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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Oscar 2012, Best Actor: Hail to the Chief

A handful of actors have been nominated for Oscars playing U.S. presidents. Jeff Bridges played a fictional one in The Contender, Alexander Knox was nominate for playing the president in Wilson, and Anthony Hopkins has been nominated twice: as Nixon, and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. Raymond Massey was nominated playing the title role in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Despite being depicted in several films over the years, no one has ever been nominated for playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I'm still waiting patiently for the Chester Alan Arthur Story.

Lincoln and Roosevelt are both the lead characters in two prominent films coming out this winter. It's entirely possible both actors will be nominated, competing against each other. A Lincoln-Roosevelt debate would be quite something, although I have a feeling they'd agree on most issues.

Here's my humble hunches on who will be nominated for Best Actor this year. In alphabetical order:

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook): His star has been rising ever since The Hangover, and this would be a big move from lead in unsophisticated comedies to Oscar bait. It helps that he plays someone crazy. Will be helped if the film continues to gather good press.

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln): Unless this movie is a complete disaster, it's hard to come with a scenario where Day-Lewis is not nominated. The trailer mostly has Lincoln looking glum, which is natural, given the circumstances of what happened during his administration, but I hope Spielberg has also included Lincoln's humor.

John Hawkes (The Sessions): Here's my pick for the winner. Hawkes, a well-regarded actor who has been nominated once already, plays a man stricken with polio who hires a sex surrogate. If there's anything more Oscar-y than crazy, it's physically disabled.

Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock): The move to push up the release of this film shakes up the Oscar race. Academy voters love impersonations, and Hopkins as the Master of Suspense sounds like something they can't pass up. And who could imagine the same actor could play both Hitchcock and Nixon?

Joaquin Phoenix (The Master): As much as I hated this performance--I think it deserve a Razzie, not an Oscar--if the film gets traction in the Oscar race voters will likely mistake the most acting for the best acting.

Also possible:

Richard Gere (Arbitrage)
Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) as FDR
Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)
Denzel Washington
(Flight)



Saturday, September 29, 2012

D.O.A.

Directed by Rudolph Mate, D.O.A. is one of the classics of the film genre, a film ahead of its time that put off some early reviewers. It begins with one the greatest hooks in film history:  a long tracking shot of a man, from behind, walking through police headquarters. He enters the door marked "Homicide Division," asks to see the man in charge, and tells him he's there to report a murder. "Whose murder?" he's asked. "Mine," he replies. The man isn't thrown out of the office, instead they know who he is and proceed to listen to his story.

D.O.A., though not told in real time, is one of those films that has a deadline. Edmond O'Brien stars as the man trying to solve his own murder, and along the way he's often rude, but only because he doesn't have much time. In a way, it reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Homer only has 24 hours to live after eating incorrectly prepared blowfish, only in the film, O'Brien expresses no need to have sex.

O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, an accountant in a small California town. He's off to San Francisco for a vacation, ostensibly to get away from his secretary (Pamela Britton), who's pushing to make their romance more permanent. When he gets to Frisco he's instantly on the prowl, and we even hear a slide whistle playing a wolf whistle sound whenever he sizes up a pretty girl.

He meets some people and goes out to a jazz club (in one of the first representations of the beat culture in cinema). A mysterious man switches his drink. The next day, he feels a pain, and goes to a doctor. He's told he's ingested "luminous toxin" and has only a few days to live.

The rest of the film is O'Brien tracking down clues to find his killer. He starts with a man who was trying to get ahold of him, but later committed suicide. Britton finds the connection--O'Brien once notarized a bill of sale for the man. This leads to stolen iridium, and O'Brien chasing all over Los Angeles (if traffic were presented realistically, he would have run out of time). Some of the clues seem a little convenient, but Mate and O'Brien never let up the sense of time running out, which keeps the film taut. It's only 83 minutes long, so there's really never a dull moment once the diagnosis is made. There are some nice set pieces, such as a shootout in a drug store and a scene in a warehouse where O'Brien tries to avoid a sniper.

D.O.A. is a fine example of the genre and is easy to find--it's in the public domain and there are more than 20 releases on home video/DVD.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Limitless

Limitless, a 2011 film Neil Burger, is passable entertainment that takes a great idea and then allows it to fall  victim to multiplexitis, taking the easy way out and not following up on its challenging premise.

Bradley Cooper stars as a scruffy writer who has a book contract but no motivation. He loses his girlfriend, Abby Cornish, and is at the end of his rope when he runs into his ex-brother-in-law. This guy, who uses to be a drug dealer, now has some kind of shadowy job with a pharmaceutical company and passes along an experimental pill that allows the user to tap into parts of the brain heretofore unused.

Cooper, after taking the pill, has a burst of creativity, and remembers everything. He goes back to the brother-in-law for more, but finds him murdered. He searches the apartment before police arrive and finds a stash of the pills. In a matter of weeks, he makes enough money on the stock market to interest a grand poobah of Wall Street, Robert De Niro. But, he also is being tailed by someone, and earns the enmity of a Russian loan shark. Also, what happens when he runs out of pills?

The first half of the film is a lot of fun. I'll let go the notion that Cooper is miscast--they try to make him look like a bum but it doesn't work. If they had cast a real schlub in this movie it would have been better, but then again they would have to get another actress, because Abby Cornish wouldn't date a schlub. But anyhoo, for anyone who has ambition but lacks motivation (anyone? anyone?) this really gets the wheels going. I watched this movie wanting that pill.

The movie then degenerates into chases and shootouts, and then allows its hero to get away with murder, among other things. It flirts with the ethics of what the pill does, and then lets them slide, as if the script were just one long fantasy of a writer, which I guess it is. It's based on a novel--I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that the book doesn't allow its hero to skate, but a Hollywood movie won't do that.

Still, not bad. De Niro is slumming again, but gave his part a little life. I also liked the Black Keys song during the closing credits.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Amigos

I missed Three Amigos back when it came out in 1986, mostly because it was a notorious critical flop. Famously, Roger Ebert, sitting next to co-star Chevy Chase on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show couch, said that the film was one of the worst of the season.

I didn't find it that bad, but it's curiously toothless for a comedy with such a good pedigree--it's written by Steve Martin (also a co-star), Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman (who also wrote the songs) and directed by John Landis. It's amiable and inoffensive (although some Mexicans may take umbrage) but it lacks punch. It's a movie that has one hand tied behind its back.

In a sort-of spoof of The Seven Samurai, Martin, Chase and Martin Short play a trio of silent film stars who play the title characters--ridiculously costumed heroes who inevitably save the day for the oppressed. When Martin dares to try to negotiate their fee with the studio boss (Joe Mantegna) they get fired.

Meanwhile, down in Mexico, a woman from a village terrorized by a group of bandits led by El Guape (Alfonso Arau, in a witty performance) sees one of the Amigos' films and think that they are really heroes. She cables them, and, needing a job, the Amigos come down, thinking they're being hired to do a show. So when the first bandits come into town, they chase them off, thinking it's all make believe. Eventually, after Martin takes a bullet to the arm, they realize it's all on the level, and they run off. But, their manhoods challenged, the decide to head back and save the village.

This kind of mistaken identity was done again, and better, in 1999's Galaxy Quest. Martin seems to have had the idea to create a new comedy team, like the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers, but comes up woefully short. One of the best lines in the film points out why this doesn't work: when asked which one she likes best, a young Mexican woman says, "The dumb one," and her interrogator looks confused, as they are all dumb. None of the three has a particularly distinguishing characteristic. All of them are sweet, goofy and dim, but comedy requires some anger. Even Laurel and Hardy got made at each other, but a cross word is never exchanged between these Amigos.

There is the requisite slapstick, none of it inspired. Some of the gags are really labored, like Arau taunting his second-in-command for not knowing the meaning of "plethora." I really like Steve Martin, but in many films he leaves his sharpness behind, and the result is childish drivel. Three Amigos is a wasted opportunity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Island of Lost Souls

A while back I read H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, It has made into a movie several times, but the best, so the consensus goes, is 1932's The Island of Lost Souls, featuring Charles Laughton giving a dapper, bemused, and creepy performance as the mad doctor who turns animals into humans.

Wells hated the film, but it is well made, directed by Erle C. Kenton. The plot structure is similar to the book: a shipwrecked seaman (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a boat carrying many exotic animals. The surly drunken captain tosses him off the boat at the titular island, where he meets the doctor, dressed nattily in an ice cream suit. He slowly learns that the natives, who are brutish and hairy, are animals that have been turned into men through Moreau's process, which involves vivisection (Wells wrote the book as an anti-vivisection tract).

The main difference between the film and the book is that the script, written by Philip Wylie, has added two females to give it sex appeal. And since it was pre-code, it's a bit more naughty than normal. Kathleen Burke stars as Lota, a panther turned into a girl. Moreau gets the idea that Lota, his greatest creation, may mate with Arlen. Burke slinks around in a jungle bikini, looking pretty damn good for a 1932 film. Also in the film is Leila Hyams, as Arlen's fiancee, who hires a boat captain to come rescue him, but when Moreau sees her he instructs one of his beast men to rape her.

Bela Lugosi also is in the film, as the leader of the beast men, his face covered in fur (ironically, he turned down the role of Frankenstein's monster because he didn't want his face obscured by makeup).

The themes of Wells' work are here, mostly the encroachment of man into God's work. Moreau, at one point, asks Arlen if he knows what it feels like to be God. He has kept the beast men in line with the "law," which states that no one shall eat men, spill blood, or walk on all fours. But when Moreau instructs one of his beast men to kill someone, the beasts realize that the law is not inflexible. In the book, Moreau dies fairly early on, but here his death is much more horrifying, as the beasts give him some of his own medicine.

The Island of Lost Souls also has a number of cultural touchstones, some of them from Wells' book, some not. The "House of Pain," is the place where the animals are operated on. Part of the law involves the beasts chanting, "Are we not men?" which Devo borrowed. And it's where the phrase "the natives are restless tonight" originates, as the beast men howl in the distance. The film was banned in Britain for years because of the depiction of cruelty to animals.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the film is the makeup design by Wallie Westmore. On the Criterion DVD I viewed, there's an extra with famed makeup designer Rick Baker marveling over it, as it was in the days before foam rubber. The amount of actors needing makeup number in the dozens. Surely some of them used simple masks, but the makeup for the actors receiving closeups, such as Lugosi, was outstanding.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master

I don't know when I've been more confounded watching a film as I was with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. It's a bit like the philosophy espoused by the title character: it sounds great in the abstract, but when you look at it closely it's a bunch of hooey.

Anderson for me has been a hit-and-miss director. Loved Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, hated Punch-Drunk Love, was meh about Magnolia. This film is better than Punch-Drunk Love, but not by much. It's a bore, it's bewildering, and it has one of the most irritating performances I've seen ever seen.

The film begins on a South Seas island at the end of World War II. Sailors are cavorting on the beach, but one of them just doesn't seem right. He's Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and when the other men make a woman out of sand, he humps and finger-bangs it. Then he jerks off into the ocean.

The scene has a languid sensuality that reminded me of The Thin Red Line, and much of the film reminds me of Terence Malick--there's a kind of cosmic significance to it, if one can figure out what the hell is going on. Phoenix ends up in VA hospital, and when he takes a Rorschach test he thinks all of the ink blots are genitalia. For some reason he is released, and gets a job as a department store photographer, but his rage is too much to hold a job. For this reason he also loses a job as a cabbage picker.

Serendipitously (or perhaps not) he is found destitute by the crew of a yacht being used by an author named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He has all sorts of titles and pronouncements, and takes a shine to Phoenix, for no discernible reason, except that he admires Phoenix's talent as an amateur mixologist, making booze out of products like photo developing fluid and Lysol. Phoenix, completely unmoored, becomes part of the "Master's" retinue, learning something called "the Cause," which involves past-live regression and all sorts of other psychological quackery.

What we have here is what we had in There Will Be Blood--a facsimile of a father-son relationship. As Daniel Day-Lewis and his adopted son ultimately came to be disappointed with one another, so will the relationship in The Master curdle, but the reasons aren't precisely clear. For much of the movie I couldn't grasp the central core of the movie--what drew the two together? Sure, Phoenix needs a father and Hoffman needs a son (his own son, Jesse Plemons, thinks his father just makes everything up). But there's no connection between the two. In fact, Amy Adams, playing Hoffman's wife, speaks for the audience when she tries to get him to give up on Phoenix, as being too late to be helped.

The film looks great. The photography, by Mihai Malamaire Jr., is Oscar-worthy, with some stunning scenes of both sea and desert. The production design is terrific as well, giving the film an authentic post-war look. But I fidgeted the whole way through. There are too many random scenes of bizarreness, such as when Phoenix looks up on a party and visualizes all the women naked, of when Adams reads to him from a dirty book. Half the film is spent in a WTF mindset.

Hoffman, who plays against type here by being totally self-confident and in command, is excellent, though. The only scene I found compelling was when he asks Phoenix questions in what's called "processing." Hoffman's control is absorbing, but later, he will lose his cool when others question his theories, such as at a dinner party when he reveals that the Earth has been around for trillions of years. By the way, past lives are bullshit, and here's why--there are more people alive now than have ever died in the history of mankind, which means there's not enough past lives to go around, let alone having eight or nine of them. If we were reincarnated, some of us come from lesser life forms, like grasshoppers or squirrels.

The film's black hole is Phoenix, in one of the worst performances outside of an Ed Wood movie. It's as if he were extending the performance art joke of his recent "retirement." He walks with a slouch, talks through his teeth and out of the side of his mouth, and appears to be in a state of perpetual agitation. He's supposed to be a short fuse--he will assault anyone who defies Hoffman-- but I just couldn't take it. There's such a thing as good acting and then there's a lot of acting--sometimes the two are mistaken for each other by people who don't know anything about acting. He's also too old for the part--Phoenix is 38 and looks older, and his great love is a 16-year-old girl back home. Their scene together is creepy.

I'm mystified why this film is getting pretty good reviews. I don't usually question critic's motives, but it seems to me like there's an "emperor's new clothes" thing going on here. The film has all the makings of a classic, except that it's just no good. I hope I never have to see it again.

My grade for The Master: D+.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock is the second film to be made from the novel by Graham Greene. I have neither read the novel nor seen the first film, but the second is a fine, gritty example of British noir.

Set in the seaside English resort of Brighton in 1964 (Greene's novel was written in the '30s), the film concerns the world of gangsters running protection rackets. The opening scene shows the shadowy murder of a gang leader by his rival gang. A young hoodlum in that gang, Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) sees his opportunity to move up the ladder.

He eventually kills the man who killed his former boss, but a mousy young waitress (Andrea Riseborough) could be a witness against him. Like the recent film The Town, Riley seduces her to get a photograph that could incriminate the gang, but Riseborough, who is afraid of her own shadow, is so taken by him that she falls in love with him. Unlike The Town, the feeling is not reciprocated. Or, at least, not in any way a normal person could consider "love."

Directed by Rowan Joffe (the son of Roland), Brighton Rock has an abundance of great nighttime shots and images of the seedy pier of Brighton. Also appearing in the film are Helen Mirren, as her boss, who tries to convince of her Riley's villainy, and John Hurt, as an old bookie who carries a torch for Mirren. Andy Serkis appears briefly as the rival gang leader.

But the film belongs to Riley and Riseborough. He's quite good as the psychopathic killer, although his resemblance to comedian Bill Hader had me thinking inappropriately funny thoughts. Riseborough, who also played the Duchess of Windsor in Madonna's W/E, does a 180 here, as a woman with absolutely no self confidence who would fall in love with any man who looked her way. The closing scene, featuring her listening to a skipping phonograph record, is pathetically chilling.

Being based on a Graham Greene novel, there is all sorts of commentary on the nature of good and evil as it relates to the beliefs of Catholicism. Both leads are Roman (that's how Riley puts in when he sees that Riseborough is wearing a Madonna around her neck) and there are frequent shots of crucifixes.

That might work in the book, but it seems like overkill here. In fact, my only real complaint about the film is that Joffe has over-directed it. He has taken a small crime story and tried to give it epic status. Sometimes less is more. However, I found the transfer of the film to 1964, amid the youth riots between mods and rockers, to be an interesting juxtaposition.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

1861: The Civil War Awakening

There seem to be as many Civil War books as there are stars--Adam Goodheart, in the acknowledgements section of his book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, points out that there are more Civil War books than there were soldiers who fought at Bull Run. I've read my fair share, so it is with great pleasure to read a book like this one, that tells me things I had no clue about.

Goodheart has not written a chronological battle history, as most war books do. He instead tries to capture the mood of the country as it was torn apart. The chapters of the book bounce around in time and location, from the siege at Fort Sumter to the Golden Gate in San Francisco, to the small towns of Ohio that would send so many of its sons to war. There's even a discussion of a large comet that soared through the sky at Independence Day.

The best thing about the book is that it introduces us to people who were key figures in the war, but are almost completely obscure today. Elmer Ellsworth, in 1860, formed the New York Zouaves, named and uniformed like Algerian troops. Many were New York City fireman, called "fire b'hoys." They wowed crowds and he became a household name: "Never before had any American became famous and adored not for any particular accomplishments--not for being a poet or an actor or a war hero--but simply for his charisma."

Ellsworth became a close friend of Lincoln's, and his story had a tragic second act. Leading an expedition into Alexandria, he was shot and killed trying to remove a Confederate banner from a hotel that was visible from the White House. He killed the man who shot him, and both men became heroes for their respective causes.

We also learn about Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister who settled in California and gave many speeches for the Union cause. Goodheart gives him a great deal of credit for keeping California a free state. And then there are politicians on both sides, like John Crittenden, pro-Union senator from Kentucky, who put forth several proposals for compromise, including an amendment to the Constitution that would keep slavery alive in perpetuity, and an amendment that would prevent that amendment from being repealed. Louis Wigfall, senator from Texas, also comes in for some scrutiny. "By the age of twenty-five, Wigfall had managed to squander his considerable inheritance, settle three affairs of honor on the dueling ground, fight in a ruthless military campaign against the Seminoles, consume a small lakeful of bourbon, win an enviable reputation in whorehouses throughout the South, and get hauled before a judge on charges of murder. Three years after that, he took the next logical step and went into Texas politics."

After secession, Wigfall turns up in the most unlikely place--Fort Sumter. Goodheart goes into great, fascinating detail on Sumter, and its commander, Robert Anderson. Most historically literate Americans know that when the South fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, the Civil War began, but I had nothing else to tell about it. Goodheart elucidates. For instance, Anderson's men were originally in nearby Fort Moultrie, but moved under cover of night, despite not having the okay of army brass or President Buchanan (who doesn't come off very good in this volume). Then we get a chapter on the inside of the Fort during the siege. I didn't know Abner Doubleday, the supposed inventor of baseball, was there. Their position was hopeless, since the fort was constructed to defend invaders from the ocean, not the coast of South Carolina, and they had a dwindling supply of food. The terms of the surrender were given to Anderson by, of all people, Wigfall.

There is a lot more interesting stuff. We learn about a movement called the Wide Awakes--men who marched at night, wearing dark cloaks, in support of the union. About the condition of Washington, D.C. during that year, when it was overrun by soldiers (and, consequently, prostitutes) and the ruts in the streets were so bad that you could be killed by overturning carriages. The Capitol dome was then under construction, worked on mostly by black workers; they were, of course, denied entry in the Capitol as citizens.

There's also a chapter on the "Contrabands," three slaves who escaped and turned up at Fort Monroe, in Union-held Virginia. At that time, the Union followed the Fugitive Slave Act, and routinely returned slaves back to their masters. But the commander of the fort, Benjamin Butler (who is most well known by Civil War buffs as "Butler the Beast," who ruled over New Orleans with an iron fist) decided not to give them back, calling them contraband of war. Lincoln ultimately sided with him, and fugitive slaves flocked to the fort.

In the comments section on Amazon's listing for this book, Goodheart comes in for criticism because he is unflinching in his damnation of the Confederacy, and his insistence that the war was about slavery, which some Southern apologists still refuse to accept. "Men and women at the time, on both sides of the conflict, did understand it as a war against slavery, even before it began. This is clear from what they said and wrote. An important distinction must be drawn here: a war against slavery did not necessarily mean a war for abolition, at least not in 1861, or not for everybody. It did mean, though, that many white Northerners and even some white Southerners were ready to say Enough. Enough compromise of principles; enough betrayal of people and ideals, enough cruelty; enough gradual surrender of what had been won in 1776. The war represented the overdue effort to sort out the double legacy of America's founders: the uneasy marriage of the Declaration's inspired ideals with the Constitution's ingenious expedients."

Goodheart uses heavily poems of Walt Whitman as epigraphs, and the book itself is a very literary one. At times Goodheart allows the novelist within to break out--how many history books have passages like this one: "Eastward ran the train, through thawing fields where green seedlings of winter wheat were taking early root; past the felled brown ranks of last year's corn. Farmers' wives looked up and saw it in the distance, a solitary moving speck and drifting plume." This describes the train that took Abraham Lincoln from Springfield to Washington.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and as someone who disdains romanticizing the South and it's "peculiar institution," it was bracing to read a work of such clarity. "The Confederacy was never truly much of a cause--lost or otherwise. In fact, it might better be called an effect, a reactive stratagem tarted up with ex post facto justifications." Or, "Slaveholders and their allies burned books, banned newspapers, and terrorized ministers of the gospel. They had, in fact, made a mockery of the entire idea of American democracy, turning the phrase 'land of the free' into a sneer on European lips. And all this was over and above the crimes and outrages that Southerners perpetrated every day against four million helpless men, women, and children whom they kept in bondage, sold like cattle, and exploited for their sexual pleasure."

Even 150 years later, Goodheart can get angry. We all should.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

I haven't seen the first two films in the series, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, detailing the murders of three boys and subsequent investigation in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. But, since this one, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, I took a look. As one would imagine, it mostly covers the appeals and ultimate resolution of the men convicted of the crime.

I have no idea what I missed from the first two films: it's hard to imagine there could be enough for two other films. The opening brings us up to speed--three eight-year old boys were seen pedaling on their bicycles, and were not seen again until they were found bound, naked, and mutilated in a nearby wood (actual footage of the corpses is unsettling, to say the least). A month or so later, three teenagers were arrested for the crime. One of them, who the film says is mentally retarded, but there was no verification of that by any expert, gave a confession, which he later claimed was forced out of him.

Perhaps what I'm missing from the first two films is just how in the hell these boys were convicted. Because the confessor (Jesse Misskelly) did not testify, his confession was not admissible. There is no mention of any physical evidence. It appears the three, later dubbed the West Memphis Three, were convicted because they were strange, and rumors associated them with a Satanic cult. As the FBI has repeatedly pointed out, there is no evidence of any murders in the United States ever having been committed as part of a Satanic ritual.

But the three teenagers languished in jail, repeatedly bringing up appeals, all of them denied (by the same judge that tried them in the first place). They attracted the attention of celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, and had teams of lawyers trying to get them a new trial. DNA evidence, not feasible at the time of their trial, revealed that there was no DNA belonging to them at the scene. Also, it came to light that there was jury misconduct, with the confession discussed in deliberations when it wasn't supposed to be.

The film also makes a pretty good claim as to who the killer is. I don't want to reveal who that is here, because the film plays out like a mystery. This person made the mistake of suing the Dixie Chicks for defamation, and because he did he was open to questioning by deposition, which made him look more guilty.

Since I wasn't sure of the outcome, there's a good deal of suspense toward the end, wondering if these now men would get a new trial. The film itself is without filigree--there is no voiceover narration, just interviews, archival footage from news shows, and videotaped testimony. It's not a very artful film, but it lays out its case clearly and concisely.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ridge

As with the previous Michael Koryta novel that I've read, So Cold the River, the location is an unusual one (this time it's eastern Kentucky), and the mystery is leavened with the supernatural. In fact, this is mostly a ghost story, and a pretty good one at that.

In the area known as Blade Ridge, a crazy old drunk has built a lighthouse in the middle of the woods. When that man ends up blowing his brains out, a sheriff's deputy, Kevin Kimble, teams up with a reporter, Roy Darmus, to try to understand the photos the man had on the wall of his lighthouse, and later find that they all died in the area, or nearly died. Meanwhile, an exotic cat preserve, full of lions, tigers, leopards, and the world's only known black cougar, sets up shop nearby. The cats don't seem to like it at all, because we all know they can detect things that humans can't--even ghosts?

Kimble, ostensibly the hero of the piece, is one of the most flawed lawmen I've come across in a while. He's in love with a woman who shot him, and visits her regularly in prison.  He does all sorts of things that jeopardize everyone around him. Audrey Clark, the woman who runs the cat preserve, is a more interesting character, as she both loves the cats and fears them (the natural response, I would imagine). I'm one of those people who would never, in a million years, cozy up to a naturally wild animal like a tiger or leopard, no matter how tame they might be, and even watching other people do it on TV makes me nervous ("When animals attack!") This basic human fright is elegantly captured by Koryta, so when Audrey has to take refuge in a leopard's cage, you can really feel what it's like.

The main plot thread involves the mystery of why so many people have died on the ridge, and just what is that blue light that people see? Koryta lets the story unfold nicely, and the book has a satisfying conclusion. I have another book on my list that Koryta has written, and I hope to get to it soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jackie Brown

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. Sometimes he infuriates me, and his impact on the style of other, lesser directors can be unfortunate, but I'll always be among the first in line to see his pictures. Jackie Brown, his third feature, has sort of been lost in the shuffle, even with his limited filmography. The next picture released after his game-changing classic, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown was perceived as a disappointment. Does it deserve reappraisal?

I saw it on its first released in 1997 and I was among the disappointed. I found it meandering and bloated, not nearly as taut as the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, that inspired it. Tarantino took the book and made some big changes: he moved the locale from Miami to L.A., and changed the name and race of the lead character, ostensibly to give a big comeback to grindhouse queen Pam Grier. These changes work fine, but Tarantino, perhaps too fat and sassy from the accolades from Pulp Fiction, indulges himself wantonly.

The film centers around the title character, a flight attendant for a third-rate airline that flies from L.A. to Cabo San Lucas. She was busted for smuggling drugs, and thus has to work at the lesser company. She is still involved in illegal activity--she carries cash for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Stopped by the police and an ATF agent (Michael Keaton, who would reprise the role in Out of Sight, another Leonard adaptation) she decides to play both sides against the middle, and with the help of her bail bondsman (Robert Forster), she crafts a plan to make off with half of a million dollars.

Much of the charm of Leonard's book is still there, particularly the vivid low-life characters. Jackson is gleefully profane as Ordell, while Rober DeNiro is amusingly bewildered as Ordell's pal who has just been sprung from jail. Bridget Fonda is Jackson's "surfer girl," who does nothing but get high, watch TV, and lounge around in a bikini, but she also has designs of Jackson's money.

The only decent character is played by Forster, whose career was also resurrected by Tarantino, and earned him an Oscar nomination. It's not a flashy performance, but a professional and seemingly effortless one, and it anchors the picture.

What doesn't work? To start with, there's no need for this movie to be two and a half hours long. I wonder what Tarantino would have done if he weren't sitting on a pile of money, and instead was a first-time, lean and hungry director. I think it could have been much sharper and more focused, and less indulgent on his pet themes. We get his foot fetishism, with lingering shots of Fonda's toes, and languid scenes of characters just sitting around talking. There are numerous references to other movies: the opening credits are a nod to The Graduate, with Grier on a people mover at the airport (traveling from right left, even), but instead of hearing Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack we hear Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street," the them song of a staple of the blaxploitation films that Tarantino loves and made Grier famous. There's also a wink with Fonda watching her dad Peter's movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

But perhaps I'm holding the standards of this film too high. It's no Pulp Fiction, but it has numerous charms. Tarantino is a master of using music--having Jackson listening to Johnny Cash may not be realistic, but it's eye-opening, and his dialogue, with its frequent use of f-bombs and "n" words, is vulgar poetry. It has perhaps cinema's least sexy sex scene (between DeNiro and Fonda) and one of the sexiest chaste kisses (between Grier and Forster). Tarantino also has a marvelous knack for telling a story--in one pivotal scene in a mall, we see it repeated from three different angles. While it pads the length of the picture, I found it necessary and exhilarating, and also makes it clear.

I still think he's wasted his talent, replicating the trashy genres of his youth. Next he's going to make his own version of a spaghetti western, and it will probably be very good. But will it say anything?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Arbitrage

Arbitrage is the kind of fun, slick, juicy entertainment that is immensely satisfying upon viewing. Only after a period of hours do the "wait a minutes" creep in, and you realize that you've been had, but enjoyably so. This is a reminder why it's prudent to sleep on a film before reviewing it. Still, I recommend the film highly to anyone who enjoys the pleasures of glossy entertainment.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a billionaire venture capitalist. He is what Tom Wolfe called a "master of the universe." He's rich, handsome, has a great family, and a beautiful mistress. As the film opens he celebrates his 60th birthday at a party that might have been conceived by Norman Rockwell and Donald Trump's offspring.

But there are cracks in the facade. Not only does Gere flagrantly cheat on his wife, he's cooking his books. After taking a bath on an investment in a Russian copper mine, he has borrowed over 400 million from a friend to plug the hole in his account, so his sale to a bank will go through. When the audit is delayed, thus slowing the sale, he starts to scramble. Then he is involved in a criminal incident that would be irresponsible of me to elaborate on.

This takes the film into a different realm, involving a dogged detective (Tim Roth) and a young black man (Nate Parker), the son of Gere's former limo driver. This tangent, which sort of takes over the movie, is the least interesting thing about it, though it has the fun of an old Colombo episode (a key clue is a photo taken during a toll booth crossing).

What's most interesting about the film is the character study of Miller, as embodied by Gere. I've always thought Gere was an under-appreciated actor. I'm not sure why he hasn't been taken more seriously; maybe it's his pretty boy looks. Whatever the reason, he's never been better than he his here, exposing the inner core of a man who has reached the top but panics when it all starts to unravel. Scenes with his daughter (Brit Marling) and wife (Susan Sarandon) reveal the black heart behind the expensive suits.

Of course, one could say that it would be impossible for a man to keep those closest to him in the dark for such a long period. The scene in which his daughter realizes what he really is is heartbreaking (Marling is very fine in the role), but one could also say, if she's so smart, what took her so long? Sarandon's aria is better, because she basically knew who he was, but looked the other way as long as it suited her needs.

The film was written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, his debut,but he has film in his genes, as he is the brother of directors Eugene and Andrew Jarecki (the latter also co-founded Moviefone). Also, a shout out to Stuart Margolin, who I hadn't seen in ages and might have thought dead. He was a familiar face on '70s TV, particularly on The Rockford Files, and turns up here in a sly performance as Gere's attorney.

The film is also fun because it plays like an extended "Ask the Ethicist" column from the New York Times Magazine. There are a lot of, "What would you do" moments that could engage hours of conversation. Loyalty, integrity and honesty all take a beating in this film, and you may want to take a shower afterward. Not everyone receives justice in this film, just like real life, but the ending, which I found picture perfect, indicates that everyone got his just desserts.

My grade for Arbitrage: B+.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Leftovers

According to Christian belief, one day there will be a Rapture, and all the good people will be taken away to heaven, leaving the rest of us slobs to live for a certain number of years before the world ends. This has been the subject of many works of literature, from The Book of Revelation to the Left Behind series. Tom Perrotta has given his distinctive stamp to the idea: what happens to the left behind in the first part of the twenty-first century in suburban New Jersey?

Perrotta, a chronicler of suburban life in novels like Election and Little Children, has once again set his novel in a leafy suburb (I think it's New Jersey). The action begins right after the Rapture, although no one can agree that is a rapture, because a surprisingly eclectic group disappeared: "As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all." Millions have disappeared from the face of the Earth, without leaving a trace.

Perrotta is amusingly specific: "Depending upon your viewing habits, you could listen to experts debating the validity of conflicting religious and scientific explanations for what was either a miracle or a tragedy, or watch an endless series of gauzy montages celebrating the lives of departed celebrities--John Mellencamp and Jennifer Lopez, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the Pope."

The book focuses on several characters, all linked to the one town. Kevin Garvey, businessman and mayor, lost no one in the Rapture, but his wife has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant, who wear all white, take a vow of silence, and smoke cigarettes. They have accepted that time is running out, and pester others by watching them silently to remind them of it: "The G.R. wasn't big on spelling out its creed; it had no priests or ministers, no scripture, and no formal system of instruction. It was a lifestyle, not a religion, an ongoing improvisation rooted in the conviction that the post-Rapture world demanded a new way of living, free from the old, discredited forms--no more marriage, no more families, no more consumerism, no more politics, no more conventional religion, no more mindless entertainment. Those days were done. All that remained for humanity was to hunker down and await the inevitable."

What's so striking is how life goes on pretty much the same for most. Kevin tries to keep watch over his teenage daughter, Jill, who has shaved her head and starts ditching classes, influenced by her friend Aimee, who has moved into the house. Kevin's son Tom left college to follow another religion, the Holy Wayners, who was founded by a man who started giving consolation hugs to people and ended up running an empire. Wayne gets busted for sexual abusing teenage girls (Asians are his preference) in the hope of siring a messiah, and Tom ends up escorting the pregnant sixteen-year-old, Christine, to the designated birthing home.

Meanwhile Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two children in the "Sudden Departure," obsessively watches Spongebob Squarepants and is the lingering object of pity. She tries to start again by striking up a relationship with Kevin, who misses his wife but is not above moving on himself.

The Leftovers has an overarching theme of loss and grief, but is also piquantly funny about the mores of suburban life. In a way, one can compare what the left behind are going through to the attitudes of post-9/11, but on a much grander scale, and that there is no villain involved. What would you do if, in an instant, millions of people, inevitably including people you knew, disappeared,? Perrotta gets it right, I think. You would either join a crazy cult or do absolutely nothing.

And then there are the right-on portraits of the minutiae of suburban American life, such as the family holiday dinner: "She was relieved to hear that there might not be a turkey at Christmas dinner. Karen had made a big one for Thanksgiving, and the whole family had gathered around it for what felt like an excruciating length of time, rhapsodizing about its golden brown skin and moist interior. What a beautiful bird, they kept telling one another, which was a weird thing to say about a dead thing without a head. And then her cousin Jerry had made everyone pose for a group photograph, with the beautiful bird occupying the place of honor. At least nobody would do that with roast beef."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Consolers of the Lonely

My admiration for Jack White continues with every disc I acquire. The second album by one of his projects, Consolers of the Lonely, was released in 2008, and I have just now purchased it and given it several listens. It's marvelous.

All but one of the songs were written by White and band-mate Brendan Benson. White, who also has his work with White Stripes, Dead Weather, and now a solo career, is an amazingly prolific songwriter, and on this album shows his range of talent as a vocalist. There are straight ahead kick-ass rock tunes like "Salute Your Solution," "Hold Up," and "Five on the Five," which he uses his customary yowl.

But other song show different styles. I love the tune "Many Shades of Black," not only for the songwriting but for White's vocal, which at times sounds like that of a teen heart-throb of the fifties. On "These Stones Will Shout" White lets his vocal chords soar like some kind of arena rocker, for example Bono.

"Old Enough" is another fine song, which has a sensual overtone, as if a man was telling a girl to wait to be older, when she would then be old enough for him. And "The Switch and the Spur" is a mini-Western: "In the heat of the desert sun/on the blistering trail/An appaloosa and/a wanted man sprung from jail." The horn section on this song is magnificent.

The magnum opus of the album is the closing number, a Dylanesque story song of murder called "Carolina Drama." White begins, "I'm not sure if there's a point to this story/But I'm going to tell it again/So many other people try to tell the tale/Not one of them knows the end." The song is full of great little details, such as the choice of a murder weapon: "Billy got up enough courage, took it up/And grabbed the first blunt thing he could find/It was a cold, glass bottle of milk/That got delivered every morning at nine."

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Jack White is the preeminent rock performer and writer of the twenty-first century.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Brigadoon

My retrospective of Gene Kelly films ends with 1954's Brigadoon, not that Gene Kelly's career ended then. He went on to make many more films, but the kind of musical that was his bailiwick was no longer, and much of his work ahead was for television and just being Gene Kelly.

Film musicals themselves changed, too. For Kelly, he was really in the right place at the right time, as the joyous, frothy MGM musicals of the '40s and early '50s would soon give way to the lumbering, road show musicals that would dominate the scene for the next two decades. Taking the cue from Broadway musicals, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, and the one adapted here, film musicals were now epic and magnificent in scope. Some of them would be very good, but something was also lost.

Brigadoon, adapted from the musical by Lerner and Loewe, is a pretty but ultimately empty exercise. Two American tourists, Kelly and Van Johnson, are hunting in the Scottish Highlands when they stumble across a village not on the map. It is full of Tartan and kilt-wearing villagers, and the place looks like it is Scottish by way of Disneyland. Kelly becomes enchanted by the place, especially by Fiona (Cyd Charisse). He would like to stay, but is told that the village only appears once every 100 years, after a minister asked for a miracle that would keep his home from changing with the times.

As it happens, the film was shot on a sound stage, so the misty scenery is Hollywood magic (the producers did look at filming on location, but the weather was not friendly to their desires). Shot in Cinemascope, it is lovely, but there's something missing in the film. I've never seen the stage version, but it feels like everyone is going through the motions here. Johnson, as the acerbic, cynical friend, has all the best lines, while Kelly and Charisse's romance seems limp and uninspired.

The show is famous for at least one song, "Almost Like Being in Love," and has several songs with a Scottish flavor. If you like Riverdance or things like that, this may be to your liking.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Singin' in the Rain

In 1951, Gene Kelly won an honorary Oscar and his film An American in Paris, won Best Picture in an upset. I am not crazy about that film, and in my review I mention that I'm something of a heretic when it comes to Singin' in the Rain, which is not only acclaimed as the greatest musical of all time, but is way up there on lists of great films of all time, in any genre. It is number five on AFI's list, and came in at number 20 on the recent Sight and Sound critic's poll.

I am not entirely convinced of its greatness. To be sure, it is a charming, funny, and accomplished film, but the fifth-best ever? Or even the 20th? I have come across many people who have called it their favorite film, and in a way I envy these people, who obviously lack cynicism or despair.

I will say this--Singin' in the Rain has a few of the best musical numbers staged on film. It certainly contains the best one of all time--but I'm not sure which one: Gene Kelly's epic dance to the title tune, or Donald O'Connor's comic masterpiece, "Make 'em Laugh?" "Good Mornin'," and "Moses Supposes" are also winners, and while Kelly's ballet "Broadway Melody" goes on a bit too long, the part where he dances with Cyd Charisse, who sports a train that is about twenty feet long, is stunning.

The film is something of a jukebox musical, incorporating old songs to tell a story about when films learned to talk. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a former vaudevillian, turned stunt man, turned leading man, is paired with a vain star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). They are at the top of their stardom, but when the talkie craze hits, there's a problem--Hagen speaks with a horrible New York accent. After many comic attempts to work around this, Kelly's pal O'Connor comes up with an idea--have Kelly's girlfriend Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) dub Hagen's voice. This works like a charm, but Hagen demands to have all the credit.

This is the second time I've seen the film, and I took note of some aspects. For one, the dance numbers have a sparsity of cuts. I counted only about six or seven in the "Singin' in the Rain" number (there is a rumor that it it was shot in one continuous take with multiple cameras, but this is not true. It is true that Kelly had a 103 degree fever). Directors Kelly and Stanley Donen employ a more theatrical presentation, showing Kelly almost always in full body, with the notable exception of when the camera zooms in on his face turned upward, a fantastic shot that gets me every time.

In O'Connor's "Make 'em Laugh," I think there are fewer cuts, which is amazing considering the pratfalls he endures. I wonder how many takes that took.

Hagen's performance, which earned an Oscar nomination, is a thing of great beauty, too. I was interested to learn, in a perfect definition of irony, that it was her natural voice that was used to dub Reynolds at times, including the climactic scene, when Hagen is exposed as a phony. Another woman, Betty Noyes, dubbed Reynolds' singing voice in other songs.

So, why my reticence? There is some dead weight in Singin' in the Rain. The tribute to old style movie musicals, "Beautiful Girl," only points out how ridiculous those old musicals were, and "You Were Meant for Me," supposedly Kelly and Reynolds' big romantic number, is really a chance to go to the bathroom. Also, the character of R.F. Simpson, played ably by Millard Mitchell, is pure fantasy. No studio head in those days would be so benign.

I like Singin' in the Rain, I really do, but can't call it one of the best movies ever made.

Friday, September 14, 2012

True Blood, Season 4

One of my yearly pleasures is absorbing the latest season of True Blood available on DVD. It means I'm one season behind the actual broadcast, but it beats paying a lot for HBO.

I think this season of True Blood, the fourth, may be the best one yet. It seems that Bon Temps, Louisiana, somwhere near Shreveport, is a hotbed of supernatural beings, or "supes." We've already met vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, fairies, and now witches.

The show picks up with our heroine, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), in fairlyand. It seems nice, but they want her for nefarious purposes, so she escapes. When she's back, she's been gone a year, and everyone thought she was dead. Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), her one-time vampire fiancee, is now King Vampire of Louisiana. Eric Northman, (Alexander Skarsgard) his rival for Sookie's affection, has bought her house.

But a group of Wiccans, led by sad sack Marnie (Fiona Shaw, terrific) has aroused Bill's attention, because they have practiced necromancy. This means they can control the dead, which means they can control vampires. He sends Eric to deal with it, but Marnie casts a spell on him, removing his memory. Sookie saves him, and likes the new Eric so much she falls in love with him.

The theme of this season seems to be people are not who they seem. Several characters are possessed, or impersonated, by other characters, which gives the actors a chance to behave completely differently. Sam (Sam Merlotte), the shapeshifter, has a brother Tommy (Marshall Allman) with the same skill, and he can also impersonate people. He passes himself as Sam, to both comic and tragic effect. Eric, usually sinister and suave, is now like an overgrown puppy dog.

Also, the always entertaining Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) discovers he's a medium, which means dead spirits can inhabit him. Over the season he will be possessed by two different woman.

The main arc of the show is Marnie, though. She summons the spirit of a Spanish woman burned at the stake by vampires in the 1600s. This spirit, Antonia (Paola Turbay) guides Marnie on a path of retribution, which means Sookie, now torn between two suitors, must fight for her vampires. She's aided by her usual gang--Tara (Rutina Wesley), Lafayette, Jason, (Ryan Kwanten), her endearingly dim brother, and Jesus (Kevin Alejandro), Lafayette's boyfriend who also happens to be a male witch, or brujo.

There are several subplots. Jason gets kidnapped by werepanthers, who want his seed to make new ones, and falls for Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) after drinking some of her blood. Problem: she's the girfriend of his best friend, Hoyt (Jim Parrack). Sheriff Andy (Chris Bauer), is hooked on V, or vampire blood. Arlene and Terry (Carrie Preston and Todd Lowe) witness some mysterious goings-on with their new baby. And Alcide, a werewolf who befriended Sookie in season three, has to deal with a new pack, led by the sinister Marcus (Daniel Buran).

As usual, the season ends with several cliff-hangers, but I'll have to wait until next summer to have them revealed. Meanwhile, this season was a lot of fun. I'm sure real Wiccans don't appreciate once again being associated with evil, but I guess it's an occupational hazard. But True Blood, though full of grim violence, never takes itself too seriously. My favorite line of this year's season is when Sookie tells Eric: "You just killed my fairy godmother!"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Summer Stock

Although I'm writing about Summer Stock during a retrospective of Gene Kelly films, the focus of this film is squarely on Judy Garland. It was her last MGM film--they finally tired of the drama she created surrounding her drug abuse and mental problems. In a totally theatrical way, her last music number she filmed would end up being one of her most iconic.

Garland plays a farmer who is having trouble making ends meet. She has a dull fiance (Eddie Bracken) and a faithful housekeeper (Marjorie Main), but her two farmhands quit, not having been paid. Her artistic sister (Gloria DeHaven) has invited a troupe of actors, led by Kelly, to use the farm's barn to showcase Kelly's new musical.

The comedy stemming from actors trying to pitch in and help out on a farm is ripe, but frankly the film didn't do enough with it, beyond Phil Silvers trying to milk a cow by talking to it. Kelly, who replaced Mickey Rooney (he and Garland had made millions with several musicals in the early 40s, but by 1950 Rooney's star had dimmed considerably), works hard to keep the film afloat, especially with a dance number involving a newspaper and squeaking board, but he can't do it on his own.

But at the end of the film, Garland, who has joined the show, performs "Get Happy." Wearing a tuxedo jacket, fedora, and black stockings, the scene seems to come from a different movie--indeed, it was filmed later, to give the film some extra zip. Garland, like some musical comedy angel, moves her way through a chorus of male dancers, imploring us to "forget your troubles, come on get happy, you gotta chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, we're heading for the judgement day." It's a mesmerizingly good scene, one that I could watch over and over, and except for perhaps "Over the Rainbow," it is the most special of all the songs she sang in her career.

Other than that, Summer Stock is blah. But Kelly wasn't through--his next film would be heralded as one of the best ever.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Side by Side

"Is film dead?" That's the central question of Chris Kenneally's Side by Side, co-produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves. He speaks to many of the top directors of the day, plus several cinematographers, editors, and performers to judge whether the digital revolution in cinema is a good thing, a bad thing, or just another choice.

Photochemical film, also called celluloid, was the way to shoot films for over the first century of the art form. Videotape, once it became feasible for home use, was the choice of television, documentaries, and pornography, and never used by any self-respecting filmmaker. But once digital cameras were introduced, which did not use film but instead a microchip to process and store images, the film world slowly started to change.

At first it was a matter of economics. Dogma 95, a Danish film collective, used it to startling effect, most notably in the film Celebration and then the work of Lars Van Triers. But it was still a niche way of making films, not taken seriously by big time cinematographers.

Over the course of discussion with directors and cinematographers, it seems that there has always been a bit of a struggle between the two. Cinematographers, it was said, were the only one who knew how to shoot film, and many became involved in the business for the "voodoo" of it, and because it was they who could make magic. They would shoot a scene, and a director had no idea what he or she had until the next day's dailies. Digital cameras made it possible to see what they had immediately, and in takes much longer than the ten-minutes one load of film could give them. It made filmmaking faster and much cheaper.

It was George Lucas, who in the film comes across like Van Helsing trying to put the stake in film, who upped the ante. Stars Wars I was the first major feature to be projected digitally. At the time, there were four digital projectors. In a few years there will be 100,000. Then, Star Wars II was shot using high-definition digital cameras, which eliminated much of the grainy resolution problems that the old digital had. Hollywood was in an uproar. But the revolution has continued. In 2009, Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Celebration, won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, the first cinematographer to win using that format.

Reeves covers the gamut of the filmmaking process in his interviews, conducting casually (with his tonsorial style changing from scene to scene). There is two sides to every argument--some actors like it, especially those trained in the theater, like John Malkovich, or started with indie films, like Greta Gerwig. There are others who don't. A story is told about Robert Downey Jr., who hates that he can't disappear to his trailer between takes.

I learned a lot I didn't know. I mean, I knew basically how a camera works, but if you don't, you get that here. I've always tried to ignore the technical aspect of cinema--I once took a course at NYU and when the teacher started talking about emulsion I knew I was in over my head. But digital filmmaking eliminates the need for a lot of this knowledge. It means that a lot of different people can make films, which Reeves asks, "Isn't that a good thing?" But some say no, because the more films that are made, the more junk is made. Digital cameras means cinema is more democratic, but not necessarily better.

Reeves and Kenneally make sure to get all opinions. Christopher Nolan and his DP, Wally Pfister, are film-to-the-end guys. Lucas, of course, is "death to film." David Fincher was pleased that a digital camera weighing only five pounds was developed for him for The Social Network. Others, like Martin Scorsese, see it as a choice, like black and white versus color, although Scorsese seems wistful for the old days, citing that shooting virtually takes a lot of reality out of it. James Cameron scoffs at this. "What about film was ever real?" he says, citing the artificiality of a film set. David Lynch is interviewed, and I would have liked to hear more from him.

The changing ways people view films are also discussed. "Film was the church of the twentieth century," is said in the film, when "going to the movies" was a communal experience. Now, young people don't view "going to the movies" the same way, watching it in any number of ways, whether on a TV or an iPhone. Barry Levinson remembers watching a film in theaters that had parting red curtains, a way of life that has disappeared.

The answer to the question, "Film is dead," is complicated. For one thing, no more film cameras are being manufactured by the companies who made them. One expert says that in five years, film will be the exception rather than the rule. But it should be noted that film is still being used; two of the biggest hits of this year, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises, were shot on film.

What's important to remember is that what is most important about a film is not what camera is used, but how good the story is. A good story, even if it's shot on a cell phone, is a good story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On the Town

"New York, New York, it's a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. And people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!" So goes the refrain from the opening number of On the Town, the fizzy musical that once again reteams Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on leave. Only this time it's in New York, which is indeed a wonderful town (though in the Broadway version, it was a "helluva" town, but changed to wonderful to satisfy the Production Code).

Based on the musical by Leonard Bernstein, the film jettisoned most of Bernstein's songs ("New York, New York" is one that managed to survive), earning Bernstein's disavowal. I've never seen or heard Bernstein's score, but it must have been better than the forgettable songs by Roger Edens, who as co-producer thought Bernstein's music was too complicated.

Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin are the three tars on the loose for 24 hours in the Big Apple. Sinatra, playing true to form, is the shy guy, wanting to go sightseeing, using his grandfather's antiquated guide book (he's disappointed to learn that the Hippodrome was torn down). Kelly is the man on the make, looking to score with a chick, as is the pleasantly goofy Munshin.

Each will meet a girl immediately. Kelly, on the subway, falls in love with a girl on a poster. She's the month's Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen), a sort of Playmate of the Month for the Transit Authority, minus the nudity. Kelly is determined to track her down, and while doing so Munshin falls for an anthropologist (Ann Miller)at the natural history museum, who's into him because of his uncanny resemblance to a caveman, and Sinatra is snagged by a man-hungry cabbie (Betty Garrett), who drives the bunch all over town, even though her shift is over and the taxi is way overdue at the garage. Also at the natural history museum, Munshin accidentally knocks over a dinosaur statue (pilfering a bit from Bringing Up Baby) that gets the cops after him.

On the Town is fun but about as shallow as a birdbath. Of course, this was the motif of MGM musicals--make everyone forget they have problems by taking them into a Technicolor world of silliness and dance. Kelly, who co-directed with Stanley Donen, employs his interest in ballet, which he would explore to greater extent in An American in Paris, with a late dance sequence that basically sums up the whole movie in ballet.

Many real New York locations were used, which was unusual in those days, ranging from Grant's Tomb to the Brooklyn Bridge. Sinatra, at one point, says that there will probably be a lot of beautiful girls at Grant's Tomb, a very funny line, considering I've been there. Nope, no pretty girls.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tarzan of the Apes

It was 100 years ago that the first appearance of one of the most enduring characters in all of literature made his first appearance. Serialized in magazine form (and then published in book form in 1914), Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. Since then, scores of films, TV and radio shows, comic books, and video games have centered around the hero. Burroughs himself wrote a few dozen sequels. Even a town in California was named after him.

Though the novel can't be called "literature," for a work of pulp fiction it is, as they used to say, a ripping good yarn. Much of it is familiar: an English lord, John Clayton, Viscount of Greystoke, and his wife Alice are put ashore on the coast of west Africa by mutineers. They build a cabin, and Alice gives birth to a baby boy. But she dies, and then Clayton is killed by an ape. A female ape, who has just lost her baby, takes the infant as her own, and he is raised as an ape.

He learns the ways of apes, and becomes proficient, due to his great size, strength, and agility. But Burroughs makes it clear that it is his intelligence that sets him apart. Without it, because he is not as strong as the apes, he would be easily killed, but because he is able to outwit other animals, and to use tools (such as a knife and rope) he becomes their king.

Tarzan, as he names himself, can also read. He finds his parents' cabin, and while not knowing his true parentage studies the books inside. He teaches himself to read, but does not know how to speak. Thus, when he is grown, and a party of white explorers reaches the area, he can leave a note for them.

Included in this party is Jane Porter, whom Tarzan instantly falls in love. He rescues her several times, but while saving a French naval officer from a horrible death by the local black tribe, Jane leaves. The French officer takes him back to civilization with him, and pieces together his progeny. Tarzan seeks Jane out in Wisconsin, of all places, and saves her from a forest fire.

This all makes for a lot of fun, but as a mature reader one can not help but make some serious analysis. First of all, there is the casual (and at times, overt) racism. Tarzan encounters the tribe several times, and always easily defeats them, mostly by scaring them. Burroughs at one point refers to whites as the "higher race," certainly well within the beliefs of his time. The tribesman are represented as superstitious and cowardly, and Tarzan constantly steals their poison arrows. (I was always amused that, in the films, the blacks stopped at the river's edge, reinforcing the stereotype that blacks don't swim).

Burroughs also seems to be using Tarzan to represent the ideal man, a man who can conquer nature but also, given that he is nobility, return to civilization and conquer that, too. Tarzan has no faults, except that he has learned the law of the jungle: "He killed for food most often, but, being a man, he sometimes killed for pleasure, a thing which no other animal does; for it has remained for man alone among all creatures to kill senselessly and wantonly for the mere pleasure of inflicting suffering and death."

At the end of the book, Tarzan not only rescues Jane from a fire, but from an arranged marriage to a villainous figure. Tarzan wants to kill him, but Jane stops him, fearing Tarzan would be arrested. Instead, Tarzan merely squeezes the villain's throat until he agrees to go away. How often, in the civilized world of litigation, would we desire this to be a solution to our problems? (provided we were strong enough to squeeze someone's throat).

The book also has some antiquated ideas about women: "But the girl, ah--that was a different matter. He did not reason here. He knew what she was created to be protected, and that he was created to protect her." Jane is given something of a backbone, though, compared to her maid, Esmeralda, who is described as being a 300-pound black woman who faints at the slightest provocation. "Gaberelle!" is her cry of choice, presumably a mispronunciation of "Gabriel." Toward the end of the book, sexism and racism combine when Jane is kidnapped by an ape, to "make her his wife." Surely fears of miscegenation, more than bestiality, make this scene vivid.

But, quaintness aside, Tarzan of the Apes is a rich adventure story. Tarzan gets in many scrapes, with lions, gorillas, and of course, the tribesman. There is a buried treasure, and some comic relief with Jane's father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, and his learned friend, Philander. They go wandering in the jungle and are stalked by a lion, and the professor is offended by this. They are, of course, rescued by Tarzan. I wondered what kind of ape he was raised by, since gorillas are pointedly mentioned as enemies, and I read that Burroughs created a fictional species, the Mangani. Burroughs creates an interesting world within the tribe of apes. Though it may be a potboiler, the book is a lot of fun, but I think I can skip reading the sequels.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Garbage

Seventeen years ago Garbage released their first album. They were part of the vast repository known as "alternative" rock, which, as time goes on, has less and less meaning. Mainly, it seems to me now, "alternative" just meant that a band played straight-ahead rock and roll, which, in the otherwise horrible music landscape of the '90s, was rare.

Garbage's first album, self-titled, is one of my favorites of the period. The males of the group recruited Scottish chanteuse Shirley Manson from another band called Angelfish, in the always correct view that a sexy girl singer can't hurt. That first record was full of great songs, most notably "Only Happy When It Rains," and "Queer," and "Milk," which highlighted Manson's overt sexuality.

After that, Garbage released three more albums. I have the second one, titled Version 2.0, and after listening to both back to back recently realized that the old axiom about first and second records is true--you have a lifetime to make the first, only a year to make the second. Garbage's status in my view fell so far that I didn't bother getting their third or fourth albums.

But I was reminded recently of how much I liked that first album, so bought their new album, their first in seven years, called Not Your Kind of People. Aside from a few interesting songs, it's a routine record; it doesn't suck, it's listenable, but it doesn't have the spark that made them good in the first place.

Most of the songs are forgettable, guitar-driven rock, with Manson's vocals intoning mundane lyrics. We actually hear "it's darkest before the dawn," and a whole song about "I Hate Love." There's also a song called "Beloved Freak" that has the noble sentiment of encouraging oddballs to believe in themselves and remember that they "are not alone," but it's undercut by an obvious choir.

But, as I mentioned, there are few songs to make the purchase worthwhile. "Blood for Poppies" has a kind of hip-hop flair, with an excellent guitar lick, and vocals that are intriguing yet obscure. I also liked the title track, which recalls the kind of mystery of "Queer." Another good song is "What Girls Are Made Of," which certainly musty have been penned by Manson, for the first verse is about menstruation.

After a seven-year hiatus, I had higher hopes for a new Garbage record, but am merely satisfied, not enthralled.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

As previously stated, Gene Kelly's dream as a young man was to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team of his hometown. In Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a 1949 film directed by Busby Berkeley, he's shortstop for the Wolves, the defending world champion at the turn of the twentieth century. His double-play combination is Frank Sinatra, and the first baseman is Jules Munshin. Together they are, as the song goes, "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg."

This buoyant, charming film is impossible to dislike, even if it is corny. Baseball fans and non-fans alike will enjoy it, as it doesn't get the details of the game wrong, nor does it require a deep understanding (it's no musical version of Moneyball).

Kelly and Sinatra are not only teammates but best pals. During the off-season they have a vaudeville act song and dance act, and get to Florida just in time for spring training. The team has a new owner, and it turns out to be a woman--Esther Williams (yes, they manage to get a scene with her in a pool, singing the title song). In a replay of Anchors Aweigh, at first Sinatra falls for her, but it's Kelly who ends up pining for her, despite their initial hatred of each other.

The film really is Anchors Aweigh in baseball uniforms, but much better paced, for once again Kelly is the lady's man, Sinatra the shy guy, who ends up with a down to earth type (in Anchors, it was Pamela Britton, here it's Betty Garrett).

The music is lively and not too insistent--I think there were only about five numbers, including an Irish dance sequence done by Kelly. Toward the end some additional conflict is thrown in with professional gamblers (led by Edward Arnold) trying to get Kelly to throw the pennant.

This is a perfect film for a warm summer's day, just before game time.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Pirate

The Pirate was MGM's most expensive musical. Starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, directed by Vincente Minelli, and with songs by Cole Porter, it figured to be another notch in the MGM pantheon of great musicals. But it turned out to be a critical and financial flop. Why? Because most viewers didn't get the joke.

Based on a play by S.N. Behrman, The Pirate is a spoof of swashbuckling films,with a winking eye the audience. This kind of parody apparently wasn't in vogue then, and the film has had a bit of a reassessment. I kind of liked it, appreciating the broad humor and zest that was on display by the performers.

Garland plays a young Spanish woman in the Caribbean. She is to be married off to the village's mayor, (Walter Slezak), a corpulent but rich man, who has no desire to travel. Kelly is a traveling entertainer, who falls in love with Garland at first site.

Garland, it turns out, has a romantic fascination with a legendary pirate, Black Macoco, whose whereabouts are unknown. Kelly, learning this, pretends to be the pirate, but...well, I'll won't spoil the surprise, but mistaken identity is key in this picture.

The songs by Porter are largely unforgettable, but great a whiz-bang treatment. Garlands sings "Mack the Black," which amusingly plays on the two different pronunciations of "Caribbean," while the most famous song is "Be a Clown," which Kelly performs just as he is to be lead to the gallows. Needless to say, he doesn't get hanged.

Kelly arranged the dances, and once again they are muscular but balletic. He has a fantasy sequence as the pirate, wearing shorts that make him look like the Village People's version of a pirate. Slezak is very funny in his role, and Garland is great, though you can start to see the effects of her chemical dependency on her face. Apparently she slowed production a great deal.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Lawless

Lawless, a not-so-great movie, is a production designer's wet dream. Therefore, the first named in this review will be Chris Kennedy, who recreated prohibition-era Appalachia with such precision--the advertising signs, the cars, the wooden structures, the stills--that it was a marvel to take in. I also give great props to costume designer Margot Wilson and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who captures some beautiful scenes, such as a dress burning, a fallen man in a snow squall, a country woman hoisting a case of hooch onto her shoulder as if it were a sack of flour, a showdown on a covered bridge, and a naked Jessica Chastain entering a bedroom like a panther.

I don't give a lot of credit to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, because the story of Lawless is overwhelmed by the look of the picture. I was more interested in a tin sign advertising grape soda hanging on the wall of a general store than I was in the goings-on, which concerns a war between a bootlegging family and the corrupt deputy who tries to bring them to justice.

The Bondurant brothers fancy themselves indestructible. Howard (Jason Clarke), who seems to not be playing with a full deck, was the only survivor of a platoon in World War I. Forrest (Tom Hardy), the taciturn ringleader, caught Spanish flu but survived. Younger brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the runt of the litter, does not take full part in the enterprise, lacking the toughness of his brothers. He wants to join in, admiring the big-name gangsters like others admire baseball stars.

A federal officer comes to town, and we can tell he's no-good because he's perfumed, wears a bow-tie, and has bleached eyebrows. He's played by Guy Pearce in a very bad performance, though I can't blame Pearce entirely, because his character is given no place for growth. At least he didn't have a mustache to twirl. He has brought the other moonshiners in line in a protection racket, but the Bondurants don't go along.

The problem with this film is that it's all sizzle and no steak. I just couldn't get behind the brothers, who are, after all, crooks. Unlike films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, which ask us to empathize with criminals, the Bondurant brothers are just lifeless blobs. I liked Hardy's technique, but Forrest seems to expend a great deal of energy with every word. Howard is a nonentity, and I guess I never will get the stardom of LaBeouf, who provides nothing here. He gets a subplot involving his romancing of the daughter of a Mennonite preacher (Mia Wasikowska) that is completely dull.

A few other subplots are also underdeveloped. Gary Oldman has a couple of scenes as a famous gangster, but he gives us nothing more than, "Hey, it's Gary Oldman!" Chastain appears as a woman with a mysterious past who takes a job at the Bondurant's store, but she's wasted (aside from the nude scene).

Lawless is based on a true story, so perhaps I just have to accept the instances where, despite the state of emergency medicine in Appalachia in 1931, characters make remarkable recoveries from seemingly fatal wounds. But it comes across as bullshit.

With the talent involved, Lawless is a profound disappointment, but lovely to look at.

My grade for Lawless: C.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Three Musketeers (1948)

In 1948 Gene Kelly starred as d'Artagnan in the MGM production of The Three Musketeers. It was a non-musical, but Kelly's dancing ability came in handy for the elaborate sword fights, which are extremely well choreographed and exciting, if not a little unrealistic.

The novel by Alexandre Dumas has been filmed scores of times. Of all the versions I've seen, I prefer the two films that Richard Lester made in the 1970s, which include a darker side to the story. But this version, directed by George Sidney, is a perfectly capable entry, with deeply saturated Technicolor, a rompish wit, and some fun, if not hammy, performances.

Sticking somewhat faithfully to the book, the film follows Kelly as he leaves his provincial village for Paris, hoping to be a musketeer (one of the king's guards). On his first day he manages to insult each of three of them, the famed Athos (Van Heflin), Aramis (Robert Coote), and Porthos (Gig Young), and schedules duels with each of them. But they are interrupted by the guards of the king's advisor Richelieu, and combine their efforts to defeat them, bonding in the process: "One for all, and all for one!"

Richelieu (Vincent Price) is scheming to draw France into a war with England, and connives to have jewels stolen that will reveal the queen (Angela Lansbury) as having an adulteress affair with the Duke of Buckingham. But the musketeers ride to the rescue.

Later, there will be more intrigue, as Kelly will fall in love with Constance (June Allyson), lady in waiting to the queen, who is kidnapped by the evil Lady de Winter (Lana Turner), who is working with Richelieu. There are escapes, gunfights, and of course plenty of swordplay, as the musketeers fight for the king.

The film was forced to delay production because Kelly had broken his ankle, but he certainly recovered, shown by his athleticism (one wonders what kind of an athlete he would have made--he once said he wanted to be shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates). Heflin, as the hard-drinking, melancholy Athos, gives the film a different flavor, and Price is at his hammy best as Richelieu, who is not identified as a Cardinal in order to spare the Catholic Decency League. Frank Morgan has a few delightful scenes as King Louis VII.

For all of the fun of this film, it does have a strikingly casual attitude about death. Many of the fights end with someone skewered with a foil, and the musketeers just laugh about it. Life must have been really cheap in 1625.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

"And it is for this, gentleman, that I am here today, because I haven't condemned, I haven't judged; I have loved my fellow man; I have loved the weak; I have loved the poor; I have loved the struggling; I have fought for their liberties, for their rights, that they might have something in this world more than the hard conditions that social life has given them."

So said Clarence Darrow, while he was on trial for bribing a juror. He would escape prison, and go on to become a great folk hero. Even over 70 years after his death, he is still the most renowned trial attorney in U.S. history. John A. Farrell, in his book Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, has crammed a lot of information into a very lucid, entertaining, and intriguing book.

Farrell corrects a lot of false information that had been floating around, stemming from a purposely evasive autobiography by the man himself, and a biography by Irving Stone that was overseen by Darrow's widow. Farrell's book is warts and all--for example, he is certain that Darrow did have a hand in bribing that juror, believing that he would do anything to save a client's life.

Darrow was born in Ohio, but soon left for the bright lights of Chicago: "Small-town Ohio could not hold him and so he had come to Chicago, to the flickering gaslight, the smoke and cinder, the clamor and hoot and honk of that most American city." But it wasn't a love affair; Darrow wrote, "Chicago is a pocket edition of hell, and if it is not, then hell is a pocket edition of Chicago."

At first he was a corporate lawyer, working for a railroad. But patronage by the governor, Joseph Altgeld, and a rebellious itch, led him to taking controversial clients, such as Patrick Prendergast, who assassinated the mayor of Chicago. Darrow would lose this case, and Prendergast would go to the gallows, but more victories than losses would come along.

Darrow was ahead of his time on most issues. He was a Democrat, but also very forward-thinking when it came to race. He was an atheist, and he believed in free love. He had two wives, but many more mistresses. He could be cantankerous and was hated by many: "Darrow was 'an infidel, a misanthrope, a revolutionist, a hater of the rich, a condemner of the educated and the polite, a hopeless cynic,' said the New York Sun."

Darrow represented radicals like Eugene Debs, labor leader Big Bill Haywood, and the bombers in the Los Angeles Times bombing of 1910 (that was the case in which he was indicted for bribery). He would become the main spokesman for the labor movement, although they were disenchanted when they urged the bombers, the McNamara brothers, to plead guilty in exchange for not having to face the death penalty.

He would represent all sorts of mobsters during the roaring '20s in Chicago, and become quite wealthy, although his son, through imprudent investment, lost most of in the stock market crash. But during the '20s Darrow, then in his 60s, would try some of the most famous cases in U.S. history, each of which has enough story for their own books.

The names still inspire curiosity: Leopold and Loeb, The Scopes Monkey Trial, Ossian Sweet. "Of the infamous villains who Darrow defended, none were so patently evil in the eyes of Americans as the teen-aged killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They were spoiled geniuses--rich kids who claimed no God but Self and insisted, by virtue of their intellectual primacy, on living free from any moral code. They were homosexuals. They were Jews. They kidnapped and murdered a child...They did it, they said, for the thrill...Leopold and Loeb were truly heartless fiends."

But Darrow took their case, hired by their rich parents. They pleaded guilty, and the fireworks came in the sentencing portion of the trial, when Darrow and the district attorney argued whether the boys would be executed. Darrow used emotion, but also precedent--at that time, they were considered underage (under 21) and never had a minor been executed in Illinois. Darrow saved their lives.

"From its inception, the Scopes trial was conceived and promoted and staged as a circus stunt. No one presumed that a Dayton jury would have the final say on the matter. All agreed that John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old high school science teacher who was summoned to Robinson's pharmacy from a nearby tennis court and coaxed to stand trial, would be found guilty--giving the ACLU a martyr whose conviction it could take to a higher court." Thus, Farrell says, it was not a case of righteous indignation. But it turned into a circus when William Jennings Bryan, presidential candidate (Darrow supported him in those days) and former Secretary of State, turned Biblical scholar, came to town to work with the prosecution. In blistering heat, Darrow put Bryan on the stand and caught him in several contradictions and errors in the Bible (such as, who was Cain's wife?). Though Scopes lost and was fined a modest sum, later overturned on technicality, Bryan was ruined, and died five days after the trial ended.

The Sweet case is not as famous, but nonetheless important. Ossian Sweet, a black doctor living in Detroit, bought a house in a white-only neighborhood. A mob formed to drive him out, throwing rocks. The Sweet family fired shots in response, and a man was killed. They were put on trial, and Darrow represented them: "I believe the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law had made him equal, but man has not...I know there is a long road ahead of him, before he can take the place which I believe he should take."

Darrow would get the Sweets off. By now he was a folk hero. A line in Ben Hecht's popular play The Front Page has a character in legal trouble shouting, "Get me Darrow!" Crowds gathered to hear his courtroom theatrics. He didn't appear polished--his hair was uncombed, his suit rumpled, his thumbs would flick at his suspenders--but he was a consummate actor, giving closing arguments that could last two days, tears streaming down his face.

His last major case was a smudge on his record, defending people who committed an "honor killing," shooting to death the man accused of raping a white woman. The man killed was Hawaiian, and he was not guilty. Darrow, despite protests, took the case, because "he told himself...he might bring healing to the troubled islands. And because he had always wanted to see Hawaii. But most of all he took the case because he needed the money."

So, in the ultimate analysis, Darrow was a liberal hero, but he was no saint. But despite his faults, his place in the pantheon of legal stars is assured, and Farrell's book is a wonderful document of it.