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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Troubled Man

Scandinavians have a great affinity for the mystery and detective genre. In addition to Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, whose novels I've reviewed on this blog, there is Henning Mankell, who created Kurt Wallander, a very popular Swedish sleuth. The Troubled Man is the first book I've read, though it seems it will be the last featuring Wallander.

Wallander is a police detective from the city of Ystad (I have almost no knowledge of Swedish geography, so this is largely meaningless to me, and I was surprised that he needed to take a plane to Stockholm. But I digress.) Like many detectives of fiction, he's a loner and, sixty years old, thinking about mortality, especially since his memory has started to slip. As the novel begins, he gets in trouble for leaving behind his service revolver in a restaurant.

Wallander is single, with a dog, an alcoholic ex-wife, and a daughter who is also in the police. She has just had a baby with a financial expert, and early in the book he attends his grandchild's father's birthday party. Hakan Von Else, the birthday boy, (and the troubled man of the title) is a retired Swedish submarine captain. He gets Wallander alone and discusses an incident concerning a Russian submarine that was identified in Swedish waters, but somehow escaped. Soon afterward, Von Else disappears. Then his wife does.

Though not in his jurisdiction, family ties prompt Wallader to investigate, with the cooperation of the Stockholm police. His trail leads him to learn much about the Swedish navy, espionage, and the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Wallander is the type of detective who is ruled by intuition and a sense when something is amiss, and eventually he solves the case by looking at the situation from a diametrically opposing view.

The novel, translated by Laurie Thompson, is of fairly straightforward prose. As I mentioned in my review of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson was one of those mystery writers who spent too much on meaningless detail. I get infuriated when writers think it's important describing what their characters are eating or what is in the refrigerator. Mankell is occasional guilty of this: "When she smiled she displayed a beautiful set of teeth that made Wallander jealous. His own teeth had begun to need filling when he was twelve, and since then he had been fighting a constant battle with dental hygiene and dentists who seemed always to be tearing a strip off him. He still had most of his own teeth, but his dentist had warned him that they would soon start to fall out if he didn't brush them more often and more efficiently." I can't think of a passage that is more extraneous, unless it was about the frequency of his bowel movements.

But for the most part, these type of details are skimmed over. The book has an interesting look at politics, especially since I am an American, as the book questions the age-old Swedish attitude of fearing Russia and loving America. Mostly, it hearkens back to the legacy of the old masters like Raymond Chandler, in passages like this one: "I can't cope with any more death and misery, any more wives drinking themselves to death, any more mothers being murdered."

As I said, it looks like Wallander has been mothballed. The last few paragraphs, which seem to have been written by Mankell as if he were late for an appointment, close the book on his creation. I'm not sure if I'll get around to reading any more in the series, but on the whole it was a decent, if not outstanding, read.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mirror, Mirror

There were two Snow White films in 2012, and both were nominated for the Best Costume Design. Snow White and the Huntsman was the serious look at the fairy tale, while Mirror, Mirror was the comic version, a kind of film that has been somewhat commonplace since Shrek. The costumes, by the late Eiko Ishioka, are spectacular. That will be the end of my compliments about this film.

As directed by Tarsem Singh, who is know for his visual sense, Mirror, Mirror is distinctly lacking in substance. The Snow White tale is a familiar one, with Snow White the daughter of a king who has fallen under the spell of a wicked queen. Eventually, with the aid of some dwarfs and a handsome prince, she will be victorious.

This version, though, is more concerned with the wicked queen, as played by Julia Roberts. The mirror she talks to is represented as her conscience, and she does her best to have Snow White eliminated. Instead of a huntsman, though, it's Nathan Lane as Roberts' bootlick who takes Snow White into the woods, but lets her go. She ends up being rescued by a septet of dwarfs, who here are represented as thieves, forced into crime by being expelled from the village by the queen for being too ugly.

Almost none of this is interesting, or even remotely funny. There's just nothing more to be done with this story that Walt Disney did seventy-five years ago. Mirror, Mirror, written by Marc Klein and Jason Keller, does attempt to give the dwarfs separate identities (Seinfeld viewers will recognize Danny Woodburn, who played Mickey), but the script is a jumble of anachronistic jokes and mild slapstick.

Another problem is the enormous hole in the film where Snow White is concerned. Lily Collins, who is a great beauty, is a complete vacuum. She delivers her lines in a dull monotone that makes Kristen Stewart, her counterpart in Snow White and the Huntsmen, seem like the life of the party. Armie Hammer is the handsome prince, and he's more charismatic, but not much. Roberts has a great time with her part, but it's not enough.

Let's have a moratorium on winking fairy tale movies.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Salvage the Bones

The winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn ward, is an outstanding evocation of a place and time. The place: the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The time: the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

To be sure, a plot summary sounds very melodramatic. The narrator is Esch, a teenager girl. She has three brothers and a single father (her mother died in  childbirth). They are African Americans living in a small town in Mississippi, in a neighborhood indecorously known as the Pit. Not only is the hurricane on its way, but Esch discovers she is pregnant. One of her brothers, Skeetah, has a beloved pit bull named China who has just had puppies. He hopes to sell the puppies so another brother, Randall, can go to basketball camp and maybe get a scholarship.

Though this may sound like a soap opera, and often it plays like one, the writing is so good that one forgives the intersection of plot points (another is her father losing some fingers in a tractor accident--how much more can happen to this family? There's also a somewhat pained comparison of Esch to Medea, whom she is studying in school: "I will go to Skeetah like Medea went to her brother when they fled on their great adventure with the Argonauts. I will offer my help."

But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly written book. There are several sections that were real page turners. One is when Skeetah steals some worm medicine for his dog from a nearby white people's house (the white people in this book are like somewhat legendary figures). Another is when Skeetah has China fight the sire of her pups in a winner-take-all match--though dog fighting is certainly reprehensible, there's something about it in this book that makes it noble, perhaps because so much is riding on the family's livelihood. And, of course, the third is the arrival and aftermath of the hurricane.

Ward, who is from the area, and had her own harrowing adventure during Katrina, knows how to create atmosphere: "There is a sound above the water; someone is shouting. When I surface and breathe, my lungs pulling for air, Skeetah is the only one left, and he is silent. Bats whirl through the air above us, plucking insects from the sky while they endlessly flutter like black fall leaves."

She also has some fantastic similes, such as describing the attention Skeetah plays to China: "he...wipes at her cuts with a towel he's washed, bleached, and dipped in hydrogen peroxide. She smiles lazily like a woman in a new Fourth of July outfit being complimented." Or, Ward can quickly summarize a moment: "The waiting room was scrubbed clean and pale; it smelled of Pine-Sol, coffee, and weariness."

But the storm is the big climax of the book. It's difficult to comprehend for us who didn't go through it what it was like, such as when they realize water is coming into the house and before they know it they are in the attic and water is starting to come in there, too. The family breaks through the roof: "It is terrible. It is the flailing wind that lashes like an extension cord used as a beating belt. Is the the rain, which stings like stones, which drives into our eyes and bids them shut. It is the water, swirling and gathering and spreading on all sides, brown with an undercurrent of red to it, the clay of the Pit like a cut that won't stop leaking. It is the remains of the yard, the refrigerators and lawn mowers and the RV and mattresses, floating like a fleet. It is trees and branches breaking, popping like Black Cat firecrackers in an endless crackle of explosions, over and over and over again. It is us huddling together on the roof, me with the wire of the bucket handle looped over by shoulder, shaking against the plastic. It is everywhere. Daddy kneels behind us, tries to gather all of us to him. Skeetah hugs China, and she howls. Daddy's truck careens slowly in the yard."

Salvage the Bones is a book that I won't forget easily.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Impossible

On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake created a tidal wave, or tsunami, that devastated the coasts along the Indian Ocean. This included Thailand, which has a number of popular resort communities. Almost a quarter of a million people died, but many of the stories that have filtered from us to the west have been of vacationing Europeans, including the Belon family of Spain. Their story is told in the film The Impossible.

There has been some criticism of the film for focusing not on the general devastation of the tsunami, but rather how it affected Western tourists. As I watched the film I struggled with how I feel about that. On one hand, this is a story about one family, and they happen to be white. There can be many more films made about the event that can focus on others (perhaps there have been Thai or Indonesian films about that, but they haven't been released here). If The Impossible had included references to the other countries involved, it would have seemed like tokenism and improbable, as those in the story don't really have the time or luxury to think "I wonder how the Indonesians are faring?"

On the other hand, there are only a few non-white faces in the film. They are depicted kindly, but tangentially. When the family in question is flown out of the country on a private jet, one kind of wonders, "What about the people who have nothing to fly home to?" Then, at the end of the film, when the real family is shown, I realized that they were Spanish, and not Anglos as they are depicted in the movie (the name Belon is changed to Bennett). The Impossible is a Spanish film, though in English, and directed by a Spaniard, J.A. Bayona, but to make it more palatable, I guess, the protagonists have been changed to fair-haired British.

This topic notwithstanding, The Impossible is just not that great a film. It has a few things going for it--one is Naomi Watts, perhaps my favorite actress, who gives a great performance that is physical as well as emotional. Tom Holland, who plays her oldest son, also gives a great performance. I also thought that the film does a sensational job of imagining what it was like to go through the tsunami, both with special effects and a mise-en-scene of flattened landscape and dazed response of the survivors in shelters and hospitals.

But essentially the film rests on one plot point--will the members of the Bennett family (Ewan McGregor is the dad), separated by the tsunami, find each other? Well, it doesn't take a major in film studies to figure that out, and the way the film teases us--McGregor and Holland are in the same hospital, just missing each other, seems underhanded. Watts is badly injured in the film and I don't want to reveal what happens to her, but suffice it to say that the real woman sustained worse injuries, so the film again cheats to give us a rosier outcome.

Watts is nominated for an Academy Award and deserves it, but the film is garnering more positive reviews than it should. I hesitate to assign motive in cases like this, but movies about people overcoming natural disasters with that vague thing known as "the human spirit" tend to hit people in a way that makes them take leave of their critical faculties.

My grade for The Impossible: C.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pina

As I'm getting caught up on 2012 Oscar nominees, there are a still a few stragglers from 2011 that are just being released on DVD from the Best Documentary Feature category. One is Pina, a film by Wim Wenders, celebrating the German choreographer Pina Bausch.

I know almost nothing about modern dance, so I was unsure how I would react to this film, wondering if I would end up reading the paper while it was on. Well, I wasn't bored at all, and frequently transfixed. Bausch's choreography is daring and exciting, and Wenders does everything he can to make this film a visual feast.

This is not a concert film. The dances are performed for the camera, not an audience. Therefore, the performances are in a variety of places, not just a stage. They are outside on the grass, beside a swimming pool, in a factory, in a gravel pit, and on a commuter train. A few of them are on a stage, performed as they were in a theater, such as the opening, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which is done a stage covered with dirt, or Full Moon, on a stage covered with water.

Bausch died of cancer shortly after the film began production. Wenders wanted to shut it down, but the members of her company convinced him to make it, and thus it is something of a eulogy. Each dancer speaks a little about her, and then has a moment of their own. Then there are larger group performances, such as those I mentioned and another, Cafe Muller, which is in a room full of chairs. A dancer has her eyes closed, and a man clears the chairs out the way for her as she moves around the room. This may sound nutty, but it's very compelling.

In addition to classical giants like Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, the music is all over the map, from Louis Armstrong to electronic. I would love to see more films like this--dance films that are designed for cinema, not for the theater. It stretches the definition of what "documentary" is, and also opens an artistic world for those of us who otherwise would have never heard of Pina Bausch.

Friday, January 25, 2013

ParaNorman

One of the nominees for this year's nominees for Best Animated Film Oscar, ParaNorman is an oddly unsatisfying stop-motion film, shot in 3D. Of course at home I saw it in 2D, but it's mixture of horror and comedy didn't sit right with me. I didn't hate it, but I found it somewhat annoying.

Norman is an 11-year-old boy living in a town something like Salem, in that it has a history of a witch trial and thus the tourism is built around it. Norman has an interesting talent--he sees and speaks to the dead, which leads to him being labeled a freak and ostracized. He has an eccentric uncle with the same affliction, who tells him he must continue a tradition of keeping a witch's curse from happening.

The film has a lot of affection for horror films, as it opens with Norman watching a zombie film while his grandma's ghost sits with him, knitting. But I found something wrong--would a kid who is plagued by the ability to speak to ghosts love horror films? Wouldn't he try to shut that out of his life, and be devoted to something distinctly non-horrific, like chess or stamp collecting, instead of having a bedroom wall plastered with zombie posters and a ghoulish toothbrush?

Nevertheless, Norman heeds his uncle's advice and heads to the old graveyard, where he is joined by his only friend, a fat kid, and later by the school bully. Those who accused the witch are resurrected, and terrorize the town, until Norman realizes that the dead are just trying to be released from the curse and are really, really sorry. So Norman has to face down the witch, who turns out to be a distant relative of his who was also only 11 years old when she was tried.

ParaNorman is a bit grown up for a kid's animated film, but of course I guess kids are up for almost anything, even the walking dead. Perhaps more horrifying is the way Norman is treated--by the bully, by his older sister, and especially by his father, who sees him as a black sheep. The film's anti-bullying message resonates well considering 300 years ago being eccentric could get you hanged for being a witch. There's also a landmark moment late in the film when a character reveals he is gay, supposedly the first such character in a children's animated film. Kudos to that.

But something about the film didn't click with me. The directors are Sam Fell and Chris Butler, and perhaps the film looked great on a big screen and in 3D, but it doesn't translate well to the small screen. Some of the droll humor works, but not always. The voice acting, with Kodi Smit-McPhee as Norman and a cast that includes Anna Kendrick, Jeff Garlin, and Leslie Mann, does fine, but it didn't the heights for me. I found Frankenweenie to be a better supernatural animated film.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Delicate Balance

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is certainly Edward Albee's most famous play, and it is one of my favorites (maybe my favorite favorite), so I was pleased to become acquainted with another of his plays, that is perhaps unfairly forgotten in contrast. A Delicate Balance, written in 1965 and winner of Albee's first of three Pulitzer Prizes, covers some of the same ground as Virginia Woolf, but in a much slier, evasive way. I saw a smashing production of it, directed by Emily Mann, at the McCarter Theater this week.

The play is set in a "well-appointed suburban home. Now." Agnes (Kathleen Chalfont) and her husband Tobias (John Glover) are relaxing with pre-dinner drinks. They are sophisticated, articulate people, who probably don't own a pair of jeans. Agnes is drinking cognac, Tobias anisette. He's trying to read his book, but Agnes talks about her fear of going mad. She is also annoyed at her sister Claire (Penny Fuller), who lives with them and is a first-class lush. Also occupying her thoughts are their daughter, who is on her fourth husband and is having marital problems.

Into this somewhat familiar domestic drama come house guests--their best friends Harry (James A. Stephens) and Edna (Robert Maxwell). Why are they there? Hard to say, and in fact, it's only after some obfuscation that they declare that they have experienced an unspecified terror. They can not go home, and set up camp in their friends home.

The daughter, Julie (Francesca Faridany) arrives with her tail between her legs and finds Harry and Edna occupying "her room." She pouts and whines, a 36-year-old woman who still acts like a little girl. Claire, who has most of the best lines, watches from the sideline, bemused by it all. But Agnes and Tobias don't know what to do--turn their friends out, and take them in as permanent guests?

There's a lot going on here, and I wish had a copy of script to quote directly, because the language is exquisite. Agnes is articulate, she sneeringly apologizes for it to Claire, but so is Tobias. The dialogue is so rich that it was almost intoxicating. At times is mixed the sacred and the profane--Claire mentions of Agnes' youth that she wasn't above getting her "pudenda stuffed." What's great about the relationship between the two sisters is that Agnes, though she despises her sister's alcoholism, can't help but laugh at her shenanigans.

Beyond the language, there is an undercurrent of dread. There is a dead child referred to, and the presence of Harry and Edna is chalked up to a disease--Agnes describes their terror as a plague, and it has entered the sanctum of their home. Tobias, seemingly weak-willed, is appointed by Agnes as the one who must decide, even if it appears she has "ruled the roost" for many years.

At times the play is raucously funny, as the situation becomes so absurd it can't help but be, such as when Julie, reduced to hysterics, grabs a pistol and waves it around. But, like George and Martha in Virginia Woolf, there has been an understanding reached between Agnes and Tobias that is deadly serious.

Mann has taken a great cast and made them impeccable. I didn't detect a false note in any of the performances, but I hold great esteem for Chalfont, Glover, and Faridany, who perfectly embodied a woman who has never cut the umbilical cord, even if she has walked down the aisle four times. How many 36-year-olds still have a room waiting for them in their parents' homes?

Incidentally, like Virginia Woolf, there is a lot of drinking in this play. Maybe not as much, but it's pretty staggering, as they even drink on a Sunday morning. It's clear Albee knows his way around a dry sink, or knows people who are. Between this play, the production of Virginia Woolf, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that I saw last month, I have a hangover.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall

As I wrote for years ago, there's nothing more stirring for an American than a presidential inauguration; the peaceful and orderly transition of power affirms our basic values. This time around the same man was re-inaugurated for another four years, and for people of my ilk it was a great occasion. There's about 48 percent of the population who don't agree.

Barack Obama took the oath for his second term on Sunday. Due to a precedent started way back under John Monroe, when inauguration day falls on a Sunday, the pomp is held the next day, but the Constitution requires a swearing-in. Therefore, Obama and VP Joe Biden were sworn in twice. As Stephen Colbert noted, it will now require congress to impeach Obama twice to get him out of office.

Obama took the oath from Chief Justice John Roberts, and this time Roberts got the lines right, but Obama swallowed the word "States." Still, it seems that the oath took, and Obama then gave his address. I didn't see it live--I had to work, even though it was Martin Luther King Day (a delicious coincidence)--but I did watch the replay on C-SPAN, blessedly without annoying comments, such as George Stephanopoulos hilariously mistaking Bill Russell for Morgan Freeman.

It was an interesting mix of entertainment. James Taylor strummed along to "American the Beautiful" sparking speculation that Obama may be the only black man who is a Taylor fan. Of course, he is half white. Kelly Clarkson, perky as a pixie, belted out "My Country Tis of Thee," and Beyonce sang the National Anthem, but there's a controversy that she lip-synched. I'm not sure that that matters, but it seems wrong somehow.

There were all sorts of things to annoy conservatives, especially with the poem by Richard Blanco, a gay Cuban-American. I thought the poem was lovely, and the crowd seemed to be actually listening to it. Toward the end, when he listed different ways of saying hello, and pointedly added "Buenas dias," it seemed to take a shot at those reactionaries who call for English to be the national language. Throw in the benediction by Rev. Luis Leon, who added a whole paragraph in Spanish, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio probably choked on his sandwich. But lets' fact it, he wasn't watching.

Obama's address had some interesting responses. Many liberals were heartened, as Obama, unfettered by facing another election, could bring out the liberal shibboleths, like global warming, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. There was also talk of income inequity, and perhaps an oblique mention of gun control, by referring to the "streets of Newtown." I thought the most electrifying moment of the speech was his call for gay rights, specifically the phrase "Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall," linking the touchstones of the women's movement, civil rights, and the beginning of the gay rights movement, a bar in Greenwich Village that was the site of a riot in 1969.

Fox News was aghast at Obama's speech, so I suppose that's a good thing. Because of the recalcitrant Republican congress, much of this may be so much rhetoric, but I think there are a lot of Democrats who hope that Obama takes the gloves off and forgets how reaching across the aisle. Although, he did frequently use the words "we" and "together." So who knows?

And I think Michelle Obama's bangs look lovely.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

In the parking lot after coming out of the theater after seeing Les Miserables, I thought of a Seinfeld episode when Jerry catches George crying while watching Home Alone. "The old man got to me!" George responds defensively. Well, Les Miserables is not a great film--it's often not very good at all--but it got to me. I'm not made of stone.

An adaptation of the stage musical which in turn was based on Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. He is paroled, but is treated badly by everyone he meets because he is a convict. A priest is kind to him, and Valjean takes a new identity and ends up a prosperous businessman and even mayor of the town. But he is tracked by a resolute policeman, Javert.

Along the way, Valjean will take adopt a young girl, Cosette, the daughter of one of his employees. She will fall in love with a young man, Marius, who gets involved in the June 1832 rebellion in Paris, an anti-monarchist revolt. Valjean, torn between his love for Cosette but realizing he must let her go, saves Marius from death and unites the couple. He dies, happy that they are together. I admit, I teared up. The old man got to me.

But Les Miserables doesn't always hit those heights, and in fact the only reason I give this film a thumbs up is that Hugo's story shines through. A tale of redemption and doing the right thing, it makes one feel very good to see justice and humanity victorious.

There are problems, though. First of all, I'm not a big fan of the music, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. There's one big song, sung by Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the doomed mother of Cosette, that's pretty good, "I Dreamed a Dream." But it seemed like that tune was repeated over and over again. Another character, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves Marius unrequitedly, has a big number, and it sounded suspiciously like the first song. Javert's music (sung gamely by Russell Crowe) is a recitative that sounds amateurish.

A couple of the musical moments work, such as Valjean (a wonderful Hugh Jackman) sings "Bring Him Home," hoping that Marius will survive the revolt, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter tackle "Master of the House" (in another Seinfeld episode, George can't get the song out of his head). Cohen and Bonham Carter seem to have wandered in from a Tim Burton film, but they give a welcome comic jolt to all the depressing goings-on.

The direction, by Tom Hooper, is downright bad. Too often he relies on closeups, so much so that I felt like a dentist peering into the actor's mouths. It works with Hathaway's big number, which is performed in one take and in a tight closeup, but elsewhere it just made me want to move back. The photography works for the most part, in washed out colors will occasional splashes of red and blue (the colors of the French flag), but Hooper throws everything at the screen, hoping it will stick.

The performances are mostly of a high order, especially Jackman and Hathaway. I'm no expert on singing voices, so it didn't bother me that Jackman, a baritone, sings a part written for a tenor. Hathaway, though her screen time is brief, is luminous. Less impressive is Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius (though by mother says that Redmayne's voice is the best). As for Crowe, he certainly looks the part, but maybe they should have gone with someone with a better singing voice.

While I was underwhelmed by the film, there are those who will love it--those who are predisposed to Broadway. If you don't like Broadway musicals, Les Miserables may well be torture. I'm not a big fan of musicals, but I don't have a knee-jerk hate for them, so I was okay with the film, despite its faults.

My grade for Les Miserables: B-.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Randy Newman

Randy Newman is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. I'm not sure what Newman does is rock and roll, but I can't think of any better description.

How you know him is probably determined by age. If you're young, he's most likely known to you as the court composer for Pixar, working on several scores for their films and winning two Oscars for Best Song for tunes from Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3.

Those a little older may remember his other movie scores, such as Ragtime and The Natural, one of the best scores I've ever heard, that is used in all sorts of places without people even remembering what it was.

For those as old as I am, he's a prolific songwriter and recording artist, whose work goes back to the late '60s. He has had hits with novelty songs like "Short People" and "I Love L.A.," and wrote songs for other artists, such as Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" and Joe Cocker's "You Can Leave Your Hat On." But his lasting legacy may be as a satirist on the order of Tom Lehrer, only even more scathing.

Newman's voice, which sounds like an old black blues man, is not mellifluous, but has a certain way of wrapping around a lyric. He was born in Los Angeles but spent many years in New Orleans, so on a song like "Sail Away," he sings, "Ain't no lions or tigers ain't no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake" with a honey-and-whiskey laced intonation. Incidentally, "Sail Away" is a beautiful song about a slave trader trying to recruit Africans to come to America.

Newman's hits have been on the order of "Short People," which ignited controversy because dumb people actually thought it was a jeremiad against short people, when of course it was about mindless racism. Another song that was lacerating in its brutal honesty was "Rednecks""

"We're rednecks, rednecks
And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're rednecks, we're rednecks
And we're keeping the niggers down"

In "It's Money That I Love," Newman sings:

"They say that's money
Can't buy love in this world
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love
But it is all right."

Newman has also written a number of beautiful songs, such as "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," and "Louisiana 1927," a song that seems like it was written in 1927, when a devastating flood hit the Crescent City. It was revived and heard often after Hurricane Katrina. "I Love L.A." has been used by the L.A. tourist bureau and is still played at Dodger games, although Newman's praise of the city may be ironic.

Later in his career Newman began writing autobiographical songs, such as the lovely "Dixie Flyer," about how his mother, while his father was fighting in World War II, took the train from L.A. to New Orleans to be with family:

"My poor little momma
Didn't know a soul in L.A.
So we went down to the Union Station and made our getaway.
Got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans
Across the state of Texas to the land of dreams."

One my favorite songs of his, not available on his greatest hits album, is "Four Eyes," a nasty little ditty about Newman's first day of kindergarten:

"Then my daddy stopped the car, and he turned to me
He said, "Son it's time to make us proud of you,
It's time to do what's right
Gonna have to learn to work hard"
I said, "Work? What are you talking about?
You're not gonna leave me here, are you?"
He said "Yes I am!"
And drove off into the morning light"

In closing, I want to leave you with the lyric, in its entirely, of one of Newman's most famous songs, "Political Science," which is right up there with Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" or "International Brotherhood Week" for tongue-in-cheek mordancy:

"No one likes us
I don't know why.
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try.
But all around even our old friends put us down.
Let's drop the big one and see what happens.

We give them money
But are they grateful?
No they're spiteful
And they're hateful.
They don't respect us so let's surprise them;
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.

Now Asia's crowded
And Europe's too old.
Africa's far too hot,
And Canada's too cold.
And South America stole our name.
Let's drop the big one; there'll be no one left to blame us.

We'll save Australia;
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo.
We'll build an all-American amusement park there;
They've got surfing, too.

Well, boom goes London,
And boom Paris.
More room for you
And more room for me.
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town.
Oh, how peaceful it'll be;
We'll set everybody free;
You'll have Japanese kimonos, baby,
There'll be Italian shoes for me.
They all hate us anyhow,
So let's drop the big one now.
Let's drop the big one now."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Friends With Benefits

Lordy, did I hate this movie. It was being developed at the same time as No Strings Attached, and shares the plot of a pair of attractive people who decide to try having a casual sexual relationship without the accompanying romance. Neither one matches the episode of Seinfeld, which covered the same topic much better in 22 minutes. But this film is aggressively bad.

Justin Timberlake is a hot-shot web designer living in L.A. Mila Kunis is a headhunter who recruits him for the art director job at GQ, which is in New York. He is reluctant, but after breaking up with Emma Stone (we know she's awful, because she likes John Mayer), he decides to go for it. Kunis has just broken up with Andy Samberg, and she wants the fairy-tale version of romance (she loves Pretty Woman).

The two become friends, and after Timberlake gets a good view of her ass he proposes they have a sex-only relationship. Then the predictable story arc happens. Anyone can see where it's going, so it's pointless to recap it. To make it worse, the characters discuss romantic film tropes while at the same time exploiting them. It's as if the writers are saying, "We hate modern romantic comedies, too, but we're going to make one anyway."

Timberlake and Kunis, who can be very appealing performers, are wasted here. Kunis, in particular, plays a very grating character. Neither of them struck me as authentic people, the same with the supporting cast, including Jenna Elfman as Timberlake's sister, Patricia Clarkson as Kunis' free-love mother, and in a low blow, the fine Richard Jenkins as Timberlake's father, suffering from Alzheimer's.

The film is directed by Will Gluck, and I won't embarrass the writers further by naming them. The script is not funny in the least, and thinks that New York/Los Angeles jokes are still funny (Timberlake waits for the traffic light! Guffaw!) The characters are all rich and live in that fantasy world of the upper-middle class. The only interesting part of the script is the character of Woody Harrelson, who plays the sports editor of GQ as a very masculine gay man. It flips a cliche, but it doesn't help the film much.

The only reason I stuck this film to the end is the frequent scenes of Kunis in a state of undress. She doesn't show it all, but she comes damn close. Otherwise, this movie sucked.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ted

After the Oscar nominations, I try to chase down the films that got nominated that I haven't seen. I start with Ted, which got a Best Song nomination. The song wasn't so hot, but the movie's a little better. A little.

The concept is good--a lonely boy gets a teddy bear at Christmas (although 8 is a bit too old to be getting a stuffed animal--clearly the kid has issues) and makes a wish that he could be real. Pinocchio-like, the stuffed bear comes to life.

Flash forward almost thirty years. The bear's celebrity has worn off (there's a neat scene that somehow has him a guest on the Johnny Carson Show), and he and the boy (now Mark Wahlberg) are still best buds, but mostly just hang out, smoke pot, and watch bad movies (their favorite is Flash Gordon). Wahlberg has a girlfriend (Mila Kunis), but Ted keeps him with one foot firmly planted in his childhood. Wahlberg has to move on from Ted, but can he?

The film takes this premise and milks it for all its worth. In what is really only about thirty minutes of material, it gets old fast. Sure, it's funny to see a plush toy smoking a bong, but that only goes so far. By the end, when the film settles for rank sentimentality, I had given up on it.

There is a lot to like, though. I thought the decision to have Ted not be a secret, like Mr. Ed, was good, and thus dispensed with a lot of cliches. Though I never really laughed out loud, I did smile a lot, especially in a fight between Wahlberg and Ted (voice by director Seth MacFarlane). It reminded me that Ted is, in actuality, not real, which is an indication of how good the special effects are.

But there are problems. Subplots involving Kunis' asshole boss (Joel McHale) and a creepy guy who kidnaps Ted (Giovanni Ribisi) are nonstarters. I did get a kick out of the use of celebrity cameos, like Norah Jones (she had sex with Ted, and it wasn't bad considering he doesn't have a penis), Ryan Reynolds (the "Van Wilder looking-guy") and especially Sam Jones, Flash Gordon himself, who plays himself self-mockingly and seems to be happy and grateful for the chance.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Boardwalk Empire

In another example of how cable television is slowly but surely becoming the best place for grown-up entertainment (I'm talking to you, Hollywood), consider Boardwalk Empire, which is now in its third season. As usual, being a person without HBO, I'm catching up with it on DVD, and have recently concluded watching the first season.

Boardwalk Empire is another look at organized crime, which Americans are endlessly fascinated with. This time the focus is on Atlantic City in 1920, when the county treasurer, Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, has his own personal empire. He gets kickbacks from every business in town, and as the series begins, on the last day before the advent of prohibition, he realizes that illegal booze will make him ever richer. It's kind of a sad irony that the noble attempt to clean the country up by denying it liquor ended up creating the monster of organized crime.

The show also is something of a Baby Gangsters, as real-life characters such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky appear. Thompson is based on Enoch Johnson, a real-life corrupt politician who is slightly fictionalized, but the effect is the same. He is dapper, witty, and corrupt to his bones.

Over the course of the show, Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, will undergo all sorts of trials, such as a war with Italians, who are in cahoots with New York gambler Arnold Rothstein (chillingly played by Michael Stuhlbarg). He will also have an interesting shift in his love life, as he dumps vacuous showgirl Paz de la Huerta and takes up with a righteous Irish widow (Kelly Macdonald), who is a widow because Thompson had her husband killed. Macdonald's characterization is fascinating because, though a woman who believes in temperance, she is able to look the other way in being Thompson's kept woman, knowing full well he does business with bootleggers. She's a woman who is looking at the bottom line, not unlike the men she scorns.

There are two other major threads. One is Thompson's protege, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who Thompson has been looking out for all his life, back from the war ready to be the second in command. But Pitt makes an unwise choice and becomes wanted, and hightails it to Chicago, where he runs with Capone. The other is the law--Michael Shannon, gloriously wound as tight as a drum as Agent Van Alden of the prohibition squad. Shannon, who never plays normal guys, really gets a juicy role here, as Van Alden worships the law, thinking of it as godly pursuit, but is also a seriously twisted individual, who instead of masturbating like a person, beats himself with a knotted belt to curb his lust.

As is possible with long-form television like this, there are novelistic flourishes to the story and characters. We learn various things over time, such as who Pitt's father is, or why his mother is Gretchen Mol, who is hardly older than he is. Thompson's reach is powerful, as it is shown that it is he that ensures Warren Harding gets the Republican nomination (the series ends with his election) and this probably isn't too far off the mark, as it was Harding's nomination that inspired the phrase "smoke-filled room."

The show is full of wonderful period details, no more so than the Boardwalk itself, with all the delights along the way, including a place that displaced babies in incubators for people to gawk at like zoo animals, and a nightclub where performers like Eddie Cantor and Hardeen (Houdini's brother) take the stage. The costumes are wonderful, as well, as you can't help but feel a little impressed by a man in a Homburg.

Martin Scorsese was an executive producer (as was Mark Wahlberg) and directed the pilot episode. There are some of Scorsese's touches, like many moving camera shots, and one wonders if it was his decision to go anachronistic with the theme music--electric guitars!

The whole series is held together by Buscemi, who is such an interesting actor. At first I thought he seemed too contemporary, but over the course of the series that lessened. Before I watched the show I expected him to be some psychopath out of The Sopranos, but Buscemi's basic persona is the same--in fact, he repeats one of my favorite lines of his as the completely different character in Ghost World--a sarcastic, "That the spirit." Buscemi is a man who is so homely that he's handsome, sort of like Humphrey Bogart, so you can believe that women would be attracted to him, but mostly for his power.

There are many great scenes in the series. Shannon at a baptism will make your eyes pop, and another where a prostitute gets her face slashed. There are many interesting minor characters, such as Harding's mistress Nan Britton, naively thinking she'll be first lady, and Richard Harrow, a World War I vet who has been disfigured and wears a primitive mask, and also happens to be a stone-dead killer. But the highlight has to be Buscemi's telling the story of how his baby son and wife died. Watching that scene is like getting a lesson in restrained but powerful acting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Miserables

I started reading Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables in October, anticipating the movie version of the stage musical (I actually saw the musical, but remember almost none of it). Three months later, I have finally finished. It's not because I didn't like it--it's terrific--but it's loooooong, one of the longest books ever written.

"The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end." So Hugo writes near the end of the book, which is something of a manifesto against the shoddy treatment of the poor. He frames his story around a convict, Jean Valjean, who has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. His sentence is extended because of attempts at escape, and he is eventually released after 19 years. But because he must wear a badge marking him as a convict, he is turned away by everyone.

Everyone, that is, except for a priest, who feeds and lodges Valjean. But the man can't help but steal from the priest, who astonishes him by telling police that he had given Valjean the silverware, and adds candlesticks while at it, telling Valjean to use them to become a good man. But Valjean can't help but steal from a small boy, almost without thinking, and is re-arrested. While helping to save a ship full of men, he fakes his own death.

We then see him again years later, where he has become a successful businessman and even the mayor of the town. Introduced into the story are two key characters--Inspector Javert, who comes to suspect the mayor of being Jean Valjean, and Fantine, a young woman who becomes a single mother. She gives her daughter, Cosette, to the horrible Thenardiers, who will prove to be villains throughout the tale. Fantine, in order to pay for the Thenardier's childcare, becomes a prostitute, and dies destitute. But Valjean, who too late realizes he was responsible for her being fired from her job at his plant, promises to find Cosette.

He does, and  raises her as his daughter. Javert is still on his tail, so they take refuge in a convent. Later, Valjean has taken a new identity, and Cosette falls in love with a young man called Marius, who is caught up in a Republican, anti-monarchist movement that will end up in a revolt called the June Rebellion. Valjean discovers Marius' love for Cosette, so goes to help him, and ends up carrying his unconscious body through the Paris sewers. He leaves Marius with his family, but Javert has once again captured him (after Valjean has spared his life). Javert, torn between his duty and the mercy he has been shown, lets Valjean go, but can't deal with the contradiction and throws himself into the Seine.

Les Miserables, published in 1862, is quite a yarn, but it desperately calls for abridgement. The story, when focusing on Valjean, is frequently thrilling. His escape from Javert while toting Cosette is white-knuckle stuff, as is his being smuggled out of the convent (so he can re-enter) in a coffin. There is a scene in which he is cornered by Thenardier and a bunch of thugs, but he escapes. The climactic battle on the barricade is also exciting.

But Hugo is a very verbose man, to say the least. He includes long sections of tangential topics, including the Battle of Waterloo, the sociology of French convents, the use of slang in literature, and the sewers of Paris. This book also requires at least a working knowledge of European history. He writes: "The arrest of the Pope took place, as every one knows, on the night of the 5th to the 6th of July, 1809." Um, no, not everyone.

But Hugo also is a brilliant wordsmith. For example, I loved this description of Madame Thenardier: "Everything trembled at the sound of her voice--window panes, furniture, and people. Her big face, dotted with red blotches, presented the appearance of a skimmer. She had a beard...She swore splendidly; she boasted of being able to crack a nut with one blow of her fist. Except for the romances she had read, and which made the affected lady peep through the ogress at times, in a very queer way, the idea would have never occurred to any one to say of her, 'That is a woman.'" He also has a great sense of comedy and irony, such as this line about a small boy: "In order to extricate himself from the predicament, he took the simplest course; he lied abominably."

Above all, Hugo's humanism shines through. He repeatedly exposes the mistreatment of the poor and underclass--the title, in English, could be translated as The Wretched, The Poor, or The Victims. This is a book for a social Democrat, not for the Tea Party. Also, the character of Javert is fascinating. "It will be remembered that the fundamental point in Javert, his element, the very air he breathed, was veneration for all authority. This was impregnable, and admitted of neither objection nor restriction." When Valjean, who has a chance to kill him, lets him go, this so shatters his sense of himself that he can't go on living.

And the character of Valjean, while perhaps too saintly to be real, is the 19th century version of "do the right thing." Not only does he free Javert, but he makes a confession to Marius after the young man's marriage to Cosette that he does not need to make, while withholding information that would give him glory. Earlier in the book he learns that a man has been arrested and thought to be Valjean. He could have said nothing and allowed the man to be executed, but instead travels to the town and turns himself in. Jean Valjean is a one-man course in ethics.

Les Miserables deserves its place in literary history as a classic. But either give yourself plenty of time to read or get the abridged version.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is an outstanding film, a great example of how editing, sound, music and crisp performances can keep eyes and ears glued to a screen. The film's climax, a fifteen-minute or so scene that shows the raid by Navy SEALS on Usama Bin Ladin's compound, is one of the best action scenes I've seen, period. This is consummate filmmaking by director Kathryn Bigelow.

That being said, the film takes some warming up to. The first half hour or so would probably give Dick Cheney a hard-on. After a sound-only representation of 9/11 (a brilliant choice--we didn't need to see another shot of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center) the film covers the manhunt for Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, from that day to May 1, 2011, when he is taken out. This begins with the interrogation of detainees at CIA black sites, led by an agent known only as Dan (Jason Clarke).

These detainees are treated very harshly, including being beaten, tied to the ceiling, put into small boxes, and most controversially, being water boarded. Observing the torture is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who realizes that since Bin Laden is not connected to the grid--he does not use phones or Internet--he must use couriers. If the CIA can find a courier, they can find Bin Laden.

The controversy surrounding the film has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but this portion is extremely difficult to sit through. When Barack Obama takes office, the detainee program ends, but Chastain has a tip--a man known as Abu Ahmed, a courier for Bin Laden. Unfortunately, no one seems to know his real name or if he is dead or alive.

Bigelow takes Mark Boal's extremely dense but extremely coherent script and makes a spellbinding procedural. As the years roll by, Chastain does not let go, even in the face of resistance from her station chief (Kyle Chandler). She survives a bombing and being shot at. Finally Ahmed is found, and he lives in a large compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan. Chastain observes that an unidentified male lives in that compound, and never comes out. Like Sherlock Holmes did in the case of the dog that didn't bark, Chastain uses deduction to reason that absence of information is all the evidence she needs.

This is taken to the CIA director (James Gandolfini, obviously playing Leon Panetta). With only 60 percent assurance from other government members, the attack is green-lit.

That's the story, but the film succeeds not because of any heroics--that's gravy. What makes Zero Dark Thirty work is the craft of the film. There are many names to congratulate, from Alexander Desplat's music to Paul N.J. Ottosson's sound editing. And I will not soon forget the climax, when stealth helicopters fly nearly noiselessly (and without lights) over the dark mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a way, I was reminded of the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, but while that scene was brilliant because of its sound and fury, this one is the opposite--sleek and silent.

Then, once the SEALS have landed, Bigelow shoots it as if we were there--with night-vision lenses--as they move from door to door, efficiently killing and making their way to the target. Bigelow and her editors, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, make a great choice here. They do not cut away to others waiting back at the base, anxiously. Instead they stay with the SEAL team all the way through, and thus do not interrupt the tension by hackneyed use of closeups.

The denouement of the film, when Chastain has realized her entire career goal, is an incredibly touching end to a fiercely visceral film. Zero Dark Thirty is worthy of all its Oscar nominations, and should have had more, including Bigelow, Desplat, and cinematographer Greig Fraser. It's another example that shows 2012 is a pretty damn good year for movies.

My grade for Zero Dark Thirty: A.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Miss Bala

Miss Bala is a strange movie, not in an avant-garde sense, but more in a huh? sense. Written and directed by Gerardo Nanjano, this 2011 Mexican film is suggested by actual events, but has such a convoluted plot and inexplicable character decisions that I had a hard time getting through it.

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a poor girl from Tijuana, who along with a friend tries out for the Miss Baja California beauty pageant (I'm not sure why the film is called Miss Bala, and not Miss Baja--I'm sure that's a language nicety understood in Mexico). To celebrate, the two girls go to a club, but it is attacked by criminals. The friend goes missing, and Laura makes the mistake of asking a policeman for help. He promptly turns her over to the crooks.

The criminal leader (Noe Hernandez) has a soft spot for Laura. Instead of just killing her as a potential witness, he starts using her in various criminal enterprises. He also gets her back in the pageant. But Laura runs away a few times, and after their empire is severely cut down by law enforcement, Hernandez takes Laura hostage.

The biggest problem with this film is the blank performance by Sigman. I can certainly understand that she would be terrified most of the time, but the actress reveals nothing of what she is thinking, instead looking stunned almost all of the time. I suppose there is a Stockholm Syndrome at work--Hernandez lets her family go, so there is nothing holding her to him except a psychological chain, but this is weakly explored. Hernandez is not particularly handsome or charismatic. It's only when Laura understands what he did to her friend that she tries to turn him in, but it's too late.

Nanjaro's direction is frequently interesting, and he favors tight close ups. For instance, during a gun battle the camera stays on Laura in the front seat of a car, bullets flying all around. This technique makes the viewer feel like a voyeur, which lends more immediacy to the narrative, but it didn't save this movie for me. Thumbs down.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Oscar 2012: Argo Fuck Yourself

"I don't get no respect, no respect at all."
After the revelation of the Oscar nominations Thursday morning, in a production that was supposed to highlight the comedic genius of Seth McFarlane (judging by his jokes--one about Hitler?--the Oscar show could be a long one) there was general consensus that most things went according to Hoyle, except for the WTF Best Director category. The director's branch and the DGA are usually very similar--80 percent in most years. This year it was a shocking 40 percent, with three directors left out in the cold.

So what happened? Ben Affleck of Argo, Kathryn Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty, and Tom Hooper of Les Miserables got DGA noms but no sniff from Oscar, effectively scuttling their films' chances at Best Picture (and paving the way for a Lincoln win). In their place were David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, not a big shock, but also Michael Haneke for Amour and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which registered pretty big on the Oscar seismograph.

The director's branch, like the writer's branch, tends to stray into art-house fare, but this was news. Was Bigelow overlooked because of the backlash from liberal groups about the incorrect use of water boarding in the film? If so, it didn't stop the film from getting a few other big nominations. Was Affleck bounced because he has a less than serious record as an actor (Gigli, anyone?). The branch has never been reluctant to nominate actors (Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Tim Robbins), and Argo was a real director's picture. What gives? I guess Ben shouldn't feel too bad--Argo's Best Picture nomination means he is a nominee, for producing. As for Tom Hooper, it's clear that though Les Miserables got some major nominations, including Best Picture, it didn't get nominated for writing or editing, two key categories. Les Mis just wasn't loved across the board.

The only other big surprise, at least to me, was John Hawkes being left out of Best Actor for this role in The Sessions. An actor playing a man who can only move his head in a well-received, if under-performing film, seems a natural. The film's lack of impact, or its uncompromising sexuality, didn't hurt Helen Hunt, who got a Best Supporting Actress nomination while going full monty. I think Joaquin Phoenix of The Master got Hawkes' nomination, (the actor's branch seemed to love that film, giving it three nominations, while it gone none elsewhere) coming back from a gaffe where he criticized the process of Oscar campaigning. Phoenix's performance drove me to distraction--maybe it was a case of getting nominated for the "most" acting, not necessarily the best.

Aside from the above, the nominations were fairly predictable. Lincoln got the most, 12 (although not a Makeup nomination, even though it had much better makeup than Hitchcock, which did get nominated). Life of Pi was next, with 11, and got nominated in almost every category except acting. Silver Linings Playbook was the opposite, the first film since Reds in 1981 to have a nomination in each of the four acting categories. Despite criticism of a social nature, Django Unchained picked up some big nominations, including Best Picture, and Quentin Tarantino was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, even though a high percentage of words in the script are "n*gger."

It's also refreshing to see that the Academy doesn't seem beholden to Mammon, as high-grossing films like The Avengers and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey only got technical nominations (The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises were shut out), while barely-seen art house films Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour got nominated in all major categories. Amour is the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (if you don't count the American production of Letters from Iwo Jima) and only the ninth such film in Oscar history. And Beast's Quvenzhane Wallis (I'm learning to spell that without checking) and Amour's Emmanuelle Riva became the youngest and oldest, respectively, Best Actress nominees.

I haven't seen all of the Best Picture nominees (still have Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables to go), but already I think this is the best crop of nominees since the Academy expanded the category. Hollywood may continue to pander to teenagers, and cable TV may now be making the best entertainment available, but there are still some people who are trying to make good films. As Lincoln proved, they can even make money.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gun Crazy

While watching Haywire a few days ago, I noted that Steven Soderbergh favored, during moving car scenes, to photograph from the back seat. That is certainly a nod to Gun Crazy, a 1950 noir from Joseph A. Lewis. Though a B-picture, it has come to be known as an influential film and one of the best examples of "femme fatale" noir in the genre.

Shot on the cheap, Gun Crazy tells the story of Bart Tare, a young man obsessed with guns, but not killing. A flashback shows him shooting a chick as small boy, which turns him off of killing, but not of shooting, as when he is a teenager (and played by Russ Tamblyn), he gets sent to reform school for stealing a gun. After serving four years in the army as a shooting instructor, he is on the hunt for a job.

Now played by John Dall, he is instantly captivated after a trip to a carnival, where he sees Peggy Cummins, who appears to him with six shooters in both hands. She is a trick-shot artist, and the two find instant rapport. She throws over the sleazy carnival manager (Berry Kroeger, in a fine performance) and she and Dall impulsively marry. But she wants the good life, and for her that means becoming stick-up artists.

Of course, this leads nowhere fast, as the two end up on the run. Dall can't leave her--it's clear that they have a great sex life--and they end up surrounded in a swamp in the California mountains. It's a cautionary tale--those women-with-guns calendars are for exhibition only.

What's so important about the film is its use of the camera, specifically a several minute single take in which Cummins drives toward a bank, and then Dall gets out, goes into the bank, comes back out, and they make their getaway, all shot from the back seat, and in real traffic, without rear projection. Only the actors and those in the bank knew what was going on--passersby did not. The verisimilitude of the scene is enthralling, and the technique is repeated several times. It's thus a lack of money that makes for a more exciting film.

Cummins is an attractive woman, but there's something sinister about her appearance--maybe it's her doll-like eyes, while Dall is a complete dupe, clearly thinking with a different part of his body. These types of films are legion in noir history (an alternative title for this film was Deadly Is the Female). Above all, the film is a good thriller, with genuine excitement and characters that are written with some depth.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Oscar 2012 Nominations: Final Predictions

"Did we get nominated?"
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the nominations for their 85th annual shindig on Thursday, and since every idiot with a laptop is publishing their predictions, why not me?

Because there is so much prognostication, there seems to be little left to the imagination, but there could be some surprises. Of course, we don't even know how many nominees for Best Picture will be. I'll start there.

Best Picture

Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

Lincoln
Moonrise Kingdom

Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

If  the list goes to ten we could see Amour, Django Unchained, or The Master. I think all of these are sure bets except for Moonrise, which is partially a fingers crossed guess.

Best Director

Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

The DGA nominated all of these except Russell, substituting Tom Hooper instead. I think the general malaise about Les Mis may cost Hooper a nod.

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Denzel Washington, Flight

I'm pretty confident about this quintet. Joaquin Phoenix has faded. Would be surprised by any other names.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The big question here is whether Quvenzhane Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild will be nominated. Signs currently point to no. In typical Academy category confusion, she may get put into the Supporting category. If she doesn't get nommed, expect Watts to take her place. The other four seem certain.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin, Argo
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Leonard DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz may split the Django vote and allow something interesting to happen, like Bardem being the first performer ever nominated for a James Bond film.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Again, there are four sure bets and one wild card. It could be Jacki Weaver from Silver, and Nicole Kidman has shockingly got nominations from the Globes and SAG for The Paperboy, but I'll go with old reliable Maggie Smith in a movie old people seemed to love.

I'll be back on Friday to break it all down and either crow about my correct predictions or eat crow about my wrong ones.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Promised Land

Promised Land, not to be confused with the Meg Ryan/Kiefer Sutherland film of 1987 (I saw it, but I remember nothing about it) or the Bruce Springsteen song, is a well-made film about the conundrum of fracking--the extraction of natural gas by destroying shale beds with a variety of chemicals. The film, written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, comes clearly down on the side that fracking is a bad thing, and while I may agree, I found the film to be constructed in such a by-the-numbers fashion that it seems pat.

Damon stars as Steve Butler, a consultant for a big, bad energy company. Trouble is, he thinks of himself as a good guy. More than once he says, "I'm not the bad guy." From a farming community in Iowa, he knows the family farm is pretty much dead, and delights in being able to offer gobs of money to farmers to escape their dire fates.

He and his partner, Frances McDormand, alight on a town in upstate New York. At first they are greeted with people with dollars signs in their eyes, but a local teacher (Hal Holbrook), who also happens to be an engineer, raises questions at a town meeting. Then an environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up, and Damon undergoes a complete meltdown.

The script does a nice job of exploring the issues of fracking, and the desperation of the farmers involved. If offered millions, I might have to think twice about taking it, even it did poison the Earth. As long as the film sticks to this, and the battle between Damon and Krasinski (and the humorous relationship between Damon and McDormand) the film is very good.

But I felt let down by a subplot detailing Damon's rivalry with Krasinski over the attentions of the pretty teacher in town (Rosemarie DeWitt), which drags the film into the world of cliche. There is also a "gotcha" twist that, while certainly possible given the ruthlessness of corporations, seems straight out a screenwriting book.

Still, I liked the film. Gus Van Sant directs, and he makes great use of the local scenery. I've driven a fair share in rural New York, and while I'm not sure if it was filmed there, it sure looks like it, right down a store called "Guns Gas Guitars Groceries." As Damon says, "Two hours outside of any city looks like Kentucky."

Damon, one of our best actors, is spot-on. A scene in which he can't understand why farmers won't take the money, which he labels "Fuck you money," is terrific, because it shows that corporate America is only considered with money--nothing else matters. McDormand, in a sidekick role, also nails it. Krasinski uses the same skill he does in playing Jim Halpert on The Office. He's the cool guy, but he's also a bit of an asshole.

My grade for Promised Land: B.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Divorce, Italian Style

I conclude my look at the prominent films of 1962 with Divorce, Italian Style, a 1961 film from Italy that was released in the U.S. in 1962, and received Oscar nominations for its director (Pietro Germi), star (Marcello Mastroianni), and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It's a delightful black comedy about the presumably universal fantasy of killing one's wife.

Mastroianni plays an aristocrat from a small town in Sicily ("Agromonte," he tells us in voiceover, "is a town of 18,000, 4,000 of them illiterate. There are also 24 churches.") When we first see him he is arriving there by train, his hair slicked back, wearing sunglasses, a cigarette holder in his lips. In flashback, we learn that he is married to the mule-faced, uni-browed Rosalia (Daniel Rocca), and can barely stand her.

His father has gambled away much of the family's fortune, so they are forced to share their mansion with his mother's sister's family, including their sixteen-year-old daughter (Stefania Sandrelli). Mastroianni falls in love with her, and since divorce is strictly forbidden in Italy at that time, he tries to figure how to get rid of his wife.

A sensational trial gives him an idea. A woman killed her lover to protect her honor. According to Italian law, this is treated differently that a regular murder, and the sentence is lenient. Mastroianni then conspires to make his wife have an affair so he can shoot her.

It seems she had a boyfriend who was thought to be lost in World War II. When he returns, he pushes the two together, figuring he can serve a few years in prison and Sandrelli will wait for him.

The plotting is carried out in the darkest of humors, but very drolly, so we really can't hate Mastroianni for what is he doing, even though he is going to kill an innocent woman so he can marry his teenage, virginal first cousin who is twenty years younger than himself. The film is directed by Germi with a distinctly Italian style, complete with mandolins on the soundtrack. And, of course, we expect the other shoe to drop on Mastroianni--certainly he can't get what he wants. Eventually the shoe does drop in the last shot, but it is not a shoe, it's a bare foot.

Movie lovers will also get a kick out of the portion of the story when La Dolce Vita plays a big part. The film comes to town, and even though the priest condemns it, it draws big crowds to see just how salacious it is. Of course, Mastroianni starred in that film, but we don't see him, just Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain, which must have been quite the site for a simple Sicilian in 1960.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Water by the Spoonful

In the first act of Water by the Spoonful, the magnificent play by Quiara Alegria Hudes, a character of a music professor gives a lecture on free jazz, specifically John Coltrane's "Love Supreme." The inclusion of this scene seems odd, given that it doesn't go with the rest of the plot, but as I was walking back to my car, wondering what I would tell people what this play was about, it hit me--this is the heart of the play. The play is about dissonance.

Don't ask me to explain what dissonance is--I skimmed a long article on Wikipedia and it was full of musical terms that are way over my head--but essentially I took from it that dissonance in music is taking two things that don't seem to go together and putting them together and making it work. Hudes' play, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has two plot threads that don't seem to have anything to do with each other, and makes them work.

Ostensibly the play is about an extended family of Puerto Ricans living in Philadelphia as they deal with a death in the family. But there's a concurrent plot concerning recovering crack addicts who converse in an online chat room. It isn't until the curtain in Act I that we know how these plots connect, but until then we may say, "huh?" and struggle to understand, bu the payoff in Act II is revelatory.

Elliott (Armando Riesco) is a vet back from Iraq (this is the second play of a trilogy--the first play was called Elliott: A Soldier's Fugue). He is working at a Subway and trying to make it as an actor. His cousin, Yaz (Zabryna Geuvara) is the music professor, divorcing her WASP husband ("they have Quaker Oats in their DNA. They play Pictionary on New Year's!"). When Elliott's mother dies of cancer, they must make funeral arrangements, and Elliott is haunted by a phrase he has translated by a teacher of Arabic.

The chat room scenes are staged interestingly--each character occupies a space on the stage, their avatars projected on screen when they log in, and they speak to each other, but do not interconnect with eye contact--mostly they play to the audience. They are a diverse group--Haiku Mom (Liza Colon-Zayas) is the administrator, a Hispanic woman who is six years clean, Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison) is an older black man ("I'm fifty, on a good day...and have the face of a corgi," he says), and Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim) is a hyperactive Japanese woman who was adopted by Americans in Maine, only clean for 90 days. She has gone back to Japan to teach English and is struggling to say sober. They are joined by Fountainhead (Bill Heck), a yuppie who has a crack problem.

The stuff about addiction seems familiar, as there have been countless plays and films about recovery, but I will admit I was fascinated by the nature of community as expressed in the chat room scenes. These people really care about each other--despite their having no idea of their real identities. When Fountainhead attempts to join, he is rebuffed for his arrogance, but eventually he understands and makes a sacrifice for the group.

As for the story of the family, that's equally compelling. Sure, there are some cliches here, too. Characters have secrets, and a dead child pops up (this is where the title comes in--when someone can't keep anything down, even water, feed them a spoonful of water every five minutes), but it's well written and acted, particularly by Riesco, who kind of looks like a guy you would avoid on the street but has amazing depth.

The play was directed by Davis McCallum, and I do have a few gripes. The climax of the play has two foci--one is a character bathing another downstage, while Elliott and Guevara are doing something upstage. From where I sat I couldn't see it. The Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater is an odd space--it clearly wasn't designed as a theater, as there are huge windows fronting the street that are blocked by curtains. The stage is a deep proscenium. But I hate when a director does not ensure that everyone in the house can see what's going on. I hope to read the script later to fully grasp the ending.

Still, a fine work, highly recommended. Just don't sit on the extreme side of the stage.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Haywire

Last year the increasingly idiosyncratic Steven Soderbergh gave us Haywire, a sleek, sophisticated spy film built around a novice performer, Gina Carano, heretofore an MMA fighter. The result is oddly compelling, even if Carano is like a void in the center of an otherwise experienced cast.

Making a film about a female action star using an actual athlete is a great idea. Sometimes, seeing the skeletal Angelina Jolie, you have to wonder if she could punch her way out of a paper bag. You don't have to think that with Carano, a muscular fireplug. She plays Mallory Kane, an operative with a private company who is contracted out to the government. She has been on a job in Barcelona, extracting a Chinese dissident from captivity. Something goes wrong, though, and her employer tries to eliminate her.

The film is built around Carano's strengths, as there are several fight scenes. The most elaborate is with Michael Fassbender in the middle of the picture, which signals a turn in the plot, but was prominently featured in the advertising for the picture. I wonder if I didn't know this was coming it would have made the film more enjoyable. Anyhow, the two go at it in a Dublin hotel room, bouncing off the walls, breaking TV sets, and putting holes in doors. It's great stuff.

Unfortunately, Carano is not much of an actress. Soderbergh had to dub her voice (he unflatteringly uses a deep voice that sounds like a female impersonator) and she only has a couple of facial expressions. This is compounded by the galaxy of stars around her, such as Ewan MacGregor as her boss and ex-lover, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, and Antonio Banderas. Channing Tatum is a colleague, but his wooden expression doesn't do Carano any harm.

I do recommend the picture, though, as I thought it would just be a gimmicky quickie, but it grew on me as it proceeded. You have to hand it to Soderbergh--he doesn't make what you expect, but it's usually always interesting.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Continuing my look at the prominent films of 1962, I turn to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the first pairing of megastars John Wayne and James Stewart. Though John Ford would make a few more films after this one, it's a nice summation of his career, an elegiac film about the changes in the Old West and the power of myth.

Stewart plays an eastern lawyer, Ranse Stoddard, who has come east to hang up a shingle and earn a living. He encounters trouble right away, as his stagecoach his held up by gang of cutthroats, led by the title character (Lee Marvin). Marvin is such a villain that no one, not the cowardly marshal (Andy Devine) or anyone else will stand up to him. He is backed by the money of the cattle ranchers, who do not desire the territory to be made a state.

The only guy tougher than Marvin is a rancher, Wayne, who maintains an uneasy peace. He is sweet on Vera Miles, but has hesitated in asking to marry her.

Stewart, somewhat like the character he played in Destry Rides Again, eschews guns and believes in the sanctity of law. Repeatedly he is told that that's not the way of the west, and eventually will have a showdown with Marvin. As the title suggests, Stewart wins, and launches a political career that will take him to Washington. But is he truly the man who shot Liberty Valance?

The film is entertaining and thought-provoking. Devine and a rich supporting cast, including Edmond O'Brien as the drunken newspaper editor, provide comic relief. There's a very serious vein to the picture, though, on the American political system, and the mythmaking of the West. The story is told in flashback by Stewart to a newspaper reporter, and after revealing the truth, the reporters tears up his notes, puts them in the fire, and says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Wayne and Stewart work well together, though Stewart's idealism is a bit shrill. When Wayne wanted to, he could be a very effective actor, as in the scenes when he realizes he's sacrificing Miles for a greater good. As usual with Ford films, there's a rich supply of character actors, both old and young, like Woody Strode, John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Ken Curtis, and Lee Van Cleef. Unlike many of Ford's films, it was shot in black and white, which was a budget consideration, but Ford makes excellent use of the shadows. A fine film, an American classic.