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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Undefeated

As I catch up with the documentaries nominated for the latest Academy Awards, the winner from the previous year is finally available on DVD. Undefeated, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, is a fairly standard sports documentary, a sort of real-life version of Friday Night Lights. What probably pushed in into the winner's column was the almost unbelievably good-hearted center of the film, a coach named Bill Courtney.

The film covers the Manassas Tigers during one season. A high school in North Memphis, which seems to be entirely African American, the school has never won a playoff game, and until Courtney came aboard, had trouble even winning a game. The students live in abject poverty (Martin, in an interview on the DVD's features, says he had never seen such horrible poverty in the U.S.).

Courtney, a white businessman who coached the team on a volunteer basis, comes across as the coach of every student's dream. He starts by saying "Football does not build character, it reveals it," and over the course of the film guides his charges with a firm but loving hand. He will be tested over and over, and more than once he will question his involvement, as he realizes he is spending more time with his players than with his own children (which he is sensitive to, since he grew up without a dad).

The film also focuses on three of the players: O.C. Brown, a gentle giant and all-world tackle; "Money," an undersize tackle who knows he won't play college football and maintains a 3.8 GPA, and Chavis, a linebacker back from a youth home. He has an anger management problem, and frequently tests Courtney's patience, such as when he gets in a physical altercation with Money over an armrest during a team meeting.

It was Brown who first caught the directors' attention, as he was something of another Blind Side situation--taken in by a rich white family half of the week, because tutors would not go to his neighborhood at night. He struggles with his academics, and needs a minimum of 16 on his ACT to go to college, where he is recruited hungrily. Money, who hurts his knee toward the end of the season, undergoes something of an existential crisis, and quits going to school, though he is academically gifted, and Courtney struggles to put his head right.

The Tigers go through their season 9-1, and end up in the playoffs. I won't spoil any further, but the scenes with Courtney saying goodbye to his seniors are real tearjerkers. There's another scene in which Money receives some kindness that will also put a lump in your throat.

This is a very good film, and I don't begrudge its wins. The other nominees were Hell and Back Again, Pina, If a Tree Falls,  and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I would have probably voted for If a Tree Falls, but Undefeated is a touching and well-made film. The world could use more people like Bill Courtney.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Clockwork Orange (Film)

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is one of my top ten favorite films of all time. After reading the book I gave it another view last night, the fourth or fifth I've seen it. It still enthralls.

I must have seen it for the first time on HBO. When it was released in 1971 it was rated X (a rating that has since been usurped by the adult film industry), and I only knew it from the MAD Magazine parody, "A Crockwork Lemon." I remember seeing it again, I think for the only time in a theater, my first week of college. I think I was buzzed.

Buzzed or not, the film is an artistic masterpiece. Opening with a screen of nothing but red, with Walter Carlos' mesmerizing electronic music, it then focuses on the face of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, wearing the iconic costume of bowler, white shirt, pants and suspenders, black combat boots, and a bloodied eyeball cuff link. He is also wearing one false eyelash. (All of this is thanks to costume designer Mila Canonero--this was not his costume in Burgess' novel). The camera pulls back to reveal there are three other similarly dressed young men, slouched and drinking glasses of milk. They are in the Korova Milk Bar, and as the camera continues to pull back we see that the tables are plastic sculptures of naked women. The milk is, of course, full of drugs.

Burgess' book was a satire on the psychology of good and evil, and the eternal struggle of whether criminals should be punished or rehabilitated. Kubrick's film is even more of a comedy, even though it is brutally violent, so violent that it earned that X rating. Today the violence is fairly tame given what we normally see, but it is still shocking because it so sexual. I don't think I'll ever forget the home invasion scene, where a man is brutally beaten and his wife raped, while Alex sings "Singin' in the Rain." Or when another woman is bludgeoned to death with a large statue of a penis.

The film is pretty faithful to the book. Alex and his "droogs" roam the city, eager to commit "ultra-violence" and the "old in-out, in-out." The night after the home invasion, his other droogs try to seize power from him, but he puts them straight--with violence. They want to commit higher-earning crimes, so he agrees to burglarize the home of a posh woman, the one who gets bonked with a plaster cock. But his fellows set him up, and Alex is arrested and imprisoned for murder.

While in prison he becomes assistant to the chaplain, and reads the Bible, but fantasizes about being one of the Romans who whips Christ. Eventually he undergoes an experimental treatment to rid himself of violent impulses. The government is keen on this, since it is hoped it will reduce crime and free up the prison space. The chaplain is aghast, because he thinks goodness has to come from with in, and this way offers Alex no choice of being good. "When a man loses his choice," the chaplain says, "he ceases to be a man."

Alex undergoes the treatment, which involves nausea-inducing drugs while watching films of violence. One of the most iconic scenes of the film is when Alex is bound in a straitjacket, a gizmo holding his eyes open, an aide dropping water into his eyes to keep them moist. The treatment works, too well, for Alex can not function in society (his room at home has been rented out), and his love of Beethoven has been ruined forever because it was on the score of the films.

He then becomes a political football, taken in by the very man he had beaten, who sees him as a chance to defeat the government in the next election. This man, played humorously over the top by Patrick Magee, doesn't realize who Alex is until he overhears him singing "Singin' in the Rain."

As I said, though violent, and too disturbing for some, this is a comedy of rich layers. For one thing, McDowell gives a great performance, kind of like a vicious Eddie Haskell--completely polite on one hand, but also thoroughly reprehensible. The film has made him older (he started at 15 in the book), and something of a bon vivant. The scene that has him wandering through the record store, wearing an Edwardian coat, and then picking up two teenage girls for sex (sped up, and set to the William Tell Overture) is pure comedy (in the book the girls were ten and they were drugged and raped).

Also, the performance by Michael Bates as an extremely officious jailer is hysterical, particularly the facial expressions he shows when a cured Alex is tempted by a naked woman. Or the scene in which Magee, now aware of Alex's identity, serves him a meal while staring at him with undisguised contempt.

Kubrick, a filmmaker who appeals to the intellect rather than the emotions, doesn't really take a stand in this film. Alex survives, triumphant, reverted back to his violent past, a poster boy for the cynical governmental official. The issues are glided over and not really addressed fully, instead Kubrick approaches the themes stylistically. For instance, there is a great deal of time in this film spent to filling out paperwork. I hadn't noticed this before, but a good five minutes is spent with this, and it's completely unnecessary to the story. I can only imagine that this is Kubrick's commentary on bureaucracy. There's a long scene when Alex is interred into the prison, including an inventory of his pockets and Bates shining a penlight into his rectum looking for contraband.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (it didn't win any), and I think is Kubrick's strongest work, along with Dr. Strangelove. It appeals to my sense of humor, in that the comedy is black as pitch. This, even though the film, as with the book, paints a depressing view of the near future. The architecture chosen for the film, outside of the Korova Milk Bar, that is, is bleak and ugly. Alex lives in a flat in a section of the city named by number, with trash in the hallways. His former droogs become policemen (who almost kill him) giving life to the old saw that the line between a criminal and a cop is a very thin one.

One other note--playing a small part of a bodyguard is David Prowse, who six years later would put on the flowing back robes and helmet of a certain Darth Vader.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscar 2012: Spreading the Wealth

The 85th Academy Awards turned out to be a fairly equitable evening, as eight out of the nine Best Picture nominees received at least one award (only Beasts of the Southern Wild, in the happy-to-be-there category, was shut out). Argo, the Best Picture winner, only won three Oscars total, the lowest total since The Godfather in 1972. Life of Pi actually won the most, with four.

Therefore it's difficult to notice any particular themes to the evening. One person, Daniel Day-Lewis, set a record by winning his third Best Actor award, but Robert De Niro, who ended up being a late favorite, did not win his third. Instead Christoph Waltz joins a select group of performers who have gone two-for-two in awards (Sally Field, losing for Lincoln, fell out of that group). Waltz was favored by some in a very difficult category to forecast, and it's difficult to understand the reasoning--he only won three years ago. Waltz is also only the third person to win at least two Oscars working for the same director. Dianne Wiest has won two for Woody Allen, and Jack Nicholson two for James L. Brooks.

There was a tie, which is rare--there have only been six, mostly in below-the-line categories. The last major category tie was in 1968, when Katharine Hepburn for A Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl tied. This time it was in Sound Editing, which was one of the categories won by a man who had long white hair, in either an homage to Gregg Allmann or Lucius Malfoy.

As for the speeches, Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems to be effortlessly eloquent, had the best, quipping that his presenter, Meryl Streep, and he actually swapped the roles of Margaret Thatcher and Abraham Lincoln. I would like to see her as Lincoln, too, Daniel. Jennifer Lawrence had the most perilous winning experience, tripping on her way up the stairs. This only seemed to cement her persona as the goofy chick you'd like to have a beer with--in fact, she admitted to downing a shot before she faced the press backstage.

I didn't agree with all winners. I certainly think Waltz paled in comparison Tommy Lee Jones, De Niro, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Quentin Tarantino winning Best Original Screenplay was a joke. But I was happy with others--I think Day-Lewis, Lawrence, and Anne Hathaway were all deserving, as was Adele for Best Song, the first song from a James Bond film to win the award.

As for the show, well, it certainly has ignited some controversy. I and the crowd I was with thought it was funny. The inclusion of William Shatner in the opening monologue seemed to purposely give the night a casual, who-gives-a-fuck vibe that was refreshing (loved the re-enactment of Flight with sock puppets). I thought Seth McFarlane was comfortable in the role, worked the self-deprecation stuff well, and was edgy without being mean. However, there are those that disagree, finding many of his jokes offensive, or even vile, especially about women. The center of this is the "boobs" number at the beginning, which some have taken to insult women in general, reducing the work of actresses to their flashing of nudity. I didn't think it was so bad, but not I'm a woman, though the women I watched with didn't object.

There were some other laughs, such as The Sound of Music gag in introducing Christopher Plummer, and some groaners, such as Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy's banter and Samuel L. Jackson seemingly going off script in the Avengers' bit. There were also some wow moments, like Shirley Bassey, who I couldn't have sworn was still alive, belting out "Goldfinger" (the accompany Bond tribute montage was lackluster), and the cast of Les Miserables, every one of them, giving a rousing musical number (less successful was Jennifer Hudson screeching a number from Dreamgirls).

A poignant moment was the usually lachrymose In Memoriam segment, which ended with Barbra Streisand paying tribute to the recently departed Marvin Hamlisch by singing "The Way We Were." Schmaltzy, maybe, but perfectly appropriate.

So that's it for the Oscars for several months, which will please many, but it will start kicking up again come fall.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar 2012, Best Director/Picture: Hollywood Saves the Day

Best Director is usually the easiest category to predict in the Oscar race. Even if there's doubt about Best Picture, just look at what the DGA did--more than nine times out of ten, the DGA winner also wins the Oscar. But what happens when the DGA winner isn't nominated for an Oscar? Chaos reigns.

It's happened before--in 1985, Steven Spielberg won the DGA for The Color Purple, but was not Oscar-nominated, the same for Ron Howard in 1995 for Apollo 13. But things went according to plan anyway, as the Best Directors those years, Sydney Pollack and Mel Gibson, matched the Best Picture winner. That's unlikely this year.

Ben Affleck's snub by the Director's Branch of the Academy has turned the Best Director category into a toss-up. I think there's two possibilities--Spielberg, for Lincoln, and Ang Lee, for Life of Pi.

Spielberg was the early favorite, as Lincoln was seen as the favorite for Best Picture when the nominations were announced on January 10th. But a strange thing has happened--except for Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln has been beaten like a drum during the precursor awards. The explanations for this are mysterious--maybe industry folks find it too didactic--but it did get 12 nominations. Spielberg has won twice before, but I don't know that his chances tonight are better than fifty-fifty.

Ang Lee is also a former winner, and might win tonight just for the technical problem of making a movie that takes place mostly in a lifeboat with a boy and a tiger as the only characters. Life of Pi quietly picked up 11 nominations, mostly in the technical categories, indicating that the behind the scenes folks admired it. Is that enough to push him forward?

The other three directors figure to be non-winners. David O. Russell, director of Silver Linings Playbook, has a better chance at winning Best Adapted Screenplay, as the film is really more of a writer's success. The same could be said for Michael Haneke for Amour, who stands a chance in the Original Screenplay category. No director of a foreign language film has ever won a Best Director award.

Finally, Benh Zeitlin, director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, will surely be thrilled to attend.

Will win: Jeez, push come to shove? Ang Lee
Could win: Steven Spielberg
Should win: Steven Spielberg
Should have been nominated: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty

In the Best Picture race, die-hard Oscar nerds have come to accept the inevitable: Argo will win Best Picture. It's a bitter pill to swallow, not because Argo isn't any good, but because the Oscar stats are against it. Only three films, and only one in the last 80 years, have won Best Picture without the director being nominated. When the nominations were announced, Ben Affleck's absence in the Best Director category seemed a death knell for Argo. But then it one the Golden Globe. Ah, no big deal. Then the Producer's Guild. Hmmm. The SAG for Best Ensemble--so did The Birdcage. BAFTA? Hmmm. Then Affleck won the DGA. There is really no case against Argo except for the snub by the Director's Branch, and they are only six percent of the Academy. Argo will win.

But why? Was it feeling bad for Ben Affleck that did this? Maybe, but I think there's more to it. Why Argo, a perfectly fine but not particularly revelatory film? It finally hit me--of course the film industry would love this film. It portrays the Hollywood community as heroes, who saved the lives of six hostages. Hollywood is, as one would gather, a narcissistic place, and how better to feel good about yourselves than honor a film that can paint a producer as played by Alan Arkin as a national hero?

That's my opinion, anyway. The other eight films really have little chance, but if I were to rank them it would be Lincoln as the upset special, given that it has 12 nominations. Again, I'm puzzled as to why it's been overlooked in precursors. Silver Linings Playbook is probably third, given that it has a lot of support from the acting branch, with Life of Pi fourth, with its support from the below-the-line branches.

Zero Dark Thirty won most of the critics awards, but got left in the dust with precursors, perhaps being punished for its torture scenes, or maybe it's just one of those films that are loved by critics and not the industry. Amour, while ripe for upset wins in Best Actress or Best Original Screenplay, is a foreign language film, which has never won Best Picture (and this is a depressing film). Les Miserables, while a crowd pleaser in some quarters, is probably a bit too much for Best Picture (and the director was not nominated--oh, wait--that's meaningless now). Django Unchained's nomination is baffling, and I can't imagine how anyone could justify it winning tonight (it has raised the ire of some in the African-American community) and as with Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild even being in this category is a victory.

Will win: Argo
Could win: Lincoln
Should win: Silver Linings Playbook
Should have been nominated: Moonrise Kingdom

Here is my full list of predictions:

Best Picture: Argo
Best Director: Ang Lee
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway
Best Original Screenplay: Zero Dark Thirty
Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo
Best Foreign Language Film: Amour
Best Animated Film: Wreck-It Ralph
Best Cinematography: Life of Pi
Best Editing: Argo
Best Production Design: Lincoln
Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Best Song: "Skyfall"
Best Musical Score: Life of Pi
Best Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man
Best Documentary Short Subject: Inocente
Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Les Miserables
Best Animated Short Subject: Paperman
Best Live Action Short Subject: Curfew
Best Sound Editing: Life of Pi
Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Drift

"When civilians are not asked to pay any price, it's easy to be at war--not just to intervene in a foreign land in the first place, but to keep on fighting there. The justifications for staying at war don't have to be particularly rational or cogently argued when so few Americans are making the sacrifice that it takes to stay."

This is the most important point in Rachel Maddow's book Drift, which documents the evolution of the military and war-making in American history. The liberal MSNBC host shows how we went from a nation reluctant to go to war to one that is almost itching for a fight, mainly because the country has been so inured to sky-high defense budgets and peopling the military with volunteers that frequently have no better offer than to sign up.

The book is full of factual information that is frequently enlightening, and shows that Maddow spent a long time with her nose in government reports. "Overall, the United States admits to having lost track of eleven nuclear bombs over the years. I don't know about other countries, but that's what we admit to." Or, "the United States spend as much on national defense as every other country in the world combined." Maddow, to anyone who has watched her show, is at heart a wonk, and bases her arguments on facts--which means she is not simply the liberal counterpart to people like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, who more often base their arguments on emotion.

Maddow frames her argument cogently. The founding fathers did not believe in standing armies. If they were alive today they'd be shocked at us having military bases around the world. They also explicitly wrote into the Constitution that congress had the power to declare war, not the President. Why? Because they wanted to make it hard to go to war, not easy. This was not just an 18th-century thing. "Within eighteen months of the conclusion of World War I, Congress had completely dismantled the American Expeditionary Forces and reduced the active-duty military from four million soldiers back to the prewar number of less than three hundred thousand."

What changed? According to Maddow, it was Ronald Reagan, who firmly held on to a belief even if shown the plain facts. He was fiercely against the Panama Canal treaty, even when no less a conservative hero than John Wayne tried to convince him otherwise. His anti-communism caused him to ratchet up the defense budget, tripling it, and plunging the nation into debt: "what is demonstrably clear and empirically measurable is the damage that our country suffered from the enormity of the defense spending of the Reagan presidency. David Stockman's initial dire deficit projections, it turns out, were rosy: Reagan's annual budget deficit ballooned from 2 percent to a record 6.3 percent of the GDP in his first two years in office, a fiscal sinkhole it would take us nearly twenty years to climb out of."

Maddow then takes us through the military adventures of the past thirty years: Grenada, Iran-Contra, the Gulf War, the Balkans, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (she doesn't even touch on Somalia). Slowly, through chicanery and legal double-talk, the wheel turned so that presidents started wars, not congress. She also discusses drones, and that now the CIA is effectively another branch of the military, but one that is above oversight, claiming national security.

But it's the notion that wars are taking place without anyone noticing them that I think is her most salient point. During World War II, everyone pitched into the war effort. During Vietnam, the news was front page every day, and because of the draft it was likely that everyone knew someone who was over there. That's different now, such as when George W. Bush banned photographers from Dover Air Force Base, where coffins carrying the dead soldiers came, or when Nightline was pilloried for listing the dead on its show. "While America has been fighting two of its longest-ever boots-on-the-ground wars in the decade following 9/11, and fighting them simultaneously, less than one percent of the adult US population has been called upon to strap on those boots. 'Not since the peacetime years between World War I and World War II,' according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, 'has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces.' Half of the American public says it has not even been marginally affected by ten years of constant war. We've never in our long history been further from the ideal of the citizen-soldier, from the idea that America would find it impossible to go to war without disrupting civilian life."

I'll raise my hand--I do not know anyone personally that is serving overseas. In fact, I don't think I know of anyone who has a relative over there.

While Drift is a book full of facts and figures, Maddow has chosen to make her prose folksy. It's a little off-putting to be reading a book like this and encounter words like "oops," "whoopsie," and "chickenshittery" (even if that is a great word). At one point she writes: "This country developed a serious war jones." This must have been a conscious choice between her and her editor, and while it makes it seem like one of her opening monologues on her show, sometimes if gives the writing a tinge of amateurism. Also, leaving out Somalia is interesting, and though there is a chapter on the outsourcing of military operations to private contractors, which led to scandals such as employees buying sex slaves in Serbia, nothing is written about the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, so vividly described in the film The Invisible War.

Still, this is an important and thought-provoking work. When I was a teenager, a young man still had to register for the draft. After much soul-searching, I did register, though I scrawled the letters "CO" (conscientious objector) on the form. I'm far too old to serve now, and I can't believe I'm writing this, but it might be time for the draft to be re-instituted. The one benefit is that men in suits won't be so quick to push the country into war if anyone can end up getting shot at, not just the poor.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Clockwork Orange (Novel)

Another book that had its 50th anniversary in 2012 that I'm just getting around to is A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which is on all sorts of lists as one of the best books ever written in English. It was made into a famous movie by Stanley Kubrick that happens to be one of my all-time favorites, but up to now I had not read the book.

Set in the near, dystopian future, Burgess has crafted something of a satire on the various reactions to violence, and whether being good or evil is a choice or not. His narrator, Alex, is a 15-year-old hooligan that, along with three comrades, terrorizes the community nightly with "ultra-violence." Mostly that means beating and raping people.

Alex, after being arrested for murder, is chosen to undergo a treatment that uses aversion therapy--he's given medicine to make him nauseous while watching horrific images of violence--and released, but upon his release he finds that he has no place to go, and since he can't fight back without being sick he's at the mercy of those whom he wronged. Eventually he becomes a pawn in a political battle, with those who oppose the technique wondering at the ethics of making someone nonviolent not by choice, but by biological necessity.

Burgess wrote the book in three weeks in response to a plague of youth violence in Britain in the early '60s. In the newest edition he wrote: "I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which ought to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world's literary memory." No such luck. It was published in the U.S. without the last chapter, which was also not filmed by Kubrick, and has a downbeat ending.

The novella--it's less than 200 pages--is a fascinating read, although one must get used to something right away. Burgess crafted a language called "Nadsat" that Alex and his "droogs" speak. It's full of words that have Slavic provenance, and one must learn the words not from a glossary, but from their context. Soon it sinks in that "tolchock" is hit, "litso" is face, "ptitsa" is a woman, "devotchka" is a young woman, "smeck" is laugh, "deng" is money, and so on. The first few chapters are a bit like reading Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky: "Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while the counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till's guts."

Alex is certainly a sociopath, but it's easy to root for him. Burgess doesn't attempt to persuade us he's society's victim, but he's interesting and funny and, most human of him, he adores classical music. One of the side effects he endures in the treatment is that a particularly harsh film of Nazi brutality is scored to Beethoven's Ninth, thus ending his ability to listen to music. It's the one civilized trait the boy has: "Then, brothers, it came. Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets threewise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders." He refers to Beethoven as "lovely Ludwig Van."

The book, though fifty years old, still has relevance, as penology seems to be an never-ending state of turmoil. Punish or rehabilitate? In a nation like the U.S., which has more people incarcerated than any other nation, we could stand to read this again to figure out just what the fuck to do. Clearly there are many recidivists like Alex in our world. Is the answer removing the choice of violence, when there is no other alternative than a life behind bars?

In a few days I'll discuss Kubrick's film.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Declaration of War

Declaration of War is a quirky, intermittently gripping story of young parents and a sick child. It's only when a person has knowledge of the backstory--that the stars, who are also the director and writers, went through this themselves, does the film have an extra bit of oomph. But this is not mentioned in the film, so the unspoken is out there, and the film kind of just sits there.

Directed by Valerie Donzelli, and co-written by Jeremie Elkaim, the two also star as young parents of a baby boy. They notice a few odd things about him, such as his being late to walk, tilting his head, and constant vomiting. The pediatrician sends them to a neurologist, who soon finds a tumor in his brain. Immediate surgery is suggested.

Anyone who has had a sick child will likely be nodding in agreement as the two go through the ups and downs of medical treatment. I especially liked a scene in which they imagined what the worst could happen, and it edges into silliness, giving them both a needed laugh. I also liked the sense of family rallying around them, as both sets of parents, meeting for the first time at the hospital, bond over the vigil.

But other parts of the movie seem clunky and forced. We start the film with the two meeting, across a crowded room, no less, and there is a montage of their early courtship. Does every dating couple share cotton candy together? When the movie settles into a medical procedural, it has bite but certainly we've seen it before. And a closing scene on the beach is a cliche that drags on too long.

Yet understanding the honesty that the two stars have put into the project is admirable, and they are likable and easy to root for.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oscar 2012, Best Actor: With Malice Toward None

The Best Actor race has, for intents and purposes, a mortal lock as winner. Few would disagree that Daniel Day-Lewis, as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, has this all sewn up. But still...

No one has won three Best Actor awards. Not Tracy, not Gable, not Olivier, not Bogart, not Nicholson (he has won three, but one was supporting). Will there be any hesitation from voters on checking off Day-Lewis' name, in that, at 55, he's not old enough or megastar enough to have made history?

Probably not. He certainly deserves it. Had he only won one Oscar he'd be as much as a slam dunk as he was for There Will Be Blood. But part of me holds out a sliver of possibility that someone could create a gasp-worthy moment that will rock Oscar nerds' worlds.

Who would it be? I see two possibilities. One is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He seems to Mr. Nice Guy, and the role was an arduous one, plus he can sing! If anyone wavers on anointing Day-Lewis as the Best Actoriest actor of all time, they may stray to Jackman.

Or Bradley Cooper, for Silver Linings Playbook. Ten years ago, the best actor category was made up of four men who had won Oscars, and the upset winner was the new guy, Adrien Brody. There might be a movement toward Cooper, who had lots of big moments in the film, and is a star on the rise.

Beyond those three, I don't see anyone else winning. Joaquin Phoenix has garnered a lot of critical praise for The Master, though I found him nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying. If the award is for most acting, he would get it. Phoenix getting nominated should to rest the theory that talking bad about the Oscars hurts you. He, like Mo'Nique a few years ago, blasted the whole campaigning aspect of it. She won; he won't.

Last is Denzel Washington, for Flight. I liked his performance very much, but it's highly doubtful that he would win his third Oscar for this role, in a film that didn't really take off (pardon the pun). Actors playing drunks win a lot of Oscars, but not this year.

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Could win: Hugh Jackman
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should have been nominated: John Hawkes, The Sessions

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

There's a glut of books out there for teens into the supernatural. If you walk into a Barnes and Noble you'll find a section called "Teen Paranormal Romance." This was all started by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, but as these books are made into movies they shouldn't be lumped together. Some are clearly better than others.

Beautiful Creatures is a teen paranormal romance that has been adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese. The smartest thing he did was populating his film with very good actors. Watching Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, and Emma Thompson flex their muscles is very entertaining. And as for his two unknown leads, they are both very good. Aiden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert, if you squint a bit, will remind you of Leonard DiCaprio and Ellen Page.

Ehrenreich is a smart and popular high school student in a one-horse town in South Carolina. All he wants to do is get out, and reads books banned from the local library. He's been dreaming about a girl, but he can't see her face, and he compulsively sketches her.

Turns out the girl is the new girl in town, played by Englert. She's moved into the creepy Ravenwood mansion. Irons is her uncle, and he lives in the house but hardly ever comes out. The locals think his family is a bunch of Satanists. Ehrenreich is intrigued by Englert, but she is aloof. Finally he wins her over, and they start dating. But there's some nastiness involving a Civil War era locket.

Englert isn't a Satanist, but she isn't normal, as evidenced by the windows in a classroom shattering when she's being teased by other girls. She's a "caster" (witch is such a pejorative, like geek). She's facing a crisis. In just a few days she'll turn 16, and it will be decided whether she's "light" or "dark." Irons is trying to keep her dark mother (Thompson) from influencing the decision.

A lot of this is very silly. Some of it plays like a Tim Burton film of Bewitched. There's a scene in the middle of the film when Ehrenreich comes to dinner, and the members of the Ravenwood family are all a bunch of oddballs. I expected Uncle Arthur to show up. Some of it is like Harry Potter, what with the rules and curses. Some of it is like True Blood, in that there is this war between casters and mortals, and the whole town seems to be draped in spanish moss. But most of it works and has a sense of originality to it.

Most of the credit goes to the dialogue, and Ehrenreich's sparkling performance. A lot of it is genuinely funny, such as when he dissects the ending of Titanic. Englert avoids playing the standard sullen girl, and Emmy Rossum shows up as the sexy witch cousin and steals some scenes.

That being said, the film does have some drawbacks. I found the pacing erratic and choppy. And perhaps the book goes deeper into the role of casters in society--if they're so powerful, why aren't they running things? And there's a tunnel running underneath the entire United States that only the casters know about? Riiiiight.

But overall I give Beautiful Creatures a thumbs up, mostly for the acting by the three established stars. Thompson gets to play two roles--her evil witch inhabits the body of the local bible-thumper. Davis, as the town's librarian, gives a very subtle performance, and is there anybody better at chewing scenery than Jeremy Irons? Maybe Ian McKellen, but it's close. Watching Irons dress down the locals in a church while wearing an outfit that defies description was worth the price of admission.

My grade for Beautiful Creatures: C+.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Return

Return, a film from 2012, is a finely etched character study of a woman back from deployment in Afghanistan. She did not undergo anything traumatic--repeatedly she says that a lot of people had it much worse than her--but she nonetheless is gripped by a baffling depression.

Linda Cardellini is excellent as Kelli, who joined the National Guard and was kind of stunned to have to be called up. The story begins on her first day back, greeting her two daughters and her husband, Michael Shannon (who, for once, is playing a normal guy). She is glad to be back and everyone is glad to see her again, but as the days go by she's gripped by a melancholy.

First she quits her job in a factory. Then she pushes her husband away to the arms of another woman. She starts drinking, and gets a DUI. While attending group therapy in lieu of incarceration, she meets a fellow vet (John Slattery), who lives in the woods without electricity and has a brief fling with him. However, she has an ulterior motive, as she has been redeployed and does not want to go back.

Return doesn't have any answers. We don't know why she's depressed any more than she does, When Shannon, after she fails to pick up her daughter at cheerleading practice, takes the children away, she contemplates a radical decision. Frequently people ask her "What's wrong with you," and you can tell Cardellini knows she's in the wrong, but can't articulate what she is feeling.

Cardellini is wonderful, as her acting is very minimal but highly effective. Shannon is his usual excellent self, though as stated he is playing someone thoroughly normal, which is kind of weird.

This is what Siskel and Ebert used to call a buried treasure, and deserves more exposure. It was written and directed by Liza Johnson, and though set in Ohio, makes good use of the Newburgh, New York area, where it was filmed. One can't help but notice the depressed surroundings, such as closed stores and ramshackle houses. One of the producers of this film is Meredith Vieira, which surprised me.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Flesh Eaters

The scariest thing about Joe McKinney's zombie book may be the root cause of the affliction: three successive category 5 hurricanes rip through Houston, flooding it and altering the coastline of Texas to make the city a coastal town, which it is not now. McKinney is clearly not one of those who consider global warming a hoax. Maybe if those who do think so knew that it could cause the zombie apocalypse, they'd change their minds.

The book centers around a Houston policewoman, Eleanor Norton, and her commander, Mark Shaw. They try to keep things stable in the wake of the storm, as Shaw opens the University of Houston campus to refugees. But they get all confined without food or proper sanitation, and soon survivors are walking around in stilted gaits, shuffling and moaning and eating people.

McKinney has given his zombies a scientific rationale--necrosis filovirus, which is a real disease, something like hemorrhagic fever, which leaves the victims with vacant stares, impervious to pain, and hungry for flesh (although he doesn't explain one of my bugaboos about zombies--why don't they eat each other?). They are not true zombies, in that they are not the reanimated dead--they are alive, and can be killed, though not easily.

The zombies pass along the disease by bite, so soon the whole city is over run. Shaw and his sons have decided to rob a bank, which is underwater, and get out of Dodge. But getting out of the city is not easy, and Norton and her family and Shaw and his sons have to battle the zombies where ever they go. McKinney paints a nasty picture of the afflicted--with cracked, black teeth, drooling blood, and occasional body pieces missing.

The writing is solid if not flowery, with some banal platitudes about courage. The reading grade-level is not high. There's also a tendency to go meta with the prose, referring to a lot of pop culture, especially other zombie movies: "In her mind, zombies were nothing but harlequins, clowns in shabby makeup. They staggered around, pantomiming death, while cheesy music played on the soundtrack and bare-breasted bimbos titillated the teenage boys in the audience. From her youth she remembered the movie version of Max Brooks's World War Z and the TV series based on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, and she remembered those grossing her out, but never scaring her. They were ridiculous. They were slow and stupid and little more than an excuse for a whole generation of angry-minded, disaffected youth to safely and sanely fantasize about killing loads of people. Zombies were wish fulfilment, nothing more."

So we have here a decent horror story, a page-turner with some genuine frights, that also has a social conscious. That makes it worth reading for horror fans. This novel also won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Mill and the Cross

I don't know that I've seen any film quite like The Mill and the Cross. Written and directed by Lech Majewski, it can be said to be adapted from a painting--Brueghel's 1564 painting The Procession of the Cavalry. Majewski has taken that work, which depicts the procession of Jesus to Golgotha, and made a dream-like film about how it was made and the people who populate it.

The film is certainly visually interesting, in that there are special effects employed so that the people seem to be wandering about on the canvas. But for one raised on narrative, this film left me wanting. My mind frequently wandered, and I had a hell of a time figuring out who was who and what was going on. For example, near the end of the film a man hangs himself. I didn't know who he was, or why he did it.

Simply put, Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) saw the rule of the Spanish in his Flanders a parallel to the Romans in the time of Christ, and therefore has the executioners wearing the crimson shirts of the Spanish oppressors. There is also a brutal scene in which the Spaniards break a young Flemish man on the wheel, with ravens pecking out his eyes. The scenes I found most in interesting were those in which Bruegel discusses the composition of the painting, using tips he got from watching a spider build a web.

The film works better in the abstract--a documentary on the DVD discusses the meaning of the painting, and makes the film better in retrospect. I wonder if other paintings could be made into films like this. Certainly The Garden of Earthly Delights, Nighthawks, Guernica. The list is theoretically endless.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Oscar 2012, Best Actress: Crazy Like a Fox

The Best Actress race has a clear front-runner, but because of some recent gaffes, there is a possibility of an upset.

The front-runner is clearly Jennifer Lawrence as the disturbed young widow in Silver Linings Playbook. Lawrence, who burst on the scene just over two years ago, is now a major star, having attached herselt to huge franchises in The Hunger Games and the X-Men. She is glamorous, but she is also not attuned to the ways of discretion. When she won the Golden Globe, she said, "Wow, I beat Meryl," which was a quote from a film but ruffled feathers. Then, on Saturday Night Live, she talked "smack" about her competitors, which was funny but nervy. This award is not usually given to the very young--Lawrence is only a shade older than the youngest winner, Marlee Matlin.

There are two possibilities for upset. Jessica Chastain also won a Golden Globe for the tireless CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty. She is a rising star, appearing in about ten films in the last two years, but the role just doesn't seem meaty enough. It would be rare indeed for a woman to win for a role that has no love interest (other than Miss Daisy) and it may be hard for voters to recall a specific scene. Then there's all that torture stuff, which I'll discuss further in the Best Picture post.

Emmanuelle Riva won the BAFTA award for Amour, which may make sense for Brits, who are more likely to appreciate a legendary French actress. Riva is best known here for appearing in Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, but is far from a household name. However, if voters turn away from Lawrence and Chastain, their votes could go to a role that requires a lot of physicality (she plays a stroke sufferer) and very little glamour. Riva is the oldest nominee in this category's history, which may get her some votes from the blue-rinse set.

Two that stand no chance are Naomi Watts, as the embattled mother in the Indian Ocean tsunami in The Impossible, and Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Watts is one of my favorites, and I feel confident she'll win an Oscar someday. I'd be tempted to vote for her here just for the hell she must have gone through, being in water most of the time. The film just didn't catch on, though, and against tough competition she won't win.

Wallis is the youngest ever nominee in this category, so the nomination is the victory. Part of the reason why it was thought she wouldn't get nominated--that a performance by a six-year-old is the work of a director, not the performer, may work against her here. She sure dominated that picture, though.

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Could win: Jessica Chastain
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should have been nominated: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

As with last year's Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris, I've been pleasantly surprised by viewing a film solely because it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. This year it is for The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which is a delightful, droll film from Aardman Studios.

The film was directed by Peter Lord, who made Chicken Run. It should be enjoyed by anyone who enjoyed that film, or the Wallace and Gromit films, though Nick Park is not involved. It is very British, and though children will enjoy the action and silliness, adults such as myself will marvel at the witty dialogue and the numerous funny details.

The story concerns a small band of pirates who are led by the Pirate Captain (none of his band have names, but simply a description--the girl masquerading as a man is known as the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate). The Pirate Captain is a bungler, but desperately wants to win the Pirate of the Year contest. In comparison to other pirates, though, he's comically lacking.

While trying to raise his booty total, he attacks the Beagle and finds Charles Darwin. Though Darwin has no gold, he points out to the Captain that the bird on his shoulder is not a parrot, but a dodo, which has been extinct for centuries. Darwin tells him that they can surely win the Scientist of the Year contest, which will earn riches. The only catch is that the contest is in London, and Queen Victoria hates pirates (her crest is "I Hate Pirates").

There's so much to enjoy here, whether it's turning Victoria into a bad-ass villain, or the little one-liners, like "London smells like grandma."What's the best thing about being a pirate? Why, Ham Night, of course. Did you know that Charles Darwin had troubles with the ladies, and secretly pined for Victoria? Or that he had a man-panzee named Bobo, who used signs to communicate?

Based on a popular British series of books, the film certainly is helped by the revival of pirates stemming from The Pirates of the Caribbean series. Like that film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is a meta-look at that world, with nobody really getting hurt. The voice actors are mostly British actors such as Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, and Imelda Staunton. I think Freeman, who voices the Captain's loyal "Number two," said it best: "Just by adding an 'arrr' at the end of a sentence doesn't make everything all right."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oscar 2012, Best Supporting Actor: The Winner Takes It All

For the first time in its history, an acting category in the Academy Awards is made up entirely of previous winners. Therefore, somebody is going home with a second (or, in one case, third) Oscar. It's perhaps the closest race among the four acting categories.

Christoph Waltz, who plays the loquacious bounty hunter King Schultz in Django Unchained. He has won the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. He won only three years ago for Inglourious Basterds. Some see him as a favorite, given the precursors, and he certainly wouldn't be a shocking win.

But I'm still thinking that Tommy Lee Jones, as abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln will go home with the gold. His win came 19 years ago (for The Fugitive), and he seems like the kind of veteran actor who voters wouldn't mind giving a second Oscar to. If Lincoln were more of a favorite to win a ton of Oscars, he might be more of a sure thing.

It also wouldn't be a stretch for Robert De Niro to win a third Oscar. He has won previously in the Best Supporting category (for The Godfather, Part II) and Best Actor (Raging Bull). But he hasn't been nominated in over 20 years. His career has been notably dominated by comedies and disposable crime thrillers, but in Silver Linings Playbook he plays a different kind of role--closer to his stuff in the Meet the Parents films, but much more complex. He could surprise here.

The longer shots include Alan Arkin, as the producer who helps the CIA agent in Argo, a role that supplies most of the comic relief. Arkin, had he not won a few years ago for Little Miss Sunshine, might be the favorite, given that many producers probably see themselves in the role. But since he has won, I don't think the part has the juice of the others.

Probably the longest shot in Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader in The Master. It's great work, but not the kind of thing that would seem to endear itself to voters. The Master was loved by the actor's branch, the largest division in the Academy, but nowhere else. I can't see a scenario where he wins.

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones
Could win: Christoph Waltz
Should win: Tommy Lee Jones
Should have been nominated: Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight Rises

Monday, February 11, 2013

Side Effects

Supposedly Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh's last feature film before retirement. I think his retirement will last as long as Brett Favre's first two retirements, if only because Side Effects, while a reasonably entertaining time at the movies, isn't exactly worthy of his legacy.

I had been led to believe that the film, written by Scott Z. Burns, was an indictment of our over-medicated society, especially those commercials that advertise a pill for almost every malady, that end with a breathless recitation of the side effects, which can include everything from constipation to suicidal thoughts. Indeed, that is what the first third or so of the film is about, but then it takes a sharp turn that leads into a different film entirely, Soderbergh's take on Diabolique.

Since I had no idea what to expect from the film, I won't spoil it here. I can say that the film stars Rooney Mara, cleaned up after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as a young woman who is welcoming her husband (Channing Tatum) back to freedom after a four-year stint in prison for insider trading. But though she is happy to have him back, she suffers from depression, going so far as to drive her car full speed into parking garage wall. She has only a concussion, though, but a psychiatrist (Jude Law) is brought onto her case. He prescribes a variety of anti-depressants, but eventually, after consulting with her previous shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he gives her a new drug, Ablixa. It has a nasty side effect of inducing sleepwalking.

The rest of the film, after the big moment at the end of act one, has Law becoming an amateur sleuth as he strives to clear his name. The twist is pretty well handled (gasps went up in the audience that I attended with), and the conclusion is full of turns that are pretty clever. But I couldn't help but feel that the film was just an exercise in style. Soderbergh, who shoots his own camera under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, has given the film a cozy feel, no doubt hearkening back to those commercials that have depressed people happy again after popping a pill. But the pace is very choppy and disorienting.

Law is the focus of the film, and I found the performance distracting. His motivation is at first to help Mara, and then to save himself, but many of his actions are inscrutable. The character is serving the script, instead of the other way around. Mara is much more interesting, and it's good to see that he turn as Lisbeth Salander is not just a one-off. Her role requires some duplicitous actions, and she must fool the audience as well as others in the film. I'll admit she fooled me.

Side Effects is really just an above-average TV movie, the kind of thing you might stop on while channel surfing. If this is Soderbergh's last film, he didn't exactly go out with a bang.

My grade for Side Effects: B-.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Film)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made into a film 13 years after its publication. First it was a play, written by Dale Wasserman, which was purchased by Kirk Douglas, who played the role of McMurphy on stage. He sent the book to a young Czech filmmaker named Milos Forman. But Forman never received the book, likely held up by a Czech customs agent.

Douglas became too old to play the part, and he gave the property to his son Michael to produce. Finally it all came together, and Michael, coincidentally, approached Forman without knowing that his father had already thought of him. Forman, by that time, was a celebrated director of Czech films such as Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman's Ball, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would be his first film in English.

By this time, Jack Nicholson was a big star and a natural to play McMurphy. Many of Nicholson's mannerisms that are endemic to impersonators of him came from his performance as Randle Patrick McMurphy: the furrowed brow, the moving eyes, the evil grin, the nasal voice. Nicholson would win an Oscar for this role, his first of three, and in a way he overwhelms the film too much.

When I first saw this film as a teenager, I considered it one of my favorites. But after viewing it again a few nights ago for the first time in years, it felt a little dated. I still enjoyed it, but seeing it right after having read the book highlighted some of the problems with it.

For one thing, the book is narrated by the Chief, and of course, in the film that is changed--their is no narration. The Chief, thusly, is pushed to the margin, and though his role in the magnificent ending of the film is still there, his inner voice is missed in the film.

Secondly, the dynamic of the ward is completely different. The screenplay, written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, creates a different world on the ward. The character of Harding, the ineffectual intellectual played by William Redfield, is portrayed as figure of fun and bullying by the other inmates, who mock him for using big vocabulary words. In the book, there is none of that. In fact, the character of Taber, played by Christopher Lloyd, is invented to provide a conflict in the ward, as he is constantly needling other inmates.

So we have a lot of new dialogue in the film, and new scenes, such as the basketball game, which uses Will Sampson as the Chief effectively, and several scenes of group therapy that are created out of whole cloth. But what remains in the book, but much more superficially, is the iron fist employed by Nurse Ratched, played coldly by Louise Fletcher (who also won an Oscar). But the film makes it more of a grudge match being McMurphy and Fletcher, and less of a political allegory.

The film was made in the Oregon State Mental Hospital, and its director, Dean Brooks, played Dr. Spivey, and his natural stiffness as an actor actually works. There are some other interesting supporting actors, such as Danny DeVito (with hair) and Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbitt, who would be nominated for an Oscar.

The film mainly succeeds as a vehicle for Nicholson, who is so good it's scary. Fletcher, to her credit, doesn't try to compete, and her performance is placid and controlled as Nicholson's is wild. Forman's direction shows the ward as a place of white tile and tranquil music, until Nicholson turns the place into a party. Now, though, the film, shot by Haskell Wexler, looks dreary and TV-like. I'm not sure if this was intended, but it just has a '70s look that perhaps is unavoidable.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a great film, perhaps not as great as I first considered it, but I'll repeat--given a choice, read the book.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Novel)

I'm a little late on this, but 2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey, which, along with Catch-22, heralded the arrival of the '60s in literature. Both books deal with the abuse of power and the notion that you can't fight city hall, at least not directly, but there are ways of pulling one over on city hall.

I first read this back on my teens, in a paperback tie-in with the movie that had just come out. Jack Nicholson was on the cover, and it's difficult to read the book without picturing him as Randle Patrick McMurphy, the effervescent career crook who lights upon the sleepy ward of the Oregon State Mental Hospital. This time I was able to put Nicholson's image aside somewhat, for McMurphy is described as being a stocky redhead with a scar across his nose (he was played by Kirk Douglas in the stage version).

The book is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a towering Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb, and is invariably pushing a broom around. He's one of the "chronics," the supposedly incurable inmates, on a ward evenly divided with "acutes"--those who see a day when they will leave. When the book starts, Chief notes the daily routine, when the black orderlies arrive, and then comes the Big Nurse--Miss Ratched: "I'm mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it's the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel--tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can't tell which."

Miss Ratched is one of the great villains in American literature, and it's easy to see the political allegory. She rules with an iron fist, more powerful than the doctors, and is not outwardly cruel. Instead she manipulates the men behind a series of rules and soft-spoken bromides. Her agenda, it would seem, is to keep things smooth and quiet, and to have the men fear her. She is the system, or as the Chief describes it, the Combine. They control things, and the inmates, standing in for the citizens at large, can't do anything about it. At least until McMurphy arrives.

He, on the other hand, is a breath of freedom. He is only in because he wanted to get out of the work farm, and figures life is a lot easier in the loony bin. But it dawns on him that once he's there, his release date is controlled by Miss Ratched. And he's stunned to learn that not all of the patients are committed--most can leave any time they want, but are convinced by the Combine that they can't function in society.

McMurphy changes that. Chief notices first that he loves to laugh, and laughter is not heard on the ward. McMurphy slowly antagonizes the Big Nurse, and eventually inspires the men to go along with him. He tries to get the World Series turned on, starts a gambling den in the tub room, and arranges for a fishing trip, which is a section that is so ebulliently written that a reader can't help but feel they've been on the trip. The men, whom McMurphy had termed "rabbits," regain their self-confidence, and though McMurphy may not make it, the message of hope is carried on.

Though the book is frequently funny, it is a tragedy at heart, with the character of Billy Bibbitt, a stuttering mama's boy. McMurphy, with his friend Candy the whore, gets Billy laid, and when Miss Ratched comes upon them she knows exactly how to strike back at McMurphy, through Billy--she will tell Billy's mother. When Billy reacts violently to this news, McMurphy finally unleashes his fury at the Big Nurse, but is pulled off, and cries out: "A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying."

Kesey wrote the book while working the graveyard shift at a veteran's hospital. It contains treatments that are thankfully antiquated now, such as lobotomies and electro-shock therapy: "Across the hall from us is another bench, and it leads to that metal door. With the line of rivets. And nothing marked on it at all. Two guys are dozing on the bench between two black boys, while another victim inside is getting his treatment and I can hear him screaming. The door opens inward with a whoosh, and I can see the twinkling tubes in the room. They wheel the victim out still smoking, and I grip the bench where I sit to keep from being sucked through the door."

Where the book most differs from the film (which I will write about tomorrow) is that the film doesn't allow for Chief's internal monologues, his life as a boy among Indians in the Pacific Northwest, his reasons for being in the asylum, and his eventual reawakening, sparked by McMurphy. Though the film is very good indeed, the novel (as is usual) is a much richer and rewarding experience.

Friday, February 08, 2013

5 Broken Cameras

In contrast to the all-talking-head format of The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras, also a nominee for Best Documentary Feature, has no talking heads. It does have voiceover narration by one its directors, Emad Burnat. But the rest is the footage he shot of protests in a Palestinian village in the West Bank.

The film is structured in segments, each ending in one of Burnat's cameras being broken in a demonstration of some sort. He buys the first camera in 2005 to use to film his newborn son, Gibril. But at the same time the Jewish settlements encroach upon his villagers land, as olive trees (the livelihood of the village) are uprooted and a barricade is built.

Almost obsessively, Burnat films the protests, including the Israeli army's response, which is usually to lob tear gas grenades as casually as boys throwing snowballs. The soldiers are depicted as faceless automatons, surely obeying orders but then going over the line--one protester, unarmed and with his hands tied behind his back, is shot point blank in the leg.

Since we only have Burnat's point of view, it's difficult to understand the entire issue. Certainly, given his footage, we can be outraged at the treatment of the Palestinians. The Israeli army could use a different tactic in how to handle unarmed protests (to be sure, there is a lot of rock throwing, though). I would have liked to hear the Jewish point of view, but that would be another movie (a film about the Israeli secret service, called The Gatekeepers, is also nominated this year).

Burnat shows a certain fearlessness in obdurately filming the story. One camera saves his life, as it stops a bullet meant for his head. Two of his friends are shot during the ordeal. I was a little angry that the villagers used children, including Gibril, as protesters, and then cried to the soldiers to the effect, "You wouldn't hurt children!" It's a bit shameless to use kids in that way.

As a kind of amateur journalism, 5 Broken Cameras is intermittently fascinating, if one sided. It was co-directed by Guy Davidi, who presumably put the footage together. I imagine Burnat, who was a peasant harvesting olives in the West Bank, never dreamed he'd get nominated for an Oscar.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Oscar 2012, Best Supporting Actress: I Dreamed a Dream

Over the next two and a half weeks I'll be taking my annual look at the major categories in the Oscar race. I start with the easiest call, Best Supporting Actress.

There seems little doubt that Anne Hathaway, as the doomed Fantine in Les Miserables, will take the top prize. Her one-take, live-recorded version of "I Dreamed a Dream" has wowed just about everybody, and Hathaway, combined with her terrific turn as Catwoman in this year's The Dark Knight Rises, has had a sensational year and attained top stardom.

The only reason she won't win might be a perceived notion that she's just too damn perky. I think this comes mostly from snarky bloggers, who hated her chirpiness at the Golden Globes. But I doubt this will cost her many votes from Academy members.

But if the unthinkable happens, and Hathaway doesn't win, who will? I think the best chance of the also-rans is Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln. Field, who is one of the few people who is two for two in Oscar races, hasn't been nominated in 28 years. Some think her "you really like me" speech turned voters off, but I think it's been more a lack of quality material. She's regressed back to TV and may be most well known now as a pitch woman for a bone density drug. But though she has won twice before, this is a new generation of voters, and they might feel a soft spot for her if they think it's too much, too soon for Hathaway.

Amy Adams has received her fourth nomination for her role as the wife of  the cult leader in The Master. Adams is evidently loved by the actor's branch, but it doesn't seem likely this will be the role that will earn her the prize. One hopes she doesn't end up like Thelma Ritter, who was nominated six times in this category but never won.

Helen Hunt also returns after several years, gaining her first nomination in 15 years for the sex surrogate in The Sessions. Hunt, after winning Best Actress for As Good As It Gets, almost vanished from the map, and hasn't exactly returned to her most visible status of Mad About You days, although she certainly is visible in this film, where she bares all (incidentally, for Hunt fans, check out her younger body in The Water Dance, where she shows just as much). The Sessions didn't get any other love in the noms, so don't expect Hunt to make it two for  two.

Finally, Jacki Weaver is nominated for her performance as the enabling wife in Silver Linings Playbook. Some wags thought Weaver got in over Maggie Smith because Weaver campaigns. I don't know about that, but I didn't find her performance exceptional--maybe it's because the other three principles had so much more to do. It's interesting that Weaver, heretofore unknown in the U.S., capitalized on her nomination two years ago for Animal Kingdom and has turned that into a bankable Hollywood career. She has zero chance at winning, though.

Will win: Anne Hathaway
Could win: Sally Field
Should win: Anne Hathaway
Should have been nominated: Kelly Reilly, Flight

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Invisible War

It seems as if so many documentaries are "issue" films, and when people advocate a certain documentary to win an Oscar, they are not using the film's quality as a criterion, but instead the issue itself. The Invisible War, a nominee this year, will make you very mad (if you are a decent human being), but the filmmaking itself is fairly pedestrian. It is all talking heads, and while some of the testimony is heartbreaking, it's pretty standard fare.

The topic is sexual assault in the military. Kirby Dick, who also directed and was nominated for Twist of Faith, about priests who molested children, is exposing another sordid tradition--the assault on female (and male) military personnel. What gets the viewer angry is the absolute lack of effort the military makes in prosecuting the offenders. Usually it is swept under the rug and the victim ends up getting charged with something, like adultery (even if they're single).

The numbers, presented as silent title cards, are pretty amazing. Twenty percent of women in the military have reported being sexually assaulted, so that doesn't count those who don't report. Fifteen percent of men who join the military have raped or attempted rape, which is twice the civilian population (7.5 percent is pretty fucking high as it is, but more on that below). Dick has found many courageous women (and one man) who speak up about their rapes--all of them have some sort of PTSD, and none of their assailants were charged.

The primary spokesperson is Kori Cioca, who was raped while in the Coast Guard. She was also hit in the face and has chronic pain, which the VA has denied her benefits for. She is a petite spitfire who is determined to take on the entire U.S. government if necessary. But before that, she actually wrote a suicide note, ready to kill herself, but then she discovered she was pregnant. She and her husband freely discuss their sex lives (understandably, she's not often in the mood) and when asked what she would like to see happen to her assailant, she replies that his falling off a boat and getting chewed up by a propeller would be appropriate.

She's just one of several women who bravely reveal what happened to them, from all branches of the military. One woman was in the Marine Barracks in Washington, where the elite Marines are stationed. What she found was appalling, as she was told that females are only there for the men "to fuck." Another is an investigator, nine years into her service when she was raped by a fellow investigator. Dick also brings up the old scandals, such as Tailhook, a Navy conference where women were forced to run a gauntlet of men who tried to strip them of their clothes.

Dick interviews some military brass, including a doctor who has woefully inadequate plans of addressing the problem. She has posters and training videos that urge women to use a "buddy" system and men to intervene. First of all, men will not intervene, as a kind of omerta is employed, as cover ups shroud the crime from prosecution. Secondly, the old notion that women are solely responsible for their own safety needs to be changed. Instead of instructing women to be careful and not wear makeup, dress provocatively, etc., how about teaching men not to rape?

The film did get some results. After it premiered at Sundance, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film and ended the practice of base commanders leading the investigation. This was a horribly ineffective practice, as the accused might be the commander's friend, or even the commander himself. For that, the film should be lauded, as it should for the courage of those who came forward.

The Invisible War raises some issues that need airing. It is pointed out that this is not just a military problem--the rapists are usually of the serial kind, so it's not necessarily a by product of a social situation in the military. It's a symptom of the society at large. I mean, 7.5 percent of all American men have raped someone or attempted it? That's a horrible statistic.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Heart

When one thinks of rock bands that scream "1970s," there are a number that come to mind, such as The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Boston, or The Steve Miller Band. But I submit that Heart, recently elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, belongs on that list. Although the band never broke up, and still tours, their biggest successes were in the Me Decade, and their power ballads, slickly produced and with that corporate sound, they are quintessentially a '70s group.

In reading about the history of the band, they are somewhat like Fleetwood Mac, in that they were hijacked by girl singers. The group began in the '60s, with Roger Fisher one of the original members. They were called The Army, then White Heart, and then Ann Wilson joined the group as a singer. She was joined by her younger sister Nancy, and the two, who were easy on the eyes, became the focal point of the band, writing the songs and being the face of the group on the covers of the albums.

I wouldn't call Heart great, Hall of Fame status is dubious, and I don't know anyone who would call Heart their favorite artists, but they sold millions of records and were ubiquitous on radio during the time period. Listening to their songs again, I couldn't help but sing along, not realizing I knew the words, and tapping the steering wheel.

A large part of their success is due to Mike Flicker, the producer of their early big sellers, and Roger Fisher's guitar work. The songs are no great shakes, but the way they are put together makes them sound epic. Take "Magic Man," one of their signature songs, which is about how Ann met Mike Fisher, the manager of the band. It has a structure that I find every appealing--the first two verses go by, and then the bridge is a long instrumental, heavy on electric guitar. Then the final verse, which is amped up, with Wilson belting like nobody's business. And I love, throughout the song, the way Ann has a slight post-orgasmic lilt to the word "yeah."

"Crazy on You," employs the other standard structure--the long intro. We start with acoustic guitars, and slowly the sound builds to a crashing crescendo. "Barracuda," another smash, kicks off with a great guitar riff.

Lyrically, there's nothing terribly interesting or worth quoting. It's mostly about love, and the words don't really sink in. Other songs that were rock radio staples were "Love Alive," "Kick it Out,"  "Even It Up," and "Straight On." I didn't remember these songs until I heard them, and suddenly I did remember them.

The greatest hits album, which I listened to this weekend, also has a couple of covers. Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is" was Heart's biggest selling single, a surprise to me. Also included is a live version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." Reading about this sent me to YouTube to see the Wilson sisters sing "Stairway to Heaven" at the recent Kennedy Center Honors for Led Zeppelin. It's worth checking out.

So, Hall of Fame? Don't know about that, but for those who grew up in the '70s, Heart is a pleasant memory.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Amour

Michael Haneke's Amour is a detailed, almost minimalist look at a married couple in their eighties after the wife has had a stroke. It is superbly acted and almost excruciating in its intensity. But after leaving the theater I had to wonder--why was I supposed to watch this?

Haneke, of course, is known for films that are not easy to stomach. I still won't see either version of Funny Games because that sort of thing just would disturb me too much. This film is much more pedestrian--Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are upper middle class Parisians in their comfortable retirement. We don't know much about them, other than that she was a piano teacher. The film begins with the two attending a concert by an ex-pupil. The camera focuses on the audience from the point of view of the stage. If you knew nothing about the stars you wouldn't know who the film was going to be about.

One morning Riva is sitting at the kitchen table and goes into a trance. Trintingnant things she's joking around, but she has no memory of the incident. We flash forward to her coming back from the hospital partially paralyzed, an operation on her carotid has failed. She is defiant in her attempts to be able to take care of herself, but she can not. She dreads a visit by her daughter (Isabelle Huppert) because she doesn't want to be seen this way.

After another stroke Riva is reduced to an invalid, and there is no hope of recovery. We understand what Haneke means by the title, the French word for "love"--this is what love is. It means after decades of togetherness, dealing with the infirmities of age. Trintignant is patient and unyielding in his devotion to her, chiding her for suggesting she is a burden to him. True love is sticking with someone through illness, and changing their diaper. I was struck by the way he must pick her up out of the wheelchair, with her arm around his neck and her arms around her waist--a lover's embrace.

While this is strong stuff, I found it a bit too excruciating. I can't remember any moment of comedy or lightheartedness, and surely even in situations like this there can be something to laugh at. Some scenes are very well written, particular a scene late in the film when Trintignant tells Huppert he doesn't have time to think about his daughter's concern. But in the long run, what does this film say? That it's tough getting old? That love can last past death? I'm not quite sure.

It's not the usual film that gets Oscar nominations, and Riva, in particular, gives an unglamorous but scintillating performance (not many octogenarian women would agree to nude scenes) and Trintignant, while his part doesn't have the sickness quotient, is essential to make this film work--the movie really is about how he handles the crisis. Haneke's direction is also effective--he favors long takes (the average time between cuts may be longer than thirty seconds) and a static camera. With only a few exceptions, the camera does not move, and characters move in and out of view, making the viewer seem more like a voyeur. In one scene, the ex-pupil visits, and while Trintingnant goes to get Riva the camera simply focuses on the young pianist, waiting in the living room. At one point there is a ten-or-so-second shot of the landlady vacuuming the rug.

But there are moments that are a bit heavy handed. A pigeon makes two appearances, and if one knows that a dove is a sign of death than it's a bit obvious. I would have liked to know more about the characters, other than that they like classical music. Watching the movie is like being in a pressure cooker--it needs to breathe a bit. There is no score, and as I said, no moments of levity. Even MacBeth had a comic scene.

This is a very good film, but not a great one. My grade for Amour: B+.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Rule and Ruin

Gather 'round children, and hear of a time when the Republican party ran the spectrum from conservative to progressive, and they did not think as a reactionary monolith, arguing over who is more conservative. From the days of Eisenhower, and going all the way back to its origins in the 1850s, Republicans were all types, from the very progressive Theodore Roosevelt to the conservative Robert Taft. But today, the moderate Republican is about as plentiful as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Gregory Kabaservice, in his well-researched if a little starchy Rule and Ruin, writes that this has been the undoing of the party.

Kabaservice, I take it, longs for the days of moderate Republicans--perhaps he is one himself. He doesn't hide his disdain for the dilemma the G.O.P. faces: "While there are many possible reasons to explain the present American political dysfunction, the leading suspect is the transformation of the Republican Party over the past half-century into a monolithically conservative organization." He argues that, unlike Democrats, who have a diversity that includes Joe Manchin to Barney Frank, Republicans have squelched any dissent, especially as evidenced by the recent primary purge of any Republican who would dare show pragmatism, thus nominating "bug-eyed zealots" who go down to defeat in general elections.

Kabaservice starts his history with a brief summary of Republican politics up through the Roosevelt years, then slows down when Eisenhower, who today would be considered a moderate-to-liberal Republican, left office. After losing to Kennedy, the conservatives of the party gathered around Barry Goldwater, the right-wing senator from Arizona, who famously said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." What may seem surprising to learn in this day and age is that a large wing of the party fought tooth and nail to stop him. Moderate Republicans were represented largely by a group called the Ripon Society (which I was surprised to learn still exists today), that tried to coalesce around a single candidate--namely Nelson Rockefeller, the plutocratic governor of New York. Rockefeller, though, dithered as a candidate, and had recently divorced and remarried a much younger woman.

Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, and moderate Republicans saw doom: "In the wake of the 1964 election, the surviving Republicans took stock of the disaster, like shivering survivors of a flood surveying the hideous transformation of a once-familiar landscape." But, despite these signs of obsolescence, four years later a seemingly centrist Republican, Richard Nixon, took office (though perhaps helped largely by the fracturing Democrats). As the years went by, moderate Republicans faded away, and with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, almost ceased to be.

So what is a moderate Republican, and what happened to them? Kabaservice describes them as fiscally conservative and socially progressive. They included men like Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, Leverett Saltonstall, George Romney, Thomas Kuchel, William Steiger, and William Scranton. Largely they were remnants of old blue-blooded families of New England, Midwestern stalwarts (including Gerald Ford), and Jewish progressives such as Jacob Javits. They were for civil rights, and occasionally against the Vietnam War, but against unnecessary spending. When Reagan came into office, he subverted the meaning of conservatism, at least fiscally: "defense spending increased by over one-third between 1981 and 1985, and totaled $2 trillion over Reagan's eight years in office. The federal deficit tripled under Reagan, while the federal debt jumped from $900 billion to close to $3 trillion dollars. The United States went from being the world's largest creditor to the world's largest debtor."

How did this happen? Kabaservice blames much of it on the famed "Southern strategy" employed by Nixon, who sought to stoke fears of black power by focusing on white Southern voters, who for generations had been Democrats. This repulsed many Republicans, who switched parties. Indeed, the members of today's Ripon Society are a third Democrat and a third Independent. In a topsy-turvy example of the changing demographics of today's voter, the deep south is predominantly Republican, while the one time Republican sronghold of New England had zero G.O.P. congressmen after the 2008 election.

Kabaservice speeds things up after the Nixon years; the period from 1970 to today is covered in only two chapters, perhaps because there almost was no impact by moderate Republicans. Lowell Weicker was the last progressive Republican senator. He holds special contempt for the Tea Party, and notes the aphorism that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, by detailing the Republican race for Senate to replace Joe Biden in Delaware. Mike Castle, a two-term governor and nine-term congressman, was a pragmatic Republican, but daring to reach across the aisle, and suggest that Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen, caused an insurgent Tea Party response, with Christine O'Donnell, a comically unqualified candidate, taking the nomination, turning a sure-fire Republican win into a defeat. He could have written the same about Sharron Angle in Nevada, or Richard Mourdock in Indiana--the Tea Party has cost Republicans at least five senate seats.

Kabaservice really puts venom in his pen for the extremists. It took a long time for Republicans to weed out crazies like the John Birch Society, whom even William F. Buckley called "kooks": "Now tea-tinged conservative entertainers like Glenn Beck peddled the crackpot theories of Birch theoreticians like W. Cleon Skousen to a television audience of millions, and books of the sort that once had been viewed as the political equivalent of hardcore pornography soared brazenly up the bestseller lists."

The book was written just before the 2012 election, and Kabaservice, like a Cassandra, sees the writing on the wall, with Mitt Romney running from his moderate past to out-flank the other candidates, only to lose in November. Throughout the book, the Democrats are outsiders to the story, like the small and insignificant mammals in the last day of the mighty dinosaurs. But those mammals had the last laugh, while the dinosaurs became extinct. Kabaservice sees the same future for Republicans, unless they expand their way of thinking to a more diverse body. It's hard to imagine that happening.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

I've only seen one of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature, but it's hard to imagine any of them are better than Searching for Sugar Man, a wonderful detective story from Malik Bendjelloul.

I watched this movie knowing absolutely nothing going in, and so I won't reveal too much here. In short, in the early '70s a singer known only as Rodriguez cut a couple of albums, which did absolutely nothing in the U.S. Somehow his records made their way to South Africa, where they struck a chord with the emerging youth who were against apartheid. Despite strict censorship, Rodriguez became a huge star in that country, bigger than The Rolling Stones, while remaining completely unknown in his home country.

Nothing was known about Rodriguez, so a South African journalist tried to track down the rumors of his death--it was supposed he committed suicide on stage, either by gunshot or self-immolation. What he discovers is far more intriguing. End of summary.

This movie is a real kick to experience. A huge part of it is that Rodriguez's songs are really good. If the music had been lousy it would have been hard to understand the South Africans love for him, as well as being mystified why he didn't sell here. His music is a lot like Bob Dylan as sung by Jose Feliciano, with the streets of Detroit, his home town, wrapped around his sensational lyrics.

The film's narrative is like a great detective story, as clues are followed diligently. The producers of his albums are interviewed, as is the owner of the record company, who obfuscates when discussing where the royalties from South Africa went (they didn't go to Rodriguez or his family). The ending is about as emotionally satisfying as any movie I've seen this year.

Searching for Sugar Man (the title refers to one of his songs, about a drug dealer, which was literally scratched out of vinyl recordings by South African censors) is one of the best films of the year.