s repugnance at them, while he has a fondness for the Eloi (he saves the life of a female, called Weena, and they have a sort of half-hearted romance). Is the T.T. just another Eloi, or is Wells recognizing the plight of the modern-day Morlock while still uncomfortable with having anything to do with them?

After escaping the clutches of the Morlocks, the Time Traveller moves 30 million years forward, and sees the sun ebbing. The only living things are large crab-like creatures, so he moves forward even more: "The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives--that was all over."

My criticisms of the book are borne by prejudice of all the time travel literature and film that have come since. Coincidentally, I am reading a very good novel by Stephen King, 11/22/63, that fully utilizes his imagination when it comes to the concept. The film versions have the luxury of time--in the 1960 George Pal version, the Time Traveller is able to see World War II, which of course Wells had no idea was coming (although he would later predict it). If I were in a time machine, I might be tempted to visit the past first, or at least stop long before 800,000 years in the future. The film versions have padded the story (which is only about 100 pages) with visits to other civilizations. But then again, I suppose Wells was more interested in commenting on 1895 than he was 802,271.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Alfie (2004)

The remake of Alfie from 2004, directed by champion of the middlebrow Charles Shyer, is not very good, but a good lecture could be written about the differences between this film and the original. You could tailor this lecture to women's studies, men's studies, sociology or psychology courses. Suffice it to say, ladies, you've come a long way, baby.

This Alfie is still a ladies' man, a cad of sorts, this time played by Jude Law. But this Alfie is much softer around the edges. Shyer reproduces the gimmick of having Alfie talk to the camera, but you don't see the glint of a predator in his eye that Michael Caine had. Law plays him as cuddly, which I guess is a sign of the times.

Most of the plot follows the first film, but aside from Alfie being more lovable, the women are treated much more differently. As I wrote about the 1966 film, the women in that film were treated as almost subhuman, doormats of a most unpleasant nature. Here the women are much more assertive, and use Alfie almost as much as he uses them.

The most glaring example is Marisa Tomei, who replaces Julie Foster as Alfie's "stand-by." Only this time, Tomei doesn't play a woman who has a pathological attraction to Alfie, and won't tolerate philandering. Instead of Alfie knocking her up, she's already a single mother, and has no problem giving him the boot.

The character based on the hitchhiker played by Jane Asher is now Sienna Miller, who instead of becoming Alfie's scrubwoman is now a manic depressive. Alfie gives her the heave-ho, not because she's domesticating him, but because he can't stand her moods.

And Susan Sarandon is the stand-in for Shelley Winters' cougar. This sequence is very similar to the first film, in that she's an older woman that Alfie finds in remarkable condition and decides he wants to settle down with, but finds a younger man in her bed.

As for Alfie cuckolding a friend, he does that here, too. Omar Epps plays Alfie's co-worker (they're chauffeurs), with whom he plans to buy their limousine company. But he sleeps with Epps' girlfriend (Nia Long), and as in the first film, an abortion is planned. But attitudes about abortion have changed that scene, which in the original was sinister, to something matter-of-fact.

Shyer, who specializes in bland family movies like Father of the Bride and Baby Boom, takes a subject that was certainly not fit for families and neuters it. There's some adult situations, and Miller shows off her boobs. But the film has no edge, and Law's pain is not that interesting. He gets an older adult man to confide in, played by Dick Latessa (this part seemed to have a cameo by Caine written all over it, I wonder why he's not in it, since I don't think Michael Caine turns down anything). Frankly, and almost unbelievably, Shyer has made Alfie a bore.

I was also surprised to see it set in New York City, though Alfie is still English. In the extras, the production designer explains that in today's England, it would all seemed "gratuitous," whatever that means. Is she saying that men in England are now all gentlemen, but in New York it's still possible to be a shit? I don't know about the former, but I'll say she's right in the latter.

Alfie's final speech is lifted almost verbatim from the original, but is not followed by the famous song. Instead we get a forgettable number from Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart. What an outrage!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Heartstone

Mystery novels have a sub-genre known as historical mysteries, set in almost every time period you can think of. Author C.J. Sansom has a series set in Tudor England, featuring a hunchbacked and altruistic lawyer named Matthew Shardlake. His latest in the series is Heartstone, which, like many such mysteries, has an abundance of research that sometimes overwhelms the plot.

The year is 1545, and Henry VIII, now in his last years of rule, threatens war against the French, who sent an invasion fleet toward Portsmouth. During this tension Shardlake is called in by the Queen (Catherine Parr, the last of Henry's six wives) to take a case concerning her former lady-in-waiting's son. The man was a tutor to a pair of children who became orphans, and then became wards to a landowner. The tutor hung himself, and Shardlake and his clerk, Jack Barack, try to get to the bottom of it.

As usual in mysteries, there is a second plot, this time involving a woman Shardlake visits in Bedlam, the insane asylum. He wonders how she got there in the first place, and finding no commitment papers, tries to get to the bottom of that, too. Also as usual, the two cases will be connected.

Shardlake, though hundreds of years older than most sleuths, has many of the same attributes. Aside from being a hunchback, he is also a classic do-gooder, working for the Court of Requests, almost always representing plaintiffs against landowners. In this book he takes on the Court of Wards, which apparently was notoriously corrupt. He says of himself, "When we get back it is time I made a life for myself, instead of living through other people's tragedies. I realized that was what I had been doing for years: there had been so many, brought by the wild changes and conflicts the King had forced on England, perhaps it was my response to the wider madness."

Sansom, in this book at least, is no friend of Henry's. In the afterword he calls Henry's campaign against the French his worst diplomatic mistake. But it allows Shardlake to see first hand the battle around the Isle of Wight, and Sansom has managed to put his lawyer aboard the ill-fated Mary Rose, which was sunk by the French. The passages involving the sinking and Shardlake's rescue are well done and exciting.

It also is instructive to find out how difficult basic things were to people in those days, especially travel. Shardlake and is opposing lawyer, Dyrick, must travel to take depositions, and even while traveling with soldiers, it takes them a week in what would today take a few hours. It is here that some details overwhelm Sansom's prose: "You may have noticed some soldiers have buttons on their shirts, while others tie them with anglets. Sir Franklin believes only gentlemen should be allowed to wear buttons. It is, shall we say, something of an obsession." And it may be interesting to those who follow the history of military uniforms, but is simply superfluous here.

But though Heartstone (the title refers to a hunting term--the piece of bone that is closest to a deer's heart and is taken as trophy by the hunter whose shot brings it down)  is an overly long novel (over 600 pages) I finally came around to enjoying it, and did not figure out the central mystery. Sansom's prose is effortless and I felt the stink and heat of Tudor England. Anyone with an abiding interest in that time period would enjoy this book and probably the others in the series, which I have not read.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Room in Rome

As one might guess from the poster, Room in Rome has lots of nudity. I would safely estimate that the two actresses spend 95 percent of their time in the film naked, so I hope the set was kept nice and toasty warm. I sought out the film from Netflix for obvious reasons, but I must admit the film is better than it has any right to be.

Written and directed by Julio Medem, Room in Rome is basically a two-character drama that takes place entirely in a hotel room in Rome and the street immediately below it. Two women, one from Spain (Elana Anaya) and one from Russia (Natasha Yarovenko), are both spending their last night in the Eternal City.

Something sparks between them, and Anaya, who is a lesbian, urges Yarovenko to come back to her room with her. Yarovenko says she's never done anything like this before, but gets into bed naked with her new friend. She slips out, but forgets her cell phone, and has to come back, and the two spend the night having sex and swapping stories, some true, some not. They fall in love, but will each leave their respective partners?

Outwardly this would appear to be soft-core porn, but it really isn't. Yes, the two are naked, and gloriously so, but the sex is no more explicit that most films (albeit lesbian sex isn't all that common in mainstream films). The two actresses are more committed to it than, say, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards were in Wild Things. But aside from the viewing pleasure for men, the script does offer some substance, and the acting is pretty good (Anaya is a veteran of Almodovar films). The women are portrayed as complicated characters, particularly in the way they obfuscate the truth. Was Anaya really part of an Arabian harem? Does Yarovenko have a twin sister, and if so, which one is she, the actress or the tennis player?

I also found it interesting that the film is right up to date with technology--the two are able to look at each other's house via Google Earth, which certainly makes instant hook-ups a little more interesting. Modem also makes exquisite use of the hotel room, which is adorned with Renaissance art and all sorts of nooks and crannies. His composition, both of the beautiful women and the decor, is exquisite.

So, if you're looking to watch a movie that might titillate sexually as well as satisfy the cinematically, Room in Rome is not a bad choice.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Murder, My Sweet

One of the key characters in film noir is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's cynical private eye. Many actors have played the role, including Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner. But the first to play the role was the most unlikely: Dick Powell, who starred as Marlowe in the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet.

The film was based on Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell was known as a song and dance man, starring in light-hearted musicals. He wanted to stretch his range, and managed to get the part of Chandler's tough talking gumshoe. He impressed Chandler greatly, though the great writer would end up saying Bogart was the definitive Marlowe. The title had to be changed, though, because the combo of Farewell, My Lovely and Dick Powell made it sound like yet another musical comedy.

The film is noir, by the book. We start with Marlowe being questioned by the police, his eyes bandaged. He tells the cops the story, which starts with a large, dimwitted man, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) barging into his office. It seems Moose is just out of the stir, and is looking for his old flame, Velma. Marlowe tells him to beat it, but two twenties changes his mind, and he takes the case.

Later, a dandy named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) wants Marlowe to accompany him. He's buying back stolen jewelry, and again, Marlowe takes the case because "my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck." Marlowe and Marriott drive out to the middle of nowhere, Marlowe gets knocked out with a sap, and Marriott is murdered.

As is classic with mysteries, the two cases become intertwined. Marlowe stumbles upon a stolen jade necklace mystery, involving an old man and his gold-digging wife (Claire Trevor), and the man's sweet daughter (Anne Shirley). Marlowe says of the daughter, "She's got a face like a Sunday school picnic." Marlowe will get in clinches with both women, but it's Trevor who will be the femme fatale, eventually pointing a gun at him.

All the private eye tropes are here: Marlowe gets knocked out repeatedly, even drugged into a hallucinatory state: "'Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.'" He is presented with a choice of two women, one voluptuous and deadly, one innocent but not quite as exciting. The character of Moose, with diction right out of Damon Runyan, is a man mountain, and Marriott, along with quack pyschologist Jules Amphor (Otto Kruger), represent the urbane, effeminate villain that Chandler frequently employed.

And then there's all the great lines, most of them similes. After awakening from being unconscious: "I felt like an amputated leg." Of a woman of a certain age:  "She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle" Of that creepy feeling of being watched: "I was a toad on a rock, and a snake was looking at the back of my neck." Even the otherwise obtuse Moose has a few good similes, such as "she was cute as lace pants."

Murder, My Sweet, directed with perfect style by Edward Dmytryk is classic noir, and stands the test of time. Of the Chandler adaptations, it's not quite as good as The Big Sleep, but I count it a little better than the Farewell, My Lovely starring Robert Mitchum. But I need to see that one again.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Last Days of Pompeii

Once wildly popular, Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now best know for a couple of his quotes. One is "the pen is mightier than the sword," which is often used; the other is the opening to his novel Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night," which was later used by Charles Schulz in Peanuts, with Snoopy's attempts at writing a novel always starting with that line.

In 1834 Bulwer-Lytton published The Last Days of Pompeii, a potboiler about the days leading up the August 14, 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. He has a network of characters, heroes and villains, that get into tight spots, but all goes poof when the mountain erupts and the town is buried in ash.

The main characters are Glaucus, an Athenian, who is in love with the beautiful Ione. But she is also loved by the Egyptian Arbaces, who turns out to a mustache-twirling villain: "'Then hear me,' said Arbaces, sinking his voice into a whisper; 'thou shalt go to thy tomb rather than to his arm! What! thinkest thou Arbaces will brook a rival such as this puny Greek? What! thinkest thou that he has watched the fruit ripen, to yield it to another! Pretty fool--no! Thou are mine--all--only mine: and thus--thus I seize and claim thee!'" Other key characters are the blind slave girl, Nydia, who falls in love with Glaucus, who is good to her, but in her jealousy ends up getting him sentenced to the arena to be eaten by a lion. Along with him is Olinthus, the Christian, who is the bright ray of sunshine in this pagan world: "They regarded the Christian as the enemy of mankind; the epithets they lavished upon him, of which 'Atheist' was the most favored and frequent, may serve, perhaps, to warn us, believers of the same creed now triumphant, how we indulge the persecution of opinion Olinthus then underwent, and how we apply to those whose notions differ from our own terms at that day lavished upon the fathers of our faith." Bulwer-Lytton was ahead of his time on religious tolerance.

The novel has a serial quality, with episodes rather than a thorough plot. There is also a lot of purple prose, some of it for pages and pages, that don't seem to have much to do with anything. I slowed down when actual events were taking place, but there is a ton of filler, perhaps to satisfy Bulwer-Lytton's attention to his research.

"Pompeii was the miniature of the civilization of that age. Within the narrow compass of its walls was contained, as it were, a specimen of every gift which luxury offered to power. In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theatre, its circus--in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire." Of course, this is true given that the ruins of Pompeii, which were discovered in the 1700s, was the best chance to see Roman civilization as it was, untouched for two-thousand years.

The last few chapters are a real page turner. Arbaces has framed Glaucus for a murder he himself committed. Glaucus is about to enter the arena to be eaten by a lion. Will Nydia's letter to Glaucus' friend, exonerating him, be read in time? Of course, there's also the impending volcanic eruption, that only we know about. Bulwer-Lytton provides some striking details in the last few pages: "The lion had been kept without food for twenty-four hours, and the animal had, during the whole morning, testified a singular and restless uneasiness, which the keeper had attributed to the pangs of hunger. Yet is bearing seemed rather that of fear than of rage; its roar was painful and distressed; it hung its head--snuffed the air through the bars--then lay down--started again--and again uttered its wild and far-resounding cries." It's a kind of genius to shift the point of view to the lion at that point, but then we learn why--the lion, once released, will ignore exposed Glaucus, an innocent man, leading the mob to cry out for justice.

Then, when the volcano erupts: "The eyes of the crowd followed the gesture of the Egyptian, and beheld, with ineffable dismay, a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius, in the form of a gigantic pine-tree; the trunk, blackness--the branches, fire!--a fire that shifted and wavered in its hues with every moment, now fiercely luminous, now of a dull and dying red, that again blazed terrifically forth with intolerable glare!"

Bulwer-Lytton will then go on to the obvious--those engaged in looting and larceny will end up buried in ash, alongside the good--you can't take it with you! A few will escape to the sea. But he sums up the notion of time nicely here: "Nearly Seventeen Centuries had rolled away when the City of Pompeii was disinterred from its silent tomb, all vivid with undimmed hues; its walls fresh as if painted yesterday--not a hue faded on the rich mosaic of its floors--in its forum the half-finished columns as left by the workman's hand--in its gardens the sacrificial tripod--in its halls the chest of treasure--in its baths the strigil--in its theaters the counter of admission--in its saloons the furniture and the lamp--in its triclinia the fragments of the last feast--in its cubicula the perfumes and the rouge of faded beauty--and everywhere the bones and skeletons of those who once moved the the springs of that minute yet gorgeous machine of luxury and of life!"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dark Shadows

Count me among the baby boomers who rushed home to my TV set every weekday after school during the late '60s and early '70s to tune into the weirdest soap opera ever aired, Dark Shadows. Originally created as yet another soap opera for women, albeit with Gothic overtones, the show quickly became a favorite of young boys, those of us who liked to read Famous Monsters magazine and stay up late to see Zacherle on Chiller Theater. This happened when a supernatural element was added to the show--namely, a 200-year-old vampire named Barnabus Collins.

The show went to to feature almost everything in the horror lexicon: ghosts, witches, werewolves, even alternate dimensions. In the early '80s it was rerun from the beginning, and it was unwatchable, totally given to the arrival of young Victoria Winters a governess at the palatial and spooky home of Collinwood. If you ever get the DVDs, skip to the episodes in the 200s, when Barnabus arrives.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, who have now made nine movies together, were both Dark Shadows devotees, and have made an affectionate but unfocused film in tribute to those more innocent days. Burton, perhaps highly aware that it isn't easy to scare kids any more, has turned his tribute into a comedy that won't frighten any one except very small children. Barnabus, played by Depp, is a cuddly figure, much like Captain Jack Sparrow, and the fact that he kills several people to drink their blood is easily forgiven. After all, he does apologize for it.

As with the show, the setting is Collinsport, Maine. We get a prologue how young Barnabus was in love with Josette. A servant and vengeful witch, Angelique (Eva Green) curses the Collins family, killing his family, luring Josette to leap to her death off a cliff, and turning Barnabus into a vampire. He's captured by a mob and chained into a coffin and buried.

Flash forward to 1972, when the Collins family is down on their luck, and Collinwood is largely a ruin. The family is led by the resolute Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who lives with her shady brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), daughter Caroline (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Miller's son David (Gulliver McGrath). David's mother drowned, and he says he speaks to her, and thus an in-house psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) has been living with the family.

Barnabus is freed from his prison by an unsuspecting construction crew, and much of the film becomes a fish out of water tale, or an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. He is confused by many things, including television, and takes the McDonald's golden arches for the sign of Mephistopheles (he may be right about that). More vexing is that the seemingly immortal Angelique is still alive, and has a thriving seafood business going that has driven the Collins family out of business. I believe few who went to see this movie expected one about a seafood business rivalry.

Rounding out the plot is Winters (Bella Heathcote), who has a secret of her own, and bears a striking resemblance to Barnabus' lost love Josette (both are played by Heathcote).  It seems that Victoria has been visited by Josette's ghost since early childhood.

Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) are wise to set the film in 1972, as the cultural markers--Scooby Doo, troll dolls, lava lamps, the Operation board game--are linked to the time period in which the show existed. This makes it Proustian for people of my age, but I wonder how many under-30s look on in bewilderment. They have no idea what this show meant, and how fucking scary it was to the 10-year-old and under set. The opening credits are set to the Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin," which is okay, I guess, but I wish they would have used the spooky theme music of the TV show, which even now I can remember playing as the opening credits showed waves crashing against the rocky shore in front of Collinwood.

All that being said, Dark Shadows is an amusing diversion. As with all of Burton's films, it overwhelms with details (one commenter on a movie blog says Burton is really just a great art director). Collinwood, inside and out, is a wonder, and the period costumes are a delight. The performers give their all, particularly Depp, who strives mightily to hold the whole thing together.

But there are too many plot threads. Miller's character is superfluous, and there's an eleventh-hour plot twist involving Moretz that comes out of nowhere. There's also a rather silly sex scene between Depp and Green that has them destroy an office. It gets a laugh, but it's pretty dumb and unnecessary.

My grade for Dark Shadows: B-.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Alfie (1966)

Alfie is an iconic film of the flourishing of British cinema during the 1960s, and was Michael Caine's star-making role (and his first Oscar nomination). I had never seen it before, and was surprised at how difficult it was to get involved in, as Alfie, to be sure, is not a nice guy. In fact, he's downright reprehensible, a Lothario who cares nothing about himself, and as we wait for him to have some kind of epiphany we realize that the women's movement was absolutely necessary.

Caine is the title character, a lower-middle-class bloke that takes jobs here and there but seems much more busy seducing women. He calls them birds, which is a common British slang term for girls, but more disturbingly, he refers to them as "its" rather than "shes." We first see him having it off with a married woman in a car, but he's already bored with her. Breaking the fourth wall, as he will throughout the film, he advises us, "Make a married woman laugh and you're halfway there." This won't work with single birds, he warns.

Alfie has a standby girl, one he doesn't think is very intelligent, but she's devoted to him. She's Gilda (Jane Foster), who is devoted to Alfie despite his indifference. But he has impregnated her, and a bus conductor (Graham Stark), wants to marry her. She doesn't love Stark, but respects him, and despite Alfie becoming attached to his son, in spite of himself, she moves on.

But Alfie keeps on. He picks up a hitchhiker (Jane Asher, then Paul McCartney's girlfriend), who ends up scrubbing his floors and doing his laundry and making him steak-and-kidney pie. He's also visiting a rich older American woman (Shelley Winters), who he repeatedly says is in "brilliant condition."

At one point he's sent to a sanatorium because of an infection in his lungs. He ends up seducing the wife of a co-patient, perhaps his lowest act in a series of low acts. She will become pregnant, too, and Alfie hires an abortionist (played with creepy slyness by Denholm Elliot). When Alfie sees the aborted fetus, he has an emotional response, the only one he will have in the whole movie.

So, the question becomes, is Alfie interesting enough to warrant being in his company for close to two hours. The answer is yes, barely, but mostly it's due to Caine's canny performance. We don't get obvious answers for his behavior--much of it was probably not out of character with any one of several men like him during time period. His colloquy with the audience keeps us alert, and his closing monologue, which leads into the hit song sung by Cher, is memorable: "You know what? When I look back on my little life and the birds I've known, and think of all the things they've done for me and the little I've done for them, you'd think I've had the best of it along the line. But what have I got out of it? I've got a bob or two, some decent clothes, a car, I've got me health back and I ain't attached. But I ain't got me peace of mind - and if you ain't got that, you ain't got nothing. I dunno. It seems to me if they ain't got you one way they've got you another. So what's the answer? That's what I keep asking myself - what's it all about? Know what I mean."

The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Bill Naughton, based on his play and novel. It's a good example of kitchen-sink British drama, which I will be exploring in depth over the next several weeks. I'll also take a look at the remake from 2004 to see how views of amoral hedonists has changed over the years.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

"'Remove the colon and semicolon keys from your typewriter,'" said Hemingway. 'Shun adverbs, strenuously.'" This advice is given to Daniel Quinn, a newspaperman looking for stories in Havana during the late '57. A lover of short, declarative sentences, Quinn strides up to the great writer in the Floradita and introduces himself. This will draw him into grand romantic adventure.

William Kennedy also seems to prescribe to Hemingway's advice, for Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which unites Quinn's Cuban adventure with a day of racial violence in Albany New York in 1968, writes with precision and snap. The book is about the days when newspapers were king, and reporters were heroic. Quinn's grandfather covered the Civil War, originally rode with the Fenians as they invaded Canada, and then covered a revolution in Cuba. Quinn has gone to discover his grandfather's legacy, and ends up with an interview with Fidel Castro and a wife.

Kennedy has written a number of books about Albany, including Ironweed, which I count as one of the ten best books I've ever read. Chango isn't quite on that level--it at times is a little scattered in thought, as the two stories don't fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces--but it has much to admire. The first scene is a prologue when Quinn is a boy, and his father has a black jazz pianist over. Also visiting is Bing Crosby, and they sing the song "Shine," which is a standard but is also racist, a so-called "coon" song. Later, in the Albany section of the book, the son of that pianist hates the song, but his father continues to play it, though makes it his own.

The Albany section of the book takes place on the same day that Robert Kennedy is shot. Quinn's father, now suffering from dementia, has a grand adventure, as he wanders away from the Elks Club where Quinn has installed him and ends up at the center of a race riot. Quinn and a crusading liberal priest, Matt Daugherty, who is the kind of priest I wish there were more of, is a great character, as is Tremont, the son of a legendary black numbers runner and "coon song" singer, who is set up as a patsy in an assassination plot against the mayor. Quinn and Daugherty are all over town trying to put out fires, both literally and figuratively.

In Cuba, Quinn gets involved with a duel between Hemingway and a doltish salesman who Hemingway punches in the mouth. Quinn ends up as the referee in the duel, which Hemingway handles with elan. Quinn also meets Renata, who is a lover of one of the men who leads an assault against Batista that fails completely. Quinn is immediately in love with Renata, who follows the Santeria religion and wears the beads of Chango, a Santeria deity. These beads will later save her life.

This is a meaty, man's kind of book, with punchy quotes like, "The last time I refused a drink I didn't understand the question," and "Not since grammar school when I saw myself playing the banjo in heaven. When I got older I gave up on heaven, also the banjo. I don't trust religion anymore."

The book is also about memory. Wherever Quinn's father goes during his odyssey he remembers the Albany of old. A one-time waltz champion (Quinn tells Renata that they are destined to be together because his father and her mother were waltz champions), he takes to the dance floor and all the old moves come back to him. George is full of nuggets from the past: "'Fella named Zangara shot Mayor Cernak of Chicago,' George said. 'He was aiming at FDR but he missed. He was an Italian with stomach trouble and he lost two hundred at the dog races. They gave him eighty years but when Mayor Cermak died they sizzled him in Old Sparky.'"

The book ends poignantly, with George Quinn dancing with his daughter-in-law, Renata: "He was smiling, not at her but reveling in his own artistry as he moved her with astonishing control. He is dancing me back in time, she decided, he's dead to this day but alive in history: you are dancing with a ghost, Renata." Despite the use of the colon, I think Hemingway would have liked it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

3

3, a 2011 film by Tom Tykwer, is a smart, well-made film, but somehow I felt a little let down by it. This is most likely my own fault, because I was beset by prejudices--of how the Germans can't do comedy, which made me think of that Mike Myers character from Saturday Night Live, Dieter. I'm sure this movie would have made his nipples hard.

I say this because the plot of 3 is really an old one that has been in farce for centuries, although it has been updated to the polymorphously perverse modern age. Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) have been in a long-term relationship that has started to curdle. They both meet, independently, a biologist, Adam (Devid Stiesow), who is bisexual. He then has sexual affairs with both of them, without knowing that they are a couple. If this were a French farce there'd be lots of slamming doors. In fact, there is one scene that comes close to that, when Simon and Hanna both see Adam at a museum, and both want to avoid him. The scene is comic in nature, but Tykwer gives is a kind of typical German sangfroid.

It's unfair to discuss this film for what it is not, though. It is a very good film, though a bit bloodless. Tykwer's overall theme seems to be the circle of life itself. It begins with a death--Simon's mother, and ends with new life--both in Hanna's womb and in the possibility of a different kind of relationship, one that is still not accepted in any society that I know of. It is important that Tykwer's story of a love triangle involves two men and one woman; two make it two women and one man is the stuff of adolescent fantasy, and one that is accepted in societies that permit polygamy.

Tykwer layers the film with a lot of stuff. The occupations of the principles, for instance, are fraught with meaning. Adam is a biologist working with stem cells. He has to appear before a board of ethics (presumably because stem cells involve cells from aborted babies, but I wasn't quite sure about this). Hanna, some kind of public intellectual, is on the board. Simon is an "art engineer," which would seem to be an oxymoron. His company takes the ideas of an artist and builds them, which makes it questionable if it is really the artist's work.

But 3 is more about life and death. Simon has a brush with testicular cancer, and loses one in the process. He had assumed he was infertile, as he and Hanna had never had children even without using contraception, but then he meets a nurse who was an old lover who tells him she aborted his baby. Simon has dreams about his mother's funeral, where he is following a cortege and spits out his teeth. Losing teeth is a common meme in dreams, symbolizing death and decay. Yes, this is a very German film.

I admired 3 as a work of art, but I wasn't in love with it. It has a Teutonic aloofness, never inviting the viewer to empathize with the characters. Instead, they are more like laboratory specimens, the cells that Adam looks at in a Petri dish. There is also a lot of sex in this film, something I never complain about, but here it seems gratuitous, like porn for intellectuals.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

W./E.

The most fascinating thing about W./E., sadly, is that it is one of the most famous women in the world of this era making a film about one of the most famous women of the world of another era. The film is more interesting psychologically than cinematically. That Madonna is drawn to the subject of Walls Warfield Simpson, who rocked the Western world in the mid-30s, shouldn't be a surprise. What is a surprise is that a woman who has an uncanny knack for reinventing herself would make such a dull movie.

W./E., short for Wallis and Edward, tells the story of the twice-divorced woman from Baltimore who brought down a king. Well, he brought himself down, abdicating rather than give her up. The story has been catnip to many over the years, as there are some underlying unanswered questions. Mainly, just what did he see in her that he would give up such power, and be a disappointment to so many? It has been pointed out, cruelly, that she wasn't a great beauty. Madonna's question is: what did she have?

The answer remains elusive. Though Andrea Riseborough gives a solid performance as Wallis, we know no more about her at the end of the film that we did at the beginning. We see her briefly in an abusive first marriage, in which she is beaten until miscarrying a pregnancy. Her second husband seems nice enough, but she somehow wrangles an invitation to meet the Prince of Wales, and steals him away from another married woman (how Wallis is in the upper echelon of society to be placed in such a position in the first place is unexplained). The prince is later a habitual visitor to the Warfield's, until she asks for a divorce, which Ernest Warfield quietly accedes to. But it is made clear by the Prime Minister that a marriage between the two would not be tolerated and, in what is widely regarded as a grand romantic gesture, Edward gives up the throne.

But I'm only describing half of the movie. In an ill-thought out decision, Madonna (who co-wrote the script as well as directed) contrasts Wallis' story with a contemporary woman, also named Wallis, who is obsessed with her namesake. Played by Abbie Cornish, she is in a troubled marriage to a philandering psychologist, and seeks solace by haunting the exhibition of Wallis and Edward's things before they are auctioned off at Sotheby's. Cornish makes friends with a security guard there, a  Russian emigre (Oscar Isaac), who slowly opens her up from the constant depression she's in. These scenes are intensely lugubrious, and add nothing to the story. There was plenty in the story of Wallis and Edward to make a feature, why add this dreck?

The other theme Madonna has established is that everyone says he gave up so much for her, but what did she give up? This is better expressed, and she realizes she will become the most despised woman in the world. At one point she writes that he freed himself from his prison, only to incarcerate her in his. Interestingly, in the wake of The King's Speech, which tells the story of Edward's brother and casts Edward in an unflattering light, here we get the opposite. The few scenes featuring George cast him as a stammering ninny, while pointedly showing his wife, the future Queen Mother, as a gossiping shrew (played by Natalie Dormer, who played another queen, Anne Boleyn, in The Tudors). Madonna goes to great lengths to show that the stories about Edward being a Nazi sympathizer weren't necessarily true, but she is unconvincing, given the historical evidence, and the possibility that Edward marrying Wallis was actually hoped for, as it would get him out of the way as the world was coming to a boil.

Though there are some interesting stylistic flourishes, such as having Wallis anachronistically dance to a Sex Pistols song, the movie is a slog. James D'Arcy, who plays Edward, is charmless. I liked the cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski and the music by Abel Korzeniowski, but otherwise there's not to much recommend here. The costumes, by Arianne Phillips, received an Oscar nomination, but frankly, when it comes to period costume dramas, I can't tell if one movie is better than another.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Avengers

I think The Avengers best replicates the experience of being a kid and reading a comic book. And I mean comic book--the kind that sold for 25 cents and ads for X-ray specs and sea monkeys in the back, not the more seriously considered graphic novels that are for adults. The Avengers is for kids, and the kid within us.

The key to the success of this film is Joss Whedon's script, which is based on a story by he and Zak Penn. Even with six heroes (plus their leader, Nick Fury), Whedon manages to give each of them a story arc and a good scene or two or three. He even manages to give the formerly forever in the background character Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) some scenes to steal. While The Avengers may not have the gravitas of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

It helps if you've seen the films leading up to it (as they have been teased in post-credit scenes for years now). Loki, Thor's brother back up in Asgard (Thor points out that Loki is adopted) has used a glowing blue cube (that was seen in Captain America) to open a portal to another world. He has recruited an army to come down and destroy the Earth. All of this makes little sense, but it's perfectly in keeping with the comic books I used to read. Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, finally cashing in on all those cameos from the other movies) pulls together "Earth's mightiest heroes," that includes Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), plus a couple of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Johansson then tracks down Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) doctoring the poor in India. For those who don't remember, Banner has an anger management problem.

The first half-hour or so is slow going, as we get all these introductions. But when the group is finally together things kick in. First we get a lot of internecine squabbling, which among these folks can involve knocking down trees. We get a nice fight between Iron Man vs. Thor, and later Black Widow and Hawkeye will go toe to toe (Hawkeye falls under Loki's spell). But everybody learns to play nice when ugly aliens start descending on New York City, leading to some pretty massive destruction. I'm still a little queasy about seeing buildings in New York blown up, and also wonder about how busy claims adjusters will be.

The pleasures of this film are many. The dialogue, as usual for old-style comic book movies, is full of witticisms, often even while people are slugging it out. Iron Man, of course, has most of the zingers, but Banner also has some great lines, and Ruffalo, in a mild-mannered yet simmering sort of way, is the first actor that makes the Hulk work (again, Whedon deserves much of the credit). Johansson also gives the Black Widow some life, giving hints of a backstory. I wouldn't suggest she deserves her own movie, but I would like to see more of the character. Only Renner seems a little short-changed, but after all, he only shoots arrows.

The biggest surprise is probably Clark Gregg and Coulson. He has a few great scenes, including asking Captain America to sign his vintage Captain America trading cards, and then, in a face-off against Loki, tells the demigod, "You will lose. It's in your nature." Less interesting is Fury's aid, played by Cobie Smulders. But maybe we'll learn more about her. Her deal is to appear in nine films.

Speaking of which, we get another tease mid-credits for either a sequel or maybe to Thor 2, which is the next marvel film coming. I won't say who the villain is that is revealed, but suffice it to say I read Marvel Comics for years and I didn't know who he was until I Googled him.

Whedon, for a guy who has worked mostly in TV, also handles the massive action scenes well. In the climactic battle, there's a lot to keep track of, but I never was disoriented or lost. A lot of the credit should go to editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek. Whedon also injects the film with a sense of wonderment. A small boy sitting in front of me perked up when Iron Man first appeared. "That's Iron Man!" he told his dad. Later, when it looks like Iron Man is down for the count, he is revived (in a humorous fashion), and father and son shared a laugh together. That's the kind of movie this is.

Seeing this film, which cost a quarter of a million, rake in dough, keeps my hope alive that one day the most expensive film ever made may come to fruition: Marvel's Secret Wars, which was a 12-issue series back in the 80s that saw The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spider-Man, plus a gaggle of Marvel's greatest villains all battling it out. It would be awesome.

My grade for The Avengers: A-.