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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Two in the Wave

This post kicks off a retrospective of the work of Francois Truffaut. I have written about his debut film, The 400 Blows, and now I will undertake to see the rest of his work, or what's available on DVD. Some of them I have seen before, some not.

Two in the Wave is a 2010 documentary by Emmanuel Laurent on the relationship between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, two of the major directors of the French New Wave, that explosion of filmmaking in France in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The two were rivals, but also close friends and colleagues, until they irrevocably broke and became enemies.

The film is not terribly probing. It covers Truffaut's glory with The 400 Blows at Cannes in 1959, while Godard was stewing back in Paris. But Truffaut gave Godard the story that would become his stunning debut, Breathless. The two would write and produce for each other throughout the '60s.

But, after Truffaut made Day For Night in 1973, Godard wrote him a scathing letter of offense. Truffaut had always been a more traditional filmmaker, while Godard was becoming ever more radical, both artistically and politically. Truffaut was a distinctly unpolitical filmmaker. This letter, which Truffaut answered in equally scathing terms, severed their relationship, and they never spoke again.

The film also covers, sketchily, the history of the New Wave, fleetingly discussing Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and the first director of the movement, Eric Rohmer. Of course Andre Bazin, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, is also mentioned, and a young woman is shown reading old issues of that groundbreaking magazine. The New Wave directors were critics who were disgusted with the bourgeois and dull French cinema of the '50s, and admired daring Hollywood directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and especially Alfred Hitchcock, whom Truffaut flattered into giving him a book-length interview.

The French intelligentsia were so enamored of cinema, that in 1968, when the head of the Cinémathèque Française was removed, a riot ensued. Certainly nothing like that could occur in the U.S.A., which could use its own New Wave right about now.

Though this film does not go deeply enough into the subject matter (what exactly constituted the "New Wave?" What did it mean, exactly, for Godard and Truffaut to be enemies?) the film is a nice summary of their work, with plenty of clips from their films.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Baseball in the Garden of Eden

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a commission was formed to determine the origins of baseball. Laughably, the word of a man who grew up in Cooperstown, New York was taken at face value. He said, that, in 1939, a young man named Abner Doubleday drew up the diamond, set the rules, and a sport was born. This man's name was Abner Graves, and he was five years old at the time. No matter that Doubleday was at West Point at the time, or never made any mention of baseball during of after his illustrious military career (which included Gettysburg). Nonetheless, this was the story, and they stuck to it, and Cooperstown became the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Over the years, the Doubleday myth has been exposed, but John Thorn, in his book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, claims that there are more myths about the creation of the game. He doesn't precisely know who invented baseball, there isn't one person, but he certainly says who doesn't, which includes Alexander Joy Cartwright, who is a member of the Hall of Fame. Thorn says that everything on his plaque, including his establishment of the length of the base paths, the number of players, etc. is not true.

Thorn is the official historian of Major League Baseball, and I had a chance to meet him at the New York Mets conference at Hofstra University some months back. He has written extensively on the subject of the beginnings of baseball, a miasma of myth and conjecture. "In no field of American endeavor is invention more rampant than in baseball, whose whole history is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play."

Thorn writes that baseball was played long before Abner Doubleday supposedly created it in 1839. A notice in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts newspaper indicated that it was banned from being played near windows. There is a mention of it in Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey. It evolved from a variety of bat and ball games, going back to the ancient Egyptians. Henry Chadwick, an early and important voice of baseball (he is in the Hall of Fame) always claimed that it was a variation of an English game called rounders. This earned the enmity of Albert Spalding, an early player and later a sporting goods magnate (he is in the Hall), who was determined to prove that it was an American creation.

Many bubbles are burst in this book, foremost the legend of Cartwright. Thorn notes that his anointment as the "Father of Baseball" is nonsense. Cartwright did play for the Knickerbockers, the first club to lay down rules for the game, but they were not the first to play it. Cartwright's induction into the Hall of Fame was largely the work of lobbying by his son and grandson. Completely ignored was Louis Wadsworth, whom Thorn states was the man who came up with nine men on a team, nine innings, and possibly the diamond which we know today. Wadsworth was alive during the Mills Commission, but was in a sanitarium, with no family. Perhaps Thorn's work will get him a plaque in the Hall.

Beyond the origins of the game, Thorn's book covers the history of the formation of professional baseball up to the turn of the century. He notes that the Cincinnati Red Stockings, long believed to be the first professional team, were in fact not. But the country was baseball mad in those days, with the first baseball cards, games, magazines and other ephemera selling like hotcakes. We also learn that labor issues were endemic to the game even back then, as was corruption, as players in the 1880s were kicked out for throwing games for gamblers.

There is also an interesting thread involving a movement called Theosophists, which connects Spalding, Doubleday, and the Mills Commission. I must admit I didn't quite understand the meaning of it all, and was surprised to read a book about baseball which discussed the mystic Madame Blavatsky.

Those who don't get baseball are often tired by proclamations of baseball being representative of America and a religion unto itself; those people are likely to be baffled by this book. But for those who do get it, and bleed for it, sentences like these will ring true: "With baseball busting out all over, to describe it as the national pastime no longer provoked a smirk among the knowing, as it had in the 1850s. In fact baseball had become more than than the mere reflection of our rising industrial and political power and our propensity for bluster and hokum: The national game was beginning to supply emblems for democracy, commerce, and community that would subtly change American forevermore. In our determinedly secular nation, a fan's affiliation with his team could exceed in vigor his attachment to his creed, his trade, his political party, all but family and country, and increasingly even these were wrapped up in baseball. The national pastime became the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life: fair play...the rule of law...the brotherhood of man. To some, baseball looked like a new national religion all its own."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I think it's safe to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, and written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on her play, is unlike any movie I've seen before. I was worried that if would fall into the trap that so many movies make in examining African-American culture, that it would somehow stoop to presenting protagonists as "magic Negroes." This film does not do that, although it does represent the place they live as something wholly apart from America.

The setting is an island off the coast of Louisiana that the residents call The Bathtub, and although I've never been there, I've read enough about coastal Louisiana to know it is remote and has a distinct culture. As the film opens, it is presented as something of a fecund paradise, as described by our protagonist, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. There is plenty to eat and drink and Hushpuppy tells us that they have more holidays than anyone else. She even has her own house, separate from her father's. Her mother, who was so beautiful that water would boil just be her presence, is dead.

This paradise starts to see wrinkles when her father goes missing. Hushpuppy tells us that if he doesn't turn up soon, she'll have to eat her pets. He does return, wearing a hospital gown. Another problem is a coming storm, which can't help but remind us of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone seems aware that The Bathtub may soon be under water, but a hard core knot of residents stay behind.

Beasts of the Southern Wild succeeds in presenting a view of a place none of us are likely to visit, with a rich authenticity (I had a craving for seafood after seeing so many crabs and crayfish). Secondly, it presents an unusual, but totally believable relationship between Hushpuppy and her father. He teaches her self-reliance, like handfishing for catfish, or breaking a crab open with her bare hands (after which she flexes her guns). Finally, the film is about a way of life that is disappearing, symbolized by the metaphor of ancient animals, called aurochs (giant boars) that come unfrozen from ice and rumble toward The Bathtub. Are they representative of the creep of modern life? I don't think so--they're more a representation of the buried past, which is just as threatening to this isolated community.

Perhaps this is why the residents, when they are finally evacuated from The Bathtub and sent to a shelter, want nothing more than to get back. In a sense, they are the beasts of the southern wild, not suited for the comforts of modernity. Hushpuppy thinks the shelter doesn't look like a prison, which she is led to believe, but instead a "fish tank without water." Ordinarily, when we hear about holdouts who won't leave their homes during natural disasters, we think they're nuts. This story is from their point of view, and we side with them.

The two leads are amateur actors. Dwight Henry is Wink, the father, who plays the father with a startling sense of reality. He knows he's dying, and wants to prepare Hushpuppy for the future, but is not a saintly figure as might be played by Will Smith. This guy can get mad, and sometimes unreasonably so. And Hushpuppy is played amazingly by Quvenzhané Wallis, a major find by Zeitlin. She occupies the center of this film like the eye of a hurricane, wandering around in her white Wellington boots, an explosion of hair on her head. Her handling of the voiceover narration is terrific, such as when she says that the universe relies on everything being properly connected, and when her Daddy told her that when he got tired of drinking beer and catching catfish, she should put him in the boat, push it adrift, and set it on fire.

That boat is the bed of an old pickup truck, and I won't soon forget the image of the two of them, out on the water. Though the film is a bit thin, plot-wise (even at only 93 minutes, it feels stretched) but the imagery and performances by Wallis and Henry resonate long after the closing credits.

My grade for Beasts of the Southern Wild: A-.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Ray Bradbury calls the 1983 adaptation of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes the best adaptation of any of his work. He wrote the screenplay (although there was a rewrite that he protested), but the film did not do well at the box office. I found it, however, to be an elegant, dream-like bit of horror, and in some ways better than the novel, in that it streamlined the story.

Once again the setting is small town American, although this time we know it is Greentown, Illinois, and appears to be during the 1930s. Two boys, Will and Jim, are excited to learn that a carnival is coming, which is strange considering it's October. Will's dad (Jason Robards), who works at the library, is an older father, and regrets that he can not be as active with his son as he might. Jim's father is absent, but his son imagines him having great sea adventures.

The carnival is run by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). In the film, it's much more clear what the carnival does--they offer its visitors their deepest desires, but at a price. So a former football star who has lost two limbs regains them, but is reverted to childhood. A once-pretty schoolteacher is given youth and beauty, but becomes blind. And the carousel enables someone, by either riding forward or backward, an adjustment in age.

The film, directed by Jack Clayton, strikes just the proper mood. There are hallucinations of tarantulas, and billowing storm clouds, and of course grotesque carnival freaks. A lot of the plot is excised from the book (the film runs a neat 94 minutes), but manages to capture what it's all about.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is horror for those who might not like horror, but appreciate a literary quality in their cinema.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Another Earth

Another Earth, a film by Mike Cahill, is one of those films that defines independent cinema, in all its successes and failures. Small and intimate, but with a kind of pretension and over-seriousness that makes you think you're in a seminar somewhere, discussing modes of alienation with a professor in tweed with leather elbow patches. It may be art, but it's not much fun.

The film's premise is that a doppelganger Earth has been discovered. On the night that this is announced, astronomy buff and future MIT student Rhoda (Brit Marling, who wrote the script), is so fascinated that she looks out her car's moon roof at the blinking blue dot and neglects to look at the road. She slams into a car, killing two third of the family--a little boy and his mother. The father, a professor at Yale (Willam Mapother) survives after spending time in a coma.

Marling serves four years in prison, and when she gets out Earth 2 is now a dominant presence in the sky. She is eager to give Mapother her apology, and seeks him out, but instead poses as a maid and cleans his house instead. In a twist that is really stupid, the two become intimate. Meanwhile, it is discovered that Earth 2 is an exact replica of Earth, and that everyone has another "them" on the planet. A mogul is going to shoot a rocket up there, and holds a contest for an average Joe to win a seat. Is there any doubt who will win?

I admire the attempt here, but the execution is off. Another Earth is a movie so solemn that it seemed like a very long funeral procession. Granted, the subject is not a happy one, but there was no let up, no alteration of tone. Marling and Mapother, whom I trust are better performers than this, seem to have nothing more to do than stare ahead vacantly.

There are also logistics problems. The filmmakers chose a metaphor (another planet where one might be leading a happy life) that is obvious and forced, and opens a can of worms. For one thing, we are told that it has been discovered while it is visible to the naked eye. Maybe that could be true before the days of Galileo, but not now. The Hubble Telescope missed it? Also, what is it's orbit? It seems to be acting like a comet, not a planet. And an object that size (see the poster) would wreak havoc on our tides.

Also, someone barreling into another car at sixty miles per hour would not get up and walk out of the car with only a nosebleed, especially without an air bag. The film also takes great pains to explain why Mapother would not know the identify of the killer of his family, but I didn't buy it. These plot annoyances might not bother me in a film that something else to offer, but mostly this film moped along, seemingly bathing in its indie credentials, but looking like a film that was shot by a cell phone.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which has been the classiest of the numerous comic-book adaptations, comes to a perfect close with The Dark Knight Returns. Better than its predecessor, and almost as good as the first film in the series, The Dark Knight Returns continues to expound upon the notions of good and evil, law and crime, and whether heroes should be necessary.

The film begins eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight, in which Batman has disappeared, blamed for the death of district attorney Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the man behind Batman's mask, has similarly gone into seclusion, seen only by his faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Gotham City has been cleaned up, and Wayne reckons that Batman isn't needed anymore.

But then comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who seems determined to ruin Wayne, by breaking into the Stock Exchange and manipulating trades. Bane is a cueball who wears a mask that looks the mouth of some exotic spider, and uses a somewhat Germanic accent that makes him sound like a combination of a Bond villain and a professional wrestler. It turns out he is backed by some nefarious figures in Gotham City's elite. But Bane is really after the complete destruction of the city.

This bring Batman out of hiding, but he is beaten by Bane, who was trained by the same League of Shadows that Batman was. He ends up in a prison somewhere deep in the third world, and must train his body and his mind in order to escape. He is told by the sage there that he must learn to embrace his fear of death, for without it he can not succeed.

Meanwhile, there are other characters in the mix. Moving between both sides of the law, a sexy cat burglar (Anne Hathaway), who is known to all of us as Catwoman but is never called that in the film, makes a strong presence. We are not given her back story, other than that she has a long record and wishes to expunge it. Nolan resists the cartoonish aspects of the character, such as purring her lines, and a visit to her apartment does not reveal a cat, which Joel Schumacher would have done. Hathaway is a joy, and equals the performance Michelle Pfeiffer gave in Batman Returns.

Gotham's finest are represented by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who knows Batman was not responsible for Dent's death, but keeps that secret, and chief Matthew Modine, who is more interested in catching the Caped Crusader than Bane. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a patrolman who met Wayne at a young age and also believes in Batman (he also is the only person who has figured out that Wayne must be Batman). All of these performances are fine, especially Oldman, who deserves an Oscar nomination.

This film works on several different levels. For one thing, it's fun, much more than The Dark Knight. There are some superior action sequences, especially a fight between Bane's army and the police, which takes on the look of something out of Gangs of New York. The fights between Bane and Batman, using only their fists, are also well done, although I wonder why Batman didn't try to hit Bane in his one unprotected area--the throat.

Secondly, the film works as epic drama. All the characters are afforded arcs, and they are all emotionally resonant. Oh, there are some moments that roll the eyes--a school bus full of orphans, really? A bomb going off in a football stadium, as the player is returning a kickoff back for a touchdown? And late in the film is one of the hokier death scenes you are likely to see.

But the ending, beyond the death scene, is magnificent, featuring a capping moment in a cafe in Florence that really got to me, and made the whole saga conclude on a perfect note.

I should add that the film does have some interesting political overtones. Bane, as a cover for what he's really up to, pretends he's some sort of revolutionary, and espouses 99% language. I found that an interesting choice--here is what happens when the great unwashed take over. It's as if the film is stating that when the rich rule things (Batman, of course, could not exist without Wayne's vast riches) things are fine. Despite the villain being a homonym for his company, Mitt Romney would enjoy this picture.

Also, Gotham is a stand-in for New York City, and to see the city in aerial view, its bridges blown up, buildings smoldering in ruins, carries memories of 9/11. Nolan doesn't shy away from them, though, but confronts our memories head on, forcing us to deal with them, which makes Bane all the scarier and the consequences seem all the more real.

My grade for The Dark Knight Rises: A.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bound for Glory

With the Woody Guthrie centennial occurring this month, I wanted to see Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby's film about him from 1976. I had seen the film years ago on HBO, before I really knew who Guthrie was and what he represented. It was great to see it again. It was nominated for Best Picture that year, and was kind of the red-headed stepchild of a quintet that included Rocky, All the President's Men, Network, and Taxi Driver, but it deserved being there.

The film covers Guthrie's life from when he was a struggling sign painter in Pampa, Texas in 1936 through his trip to Los Angeles, becoming a popular radio personality, and then throwing that away to head to New York. From what I know about Guthrie, some of it is fictional, including many of the characters (his radio partner Lefty Lou is here called "Memphis Sue") but the film captures the spirit of Guthrie, and supposes how he came to sympathize with the downtrodden of society.

David Carradine stars as Guthrie, and though he really doesn't resemble him, they both exhibit the rawboned features of a hard life on the plains. The film shows how Guthrie was a shit to his wife (Melinda Dillon), taking off for California, leaving a note. Carradine then rides the rails, learning the ways of the hobo, and when he gets to California sees how the authorities demand that emigrants have enough money (which inspired the song, "Do Re Mi").

He then hitches a ride with a farmer (Randy Quaid) and his wife, and they all end up in a worker's camp, where conditions are harsh and the bosses oversee things. A local radio star (Ronny Cox) visits to entertain and stir up union talk, and discovers Guthrie and helps get him a radio show.

However, the sponsors don't want him singing rabble-rousing songs, and Guthrie is naturally rebellious to this control. He meets a woman at a soup kitchen (Gail Strickland) and is appalled to find that she's rich (but he still has an affair with her).

The film takes it's sweet time (at almost two and a half hours), but it's a pleasurable ride. Haskell Wexler won an Oscar for cinematography, and it's easy to see why. The film seems coated with dust, as this was the height of the dust bowl days (one scene effectively shows how frightening a dust storm was).

Above all, there are Guthrie's songs, used to startling good effect. For example, the sweet strains of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" are heard whenever a parting takes place.

The film is a great introduction to the work of Guthrie, and a landmark film of the 1970s.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes

When Ray Bradbury died last month it occurred to me I haven't really read much of his work. I think I may have read Fahrenheit 451, but I'm not entirely sure. Coincidentally, one of his other famous books, Something Wicked This Way Comes, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and I have just finished reading it.

This is a novel that at times frustrated me, because it's really a book about style more than plot. Frequently I had difficulty picturing what the characters were doing, or what there motivation was. However, there was no mistaking the overall feeling of dread, which suggests Poe in its iron autumn grayness.

The story is about two boys in a small town. Will and Jim were born two minutes apart, but Will was born one minute before midnight on October 30, and Jim one minute after on Halloween. It is the last week of October, and the boys are excited about a carnival, The Pandemonium Shadow Show, that is coming to town. It arrives at 3 a.m., and the boys watch it set up.

Later they will rescue their teacher from a mirror maze, and then watch, amazed, as a man rides a carousel backwards, and ends up much younger than he started. It becomes clear that the carousel can be ridden in either direction, with one year subtracted or added per revolution.

The carnival is run by the mysterious Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man, whose body pulsates with tattoos. He is described this way: "This...man was tall as a lamp post. His pale face, lunar pockmarks denting it, cast light on those who stood below. His vest was the color of fresh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal of his eyes. But in this instant, swiftly, and with utter clearness, it was the suit which fascinated Will. For it seemed wove of boar-bramble, clock-spring hair, bristle, and a sort of ever-trembling, ever-glistening dark hemp. The dark suit caught light and stirred like a bed of black tweed-thorns, interminably itching, cover the man's long body with motion so it seemed he should excruciate, cry out, and tear the clothes free."

Dark is fascinated by Jim (whose last name is Nightshade), sensing he can lure him over to the side of evil by promising him a few spins on the carousel to live forever at whatever age he wants. The carnival has a menagerie of freaks, each of whom may have been imprisoned along the way, especially a dwarf who looks suspiciously like the lighting-rod salesman who came through town.

On the side of good is Will's dad, Charles, who bemoans his loss of youth. He was forty when Will was born, and looks on his son's youthfulness with envy. He is the janitor at the library, and when the boys tell him what they've seen, he chooses to believe them, and looks up some things in the stacks. It turns out that the carnival, with the same proprietor, has been around for over a hundred years.

Bradbury infuses the work with good vs. evil story lines. There is not an overt mention of religion, but Charles does attempt to defeat Dark by use of the Bible, which does not work. Instead it is love and laughter that defeats them, something of a let down, which you might think someone would have tried before now, like using water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

Bradbury is a masterful stylist, and his use of various themes resonates powerfully. Maybe I would have responded more to this book if I had read in a creaky old house the night of a thunderstorm. I really liked his discussion of the wee hours of the morning, which Ingmar Bergman would also use in his film The Hour of the Wolf:  "Three in the morning, thought Charles Holloway, seated on the edge of his bed. Why did the train come at that hour? For, he thought, it's a special hour. Women never waken then, do they? They sleep the sleep of babes and children. But men in middle age? They know that hour well. Oh God, midnight's not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two's not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there's hope, for dawn's just under the horizon. But three now, Christ, three A.M.! Doctors say the body's at low tide then. The soul is out. The blood moves slow. You're the nearest to dead you'll ever be save dying...And wasn't it true, had he read it somewhere, more people die in hospitals at 3 A.M. than at any other time...?

Oddly, the book is dedicated to Gene Kelly. Bradbury explains in the afterword that he and Kelly were friends, and had planned to do a movie together. Bradbury wrote the original version of this book as a treatment, but it was never made, so he went on to finish it as a novel. It was later made into a film in 1983, which I will be discussing here in a few days.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Red and the Blue

For the 11th consecutive year, I drove up to Cooperstown for the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year there were two inductees, from different eras, but both identified with one city,  and teams in the National League Central. One is young and vibrant, the other, unfortunately, deceased, long overlooked but finally getting his due.

My friend and I arrived on Saturday and got into town in time to see the Hall of Fame Awards ceremony. However, unlike last year, fans who did not have tickets had to sit down the sidelines of Doubleday Field, in the hot sun, even though there was a lot of room in the shade behind home plate. My friend, who is no fan of Frick Award winner Tim McCarver, begged off, and I agreed, thinking that once again someone has screwed up something good.

Instead we grabbed a bench on Main Street and waited for the Parade of Legends, which is something the Hall gets right. Attending Hall of Famers, plus the Award winners and new inductees, are perched in the back of pickup trucks that glide down the street. They wave and get their pictures taken, though the drivers could use reminding to slow down so pictures are easier to snap. This was my friend's first time in Cooperstown since the parade's inception, and she was eager to get some photos of her favorite player, Johnny Bench.

On induction Sunday the weather was just about perfect, with sunny skies and some high clouds, and not too hot. The audience was a combination of blue and red, the bold colors of the teams involved. Inducted first was Ron Santo, a third-baseman for the Cubs of the 1960s. I remember that team well--they had a great infield, with Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Ernie Banks joining Santo. Santo was a great defensive player and also a great hitter, though not with the kind of numbers that earn automatic induction. He waited and waited for years, becoming something of a folk hero for his home-team rooting in the broadcast booth. His partner, Phil Hughes, recalled a game lost by a dropped fly ball. Santo made a noise that sounded as if he were gut-shot, and Hughes related that Santo had to be consoled by the manager, Jim Riggleman.

Santo's legacy, though, does not have to do with baseball. He played his entire career with diabetes, and hid it for much of that time. He would end up having numerous operations and both legs amputated, and would die at the age of 70 last year. Why the Veteran's Committee dithered over his election is a good question, but his widow, Vicki, had no acrimony in her speech. She said it was a great day, a happy day. And she didn't speak about Ron's baseball exploits. Instead she spoke of his work for diabetes research, and that he raised over 65 million dollars for the cause. How she didn't tear up while giving the speech, or slipping in a "What the fuck took so long?" I don't know.

Next up was Barry Larkin, a shortstop who played his entire career with his hometown Cincinnati Reds. Larkin was not a superduperstar--never a household name--but he nonetheless put up great numbers, won an MVP, and was the MVP of the 1990 World Series, in which the Reds swept the favored Oakland A's. Larkin is now an announcer, and very well spoken, so his speech was long and touched all the bases. He told many stories and anecdotes, one about Bo Schembechler that I found amusing (Larkin is University of Michigan alum) and spoke glowingly about Pete Rose, who was his first big league manager. For Larkin's first at bat, he used Rose's bat and shoes. Not a bad way to break in.

There was also a tribute to the recently deceased Gary Carter, and some comedy from Bench, who led the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as Harry Caray. My friend and I did some shopping, and marveled at all the different gear worn by fans. The best t-shirt was one that featured an anatomically-accurate rib cage, but with a cub where the heart should be.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Chalet Girl

Enamored by Felicity Jones, who I've enjoyed in several different films, I plucked deep down into her filmography for Chalet Girl, a disposable, straight-to-DVD film from last year. It's a combination of Cinderella and a sports movie, and hits all the cliches. She's delightful, but it's not enough to make this a worthwhile endeavor.

Jones plays a former skateboarding champion who, after losing her mother in a car crash, quits the sport and supports her shell-shocked father, working in a fast food joint. Through serendipity, she gets a job as a "chalet girl"--a maid/cook at a swanky ski chalet in Austria. The other girl working there (Tamsin Egerton) rolls her eyes at her, as Jones is not sophisticated, nor can she even ski.

The filthy rich folks who own the place are nice, though. Bill Nighy is the dad, and his easy-going persona is on display here. The son, Ed Westwick, who is used to playing the scion of the 1% (he plays a douchey version in Gossip Girl) is engaged, but eventually of course he and Jones will fall in love, much to the consternation of his mother, Brooke Shields.

Meanwhile, Jones discovers that snowboarding is really just skateboarding on snow, and over the course of three months she will become so good at it that she enters a competition. If only she could get over that mental block about jumping!

The movie is not aggressively awful, but it is by the numbers and has no surprises. Jones is a charismatic performer, but the film makes her a bit too sarcastic. We also get the classic falling-in-love montage, as Jones and Westwick frolic in the snow, and after it's over he's ready to toss aside a five-year relationship for a romance with the help.

It's interesting that though she gets top billing, that is not Jones in the poster. That's Sophia Bush, who plays Westwick's fiance, and appears in about five minutes of the film.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Anna Karenina (1948)

As I mentioned in my discussion of Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina has made into several film and TV adaptations. One of the most greatly acclaimed is a 1935 version starring Greta Garbo. That is currently not available via Netflix, so instead I watched a 1948 film adaptation, starring Vivien Leigh. It would be tough to better it, as it perfectly encapsulates the novel and is also a visual feast.

Directed by Julien Duvivier, and with a script by a trio that included playwright Jean Anouilh, the film, as one might expect, boiled down the story to the love triangle of Anna, Count Vronsky, and Anna's cuckolded husband, who is brilliantly played by Ralph Richardson. Kieron Moore, as Vronsky, is less successful--he kind of has a lisp, and didn't strike me as the suave bon vivant that would woo a woman away from her husband.

The film begins as the book does, with Anna's brother Stepan (a very funny Hugh Dempster) sleeping on the couch, banished there by his wife after his indiscretion with a governess. Anna convinces her sister-in-law Dolly to take Stepan back, but when she arrives at the train station she meets Vronsky. The shot of Vronsky looking through the pane of glass into the compartment where Anna is sitting is a wonder, which recalls the look of silent cinema. Many of the scenes, particular of trains and snowstorms, have a snow globe look to them, suggesting a timeless, fairy-tale quality that perfectly works with the material. The black-and-white photography, by Henri Alekan, is first rate.

Richardson, much older and a bit of a prig, soon suspects Anna's attentions toward Vronsky, and is stunned when she comes right and tells him she's in love with her dashing new man. Richardson is outraged, and seeks a divorce, but then decides not to give her the satisfaction, nor will he allow her to see their son.

Richardson's performance highlights something that the book also has--an essentially unsympathetic view of this man, who often behaves like an ogre. This, even though he should be the sympathetic character--after all, Anna, without much thought of him, runs off with another man, shaming him in society. But of course, as a woman, Anna will pay a bigger price, being shunned by friends, crystallized in a scene when she attends the opera alone.

Much of the subplots, particularly involving Levin and his thoughts on agricultural reform, are by necessity dropped, although he and Kitty do appear as characters. To be honest, the film showed me things that I missed in the novel, and added an effective device--Anna frequently dreams of a white-haired old man, banging a stick against some metal, which she thinks symbolizes her death. When he appears, right before she throws herself in front of a train, it's kind of chilling.

As for Leigh, she makes a perfect Anna. With she and Garbo to live up to, Keira Knightley will have it tough in the upcoming film version.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Cut

George Pelecanos is one of the top mystery/crime writers in the business today. He's written over a dozen books, featuring various lead characters. I've previously read two of this books, the last being The Night Gardener. Now I've just finished The Cut, which introduces a new character, a private investigator named Spero Lucas.

As with many of Pelecanos' books, The Cut takes place in Washington, D.C., and is full of rich detail about the streets of our not-so-fair capital. "The Expedition was like a bus. No one in the city needed a vehicle this huge, but people wanted to own the biggest SUV on the block. That name, Expedition, it suggested adventure, a safari, the discovery of new worlds. Lewis and motherfucking Clark. But all Bernard ever saw behind the wheels of these beasts were fat brothers and sisters holding cell phones and white middle-aged fathers with beer guts and goatees. If they ever went off-road, it was an accident when they'd drunk too much. Highlander. Pathfinder. Expedition. To where, Wal-Mart?"

In particular, Pelecanos has an interest in the plight of black youth, many of whom have no other opportunities but crime. The central plot of this book involves two young black men who are working for a large-scale pot dealer, who is behind bars. He hires Lucas to find some packages of marijuana that have been absconded with (apparently a way of transporting drugs is to have them shipped by FedEx to an address where no one is home, and then the middle-men scoop them up). Lucas, a dashing and physically fit young man who saw action as a Marine in Iraq, takes the case, and requires his standard "cut": forty percent.

He will get involved with those two young operatives, you described this way: "They seemed tough enough, but neither of them were thugs, nor did they pretend to be. Lucas imagined they liked girls, fashion, cars, video games, sports except for hockey, and getting their heads up. They were typical young men who happened to make their living in the marijuana trade."

Lucas will also become involved with another black youth, Ernest, a shy boy who dreams of becoming a movie director. The boy is a witness to something that could get him killed, and Lucas will do anything to save him.

In addition to this somewhat sentimental but appropriate rendering of the black youth of D.C., Lucas himself is a product of an interesting home life. He is adopted into a Greek family, and has siblings of different races, including a brother, Leo, who is black and is Ernest's teacher.

If this seems a bit too socially conscious, make no mistake that The Cut is full of violence, and Lucas is no shrinking violet, dispatching several of the bad guys over the course of the book. The villains are nasty, and also include corrupt cops.

One thing that is kind of annoying, but Pelecanos is not the only crime writer who does it, is the over use of details in the humdrum activities of his hero's day. It's one thing to tell us what streets he is taking, but when he eats, do we need to know every course? Or the brand name of his clothing? This seems an over attention to detail that only increases the word count, without adding much to the characterization.

Still, The Cut is a fine thriller, and Pelecanos is a writer to be sought out by those who like the genre.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Attack the Block

I end my survey of British miserabilism with a film that takes than genre and combines it with another, unlikely one, science fiction. Attack the Block, a film from last year, written and directed by Joe Cornish, is an homage to B-movies of yesteryear, with aliens in bad costumes terrorizing a certain part of the population. Many of those films dealt with rural desert locations, but this one is in a housing project in South London.

The film opens with a nurse, Jodie Whittaker, being mugged by a young gang of hoodlums. They are led by John Boyega, who looks a bit like a young Denzel Washington. He lets Whittaker go, and then looks on in amazement as some kind of meteorite hits a parked car. He looks inside and finds a fuzzy and sharp-toothed creature, which scratches him up. Boyega is determined to kill it, and does. This unwittingly brings down the wrath of the creature's compatriots, who are black with glow-in-the-dark teeth. They are frequently described as "gorilla-wolves."

The gang teams up with Whittaker to fight back at the invading creatures, and also recruit a pot dealer and his best customer (Luke Treadaway), who figures out that the "gorilla-wolves" are tracking Boyega because he has phermones all over him. The biology here is flawed--there would not be one female and several males, it would be the opposite, as a female can only bring to term one litter at a time. Secondly, how much sense does it make, evolutionarily speaking, for a creature to have glow-in-the-dark teeth, which announces its presence?

This film got some good reviews, and I suppose it's because it's an affectionate nod to better science-fiction alien invasion movies. Much of the acting is sub-par, and as keen an idea as it is to have London gang members fighting the critters in a Council Estates building, the whole enterprise stinks of low-budget cheesiness. The monsters look like Muppets, and aren't really that hard to kill.

Cornish does throw in some humorous subplots, such as two little kids, spurned by the gang, who go off on their own, hunting aliens, carrying fireworks and a Supersoaker filled with gasoline. There is also some droll dialogue, such as when a character explains what Ron's weed room is: "It's a room with weed, and it's Ron's."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Albatross

I ended up including Albatross in my series on British miserabilism, although the director, Niall McCormick, set out to not make one of those films, pointing out that there's lots of sunlight and some humor. True, but still, underlying the film, is the basic assumption that living in England kind of sucks.

The film, from last year, stars Jessica Brown Findlay as a kind of Mary Poppins for a new era. She plays a 17-year-old girl who takes a job as a maid for a local bed and breakfast, a house that was made famous by the writer who now owns it (Sebastian Koch) in a breakthrough novel. He hasn't been able to write anything of consequence since.

Findlay, with the pillowiest lips since Angelina Jolie, has an aura of perpetual bemusement. She's a troublemaker of sorts, but of course has baggage--namely, a mother who committed suicide, and the names Conan Doyle attached to her name, as she is a descendant of the Sherlock Holmes creator.

She befriends Koch's daughter, a mousy Felicity Jones. Both girls are supposed to be 17, but Jones, who is almost 30, actually looks younger than Findlay, who is 23. Jones, straight-laced and obsessed with taking her Oxford entrance exams, allows herself to be liberated by the free-spirited Findlay, much to the consternation of her mother (Julia Ormond). Findlay also ends up allowing herself to be seduced by Koch.

The film is so-so, with a script by Tazmin Rafn that is too obvious by far. The title refers to that bird around the Ancient Mariner's neck, which has become a metaphor for anything that hangs around us and prevents us from living a happy life. Each character has their own albatross to bear, but really, isn't that true of any drama?

This is Findlay's first large film role, but she's known to audiences who watch Downton Abbey as the modern-thinking youngest daughter. It was a bit jarring to see her out of her corset, but she has a nice screen presence (helped quite a bit by her massive hair and those lips). Jones, who is an interesting performer as well, takes the blander sidekick role. Ormond is done no favors at all, as her character (called "the shrew" by Findlay) basically plays one note throughout.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Savages

When I think of Oliver Stone, I think of that director in the credit card commercial who, after a clipper ship is blown to smithereens, holds his hands in the air and yells, "No! Bigger!" Stone is a director who likes to play with all the function buttons. Seeing one of his films is like reviewing an entire semester's worth of film school, as he employs all sorts of gimmicks.

These occasionally serve him well. The stories of JFK and Nixon were sweeping enough to call for grand and flamboyant gestures. But occasionally he's filigreeing the inside of thimble. Natural Born Killers and U-Turn for example, pulp stories about nefarious low-lifes, were examples of directorial overkill.

Savages is kind of in that territory, but due to a well-written script and some good, furniture-chewing acting, it's fun. The script is by Stone, along with the author of the source novel, Don Winslow, and Shane Salerno. Though there is way too much voice-over narration, it's full of clever lines and plot twists.

The story is narrated by O (short for Ophelia), played by Blake Lively. She tells us right away that just because she's narrating doesn't mean she lives until the end. She's a party girl who ends up living with two pot dealers. One is a former soldier (Taylor Kitsch), who is hard and cold, the other is a sensitive hippie botanist (Aaron Johnson), who has taken seeds that Kitsch retrieved from Afghanistan and built a cannabis empire, which he then uses to help disadvantaged youth around the world.

All is going groovy for this trio, including the men sharing Lively sexually. As someone tells her later on, the boys really love each other more than her, because otherwise they would never share her. But, and I guess this is just par for the course in the marijuana game, a Mexican cartel wants in on the action. Things take a downward turn after that.

The cartel is run by Salma Hayek, camping it up deliciously in a Cleopatra wig and sharp, painted nails. Her number one enforcer is a ruthless killer played slyly by Benecio Del Toro, who hides in plain sight by posing as a gardener, rolling around town in a beat-up pickup. I imagine that's a very familiar sight on the streets of Southern California.

Also in the mix is a DEA agent (John Travolta), who is paid to leave Kitsch and Johnson alone. But when the cartel moves in, he's forced to play both sides, and his dialogue is deliciously cynical, and represents everything that's wrong with the war on drugs.

Stone uses his entire palate, complete with stock film changes and trippy edits. The technology of the story requires a lot of web-cam footage, so I'm sure Stone relished the opportunity. In fact, the first scene is a web-cam transmission of men being beheaded. There is also optimum use of music, including a very amusing ring-tone for the cartel's communications, and some excellent cover versions of songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Here Comes the Sun."

As the "good guys," Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively can't match the oomph provided by Travolta and the villains, and sometimes you kind of root for the bad guys. Lively has a somewhat thankless role--she's basically the "hot chick," and then spends much of the movie kidnapped.

While not up to Stone's greatest work, Savages is macabre fun, and will definitely make you think twice about growing pot in your home. If it's too good, the Mexicans will come calling, and that's a bad thing.

My grade for Savages: B.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tyrannosaur

Now this is what I call British miserablism! Tyrannosaur, a 2011 film written and directed by Paddy Considine, stars Peter Mullan as an irascible old man. In the first fifteen minutes, he kicks his dog to death, throws a paving stone through a Pakistani business, and gets in a fight in a pub. Then, bleeding and shaken, he runs into a clothing store, hiding behind a rack. The shopkeeper, a religious sort, prays for him, and he's moved to tears.

She's played by Olivia Colman, and the two form an odd friendship. Her life, as imagined by Mullan, is all roses and rainbows, because she lives in a posh neighborhood. But she's got her own hell, a husband (Eddie Marsan) who thinks nothing of beating her, and worse. The two broken souls find comfort in each other, though it spurs jealously from Marsan and leads to some irrevocable violence.

I admired the acting in Tyrannosaur, but there's something sadistic about the way Considine treats his characters. Mullan is quite aware that he is a mean cuss--the title refers to a cruel nickname he had for his wife, who was a heavy woman and died of diabetes. (If there's any other metaphorical use of the title, I didn't pick it up--is Mullan the ferocious dinosaur in question?). But he has a soft spot for the kid across the street, who is terrorized by his mother's boyfriend, who has a vicious dog. He also has a friend who is dying of cancer. I'm not quite sure what we are supposed to make of him--that beneath all that nastiness is a heart of gold?

Colman's character is a bit more rounded. She and Marsan are both religious, but his actions make her doubt her faith (there's a pointed moment when she throws an object at picture of Christ). Colman goes through the ringer in this role, but again, I wonder at Considine's continuous bleak view of humanity.

The ending suggests the characters have reached some sort of peace, but it didn't feel right, and instead plays like a studio-mandated resolution. Considine, who has appeared in his share of these sorts of films as an actor, shows promise, but his next project could do with a bit more subtlety.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, a giant figure in American culture, particularly to those of a liberal bent. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma to a staunch Democrat (he was named for the party's nominee that year, Woodrow Wilson), Guthrie would go on to travel the country, work in a variety of jobs, and write over 1,000 songs, many of them taking the side of the downtrodden. Carrying a guitar that bore the phrase, "This Machine Kills Fascists," he would influence an entire generation of singers and songwriters, most prominently Bob Dylan.

Many of Guthrie's songs are more familiar in cover versions by other artists, but I wanted the real thing, so I bought a four-CD box set of recordings done by Moe Asch. They cover a wide range of Guthrie's work, but not all of it (notably absent is the pro-immigrant song, "Deportees"). But there are over 100 songs here, and I've been listening all week, so I've been in a world of unions, hobos, cowboys, migrant workers, antifascists, prisoners, evicted farmers, and misunderstood outlaws. It's a nice place to be.

Guthrie's most famous song is "This Land Is Your Land," which I was taught in grade school. But we only learned the chorus. Guthrie, it is said, was tired of hearing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," and wrote this as a counterpoint. Most people heard only four of the verses; two were left out of most recordings, but one version on this collection contains one of the controversial verses: "There was a high wall there/That tried to stop me/A sign was painted that said 'Private Property'/But on the other side it didn't say nothin'/That side was made for you and me."

The class warfare of the Great Depression is something that's bubbling up today, and listening to many of his songs, which chide the rich and the union-busters, stings as if they were written yesterday. In "Jesus Christ," Guthrie points out the hypocrisy of rich Christians not helping the poor, pointing out that if Jesus were alive at the writing of the song, advocating that rich people give up their money to help the poor, he'd be crucified all over again.

One of the recurring themes of his work is the evil nature of bankers. It made me think of the scene in The Grapes of Wrath, where a man is kicked off his land, and wonders who he can shoot in retribution. It's a bank that owns the land, not a person. In many songs Guthrie lacerates bankers, which is so ridiculously prescient to today's landscape that it's scary. One of the songs that does this is "Pretty Boy Floyd," a sympathetic ballad to the bank robber of the 1930s. The most telling line is, "Now as through this world I ramble/I've seen lots of funny men/Some will rob with a six-gun/Some with a fountain pen."

Guthrie wrote all sorts of songs, including songs for children, like "Car, Car," and even a Hannukah song (his second wife was Jewish). He wrote songs about fishing, and songs about life on the road. Some of the songs sound amazingly like other songs, but this was a folk tradition: Pete Seeger quotes him as saying, "Plagiarism is central to all cultures." Guthrie never made much money--he considered that it didn't cost anything to write a song, so anybody could have it.

He was no saint--he wasn't much of a husband, as all accounts go. He also had an incredible amount of tragedy in his life. His father was critically burned, by his mother, who was committed to an insane asylum. She was suffering from Huntington's Chorea, which was inherited by Guthrie, who would die of the disease when he was 55. But his family, including his son Arlo, a singer and songwriter of his own renown, have kept his legacy alive. Arlo will be performing a birthday concert in Okemah tonight. I doubt Mitt Romney will be there.


Friday, July 13, 2012

My Summer of Love

My Summer of Love, from 2004, doesn't precisely fit in the category of British miserabilism, given that the writer and director, Pavel Pawlikowski, is Polish, not British. But the film does have a British cast and setting, and the overall tone is misery.

Mona (Natalie Press), is a young woman who lives in the upstairs of a pub. She is an odd duck, and as the film opens she draws on the wall of her bedroom and rides around a scooter that has no motor. Her brother (Paddy Considine) is an ex-con who has found Jesus, gets rid of the liquor in the pub and plans to turn it into a spiritual center.

Press meets Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a bored rich girl who has been suspended from school. Despite their different backgrounds, they form a friendship that develops into love. Press is eager to leave behind her hum-drum world and her overbearing brother, and Blunt seems to be the ticket out. But Blunt may be crazier than she lets on.

The film has a nice relaxed feel to it. It's a quiet film, with not too much tumult, which makes the dramatic events stand out stronger. It won't be seen at any church groups--the script suggests that religious fundamentalism is inherently crazy.

Blunt, who has gone to bigger and better things, is fine, but Press is really outstanding, a wispy girl with red hair and a glint of mischief in her eye.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve is a highly readable, probing account of how the modern world was influenced by a book that was thought to be lost. Lucretius, a Roman poet, wrote a poem called On the Nature of Things. In it, he espoused the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Like many Roman documents, it was thought to be lost, until a Florentine book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, found a copy in a German monastery in 1417. As Greenblatt so eloquently puts it, Poggio had no idea that the work would change his entire world.

I am scandalously under-educated in the works of ancient scholars and philosophers, so it came as a surprise to me that even back then, thinkers theorized that the universe was made up of building blocks: "The core of this vision may be traced back to a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number. The Greeks had a word these invisible building blocks, things that, as they conceived them, could not be divided any further: atoms."

That's kind of mind-blowing, considering they didn't have microscopes. Further, Epicureans believed that the highest goal in life was to pursue pleasure, or at least the avoidance of pain. "A philosophical claim life's ultimate goal is pleasure--even if that pleasure was defined in the most restrained and reasonable terms--was a scandal, both for pagans and for their adversaries, the Jews and later the Christians. Pleasure as the highest good? What about worshipping the gods and ancestors? Serving the family, the city, and the state? Scrupulously observing the laws and commandments? Pursuing virtue or a vision of the divine?"

Instead, Lucretius, in interpreting Epicurus, held that belief in the supernatural was childish. "In a universe so constructed, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest of self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms." He also maintained that the universe has no creator. All of this centuries before Copernicus and Galileo.

Of course, this did not last. Greenblatt details how the early Christians changed all this--suffering became more desirable than pleasure. He goes into grisly detail of how monks and nuns and others, all the way up to Sir Thomas More in England, inflicted pain upon themselves. He writes about how progressive thinkers, like Jan Hus or Brother Bruno, ended up paying for their enlightened beliefs by being burned at the stake, their bones broken up and thrown in a river.

But Poggio's discovery slowly infiltrated modern thought. Greenblatt, successfully I think, links Lucretius to many more modern thinkers, ranging from Machiavelli to Jefferson. The "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is straight from Lucretius, and Greenblatt quotes Jefferson as saying, "I am an Epicurean."

This is a short but rich book. Greenblatt gives us a detailed biography of Poggio, who was a type of secretary for several popes, including the original John XXIII, who was cast out. This was at a time when there were three men claiming to be Pope, and the selection of them was crassly political. "The pope was a thug, but he was a learned thug, who appreciated the company of fine scholars and expected court business to be conducted in high humanist style." This pope was removed from office, and his number expunged, not to be used again for five hundred years, when the official John XXIII came to office in the 1950s.

There are other wonderful side trips, such as the reign of Savanarola in Florence, who conducted the bonfire of the vanities, but ended up burned to death on the same exact spot. There is also a detailed discussion of how the Christian church resisted Lucretius' ideas, but, especially because of the Guttenberg printing press, it became impossible to stop them.

Greenblatt is saying, in essence, that the Renaissance had its seeds sewn by an obscure book-hunter, and the monks who copied things out, even if they didn't believe in them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen continues his cinematic tour of the great cities of Europe with To Rome With Love. While not as wonderful as Midnight in Paris, it's also not as embarrassing as some of his post-2000 output. It's amiable and charming and made me laugh on more than a few occasions. Those who are not predisposed to him, though, will likely be unimpressed.

Those who saw the recent American Masters documentary on Allen will remember his idea collection. He writes them down on scraps of paper, and when it's time to do a new film, he sorts through them, looking for a winner. With To Rome With Love, it's clear that he found four ideas that were not hefty enough for a full-length feature, and banded them together with the common thread being they take place in Rome. But unlike Midnight in Paris, he doesn't really take the opportunity to saturate the script with Italian flavor. This could have taken place in any city.

The four stories are: an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) is suddenly and inexplicably followed by paparazzi and asked banal questions about the activies of his day. A honeymooning couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are to meet his severe family. But she gets lost, and ends up meeting a famous Italian movie star. He ends up substituting a high-class call girl (Penelope Cruz) for his wife.

A world-weary architect (Alec Baldwin) ends up being an invisible mentor to a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls in love with his girlfriend's bewitching best friend (Ellen Page), and finally, Woody Allen plays a retired opera director flying to Rome to meet his daughter's fiance, and discovering that his father (Fabio Armiliato) has a fantastic singing voice--but only in the shower.

As one might expect, some stories are better than others. The most sharply drawn, perhaps because it is the simplest, is the Benigni one, since it nicely parodies the culture of celebrity worship, particularly celebrities who have no discernible talent. Benigni, who would have been a terrific comic in the silent era, plays the bewilderment of the character wonderfully, but when his celebrity is passed on to someone else, he realizes he misses the adulation. In a strange moral of the story (especially coming from the shy Allen), Benigni is told that between being a celebrity or being unknown, being a celebrity is better.

The weakest segment is the one featuring Cruz, which is half-baked and ends up in a bizarre, completely ridiculous finish involving a hotel burglar. There are few laughs here, especially when the jokes are as old as when Cruz, after hearing someone remark on a painted ceiling, "I can't imagine what it's like to work on your back" saying, "I can."

In the middle is the sequence with Baldwin and Eisenberg. This is quintessential Allen, with names like Yeats, Camus and Rilke dropped in casual conversation. Page plays a creature that reappears in Allen's work from time to time--the intellectual femme fatale (see Winona Ryder in Celebrity for another example), a woman (a "self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual") that puts a spell on the unsuspecting, vaguely Semitic hero, making him forget about his solid if relatively unexciting girlfriend (here played by Greta Gerwig). The dialogue is that kind of NPR-ready cocktail party conversation that no one really speaks in real life, but I did laugh a few times, especially at the expression on Eisenberg's face while Page describes a heated sapphic encounter. What mystified me about the segment was Baldwin's presence. He's real when Eisenberg first meets him, but then is some sort of Jiminy Cricket figure, visible only to Eisenberg, except for the few times that Page speaks to him. This was done much better when Bogart served as Allen's conscience in Play It Again, Sam.

Allen's segment is the funniest, if only for the presence of the man himself, his first acting job in six years (Scoop was his last starring role). Despite being in his mid-70s, the man still has a way with a line. We first see him white-knuckled on the flight in, and no one can wrap their mouth around the word "turbulence" like he can.

This time he has a more age-appropriate wife (Judy Davis), a psychiatrist who correctly deduces that he is equating retirement with death (an interesting tidbit for those who wish to see Allen in his own work). His work as an opera director was "ahead of his time" (such as mounting a production of Rigoletto with a cast all dressed like white mice). When he hears his future in-law's voice, he has visions of making him a star, but the man can't sing except in the shower. Allen gets the bright idea of staging a production of I Pagliaci with Armiliato (a famed Italian tenor) in the shower the entire time. "He'll be the biggest opera star in the world," Allen says, to which Davis replies, "At least he'll be the cleanest."

The segment plays like one of Allen's casuals that are published in the New Yorker. Actually seeing the man sing in the shower on stage is not as funny as imagining it, but it's still amusing. Upon hearing the review in the paper, which says that Allen should be taken out and beheaded, his daughter (Allison Pill) says he's had worse.

To Rome With Love is acceptable Allen fare, but one wishes he had done more with the setting, and perhaps slowed down to flesh out the script. There are kernels of good ideas here, but some of them don't pop. None of the four stories intersect, which could be an artistic choice but I chalk it up to speed and laziness on Allen's part. But it has touches of Allen's sense of humor ("I was never a communist. I could never share a bathroom") and has plenty of gorgeous Italian women.

My grade for To Rome With Love: B-.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Red Road

Andrea Arnold, who made the fine Fish Tank, earlier made this gritty crime drama, named after a high-rise apartment building in Glasgow called Red Road. It is around here that the film was shot, in Dogme 95 style, with natural light and hand-held cameras.

Kate Dickie stars as a police employee working a bank of street cameras. Seated at her desk, she looks into about thirty TV screens, on the eye out for crime or citizens in distress. Mostly she notices small things which make her smile, like a man walking a very old dog. In some ways, it combines Rear Window with the more invasive feelings suggested by Orwell in 1984.

One day Dickie spies on a couple having sex up against a wall. She notices the man's face, and identifies him as a criminal whom she thought was in jail. Little by little we will learn that Dickie was married, but her husband and child died. It doesn't take a genius to figure that this man (Tony Curran), had something to do with their deaths.

Dickie begins following him, even going into his apartment during a party. She allows herself to be seduced by him, and we start to wonder what his plan. She has sex with him (a very graphic and very hot scene), and then we see what she's up to, but she realizes, almost as quickly as we do, that this plan won't work, and she needs to let go.

Red Road is a good film, well acted and with lovely suspense. As with the British films of this style, it is also bleak and dingy--the neighborhood surrounding Red Road is one of poverty and despair. But there unintended moments of exhilaration. The apartment building, which at the time of its construction was the tallest residential building in Europe, has spectacular views. While visiting, Dickie is treated to the wind that blows in while the windows are opened, which give the effect of soaring above the ground.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Anna Karenina

In anticipation of a major film adaptation coming out later this year (coincidentally, I saw the trailer for the first time today), I tackled Leo Tolstoy's 1877 novel, Anna Karenina. I've never read any of those long Russian novels (this one weights in at over 1,000 pages), and while it had its moments, particularly and surprisingly comic moments, I have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Opinions as wildly divergent as William Faulkner and Time magazine called this the greatest novel ever written. After taking over six weeks to read it, I don't get it.

The story mainly concerns an extended family in Russia. Anna Karenina, despite the title, is not the major player in the drama, in fact she's something of a supporting character. She is married to the much older Alexey Alexandrovich (one thing you have to get used to when reading Russian literature are these long, formal names). Her brother, Stiva, is married to Dolly, and it is their family that Tolstoy's famous opening, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" refers to. Stiva got caught schtupping the governess, and Dolly wants to throw him out. "'It's true it's bad her having been a governess in our house. That's bad! There's something common, vulgar, in flirting with one's governess. But what a governess!'"

Anna visits from St. Petersburg, and talks Dolly into staying with Stiva. Kitty, Dolly's younger sister, has her society debut, and expects a proposal from the dashing Count Vronsky. Instead she gets one from Levin, Stiva's friend, a landowner and something of a geek. She turns him down, bluntly. But Vronksy has fallen in love with Anna, when they meet at the train station. She had accompanied his mother on the visit, and the two became close. Anna becomes even more impressed with him when, after a railroad worker is killed, he gives money for the man's family.

Soon Anna has left Alexey for Vronsky, creating a scandal. They go off to Europe together, and Alexei debates whether to seek a divorce. "Alexey Alexandrovitch was not jealous. Jealousy according to his notions was an insult to one's wife, and one ought to have confidence in one's wife. Why one ought to have confidence--that is to say, complete conviction that his young wife would always love him--he did not ask himself."

A parallel plot concerns Levin, who does end up marrying Kitty. He's obsessed with agricultural reforms, and despite his at times comic appearances in the book, he's something of a drag on the plot. Tolstoy uses him to formulate his own opinions on agriculture (it is said that he is modeled after the writer himself). "The business of reorganizing the farming of his land absorbed him as completely as though there would never be anything else in his life." He even works alongside his workers, glorying in physical labor.

The story is most interesting when it concerns Anna's affair. She has a son with Alexey, whom she is not allowed to see, and she ends refusing to divorce because she would have to sever ties with her son. But then she and Vronsky have a daughter, and since she is not divorced, legally the girl is Alexey's.

Anna is a very short-sighted and selfish character. She doesn't quite understand what she does to other people, including her husband, but also to everyone else. Despite warnings from Vronsky, she goes out to the theater, where she is shunned by her former friends. Later she will become jealous of Vronsky, and (spoiler, but I already knew this before I read the book) she becomes so upset that kills herself, echoing her meeting with Vronsky by throwing herself in front of a train. "As death rose clearly and vividly before her mind as the sole means of bringing back love for her in his heart, of punishing him and of gaining the victory in that strife which the evil spirit in possession of the heart was waging with him."

Notably, that is not the end of the book. Levin becomes the focus of the novel after that, as he also contemplates suicide, as he doesn't feel instant love for his newborn son (the scene of the child's precarious birth is gripping). But he realizes that life must go on, and the book ends with him facing the future with hope and promise.

When a book is this long, it's difficult to complete focus all the time. I admit passages went by where my comprehension was low. There is a lot of stuff here, including two brothers of Levin, a visit to an artist in France, a horse race, and political talk of an election and a war against the Serbs. But above all, this book is worthwhile because of the occasional burst of brilliant and wickedly funny prose. "'Some mathematician has said that enjoyment lies in the search for truth, not in the finding it,'" or "'They ought to find out how to vaccinate for love, like smallpox,'" or "'I wonder the parents! They say it's a marriage for love.' 'For love? What antediluvian notions you have! Can one talk of love in these days?'"

And then there are passages that just stop a reader short, delighting in the structure and imagery: "The slanting rays of the sun were still hot; his clothes, soaked through with perspiration, stuck to his body; his left boot full of water weighed heavily on his leg and squeaked at every step; the sweat ran in drops down his powder-grimed face, his mouth was full of the bitter taste, his nose of the smell of powder and stagnant water, his ears were ringing with incessant whir of the snipe; he could not touch the stock of his gun, it was so hot; his heart beat with short, rapid throbs; his hands shook with excitement, and his weary legs stumbled and staggered over the hillocks and in the swamp, but still he walked on and still he shot."

Sunday, July 08, 2012

This Is England

I'd heard a lot of good things about This Is England, Shane Meadows 2006 film, and I was glad to find out it lived up to expectations. Ostensibly about the evolution of the skinhead movement in England during the early '80s, at its emotional core the film is about a boy's efforts to fit into a society that won't have him.

Thomas Turgoose, in an indelible performance, stars as Shaun Fields (gee, you think it could be autobiographical, given the writer and director's name is Shane Meadows?), a frequently bullied twelve-year old. At his school, they take fashion seriously, and some kid dressed up like one of the Pet Shop Boys teases him about his bell-bottoms. Back home, his mother doesn't seem to understand. His father was killed in the Falklands War, and he misses him terribly.

Shaun strikes up a friendship with a group of skinheads, whose leader is Woody (Joe Gilgun), who proves to be something of a mentor. They clue him into the right kind of clothes (they must be Doc Martens) and Lol, Woody's girlfriend (Vicky McClure) gives him a buzz cut.

All is well until Woody's old mate, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. He was the leader of the gang, now 32. While the skinhead movement started in the 1960s as a cultural movement, stemming mostly from love of reggae and ska music, Graham is now taking it in a different direction--combining forces with the anti-immigrant National Front, which is all about English identity. This creates friction, especially since one of the group, Milky, is black (Andrew Shim). The group splinters, with Woody and Milky going their own way, but Shaun remains with Combo, buying into his world view. Combo sees himself in the lad, and the two form a bond.

This film is frequently heartbreaking, as Shaun tries to get along with kids (and adults) much too old for him. He strikes up a romance with an older girl who looks like Boy George, and they make out, in a disquieting scene. Shaun's mother, despite not liking his haircut, goes along with his new friends, and he seems happy, until the anger inside Combo builds to an eruption.

This Is England works on several levels. At one level, it's a wonderful tale of a boy's battle against loneliness and fitting in, and older kids extending a hand of friendship. On another, it shows how insidious racists are. A scene in which the nationalist skinheads terrorize Pakistani children playing soccer, and then a merchant, are cold-blooded and frightening. Unfortunately, this attitude still exists, not only in England, but all over the globe.

Meadows has revisited the characters in television specials every two years, which I should try to track down. This Is England is an excellent work of art.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Idler Wheel...

"How can I ask anyone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left alone?" sings Fiona Apple in her song "Left Alone," one of ten gems on her new album (deep breath) The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

I've been a fan of Fiona Apple since I first saw a picture of her in the New York Times, an ectomorphic waif staring into the camera with a kind of plaintive look on her face. That was back when she was 19, and sixteen years later she has produced only four albums, but each one is exceptional, and this latest one is her best yet.

Apple sings with naked emotion, and there are times listening to this record that a person could feel a little embarrassed, as if stumbling upon someone's diary, reading it, but then realizing they shouldn't be. She begins the set collection with "Every Single Night," which sets the tone: "Every single night I endure the flight of little wings of white-flamed butterflies in my brain. These ideas of mine percolate the mind, trickle down my spine, swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze. That's when the pain comes in, like a second skeleton trying to fit beneath the skin. I can't fit the feelings in."

Apple's feelings, though they may not fit inside her, do nicely in sound. That song is structured with a daring kind of rhythm, as if it were an American Indian spiritual. I got that feeling also with the last song on the disc, "Hot Knife," which begins with tympani (played by Apple herself), and then a multi-rhythmed blast of sexuality: "If I'm butter, then he's a hot knife. He makes my heart a CinemaScope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise."

Apple's influences seem to also include jazz, particularly with the song "Jonathan." Her co-producer is her band's drummer, Charley Drayton, and for a drumming fan like myself this record is terrific to listen to. Most of the instrumentation consists of Apple on piano and a variety of odd percussion sounds, including what sounds like footsteps on gravel. A guitarist is listed in the credits, but I couldn't pick any strings out.

But mostly Apple's strength lies in her poetry, and exposing the pain to a worldwide audience. Even a seemingly straightforward love song like "Valentine," which has a refrain of "I root for you. I love you," takes on new meaning when the lyric is examined. It seems that Apple's valentine is an unrequited love: "You didn't see my valentine. I sent it via pantomime while you were watching someone else. I stared at you and cut myself--it's all I do 'cause I'm not free, a fugitive, too dull to flee. I'm amorous but out of reach, a still-life drawing of a peach."

There's a lot like that, which suggest Apple hasn't exactly been very successful in love, or perhaps she just focuses on the break-ups. In "Werewolf," she sings, "And you are such a super guy, til the second you get a whiff of me...We can still support each other. All we gotta do's avoid each other."

The angriest song is "Regret," which has Apple keening the refrain: "I ran out of white dove's feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me." Wow. But that's followed by an interesting song called "Anything We Want," which contains the innocence of childhood and, dare I think it, an element of hope.

Apple was pretty grown up at 19, and now, at 34, she's matured into a fantastic singer-songwriter. This is an exciting record, which I've listened to multiple times in the week I've owned it, and will no doubt be listening to it more.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Just in case we missed it, the latest film featuring the web-slinger of comic book fame, The Amazing Spider-Man, ends with an English teacher telling her students that there is really only plot in literature: "Who am I?" Identity and personal responsibility have always been the burdens of superheroes, particularly those of Spider-Man, who is perpetually tormented by personal demons. In this film, directed by Mark Webb, we revisit the source of those demons, which makes an otherwise enjoyable film seem like deja vu.

Spider-Man, like Batman, Superman, and other great heroes, deserves to be resurrected every generation or so. But it was only ten years ago that the first Spider-Man film was released, with an origin story featuring a young, bookish boy being bit by an amped-up spider, finding he has superpowers, and then allowing a criminal to kill his Uncle Ben, thus dedicating himself to stopping crime. To have to go through this again so soon is completely unnecessary. Do we really need to see an actor as good as Martin Sheen go through the motions of teaching his nephew, Peter Parker, about responsibility, and then have to get offed by a street punk?

I'm fine with a reboot with new actors. Tobey Maguire is now 37, and the last film that teamed him, director Sam Raimi and Kirsten Dunst, lacked any vigor or sense of specialness. Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man (who is 29, but looks ten years younger) makes a terrific Peter Parker, and Emma Stone is equally engaging as his love interest, Gwen Stacy. These two make this film worth seeing, but I just wish the filmmakers had assumed we know the drill and skipped ahead to the meat of the story.

In this go-round, we are introduced to Peter's parents. His dad (Campbell Scott), is a biologist who was working on something secret enough that after a break-in, he and his wife take off, leaving Peter with Sheen and his Aunt May (Sally Field, also solid). Later, the parents die in a plane crash, and Peter learns to think of his aunt and uncle as parents. But when a basement flood leads him to find some documents of his father's, he gets curious and tracks down another scientist, Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who is trying to work out cross-species genetics, so that a human might use traits from other species. Ifans is especially interested in this, since he has a missing arm, and would like to be able to regrow it, as a lizard might.

As with all brilliant scientific ideas, pressure from the corporate office leads to shortcuts, and Ifans, after trying out the serum, turns himself into a big lizard-man. He terrorizes the city, and the newly minted web-slinging vigilante must try to stop him, while simultaneously wooing the girl of his dreams, who happens to be super-smart, interning at Connors' lab.

The good news is that if you had no recollection of the earlier films, you will probably like this more. A film should be judged on its own merits, but unless you are very young or were formerly Amish, it's hard to not acknowledge the Raimi films, and in that respect this film is lacking. The scenes in which Parker experiments with his new powers were better in the first film (in that film, Spider-Man produced webs biologically, but in this film he buys the thread, hopefully wholesale). Also, this film has no mention of The Daily Bugle or J. Jonah Jameson, who was always good for a chuckle. Instead, Spider-Man's foil here is Denis Leary as police captain Stacy (conveniently, Gwen's father). Leary puts in a fine, droll performance, but it lacks the zip of ol' JJJ.

As a villain, Ifans gives the Lizard a humanity that is similar to Alfred Molina's terrific performance as Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, but the writing lets him down, with banal unscientific statements like, "Great things are on their way!" Gee, doc, speak English, will you?

As with the Spider-Man films before, this film does provide thrilling scenes of our hero zipping around the city, defying gravity. A scene in which Parker, unaware of his own strength, dispatches some evildoers in a subway car is well done, as a trio of battles with the Lizard. But by the end there is a sense of fatigue, as the reptilian villain climbs a tall building, like King Kong.

There are also some brain-dead problems. The security at Oscorp, the laboratory where Ifans works, is appallingly lax (why isn't a door marked "Restricted Access" locked?) and I'm baffled as to how a one-armed man gets an entire lab into a sewer tunnel, by himself. I'm also puzzled as to how it works when the serum wears off. Ifans grows back his arm as a lizard, but when it wears off he goes back to being an amputee. Wear did the cells go? I should add that it seems a shame that Dylan Baker, who played Connors in all three Raimi films, didn't get the call for this one.

I had an okay time at The Amazing Spider-Man, even though it was mostly trite and covered familiar ground, and was also far too long. Garfield and Stone have real chemistry (if the gossips are to be believed, this extended off camera) and the film has enough wonder that triggers the nostalgia of my comic book-reading days. A sequel (a post-credit sequence sets one up) will likely be better, given that the origin story can be dispensed with and we cut to the chase.

My grade for The Amazing Spider-Man: B-.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Dead Man's Shoes

In my survey of British "miserabilism," I now turn to Shane Meadows, one of the major directors of the sceptered isle working today. His 2004 film, Dead Man's Shoes, isn't really in the same vein as other miserabilist movies--it's more of a thriller, with a man bent on revenge slowly killing the men responsible for harming his brother.

The script, written by Meadows and star Paddy Considine, is kind of old school. Considine is a former soldier who returns home. He's accompanied by his brother (Toby Kebbel), who is mentally retarded. Slowly we learn, through flashbacks, that a group of drug dealers did something horrible to that brother, and Considine is going to make them pay.

I knew nothing about this film before viewing it, and in that respect it really drew me in, as an aura of mystery hangs about it (there's a major plot twist that I'm not about to spoil). Considine's character is also something other-worldly--the crooks are no match for him, and kind of show the age-old truth that bullies are cowards at heart.

There is something comic about the bullies as they realize they are targets. At first, Considine toys with them, painting their faces while they are asleep, or writing the words "cheyne stoking" on the wall of their apartment (this is a term for when someone stops breathing as they are dying). Then the retribution becomes bloody--extremely so.

Meadows has an outstanding visual style, and the film is gripping. There are a few holes in the plot, though. Considine may be a trained killer, but I'm unaware that the British army teaches lock-picking, as he seems to be impervious to any locked doors. But I don't think Meadows is concerned too much with reality--Dead Man's Shoes is more of a ghost story, albeit about a ghost who knows how to swing an axe.