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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Anna Christie

"Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby," is the first line spoken by Greta Garbo in a talking picture. It was 1930, and the film was Anna Christie, an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The film had been advertised with the triumphant "Garbo Talks!" tag line.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be taking a look at the major films of Garbo. I've only seen a  few: Ninotchka, which I will be taking another look at, and Grand Hotel. There is a set of Garbo films that I'm Netflixing (sadly, her version of Anna Karenina, said to be definitive, is not available).

Anna Christie is set mostly in dockside bar in New York and a coal barge. The captain of the barge is a drunken Swede, George Marion, who lives with a lush (a wonderful Marie Dressler). He receives a letter that his long-estranged daughter, Anna, is coming from St. Paul. He is excited, as he feels guilty about abandoning her to relatives.

She arrives, and is clearly no innocent. She and Dressler have a few drinks and then Marion arrives. Garbo wants to crash with her father, but when she learns it's a coal barge she's not so sure. But she ends up liking life on the sea, and when her ship rescues some sailors from a sunken ship, she falls in love with the super macho Charles Bickford, who wants to marry her. But she has a sordid past, and resists his overtures.

Though this film is historically important, it's not very good. Directed by Clarence Brown, it doesn't seek to hid its stage bound source, with only a few scenes set outside the bar or the barge. The acting is still in the silent-film style, with overly dramatic line readings. Garbo, who was a huge silent star, had been held back by MGM from talkies until her English improved. Her English is great, but she gives some bizarre line readings, as if she were speaking phonetically, which she is not. Only in a dramatic speech at the end of the film, when she implores Bickford to love for who she is, does the electric nature of her presence come through.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Hologram for the King

Dave Eggers may be best known for founding the literary quarterly McSweeney's, but he's also a writer of novels, nonfiction, and a memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that I read some years ago. I have just completed his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, and it's wonderful, kind of a cross between Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot.

The protagonist is Alan Clay, a 54-year-old salesman (he started as a Fuller Brush Man) who is on the precipice of complete disaster. He owes thousands, and his daughter's tuition bill is due. He is now a consultant for a large technology firm, and is in Saudi Arabia to help make a presentation to be the IT firm for the King Abdullah Economic City, a municipality built from scratch. His firm will make the presentation directly to the King, and will include their holographic technology. If he can make the sale, Clay's problems will be over.

Except the wait for the King is nearly endless. Clay and his younger co-workers, who are actually the technicians, wait each day in a tent. They can't get wi-fi, the place isn't air conditioned, and there's no food. Some days Clay oversleeps and misses the shuttle from Jeddah, so he hires a car and ends up friends with the driver, Youssef.

As this Groundhog Day-like existence carries on, we peer into Clay's background. He was an executive at Schwinn bicycles, before they went under. He has a domineering and disapproving father. He has a growth on his neck that he is sure is deadly. He has made many bad decisions: "He did not have the money to pay her tuition for the fall. He could not pay her tuition because he had made a series of foolish decisions in his life. He had not planned well. He had not the courage when he needed it."

Eggers also says of Alan: "Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane made of mud." So Alan Clay is a sad sack, but there's something intriguing about him. His bursts of energy, rare as they are, make us root for him. But time after time he is beaten down, especially on a trip to Youssef's home in the mountains, where he tells a stranger that he is in the CIA and nearly shoots a shepherd boy.

Alan is sort of the victim of everything modern in America. He's been nearly ruined by a simple mistake with a Banana Republic credit card, and his age has made him seem outdated. "Then again, was there ever a time when a young American wanted to learn from an older American, or anyone at all? Probably not. Americans are born knowing everything and nothing."

As beaten down as he is, Clay enjoys his stay in Arabia. He gets a chance to pilot a yacht, has a little (and chaste--he is now celibate) fling with a Danish woman, and is entranced by his female doctor, who treats him for the cyst on his neck. There is always an undeniable optimism in him, which is also quintessentially American.

Eggers writes in a terse, Hemingway-esque style, but comes up with some great similes, like: "Their hair was straight, their eyes wide-set, and each held her head out in front, low, like a hat hung on a hook."

A Hologram for the King is a one-volume look at the state of American business in a global economy, of the perils of growing old in corporate America, and a heartfelt look at one man's attempt to reverse his downward spiral. It's a very good book.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mud

Mud is Jeff Nichols' third film, and while not as overpoweringly emotional as his last, Take Shelter, it is a compelling boys' adventure, with themes of fathers and sons (both biological and not) and the heartbreak of love.

First, the title. Matthew McConaughey plays a man known only as Mud. He is a fugitive living on an island in the Mississippi River. I took two thing from this: one, the phrase "My name is mud" comes from the plight of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg (also a fugitive) and was imprisoned for it (the debate to his innocence or guilt is still vigorous). So McConaughey may seem to be playing a character who has all the odds set against him. Two, what is more common, other than water, around a river? Mud, of course, and the title character is someone who is not only from the river, he is of the river, almost elemental.

McConaughey is the title character but the eyes of the film belong to Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old boy who is the son of a fisherman in a houseboat right on the river. He and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore the area like modern-day Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers (Nichols was inspired by the writing of Mark Twain) and go to the island to see a boat stuck in a tree. They then learn that McConaughey is living there, and while Neckbone is cautious, Ellis instantly bonds with the vagabond Mud. The boys then help get him food, and when they learn he is wanted by police they try to help him escape with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

This is a boys' adventure set in a time that is vanishing. Set and filmed in Arkansas, these boys don't have cell phones or play video games. Ellis' father (Ray McKinnon) is a vanishing breed, and one of the subplots is when Ellis' mother (Sarah Paulson) wants to move into town the houseboat may be destroyed. Across the river lives an old coot (Sam Shepard) who wants to be left alone, but one can sense that his way of life is coming to an end.

But the overall arc of the picture is that love hurts. There are three parallel romances in this picture, and all will come to heartbreak. McKinnon tells Sheridan that you can't trust women, but McConaughey disagrees, and we can see that the main reason the boy looks up to the fugitive is because they are both hopeless romantics. When asked why he is helping Mud, Ellis says, "Because he loves her."

This isn't a perfect movie. There is almost too much plot, and a scene involving Ellis in need seems right of an old Lassie script. But there are nuggets all through out, especially from the mouth of Neckbone, who is sort of comic relief. I love the way Nichols has the boys blurting out the questions we all want to ask, but with age comes discretion. I also found it funny that Mud has only two possessions he values: his gun, and his white shirt, which magically seems to stay white, even while living on an island in the middle of a river. Either he's got a hidden stash of Oxyclean there, or Nichols is having a little fun.

My grade for Mud: B+

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

My first thought after seeing Wreck-It Ralph is: do video arcades still exist? I wasted many an hour at them thirty years ago, but I thought kids played video games now hunkered down in their rooms, isolated like lepers. The only public video games I see anymore are at movie theaters. I'm childless, so I don't know the customs of youth.

Anyway, Wreck-It Ralph is set at a video arcade, or more precisely, in the games themselves. The film uses the template of Toy Story, in that the characters in the games are sentient beings, even if they are made of code, and have private lives that exist after the arcade is closed. Wreck-It Ralph is clever and charming, even if it doesn't transcend the genre like the Toy Story films.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is a bad guy in a game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. He destroys a building, while Felix (Jack McBrayer) fixes it. Poor Ralph sleeps in a garbage dump and wants desperately to be good. He even attends "Bad-Anon" meetings, where video villains attempt to cope with their lot in life.

But Ralph isn't content. He goes into a military game to earn a medal, which sets off the plot of the movie. He ends up, where most of the movie takes place, in a racing game called Sugar Rush. But he's brought a monster with him from the military game, prompting a Lara Croft-like character (Jane Lynch) to pursue, along with Felix, who needs Ralph back or the game will be unplugged.

Ralph meets a glitch in Sugar Rush (Sarah Silverman) and the two bond, as Silverman wants to race in her game. We get all sorts of rules (glitches can't leave their game, if you die outside your game you don't regenerate) and a lot of colorful action.

The movie, ostensibly for young children, does provide nostalgia for older viewers, with appearances by actual video characters, such as Qbert and Pac-Man. I laughed at a few lines, but overall it's an average animated film with a warmed over message. I did like the voice work by Reilly, Silverman, and especially Allan Tudyk as King Candy of Sugar Rush, who channels Ed Wynn.

I've now seen all five of the Best Animated Film Oscar nominees, and I'd have to say the most fun I had was with the one that had no chance of winning: Pirates! Band of Misfits.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I'd never read L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child. Why did I need to, there was the movie? But after seeing Oz the Great and Powerful, even though it wasn't a good film, I was interested in exploring the origins of the story. I was in for quite a surprise.

The book, written in 1900, is one of the great landmarks of children's literature, appropriate for seven-to-ten year olds, or smaller children who could have it read to them. But what stunned me is that it is very little like the famous movie.

The book begins with the cyclone, which means there is no Elmira Gulch, Professor Marvel, etc. The movie script, by a variety of writers, came up with that, as well as the "there's no place like home" theme. Baum's story is much more like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in that the heroine, Dorothy, is thrust into a fantastic world where she must get from point A to point B. But the theme of the book, which remains in the film, subsumed by Dorothy's attempt to get home, is that all we need is a little self-confidence.

I assume everyone reading this knows the story of the movie. In the book, Dorothy does indeed kill the Wicked Witch of the East by house-dropping, and takes her silver (ruby looked better in Technicolor) slippers. She is told by the Munchkins that Oz in the City of Emeralds can help her. Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion, each of whom need something from the Wizard.

Of course, the Scarecrow, though with no brains, comes out with great ideas, the Tin Woodman, though without a heart, cries at the death of an ant, and the Lion, though cowardly, holds off a group of monsters. The little things that happen are different than the film, such as the Scarecrow getting stuck on a pole in the middle of a river, or the travelers saving the Queen of the Field Mice, who then save the Lion from the poppyfield.

Also different from the movie, is the long coda after the Wizard floats off in his balloon. They are off to see Glinda, the Witch of the South, who may be able to help Dorothy get home. Also, the winged monkeys are okay primates, and do almost all of the work.

The book is charming, once I realized it was completely different than the movie. There are moments of puckish humor, such as the Scarecrow saying, "'When I remember that a short time ago I was up on a pole in a farmer's cornfield, and that now I am the ruler of the beautiful City, I am quite satisfied with my lot.'" There are also simple but profound sayings, such as the Tin Woodman's observation, "'But once I had brains, and a heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart.'"

The encounter with the Wizard is pretty close to what the film did. The Wizard, a humbug, can't give brains, heart, or courage, but he gives them each a placebo, that effectively convinces the threesome that they have what they had all along. One of the few lines in the film that comes from the book is one of the most touching: "'Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard."

For a while academics thought that the book was a political allegory of the time period, when the country debated whether to be on the gold or silver standard. We've got silver shoes and yellow (or gold) bricks, and supposedly the Lion was the stand-in for William Jennings Bryan. That is not considered legitimate anymore.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Killer Joe

Killer Joe is lurid, violent, and at times way over the top. It's also salacious fun. The film was written by Tracy Letts, based on his play, and those familiar with his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County will recognize his crackling dialogue, but no can be prepared for the free-for-all bloodshed in this Texas noir.

Set in Dallas, Killer Joe gives us a twisted version of the American family. Emile Hirsch is the son, but he constantly berates his dim-witted father (Thomas Haden Church). The daughter (Juno Temple) has some of mental issues. Church's wife, the kids' stepmother, is Gina Gershon, and her first appearance in the film is bottomless. There is a few minutes of dialogue between her and Hirsch about her bush.

This kicks off the rollicking mixture of deadpan humor and sadistic gore. Hirsch is in debt to some gangsters. He's heard two interesting things: his mother, whom he despises, has a $50,000 life insurance policy, made out to his sister. Two, there is a cop in town who doubles as a hired killer.

This cop, played with cool intensity by Matthew McConaughey, comes to hear Hirsch and Church's offer. He refuses, since he wants his money up front, and not contingent on a life insurance policy. But when he sees Temple, as fresh and dewy as a girl can be, he makes a counteroffer. She will be his "retainer."

This is already twisted and it gets even crazier, as there are double and triple-crossings. The last act of the film has a character fellating a chicken drumstick, and the very ending is an exhilarating rush.

Killer Joe was directed by William Friedkin. Long removed from his days as an A-list director, Friedkin has settled in making small films like this one and Bug. Both are taut and eye-popping glimpses into different kinds of madness. In Killer Joe, I think the key image is the dog chained outside of the family's trailer, enduring wind and rain, barking at everything, like a Cerberus guarding the underworld.

The acting in Killer Joe is of varying types. Hirsch is on high boil, while McConaughey, who seems to be in a renaissance after years of wasting his time in middlebrow romantic comedies and adventures, is on simmer. But I think I enjoyed Church the most, who plays a character that knows he is not too bright. In a wonderful scene, McConaughey shows him a series of pictures of a penis, and asks Church if it's his dick. Each time Church answers no, but in ways that speak volumes about the man's current situation. Needless to say, a man knows what his dick looks like.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines, co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, is an ambitious if flawed film that manages to be the definitive film about Schenectady, New York (the title is the Mohawk translation of the name of the city) and a reminder of the old saying, "The sins of the father are visited upon the son."

I say that with some trepidation, because discussing the plot is difficult without spoiling the hell out of it. I'll give it a try, but be wary.

The film consists of three distinct acts, but are connected. It reminded me of a common thing in literature now--the book of short stories that share characters. The first act is about Ryan Gosling as a motorcyclist who does stunts for a traveling carnival. When he's back in Schenectady, he runs into an old girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and learns that she has had his son. He quits the carnival to stay nearby, and gets a job with a shady mechanic (a wonderful Ben Mendelsohn). This mechanic suggests a solution to Gosling's money woes would be robbing banks. Gosling finally agrees, and gets hooked on it, but we all know this won't end well.

The second act concerns police corruption, a kind of suburban Serpico. Bradley Cooper is a laywer who has idealistically joined the police force, and becomes a public hero. But he finds that the cops who befriend him are dirty, all the way up to the chief of police. Cooper struggles with what to do, and consults his father (Harris Yulin), a judge.

The third act concerns two teenagers fifteen years later after the first two acts. They are the sons of Gosling and Cooper, but don't know the past connection. Cooper's son is an absolute zilch, even though he has grown up in wealth. Gosling's son (a very good Dane DeHaan) tries to find out about his father, and we can feel the building tragedy.

There's a lot to like here, and it's definitely worth seeing, with some caveats: this is a depressing film, keeping with Cianfrance's previous film, Blue Valentine (but it's much better than that film). There's little in the way of levity here, and one can't help that the use of Schenectady is kind of back-handed compliment (I believe it was shot there), since the place is so important to the story that it feels as if Cianfrance is condemning the place. Or at least the kind of city it is--a once thriving industrial city, now rusting away.

Also, though the three acts are connected by characters, I just didn't feel the connection until the third act. Maybe that was Cianfrance's bit of misdirection, but I don't really want to be fooled in a movie like this. The swerve that happens between Gosling and Cooper's sections is dizzying, and it's a while before we can let the first go and focus on the second.

Gosling is not one of my favorite actors but he's fine here--this is the kind of role that suits him. The very first shot of him is his six-pack abs, which may be his best acting feature. Cooper is excellent.

My grade for The Place Beyond the Pines: B.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rust and Bone

I'm not quite sure what I think about Jacques Audiard's contemplative character drama, Rust and Bone. It's about two damaged people who find each other, but other than that, it just kinds of plods along, with the viewer waiting for the catharsis that occurs in the last seconds of the film.

Matthias Schoenaerts is Ali, a man who has drifted to the south of France with his young son to crash at his sister's house. A hulking bruiser, he gets a job as a bouncer at a club, where he helps a young woman (Marion Cotillard) out of a jam. She's too drunk to drive home, so he drives her.

Schoenaerts will then get a job as a security guard in a supermarket, where he meets a surveillance video expert and starts to work with him. It's unclear how this is important until the end of the film.

Meanwhile, and it's a huge meanwhile, Cotillard, who trains killer whales at the local marine park, is badly injured by one of her orcas. She suffers a double leg amputation. Lonely and depressed, she gives Schoenarts a call, and they become friends. They get to talking about sex, and he bluntly asks her if she wants to fuck, just to make sure "everything is working." It does work, and the two become fuck-buddies, but when they are out a club and he leavers her alone by running off with a cute little blonde, she realizes their relationship is more.

By this time Schoenaerts is making money in illegal street fights, and Cotillard comes to take an interest in them. But eventually his actions in the surveillance business have deep repercussions.

Though this film is well presented, I couldn't help but feel a little removed from it. I think the key problem is that there is an imbalance favoring Schoenaerts, and there should have been more Cotillard (this is probably true in any movie she makes). He's just not that interesting compared to a woman who has a devastating injury doing what she loves. There's a touching scene where she goes back to the marine park and, through glass, says hello to the orca (is this the one who bit here? Not sure). The movie needed more of that, and less of Schoenaerts, who is a fine actor but is outclassed here.

And this may sound strange, but I understand why the two people fall in love, but am not clear why they became friends. One their first outing, Schoenaerts takes Cotillard to the beach, where she is able to feel free in the water. But what do they talk about? What do they share? I'm really not quite sure. It's implied that Cotillard's live-in boyfriend has left her, but does she have no other friends?

The film also leans toward melodrama, such as a scene where Schoenaerts' son falls through ice. That was a bit much in an otherwise subtle and nuanced film.

 And even though I understand how they make Cotillard look like a double amputee, it's still amazing.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

American History X

There was a discussion going on on Gone Elsewhere about what movies we hadn't seen, which ended up pinpointing the film that is highest on the IMDB Top 250 that remained unseen by each of this. For me, it was American History X, which was released in 1998. This was a conscious decision on my part, even though its star, Edward Norton, was nominated for Best Actor, and I usually always see every movie that gets an Oscar nomination, especially in the acting categories.

So why did I pass this by at the time? I have never been comfortable with anything about the Nazi skinhead culture. I can watch movies about the Nazis of World War II, because I know they lost, but the very notion that scum like these people exist makes my skin crawl. Even if the film, and it does, condemns these people, just watching them behave is disturbing.

But I sucked it up and watched it, and it's okay. It takes kind of a simplistic approach to the subject, with director Tony Kaye even using black and white film when Norton is a racist (everything is black and white to him) and color when he has seen the light. The script, by David McKenna, is at times didactic, but makes the great decision to make Norton intelligent--most white supremacists have little education, but Norton's character, Derek Vinyard, is a thinker. In a scene at the family dinner table, an argument about the Rodney King case comes up, and Norton will almost have you agree with him, wrong as he is.

The film's structure is that Norton has been arrested for killing a couple of black gang members who tried to steal his car. His younger brother, Edward Furlong, worships him, and continues to associate with the skinhead movement, exemplified by a sloppy, obese idiot (Ethan Suplee) and the crafty Fagin of the gang, Stacey Keach, who stays out of legal trouble by having his minions do it for him (we see them ransack a grocery store owned by Koreans who they think employs illegal Mexican workers). When Norton gets out, he severs ties with Keach and tries to impress upon his brother that this way of life is foolish.

We then get a flashback to how Norton changed in prison, when he realizes his Aryan brothers are just like everybody else and a black guy (Guy Torry) befriends him, even if he does have a massive swastika tattooed on his chest. His conversion is a little too pat, but I can understand this is a movie, and it has to happen quickly.

At times Kaye applies too strong a hand on the material, when he could just let it breathe a little. But Norton does anchor the film solidly. His best moments are silent ones, such as the look he gives Furlong when he is being arrested, as if to say, "Keep the fight going." But I didn't care for a character played by Avery Brooks, a black principal who is working with the police and the prison system. He's a little too good to be true, and a cliche at the same time. He reminded me of Pete Dixon from Room 222, the noble black teacher, and that was forty years ago.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hick

Hick is a very bad movie, but I take no delight in saying so. Unlike a cynical cash grab, like Scary Movie 5, for example, Hick is the kind of indie film that attracted quite a few stars and, judging by the interviews in the "making of" featurette, they really believed in the project.

But Hick, directed by Derick Martini from a script by Andrea Portes, who wrote the source novel, is another of those white-trash wallows that attempts to say profound things but just falls flat, with the actors trying on mush-mouth drawls (if any DVD needed subtitles, this one did, because I missed a lot of key dialogue).

Chloe Grace Moretz is Luli, who has her thirteenth birthday party in a bar, and gets a .45 as a present. Her mother is a lush (Juliette Lewis), who is keeping time with a stumblebum (Anson Mount). After seeing a commercial for Las Vegas, she decides she's going to go, after making a pro/con checklist that includes "sugar daddy opportunities" under pro, and "might die" under con. That's the only amusing thing I found in the film.

She first gets pick up by Eddie Redmayne, a cowboy with a bad leg. He tells her she's dressed like a hooker, she calls him a gimp, so she ditches his truck. Later she's picked up by Blake Lively, and wouldn't you know it, she and Redmayne not only know each other, they are intimate and have a child together. I really hate coincidences like this.

Moretz will end up being passed around and meeting bizarre caricatures, such a guy played by Ray MacKinnon, for whom Redmayne works as a man servant. MacKinnon has a conniption when Redmayne uses Squirt instead of 7-Up. Later, Moretz will wander into a bar, ruining Redmayne's attempt to hustle pool, and almost get raped. It's all grotesque, without having any meaning.

At the end of the movie, Alec Baldwin shows up, kind of playing Alec Baldwin, as he appears in those Capitol One commercials. He helps Moretz out, but I was grateful because his diction could be clearly understood.

This was kind of a showcase for Moretz, who's one of the more prominent child actresses today. She doesn't really acquit herself in this film, but I would chalk that up to Martini, who seems to have no hold on the action and just lets it wander along.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reptilian Dreams

There's usually nothing less interesting than hearing about another person's dreams, so prepare to be bored.

I suppose I dream like most people do, although how we would know that is difficult to imagine. I dream in color, and I don't have nightmares, per se, not the ones that have a person waking up screaming, the sheets wet with perspiration. I've been interested in my dreams for a long time, but I don't think they've been that remarkable until recently.

I've had the usual dreams--the one where I'm in school, and I realize I haven't been to math class all semester. I still have this dream, and I haven't been in school for 30 years. I've had dreams where I'm in my underwear in public, but for me this is not a nightmare, as I have no shame in this regard. I've had dreams where I've been in screaming matches with my mother, which is pretty easy to interpret. When I got fired from my last job, I had a slew of dreams that took place in an office setting, none of them familiar (my therapist says this is usual) where I'm screwing up or somehow disappointing or angering the boss; one time the boss was Barack Obama.

Which brings to mind that I dream about celebrities--a lot. Just last night I dreamed that Johnny Depp was on Survivor, and had gone rogue. I dream about famous, sexy woman, but I never get laid. I may kiss someone, or get naked with them, but I never consummate. My own subconscious is cockblocking me.

The new thing in my dreams is snakes. At leas three times in the last six months or so I've dreamed about snakes--not little snakes, like garter or rattlesnakes, but big fucking constrictors, like pythons or boas or anacondas. In at at least one of them they attacked me, with open jaws like the picture, even though that's not how they kill things. They wrap themselves around their victim and press until said victim suffocates. Then they swallow the prey whole.

Now, I have no abnormal fear of snakes. I don't particularly want to touch one--to my recollection I never have--and I've seen people on the subway in New York with a pet python draped over their shoulders like a cape, which I think is nuts. I've seen them in zoos and the like, and I think they're kind of fascinating. Having one as a pet seems stupid, since the cost of the food seems to far outweigh the emotional reward.

So what does dreaming about pythons mean? I've checked those stupid web sites that interpret dreams, and most say that the snakes represent lurking danger or that the dreamer is suffocating themselves. There also may be something sexual about them, but I think this would be smaller snakes; I can't say that a python, to me, suggests the male apparatus, unless it is Lexington Steele or someone like that.

Last night I had another dream, and this time it was alligators. Alligators threaded through several different scenarios. They were all over the floor of a store, and then I was riding in a log flume ride, and they were in the water. They weren't attacking, but my mind registered--"hey, there's fucking alligators!" I marveled that a water park would let alligators into the water, wondering about the insurance liability. Again, I have no particular problem with alligators. I once went on a trip to the Everglades and saw hundreds of them in the wild, but I wouldn't want to wrestle one. The dream interpreters suggest that alligators represent a problem.

So what do I come up with? The lurking problem in my life is financial. I'm working two jobs but barely making ends meet, and I have no savings whatsoever. Or could it be just a more general sense of doom? The last dream I had about a python I was in a woman's apartment, and a python was in the room. It didn't attack me, but it gave me a feeling of dread.

Whatever it means, I'm fascinated by the whole thing. Why big snakes, or alligators? One of the dreams I remember from my childhood was the neighborhood being attacked by dinosaurs, and this was way before Jurassic Park. Somewhere I must have a deep-seated problem with reptiles. It's a good thing I didn't become a herpetologist.

Monday, April 15, 2013

To the Wonder

There were a lot of viewers who had a "the emperor has no clothes" attitude about Terrence Malick's last film, The Tree of Life. I disagreed. Malick has gone back to the well for his latest film, To the Wonder, and this time the emperor is buck naked.

Malick, as with The Tree of Life, has teamed with his cinematographer, Emmanuel Luzbecki, to create a poem of images, and To the Wonder is a beautiful film, with several striking images. But the narrative, if you could consider it a narrative, is almost nonexistent, and I was bored and counting the minutes until it was over.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed in this sentence from Wikipedia. The writer should be congratulated for their succinct prose: "A romantic drama centered on an American man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown after his relationship with a European woman falls apart. The European woman later returns, but finally leaves again."

I can add a bit to this. The man is Ben Affleck, who appears to be a representation of some sort of masculine ideal. We hardly ever see his face--I can only remember a few closeups, one of which highlighted his regal chin. We don't hear him talk much, either. He has a job--he's some sort of chemist investigating a toxic dump's effect on local citizens, but this is not amplified upon.

Most of the film is about Olga Kurylenko. She is a Russian living in Paris (I'm surmising on a lot of this--nothing is spelled out) who is in love with Affleck. They enjoy touring the city, and making a visit to Mont St. Michel, and this all looks like a perfume commercial. He asks her to come back to the U.S. with him, along with her ten-year-old daughter.

That turns out to be the wide-open spaces of a small town in Oklahoma. Neither Kurylenko or her daughter are thrilled to be there, and it's kind of a loaded situation--who would like small-town Oklahoma after living in Paris? Kurylenko leaves, and and Affleck takes up with a local girl (perhaps a previous girlfriend) Rachel McAdams. Again, we get perfume-commercial scenes, this time in the dusty Oklahoma sites. But they have a fight, and she's gone from the movie, completely.

Kurylenko comes back, sans daughter, and she and Affleck marry. There's some confusion over whether she has a child or not--I think she does--but things don't work out. She has an affair, and there's a striking scene in which she leaves the chain motel with guilt written all over her face.

I should add that all through this there are scenes involving Javier Bardem as the parish priest of the town. I'm not quite sure what he's doing there, and most of his lines are voiced over in Spanish (Kurylenko also has numerous voiceovers, in French) and seem to indicate he's not happy with things in general. I can't say much more, because it's absolutely incomprehensible.

Malick seems to have targeted the topic of romance, but I have no idea what he means to say. This is a movie that could we watched with the sound off, and perhaps should be.

The acting is mostly the kind that has the actors staring out windows while the narration runs on the soundtrack. I wonder what kind of direction the actors got--were they told what they should be thinking, or were they merely contemplating the banal like what they will have for lunch. Malick is obviously enthralled with how Kurylenko looks, and I'm on board with that, but she doesn't have the kind of presence that makes up for the little she has to do. What she does most is frolic--either in the streets of Paris or her big backyard in Oklahoma. I think this movie has more frolicking that any movie I've ever seen.

To the Wonder is also notable for being the last movie reviewed by Roger Ebert before his death. He was generous and gave it three-and-a-half stars, noting the lack of narrative and giving Malick credit for approaching it that way. Fair enough, but if you're going to make a movie like this there has to be a reason for watching it other than its poetic images.

My review for To the Wonder: D+

Sunday, April 14, 2013

All Good Things

All Good Things, a film by Andrew Jarecki, released in 2010 after much delay, is confounding. It's well made and quite involving, but at some point near the end I realized it had nowhere to go. It's based on an actual disappearance and murder case and makes suppositions, but the film just peters out and leaves the viewer unsatisfied.

Ryan Gosling stars as the son of a real estate mogul who is pretty much a slacker. He meets a middle-class woman from Long Island (Kirsten Dunst) and they get married, despite him being from a rich family. He has an overbearing father (Frank Langella) who is kind of against the marriage, even though he likes Dunst personally. He says of her, "She'll never be one of us," to which Gosling replies, "Isn't it great?

The two try to make a go running a health food store in Vermont (the name of the store is the title of the film) but Langella pressures Gosling to join the family business, which just happens to own half of Times Square (he starts by collecting rent from dubious hotels and other shady businesses). His mental health, which never appeared to be at full strength, goes south. He is violent with Dunst, who tries to leave but is told that she will be cut off financially if she does, and she wants to go to medical school. Then she disappears.

This is all told in flashback as Gosling is testifying in court for another crime. He has escaped his family's clutches and is living as a woman in Galveston, Texas. He befriends his elderly neighbor (Philip Baker Hall) to tie up some loose ends with Dunst's disappearance. But Hall ends up in pieces in Galveston Bay, and Gosling is on trial.

All of this sounds pretty good, but there's no real payoff. Since the case is true, and the Gosling character was never implicated in his wife's disappearance, the filmmakers have to make suppositions, which seem half-hearted. And Gosling's character is such an empty hole that it's difficult to make heads or tails of him, or why Dunst is in love with him. Dunst, an actress I'm coming to admire more and more, and should be an A-list star, is given a thankless role to play, but still hits it out of the park.

In some ways this film reminded me of David Fincher's Zodiac, another film based on unsolved crimes. It's all good until the end, when we don't learn anything we couldn't have learned from newspaper accounts.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bachelorette

After the release of Bridesmaids, there was all sorts of talk about how women can be just as disgusting as men, and whether it would spawn a series of gross-out comedies aimed at women. I don't think that ever really happened, although the 2012 release Bachelorette, which was D.O.A. at the box office, may have been a product of that thought process.

Bachelorette, which was written and directed by Leslie Headland, uses the template established by The Hangover--a group of friends have misadventures the night before the wedding of a fourth. However, Bachelorette has much smaller obstacles--there is no Mike Tyson, lost babies, or naked Chinese gangsters locked in trunks.

Four friends from high school, who called themselves the "Bee-Yotch Faces," have kept in touch over the years. The first to get married is the heavyset Rebel Wilson. That she is getting married first drives type-A Kirsten Dunst over the rails, but then this plot point isn't followed upon. Instead, Dunst plans the wedding, and enlists the other two in the group, slacker Lizzie Kaplan and ditz and addict Isla Fisher, as bridesmaids. The night before the wedding, Dunst and Fisher climb into Wilson's wedding gown to show how big it is and rip it. The rest of the film is the three girls trying to get it fixed or replaced.

Of course each has a romantic subplot. Caplan has run into her old boyfriend, Adam Scott, while Fisher is pursued, passively, by a "nice guy," Kyle Bornheimer. Dunst is attracted to and repelled by the best man, James Marsden. Of this trio, only Caplan and Scott's relationship seems authentic.

A quick note on Wilson's weight--the film has a hard time deciding whether to make an issue of it or not. It is noted that she was called "pig face" in school, but did have these friends, and is marrying a good-looking, successful guy. I think Headland was trying to make a positive role for a heavy woman, and that is a good thing, but the movie seems to hold its breath when discussing the subject. The central act of the film, the ripping of the dress, is actually a joke at Wilson's weight's expense.

This a frequent problem in Bachelorette--tone. It is not uproarious comedy like Bridesmaids, but instead a kind of nostalgic reunion comedy. Certain cultural touchstones, such as My So-Called Life and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, are used to identify characters (this is such a cop-out--instead of building characters, the script merely compares them to others) and the sisterhood of this quartet is celebrated as some sort of girl-power. I never fully bought it, despite some good performances, especially by Dunst and Caplan.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby

In anticipation of yet another film adaptation, which will likely be horrible, considering Baz Luhrmann is the director, I've reread The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. It's a good thing, too, because I read it so long ago (and not for school) that I forgot almost everything in it.

This novel is considered one of the best American novels ever written. It was published in 1925, and has become one those books that capture a time period--in this case, the jazz age, with an abundance of wealth, flappers, fancy cars, and mansions on Long Island sound. But what makes it so American is that its central character is a prime example of how Americans have always had a knack for reinvention.

The book is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who has moved to New York and taken a job as a bond salesman. He rents a small house in West Egg (a stand-in for Great Neck) right next door to a grand mansion owned by a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby (one sign that this takes place a long time ago--nobody could rent cheap right on the water today). Nick is fascinated by the man, who he only sees from afar, until he wanders into one of his parties. Everyone has theories about Gatsby's past, and how he made his millions. Most suspect he is a bootlegger.

Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan, is married to a brutish old money fellow named Tom, who is having an affair with the wife of a motley garage owner, George Wilson. This is pretty much an open secret, as he has Nick and Jordan Baker, a professional golfer and beauty, for a visit with his mistress, Myrtle. When she brings up Daisy, though, Tom breaks her nose.

Each chapter is a get-together of sorts, whether it's one of Gatsby's shindigs, where he almost hides from the guests, or a lunch with Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's friend and business associate. Wolfsheim was modeled on gambler Arnold Rothstein, or so we can imagine when we are told that Wolfsheim fixed the 1919 World Series. We finally learn that Daisy and Gatsby, whose real name was James Gatz, from North Dakota, had a love affair prior to the Great War. Gatsby now wants her back, taken away from the unpleasant Tom.

The narrative of Nick Carraway is now something of a cliche, frequently seen in movies--the reflection of a great person through the eyes of someone far more ordinary. This device is usually a way for the audience to enter the story--we can't identify with Gatsby, who is meant to be a mystery, so we view him through Nick's eyes. And Nick is a delightful narrator to have as a companion. I read an old paperback edition, and I dog-eared several pages. Here is his first description of the title character: "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there is something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away."

This is a description of the nights at Gatsby's mansion. It doesn't get much better than this: "There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." Nick, with the voice of Fitzgerald, shares with us such pearls of wisdom as: "Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry." And there is very dry humor, such as when Nick realizes it's his 30th birthday: "Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair."

The book is really more about Nick than Gatsby, who is never really more than a shadow figure, defined by his love for Daisy--everything he has done has been to win her back. And this is rickety structure, for Daisy isn't exactly a paragon of virtue. In the one scene in the novel that I don't think works, in a room at the Plaza Hotel, Gatsby and Tom argue over Daisy, right in front of Nick and Jordan. The story gets away from Fitzgerald for a while. It was hard to believe all this would go on and then the party would drive back in two cars to Long Island, where a tragedy would occur that would set in motion the fall of Gatsby.

If the plot of The Great Gatsby isn't exactly what makes it great, one can rely on the prose. Again and again there are more passages to quote, such as this one about Daisy's youth: "For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythms of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor."

Finally, there is the last sentence, one of the most famous in American literature: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." That sentence is almost a novel in itself, ripe with meaning, although one may take away a different meaning than the man next to him. I see it as something of the myth of Sisyphus, who rolled a rock to the top of a mountain only to have it fall back down again. Fitzgerald speaks of the same endless task, only within the context of a young man in a golden age, unable to enjoy life, feeling he is condemned to relive it without learning anything.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Just Out of Reach

It's hard to be too upset about the University of Michigan's loss to Louisville last night in the NCAA men's basketball championship. This is the first time in 20 years they've been at the top of their game, and as a number 4 seed the results were a pleasant surprise. They just got out-played and out-coached by their betters.

I've been a Michigan basketball fan for a long time, inheriting it from my father. I remember very well the 1976 team, which went to the finals against Indiana's undefeated squad. They had a great back court of Ricky Green and Steve Grote, and actually led that final at half time, before getting blown out in the second half. That team's last gasp came the next year, when they lost to UNC-Charlotte in the regional final. That tournament was marred when my grandfather died right in the middle of it.

The next time Michigan made noise in the tournament was 1989, when they won it all. They had Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson, the latter making two free throws to beat Seton Hall in overtime for the championship. I remember that the semi-final was against Illinois, and I taped the game (I went into New York City to see Heathers, if I remember correctly). I watched the tape, not knowing the outcome, but hadn't allotted enough time, so it ran before the end of a very close game. I had to call someone in the family to find out who won, as there was no Internet at the time to turn to.

Then came the Fab Five, who went to two straight finals in '92-'93. They lost them both--in '92 it was a blowout against Duke. I remember that game because my girlfriend at the time called in the middle of the game and we had a very difficult phone call. In '93, they lost to North Carolina when Chris Webber famously called a time out he didn't have. That team would break up and go the NBA, and recruiting violations would cause the wins to be vacated.

Michigan stayed in the wilderness for much of the next two decades. They weren't terrible--they had the dubious honor of winning back to back NIT tournaments. Steve Fisher, who coached for the title and two other final fours, was finally let go after scandal tainted him. A few other coaches were used: Tommy Amaker, assistant from Duke, seemed like a good fit, but he couldn't get it done, and is now a success at Harvard. John Beilien was brought in from West Virginia, and finally he brought Michigan to the promised land.

Even with my work schedule, I managed to see quite a bit of the games: the workman-like win over South Dakota State, then the crunching of VCU. I only saw the last play of the Kansas overtime game, so missed the comeback and the clutch three-pointer from Trey Burke. But I saw every bit of the smackdown they gave Florida, and listened to much of the Syracuse win over the radio, seeing the last, ugly five minutes.

So I had gotten to know the players by the time of the final. Burke, named player of the year, had been inconsistent, but hit an early three-pointer that made things look good. But he got a second foul (a bad call), and rode the pine for the rest of the half. Beilien surely left him on the bench because his replacement, Spike Albrecht, had a half for the ages, scoring seventeen, including several from behind the arc. Michigan built a 12-point lead, the exact lead that Louisville came back to beat Wichita State.

In the last few minutes of the half, I think the game was lost when unheralded Luke Hancock hit four threes for Louisville, and Michigan went into halftime with only a one-point lead. Burke came back in the second half strong, but Albrecht was shutout. The entertainingly awesome Mitch McGary was held in check, and whatever Rick Pitino's adjustments were, they worked. Michigan pushed the lead to four, but soon Louisville eclipsed them, building their own ten-point lead, before winning by six.

I should add that toward the end of the game, I got a call from my current girlfriend, who laid on me some heavy news and we ended the call deciding, for the time being, we'd be just friends. Clearly my personal life suffers when Wolverine basketball succeeds.

This was a young team, but it seems that it won't be a sure thing for next year, as many players will probably leave for the NBA. Oh well. Unlike schools like Duke or Kansas, we can't be assured that there will be a championship caliber team every year. They emerge like the cicadas--roughly every seventeen years.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Pure

You would think the world doesn't need another dystopian, post-nuclear tale, but Julianna Baggot's Pure, the first of a trilogy, is a ripping good yarn that creates an intricate world--two of them, really--and is as good an adventure as I've read recently.

Set in presumably the near future, the world has been leveled by nuclear bombs. Known as the "detonations," this marks the before and after of everything. Most people, known as "wretches," scratch and claw out a life for themselves, and most of them have been marked in some ways by the blasts, either by bits of metal or glass in their bodies, or even worse: "A man in a green OSR uniform jumps out. His foot is gone. One of his pant legs is cuffed. And instead of a knee, there's the neck bone of a dog, its furred cranium, its bulged eyes, jaw teeth. Is the man's leg part of the dog's vertebrae?" You see, victims of the blasts have been fused to anything they were in contact with at the time of the flash.

The heroine of the story, Pressia, has scars on her face and instead of a hand there is the plastic head of a doll, which she was clutching as a young child. She has now turned sixteen, cared for by her grandfather, who reminds her of the old days: "'Mickey Mouse,' her grandfather says. 'Don't you remember him?' This is what gets him the most, it seems, that she doesn't remember Mickey Mouse, the trip to Disney World that they were just returning from. 'He had big ears and wore white gloves?'"

Pressia is alert, as it is the law that all sixteen-year-olds must turn themselves into the OSR, once known as Operation Search and Rescue, but now called Operation Sacred Revolution. She would then be trained as a recruit, although she isn't sure what that means. All she knows is that every foray out of her home, an old barber shop, is to take one's life into one's hands.

The other world that Baggott creates is The Dome, a building where a select group have lived, free of the destruction. Built before the detonations, it has served as a sort of Noah's Ark, where the privileged live a life of luxury. But a teenage boy, Partridge, resists the good life. He is sure his mother is still alive, and does what no one would think imaginable--he escapes the Dome.

Partridge, on the outside, is known as a "pure," and is easily recognizable by his lack of scars. Of course Pressia and Partridge will meet up, and along with a rabble-rouser, Bradwell (he has a few living birds fused to his back) try to find Partridge's mother, and will learn uncomfortable things along the way, such as who really caused the detonations and why it was so easy for Partridge to leave the Dome.

There are other great things about the book, such as the character called El Capitan, the OSR training officer who has his brother fused to his back in a life-long piggyback ride. There are the "groupies"--several people fused together, operating as one entity, and the man-hating "mothers," who have a child fused to their bodies and demand a gruesome sacrifice from Partridge in exchange for their help.

Though the characters are young people, and there is no profanity or sex, this isn't necessarily a book for teens. It tells a cautionary tale about fascism and the treatment of the environment. There are also some great moments of light-heartedness and a real sense of loyalty and courage. I'm on board for reading the next book, titled Fuse.


Sunday, April 07, 2013

A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair, from Denmark, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is the second of last year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees I've seen. It's a stately costume drama, depicting one of the most famous events in Danish royal history, at least after Hamlet.

It is the late 1700s. The Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau, have stirred things up in many places, but not Denmark, which remains a place of medieval practices. The king is Christian VII, who is mentally ill. In an arrangement, he is betrothed to Caroline of England (she was the sister of the man who would one day be George III). She soon discovers that Christian has a screw loose, and lives in misery.

The King is persuaded to hire a personal physician, and through some intrigue by banished dukes, a small-town German doctor, Johann Struensee, (Mads Mikkelsen) applies for the job. The mercurial King hires him because he knows lines from Shakespeare. What the court doesn't know is that he is firmly of the Enlightenment, and starts influencing Christian to make reforms.

This goes pretty well, except that Mikkelsen and the Queen (played by the dewy beauty Alicia Vikander) bond over their shared beliefs and are soon making the beast with two backs. Even though it becomes an open secret, Christian refuses to believe it, even after Vikander bears Mikkelsen a daughter (she has to have a reluctant roll in the hay with Christian in order to make the birth seem legitimate).

Eventually the enemies of the reforms, including the King's stepmother, who wants her own son on the throne, and members of the Council, led by a priest, root out the truth, and Denmark slips back to its old ways. But there is an epilogue that shows how important this was to Danish history.

A Royal Affair is a standard costume drama, complete with gowns and opulence and court intrigue. It is fine as these things go, but never really ratchets up the excitement. Even when the lovers are found out, there's a sense of calm over the whole thing. The acting is fine but understated, especially by Mikkel Følsgaard as Christian, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his performance. It's a tricky part--he's crazy, but not a maniac, and though the lovers are the main emphasis, he shouldn't be thought of as a villain--we root for the lovers, but feel bad for the King.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, is an enchanting young adult novel that gives us a great hero and a lesson that, though it may be familiar, should never be forgotten--our pasts don't make us who we are, and nothing is fated; we have free will.

The title character is a dwarf in the Spanish Netherlands (Holland) at the end of the sixteenth century. He lives a simple but happy life with his mother in her inn in a small town. His only problem is that he obsesses about who his father is, as his mother won't tell him.

One day, when he is fifteen, a representative of the court comes and takes him there to be in service to the Infanta in Brussels (as I learned in The Mill and the Cross, Spain ruled over the low countries in those day). As was the case for dwarfs in those days (and in a certain manner, still today), they are used for the amusement of others. Jepp is costumed and pops out of a pie, and the dwarf he falls in love with, Lia, sings in a cage. Dignity is not a thing easily found for little people.

After a tragedy, Jepp is taken to Denmark to serve Tycho Brahe, a real historical figure. He was an astronomer who was able to map many stars, pre-telescope. Jepp at first is simply a jester and servant: "'Jepp, your labors start now," he says to me in Dutch. 'Pick up my nose.'" (Brahe lost part of his nose in a duel and wore a prosthesis that frequently came loose). Eventually Jepp shows his intelligence, (he speaks Latin) so Brahe puts him to work in the library, aiding the scholars. He meets Brahe's daughter, Magdalene, a spirited young woman who creates astrological charts.

The issue of astrology runs all through the book. Though Magdalene believes strongly in the stars, she tries to impress upon Jepp that they are only a guide, not an absolute. But Jepp is certain he has to find out who he is by finding his father, and he returns to him home town, and then to the court, and numerous twists are introduced. Some of them have the auro of melodrama, but Katherine Marsh has given Jepp a strong enough voice to keep things interesting.

The most interesting part of the book is the middle third, when Jepp is at Brahe's castle called Uraniborg, where science is at his most advanced. Jepp says, "What I first took to be sorcery is actually science, man's own magic." His most important lesson comes at the end: "I must believe Magdalene--that the stars are not everything, that my actions can alter my destiny."

This book would be ideal for young teens who show an interest in astronomy, or history, or just want to read a good adventure.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Invisible Man's Revenge

The last Universal Invisible Man picture (outside of an Abbott and Costello film) was 1944's The Invisible Man's Revenge, directed by Ford Beebe, a somewhat interesting but mostly crummy film that brought back the creepy aspects of the character.

Jon Hall, who was the good guy in Invisible Agent, returns as a different character, an escapee from a South African mental asylum. He has been thought dead for five years by his old friends, who live in luxury in England. He had been left for dead in the jungle when they were looking for a diamond mine, and now wants his part of the money. He is shown the door.

Eventually he comes across a mad scientist (John Carradine). Unlike the other films, there is no connection to the original Jack Griffin, although Hall's character's name is Griffin, as a tip of the hat, I suppose. Carradine has been experimenting on invisibility, making his German shepherd transparent but never trying it on a human. Hall imagines what he could do to his old friends, and tries it out.

There really isn't much else to this film. In order to return to visibility, Hall must get a blood transfusion, which makes the film vampiric, and at least the writer realizes a dog can track down someone, invisible or not. The visual effects aren't any better (you can see the outline of the actor) than before, and Hall's character is a one-note crazy man. Frankly, when you get right down to it, invisibility isn't that much of a power. If I were able to turn invisible right now, I don't know what I'd do. You can't really rob a bank any easier than if visible. Really the only advantage is for teenage boys who want to peek into the girls' locker room.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Heartthrob

After loving the previous two Tegan and Sara albums, I was eager to get their latest release, Heartthrob. And I was disappointed. It's not a bad record, it's just...ordinary.

I reminded myself of the ingenuity of the other albums in my possession: The Con and Sainthood, and they are just as I remember them--infectiously rhythmic, with obscure but intriguing lyrics. The songs on Heartthrob are again about relationships, but are the kind of ballads you hear sung on American Idol. Who knew that these sisters longed to be like Destiny's Child?

As the title suggests, the songs are about love. It opens with "Closer," a nice love song that was the first single. I thought it was okay, but didn't dream it would be one of the best songs on the album. It's standard stuff, but has a nice lyric: "All I dream of lately is how to get you underneath me."

The album continues in this vain, with trite ideas expressed in titles such as "I Was a Fool," "How Come You Don't Want Me," and "Love They Say." They all kind of blend together, and don't require close attention, as their previous work did.

The best song on the record and the only one that could have fit in on a previous album is the last--"Shock to the System," which has a ferocious drum beat and a line that is repeated often, with genuine feeling: "What you are is lonely."

Again, not a bad collection, but not up to the Tegan and Sara's standards. They break no ground here and sound like a hundred other artists. It really bummed me. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Invisible Agent

In 1942, Universal took the Invisible Man character and made him a hero, cast in a typical World War II propaganda film, Invisible Agent, written by Curt Siodmak with a special indemnity against Nazis (and the Japanese, as well).

The original Invisible Man, Griffin, somehow had a grandson despite dying before marriage. He's changed his name and runs a printing shop. But he's tracked down by Axis agents and offered money for the invisibility formula, which they somehow are sure he has (I certainly don't know all my grandfather's secrets). They're right, but he escapes their clutches. After Pearl Harbor, he decides to give the formula to the U.S., but on the condition that he is the only one to use it.

The result is a passing adventure, though this new Griffin, played by Jon Hall with a kind of goofy charm that was the style of Joel McRea, nearly bungles the whole thing. Once in Berlin, he uses his invisibility to play practical jokes more than anything else, ruining the work of a German spy (Ilona Massey) and managing to get another resistance fighter tortured.  Still, he out maneuvers the enemy, embodied by Cedric Hardwicke as a Nazi and Peter Lorre as a Japanese diplomat.

I found the most interesting character to be played by J. Edward Bromberg as the head of the German Secret Police. He lusts after Massey, and becomes the butt of Hall's tomfoolery, and eventually is arrested and sentenced to be executed because Massey is Hardwicke's woman. Hall visits him in his cell, and gets him to talk, and this is where Siodmak puts his jeremiad against National Socialism. But Bromberg shifts with the prevailing wind, and it's his character arc that puts this film slightly above the average.

The film was nominated for an Oscar for visual effects. By now, they could have the character invisible but covered in soap film, or allowing his features to be seen by covering his face in cold cream (though they erred in allowing his teeth to be visible).

Monday, April 01, 2013

I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris, in addition to missing a comma in its title, is a strange film that just doesn't quite work. It mixes comedy and pathos, and has a nice performance by Jim Carrey, but something about it bugged me.

Not about the tobacco company, as I had surmised, instead it's about the real-life con man and prison escape artist, Steven Russell, as played by Carrey. He finds out he's adopted, and while working as a cop tracks down his birth mother, who rejects him again (he was put up for adoption, even though he was the middle child--funny). He is a devout churchgoer, having married a fellow worshipper (Leslie Mann). But after a traffic accident, he resolves to be his true self--gay.

He moves to Miami and becomes flamboyant, and discovers "it's expensive to be gay." He pulls insurance fraud scams and gets arrested, where he meets the title character, a wispy Southern queer played by Ewan McGregor. It's love at first sight for these two, and the rest of the film will be Carrey determined to escape prison to be with him.

There's two levels of this film--the love story and the slipperiness of Carrey, and I don't think they ever meshed. On one hand the film is kind of a fascinating glimpse of a criminal genius--Carrey manages to escape from prison four times, litigates cases in court without being a lawyer, and manages to get a job as a CFO, where he embezzles $800,000. In a way this film is like The Great Impostor, or Catch Me If You Can, with the added bonus of a gay love story.

The homosexuality of the film caused it to be delayed several times, and it only made 20 million, a low number for a Carrey picture. Perhaps the gay theme was a drag on the box office, though it's treated matter-of-factly in the movie (there are a few sex scenes that might make grandma blush, such as McGregor discreetly spitting out Carrey's load). But I think the bigger problem is that Carrey's fans want to see him as a good guy, and despite his love for McGregor, he's kind of a snake. A guy who fakes having AIDS isn't exactly commendable.

Still, there are some laughs, as when Carrey, perched on the edge of a parking garage, looks down at a Dumpster filled with garbage bags. He jumps, but manages to miss the entire Dumpster.