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Friday, May 31, 2013


Aquamarine, a 2006 film, directed by Elizabeth Allen, can't be judged like any other film. It has a very specific audience--teenage girls. From my vantage point, it's impossible for me to know if it succeeds in that, but it does go down easy and is inoffensive.

Set on a beach in Florida, two teens of about 16 (Emma Roberts and Joanna "JoJo" Levesque, are best friends. They are both in love with the hunky lifeguard (Jake McDorman), but Levesque has to move with her mother to Australia. Roberts is timid, especially afraid of the water because her parents drowned.

After a storm, among all the muck in the swimming pool, they find a mermaid, who is played with Reese Witherspoon-in-training pluck by Sara Paxton. She's escaped an arranged marriage, and wants to prove to her father that love exists. So the two girls help her get the lifeguard to fall in love with her.

Essentially this is Splash for the Seventeen set. I haven't seen Splash in a long time, but I think they borrowed the rules--Paxton has legs, but only during the day and only if they stay dry. She speaks English, but at least they through in a line that says mermaids speak all languages, even crustacean. Who am I to disagree?

The film, while aimed directly at girls, also pokes a little fun at the culture, sending up those articles in teen magazines that are designed to help girls, like the "fluff and flee." The performers are all fine--Levesque, better known as a singer, has some inner gravitas.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Frances Ha

I doubt I will enjoy any performance more this summer than Greta Gerwig's luminous portrayal of the title character in Francis Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig. Even now I can picture her face, round and lit like a full moon, smiling even while she attempts to bridge the gap to adulthood, coming a little late at 27 years old.

Frances is a dancer, an apprentice with a modern dance company. She lives in Brooklyn with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) who has a job with Random House. They are both straight, but don't hesitate to sleep in the same bed. They are, Frances explains, "The same person, with different hair." Frances passes on moving in with her boyfriend because Sophie might want to renew the lease, which makes the boyfriend break up with her. Frances is nonplussed.

But Sophie has a boyfriend, and Frances is jealous, which makes Sophie move out and leaves Frances adrift, even more so when the dance company temporary lays her off. Adrift, she moves in with a couple of guys, visits the family in California for Christmas, takes possibly the dullest trip ever to Paris, and gets a summer job at Vassar, her alma mater. But throughout all this, she remains perpetually cheerful with an infectious sense of optimism.

This reminded me of other films about girl/women who remain sunny in all weather, such as Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Godard's A Woman is a Woman. While Gerwig is not a gamin like Julietta Massina or Anna Karina--she is more like a large, terrestrial bird, taking pratfalls--she has their zest for life.

In many ways this is like a European film, shot in black and white and seemingly on the fly in authentic locations. It is certainly not mumblecore, though Gerwig is the queen of that genre. It has elements of the naturalism that is the cornerstone of mumblecore, it is also full of cinematic flourishes, such as the simply adorable scene of Frances running down the street, brimming with glee, as David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays on the soundtrack.

This is a love story, a romantic comedy about the friendship of two women. If you close your eyes and imagine Sophie as a man, this would be a fairly straightforward example of the genre, as the two start together, come apart, and find there way towards each other again. Men are largely irrelevant in the final analysis. Frances has mostly platonic relationships with the opposite sex, such as the two roommates she shares for a while. One of them jokingly refers to her as undateable, and in a more conventional film these two would end up together (and maybe they do, after the credits are over).

Baumbach's direction is laid back, yet not sloppy. There are some affectations: everytime Frances moves, we get a title card of her new address, including the zip code, a kind of Wes Anderson-like bit of preciousness. But he knows to keep the camera trained on Gerwig, who is in every scene. Her dialogue, at times a stream-of-consciousness spiel (I'm thinking in particular of her answer to a fellow diner about whether she's ever been to Paris) may remind some of Annie Hall, but it's a creation wholly unto itself. I'm going to spend the rest of the year hoping that Gerwig gets nominated for an Oscar.

 My grade for Frances Ha: A

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Take This Waltz

Sarah Polley's second feature, following the excellent Away From Her, is Take This Waltz, an earnest film about one women's struggle to understand her desires. It's an uneven film, but is highlighted by an incandescant performance by Michelle Williams.

Williams plays Margo, who at the beginning of the film returns from a visit to Montreal back to Ontario. On the plane she meets Dan (Luke Kirby), who looks like a contestant on The Bachelorette. They strike up a conversation, and the dialogue sets up the metaphor--Williams is afraid of missing connections; she's afraid of being inbetween things. She also says she is afraid of being afraid.

She's married to Seth Rogen, a cookbook author (the recipes all contain chicken), and on the surface they seem to have an ideal marriage. But as the film moves on, she begins to be unsatisfied. With superficial things, they are compatible, such as frequently using baby talk or otherwise acting in a childish manner. When Williams indicates she has problems, he has no idea what she is talking about.

Williams becomes ever drawn to Kirby, and it would be a spoiler to indicate what happens. One can wonder if Williams makes a mistake, as her sister-in-law (Sarah Silverman) tells her she has made. Or is it a kind of liberation? The film leaves this up to the viewer, an adult way of presenting a story.

At times the story gets a little soggy, and Williams, though brilliant in the role, is at times so passive you want to grab her shoulders and shake her. But Polley has a wonderful eye and ear. My favorite image is when Williams and Kirby are riding a carnival ride while "Video Killed the Radio Star" is on the soundtrack. Another magic moment is when Williams and Kirby are alone in a swimming pool, doing a water ballet, but the magic is spoiled when he touches her.

It was interesting to watch a movie about a woman who is afraid of her own feelings, a subject that could be deadly, but Polley manages to make it captivating.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Empires, Nations, and Families

The subtitle of Empires, Nations, and Families is A History of the North American West, 1800-1860. That's a big subject. And Anne F. Hyde's book is sprawling, covering the West from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles to Taos to Texas. But her focus is on something more domestic than the tales of the West after the Civil War. Her thesis is that the West grew based on the influence of the three nouns in her title.

The book, as one might expect, covers so much ground that it's hard to summarize. She starts with the fur trade, which was the single most important commodity in the early days after Lewis and Clark: "Fur and Indians, which have moved into the realm of quaint now, were at the center of local, national, and international concern between 1800 and 1860. And family enterprises operated at the trade's core. In a world of political revolution, nation building, and international rivalry, business and family life thrived in spite of these potentially destabilizing distractions."

Hyde discusses the major players in the fur game, from the Chouteaus and Sublettes of Missouri to John McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver on the Columbia (in what was then Canada). It's interesting to read about what St. Louis was like in 1800. Eighty percent of the people born there had some percentage of Native blood. It was very cosmopolitan, so much so that Washington Irving, on a visit, was disgusted: "Irving's vision, littered with descriptors like 'squaw,' 'half-breed,' 'negroes,' and 'blacks,' has the feel of world gone culturally mad, with Indians inside, people and animals sleeping in inappropriate places, a sign of what happens when whites mix."

Indians, of course, is the other dominant feature of Hyde's book. In 1800 in St. Louis, for the most part Anglo-Americans, the French, and Indians lived in harmony, trading and intermarrying. But things wouldn't last that way. We learn about Comancheria, the most successful Indian nation of the continent, in which Comanches had domain over most of what is today Texas for over a century. As I have learned in other books, Hyde notes that Comanches were by far the scariest Indians on the plains. We also learn about the turf war between the Osage and the Cherokee. The latter were removed from their ancestral home into Oklahoma, where the Osage already lived. This was not welcome to the Osage.

There is also a great deal about the Indian wars in the Pacific Northwest, about which I knew nothing about except I had heard of the Whitman massacre, in which missionaries trying to convert the Klamath Indians were wiped out. In fact, there are a lot of massacres discussed in the book, including the one in Taos, where one local official was beheaded, the Sand Creek massacre (in 1864, technically outside of Hyde's parameters) and the Mountain Meadow massacre of 1857, when Mormons slaughtered a party of pioneers on their way to California. Mormons were a big thorn in the U.S. government's side for ages. Hyde gives us a short but vivid history of them, from Joseph Smith onward.

Also covered is the Mexican War, and before that Stephen F. Austin's founding of Anglo colonies there, and the settling of California, which only came to the U.S. after the Mexican War. One amusing anecdote is a U.S. naval warship taking Monterrey without a shot, as the commander believed that Mexico and the U.S. were at war. When he was informed otherwise, he apologized and left.

The book is a tad on the academic side, but Hyde interjects at various points, particularly in discussing the violence of the period, and the lack of respect for land ownership: "A nation of squatters who used violence to establish rights and to dispossess other people needs to recognize itself in these actions. Anglo-American settlers, however laudable their individual intentions, chose to settle on land owned by others and demanded that the U.S. government use all of its power to remove them, making these 'ordinary nineteenth-century frontiersman' into killers."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Paperboy

The astonishing thing about The Paperboy is that a number of people, from the director to the studio executives, thought that this film was actually releasable. It is a train wreck. Lee Daniels, who scored an Oscar nod for Precious, directs as if wearing a blindfold, and the whole thing is an unpleasant mess.

Set in Florida in the 1960s, The Paperboy, based on the novel by Pete Dexter (he co-wrote the screenplay, so shares blame) is about two brothers (Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron) who are investigating the death of a sheriff. The arrested person (John Cusack), is a swamp rat who is only interested in his pen pal (Nicole Kidman), who has a habit of writing to prisoners. Also along for the ride is a black journalist (David Oyelowo) who can't believe how backward the place is.

It's hard to start detailing how bad this movie is. The editing, acting, photography are all grating. The cinematography, by Roberto Schaefer, seems to want to recapture a faded, left in the sun look, which is effective for suggesting heat, but makes the whole thing ugly. Daniels' shot selection is bizarre, and the acting is all over the place.

Kidman, who received a couple of nominations from award organizations, was let out of the cage. She plays a white trash woman who is forced to play some really over the top scenes. Most famously, she is called upon to urinate on Efron after he is stung by jellyfish, but the most eye-opening scene is when she visits Cusack and they masturbate across from each other in the prison visiting room--with McConaughey, Efron, and Oyelowo sitting beside them.

For those interested, Efron spends a lot of time just wearing tightie whities, which may be the only redeeming feature of this film.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Haters Gonna Hate

A week or so ago, when Angelina Jolie announced her double mastectomy, I went to the blog Jezebel, which is about all things female. There was a lot of praise for her, but many said, "I'm not a fan of hers, but..." I wonder why they had to mention they weren't fans of hers, but I think this is part of a trend in culture since the Internet--the propagation of irrational hatred.

This hit its high water mark when there were dozens of articles about the hatred of Anne Hathaway, to the extent that they are known by a name--Hathahaters. Dozens of writers tried to figure this out, suggesting everything from her presumed insincerity to the shape of her face. Other women have suffered this kind of weird vitriol, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Zooey Deschanel, and Jolie.

Which begs the question, what the fuck? This is a strictly female thing. Men are only concerned with how these women look naked, let alone start a blog about it. What is it about women that inspires this attachment to celebrities? Is it envy, an especially entitled judgmental attitude? Some women say they don't like Hathaway because she reminds them of girls they knew in high school. I'd say they should get over it.

However, men are not exempt from irrational hatred. With men, it's sports. There are vast numbers of haters of Tim Tebow, the New York Yankees, or Duke, and I'm one of them. And men do create blogs about this. But though this is irrational--whether the Yankees win or lose affects my life in zero terms, at least there's a sense of competition involved--I hate you because you beat me. Or I hate you because my father hated you. Or it's simply hatred because sports invites a kind of hatred that is born of rivalries. Those who are part of a rivalry like that, whether it's Red Sox/Yankees or the old Dodgers/Giants, can turn the hatred into a perverse kind of love.

Maybe that's what women do, too. They zero in on something annoying about a celebrity and then let it grow like a pearl inside an oyster. But really, what did Anne Hathaway do to anyone?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly

Although Killing Them Softly is ultimately unsatisfying, it's one of the most interesting crime films I've seen. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik and based on a pulp novel, it ties the minor incident of a poker-game robbery with the collapse of the economy in 2008.

Set in Boston, the film concerns two minor hoods, played with sleazy intensity by Scooter McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, who sign on to rob a poker game. They think they will get away with it because the runner of the game, Ray Liotta, robbed his own game once before, and everyone will think he did it.

After the robbery, Brad Pitt comes on as smooth hit man. He sorts out that Liotta probably didn't do it, but has to die anyway because people think he did it, and thus he can't be seen getting away with it. Eventually Pitt figures out who did it, and brings in another hit man (James Gandolfini), whom he finds has gone to seed, interested only in booze and whores.

While the film is excessively violent (Liotta takes a beating that is unusually realistic), with brains splattering and plenty of blood, the film is not paced like a typical crime film. Dominik has sort of made the thinking man's gangster film, making it a commentary on capitalism. Dominik says, in the supplemental material, that crime is the brute form of capitalism: crooks are only interested in money.

Where the film lets down is a lack of conflict. Sure, plenty of people get offed, but Pitt's character barely breaks a sweat. The title comes from his penchant for killing people from a distance, so there's no emotion involved, but he ends killing someone up close, so I guess it's not a big problem for him. Also, he's the de facto protagonist, and he never faces any obstacles. He could be the Pitt from Inglorious Basterds, minus the accent.

This film would be a good discussion topic in an economics class. Pitt's last line pretty much sums it up: "America is not country, it's a business. Now pay me."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

"I'm a Vulcan--I embrace technicalities!" Not only should this line immediately be put on a t-shirt, but it's indicative of how much fun the new Star Trek is. The second directed by J.J. Abrams, focusing on the TV characters as younger people, Star Trek Into Darkness is even more fun that Iron Man 3.

I've never been a big Star Trek fan. I'm neither Trekkie nor Trekker, and I can't recite chapter and verse from the episodes of the TV show. I think I've seen all of the movies, though, from the original cast through the Next Generation cast. None of them have made me so giddy or tapped into my teenage self than this one.

And it is a movie ideally suited for teenage boys, down to the shot of Alice Eve in her bikini underwear. It has lots of action, lots of comedy, a great villain (no spoiling here) and even takes a stand on drone warfare. I had a smile plastered on my face throughout.

The film begins mid-adventure, like the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the conclusion of an encounter with a stone age population. Kirk (Chris Pine) makes a decision to save Spock (Zachary Quinto) which violates the prime directive, and Kirk gets busted for it. But then a terrorist attack reorganizes everything, and Kirk and Spock, along with Sulu, Uhuru, and Chekov, who ends up running around the engine room like Billy Bibbit, are back on the Enterprise.

But not Scotty. Star Fleet has loaded 72 torpedoes to be used on the terrorist, identified as John Harrison and played with stiff-upperlip Britishness by Benedict Cumberbatch. He's hiding on the Klingon planet (is it just called Klingon?) The admiral (Peter Weller) is itching to start a war with Klingons, but Kirk disobeys orders and captures Cumberbatch instead. We learn who he really is (does anyone not know? I'll keep mum just in case) and all sorts of shifting alliances take place. The plot is kind of a mess--I'm never quite sure what the villain wants--but who cares?

As with the first film, this one is stolen by Quinto as Spock. Maybe the purists object, but Quinto's Spock is one with a sense of humor. He's even romantically involved with Uhuru, which I'm not sure I like but hey, go for it, you kids. When hearing that the two are having a fight, Kirk wonders aloud, "What's that like?" The spine of the film is that we do anything for family, and that a crew can be a family, whether it's the villains or whether it's the bromance between Kirk and Spock. And just how great is it to see Spock kick ass at the end of the film?

While the action isn't always superior--sometimes it's just stuff blowin' up--I did like a sequence that has Pine and Cumberbatch hurtling through space like bullets. There's also a fight scene with Klingons, and a little trouble comes to San Francisco (nice to see the trolley cars are still running in the future though). But action aside, what makes this movie so much fun is the dialogue. The banter among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is pleasure, and yes, McCoy does get to say a "I'm a doctor, not a ..." line. The writing and acting is able to make these characters identifiable without being caricatures. They'd be great to be around.

If all that isn't enough, there's even a tribble.

My grade for Star Trek Into Darkness: A-.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Birds

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which concluded a remarkable four-picture run for Hitch: North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho coming before. Talk amongst yourselves: has there been a better streak? One possibility is Francis Coppola's Godfather-The Conversation-The Godfather, Part II-Apocalypse Now. Other suggestions welcome.

Anyway, The Birds, loosely based on a story by Daphne DuMaurier, is a change of pace for Hitchcock in a few ways, though it still rests on the suspense he was best known for. In a way, this is a horror story, as people aren't the problem, it's nature run amok, as the small coastal town of Bodega Bay is attacked by all species of birds. No particular reason is given (in the real-life inspiration to the story, pesticide was to blame) and the ending is ambiguous. Many people refer to this film as a poem, in that there isn't the typical structure of a narrative.

The film begins with a lawyer, Rod Taylor, meeting a socialite (Tippi Hedren) in the bird department of a pet store. They're on opposite sides of a lawsuit, but despite the initial hostility are attracted to each other. So much so that Hedren, a prankster, drives all the way from San Francisco to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds. But there there are ominous signs, such as when a gull hits her on the head, and then sparrows flood into Taylor's house through the chimney.

The film is a slow-boiler. We go through some typical Hitchcock stuff, such as the monstrous mother (this time played by Jessica Tandy, though she is allowed to soften toward the end) and the icy blonde. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly, who was by now a princess, and ended up discovering Hedren, who was not a very good actress and who has pretty bad things to say about him now.

But Hedren's limited range doesn't interfere with Hitchcock's suspense. There are two notable uses to camera--one is the schoolhouse attack, as Hedren sits on a bench and behind her crows slowly gather on monkeybars. The resulting attack on running schoolchildren has some ludicrously bad special effects, compared with today, but the way Hitchcock sets it up has us ignore the effects and realize the terror.

The second is when birds attack Hedren while she's in a phone booth. In some ways the cutting is like the shower murder in Psycho--the cuts are so fast and precise that the scene comes across as a blur, but again, the terror is intact. I also love the edit as Hedren watches, horrified, as a flaming stream of gasoline travels toward the gas pumps, igniting a fireball.

The final act of the film, when Taylor, Hedren and family batten the hatches as the birds assault their house, is also bravura filmmaking. It just goes to show how the banal, when presented as a threat, can be just as scary as monsters from space.

The ending has no defeat of the birds--how would one conquer the world of birds. There's a great sequence when an old lady ornithologist (Ethel Griffies) tells everyone how many birds there are. She also says that they don't attack humans. When she's proven wrong, all she can do is sit quietly, breathing heavily. Instead the ending is completely up in the air, a stalemate. In some old B-films, there would be a title card that would say The End? This is one of those films. It is one of Hitchcock's finest; his last really great film.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

She & Him

The first time I heard Zooey Deschanel sing it was the National Anthem at the World Series on Fox, so since her show, New Girl, was debuting on Fox, it was one of those annoying cross promotions. But she sang it wonderfully. I think even Joe Buck was surprised how good it was.

I was vaguely aware that Deschanel had a band, or rather a duo consisting of her and M. Ward, called She & Him (the incorrect grammar of that drives a little stake through my heart, but I'm sure it was chosen to be quirky). With the release of their third album this week, I picked up all the She & Him records (each is identified by a volume number) and I'm here to report that my crush on Deschanel has grown by leaps and bounds.

Deschanel writes the songs and sings lead vocals, and man I love her voice. It has the slightly smoky quality and nasal curl of her speaking voice, but it also clear and mellifluous, lovely in all keys. As an actress, she is able to employ many different phrasing qualities, whether being kittenish or wounded or defiant.

The opening song on the first volume, "Sentimental Heart," is almost a manifesto for her lyrics, which are all about relationships and mostly about relationships gone sour. "What can you do with a sentimental heart?" she sings, and so we pocket that information and listen about heartbreak, with her crystalline voice defying men not to fall in love with her.

Deschanel is ably assisted by Ward, who every once in a while provides his own whispery voice (such as in a call and response of a cover of "You Really Got a Hold On Me") and his production, which takes Deschanel's songs and gives them all sorts of sounds,from country to bubblegum to '40s torch song. Some of them are little pop masterpieces, such as "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" from Volume 1 and "Never Wanted Your Love" from Volume 3.

There are also carefully selected covers, such as the one mentioned and a version of the Beatles "I Should Have Never Known Better" that sounds almost Hawaiian with all the steel guitar.

So now my Zooey Deschanel crush is really huge. What is to be done, other than continue to listen to these gorgeous records?

Friday, May 17, 2013


The first thing you see when watching Compliance is the "Inspired by True Events" disclaimer, in letters so big you'd have to be blind to miss them. Normally, I find this information needless--what do I care if a movie is true or not? But Compliance definitely needs it, because as I watched I was dumbfounded that there are people that stupid, and without knowing this really happened I would have thought the writers were high when they wrote it.

Compliance is a perfectly fine film, directed by Craig Zobel, so I didn't hate it--I just hated the people in it, because the entire premise rests on a group of people that are completely gullible and dumb. A manager of a fast food joint gets a call from a policeman, telling her that her pretty employee has stolen from a customer. He can't be there, so he asks the manager to search her, eventually strip-searching her. Things even get worse, because it's a prank call, not from a cop at all.

Okay. Let's take a look at this. A policeman (not a detective, just an officer) calls and tells the manager that he has the regional manager on the other line. He then tells the girl that she must be guilty, because he has the customer with him. Later, he says that he's at her house, investigating her brother for drugs. All the while, the girl is naked, wearing nothing but an apron, and allows the manager's fiance to do a cavity search, then spank her, and then, presumably, she performs fellatio on him, all instigated by the policeman on the phone.

At no time does anyone think to call the police station to see if the guy is for real, call the regional manager to see if he's really on the phone with the cop, have the girl get in touch with her parents, if not a lawyer. The actor who plays the prankster (Pat Healy), is just a guy with a sick fetish, and even he can't believe the things these people will do, just because they think they are talking to a cop.

Zobel, in the supplementary material, mentions the Milgram Experiment, which showed how people are willing to obey authority figures, in an attempt to explain Nazism. But the fact that this has happened 70 times I think doesn't speak to obeying authority figures, it's just downright stupidity. When a cop asks you to spank a girl only the most moronic would continue to think it's a real cop.

The film, though enraging to me, has some fine acting, especially by Ann Dowd as the manager. Dreama Walker, as the girl, does some harrowing work. But this film is more interesting as a conversation piece that in it is as a piece of entertainment.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gone Girl

Gone Girl, a thriller by Gillian Flynn, is very popular. I was reading it while on a train, and the woman sitting next to me asked me how I liked it, even though I was reading it on a Kindle. I told her it was unusual because it had two unreliable narrators, which I thought was kind of sophisticated for train chatter. She said she read it in five days, but it took me more than a few weeks (to be fair, I juggle four books at the same time). Why, despite it's crackling prose and intriguing set-up, did it not hit me on a gut level?

The novel concerns the Dunnes, a married couple living in a small town on the Missouri River. In a kind of Green Acres situation, the wife, Amy, is a New York girl who is pulled by her husband to his home town to take care of his ailing parents. She is the inspiration for a popular children's character in books written by her parents, which she has always resented. The husband, Nick, is a former writer who was sacked during the recession. This hit home: "New York was packed with writers, real writers, because there were magazines, real magazines, loads of them. This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world--throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won't kill us in the night. Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write. We had no clue that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade."

Amy goes missing on their fifth anniversary. The chapters of the first half of the book alternate between Nick's description of the events after he finds her missing and the diary entries of Amy before she went missing. It's clear that both of them are hiding or misrepresenting things. Nick tells us he's lying, while Amy's entries are clearly askew, and it is easily evident that we shouldn't trust them.

So, the first half concerns us wondering, did Nick kill his wife? The second half I can't discuss here, because there's a big reveal halfway through and the rest of the book is wondering whether the perpetrator, for lack of a better word, will get caught. This sounds ingenious, and some of it is, because this perpetrator has an evil genius mind, but it just didn't grab me. Maybe because the husband and wife are both self-absorbed and clueless, and one wants to take a shower after reading their innermost thoughts.

I should add that the ending, which is leading toward a conclusion that is wide open, is a let down. Call me a philistine, but I wanted some sort of resolution, but instead there is a kind of status quo that might be psychologically correct, but sucks for an ending.

But I did enjoy Flynn's cracker-jack writing. Here's one of Amy's best observations: "Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2."

Frankly, I'd like to see Flynn, who was the TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, break out of the thriller racket (this is her third) and use her talents to write a book about men and women that aren't involved in a crime--you know, literature.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


There's been a lot of ink spilled about Lena Dunham's HBO series, Girls, specifically how it fits in women's culture. I don't know much about that, considering I've never been a woman in my 20s, but I can say this--Girls is one of the funniest and brightest comedies I've seen in a long time.

A lot of people don't like Girls--maybe they're jealous of the success Dunham has at such a young age. While I was kind of meh about her film, Tiny Furniture, I'm on board with this series (I just finished season 1), which shows that women, even pretty ones, are just as fucked up as men are.

Dunham has stated she did not create the show as a counterpoint to Sex and the City, which was unrealistic, but in the pilot the most Sex in the City character, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) shows her arriving cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) the poster for the show on the wall. Jessa says she's never seen it, but Shoshanna engages in the "which one am I?" game. Shoshanna is the least seen of the four characters--she's kind of the link to shows like Sex in the City, though we quickly learn that she is a virgin.

The show is about Hannah (Dunham), who in the pilot gets cut off from her parents. I guess there's a breed of person in New York (Brooklyn, specifically) who kind of moseys through their youth, getting internships and attending parties while on their parent's dime. I don't know anything about that, but it crushes Hannah, who must get a job. She rooms with Marnie (Alllison Williams), who has the perfect boyfriend but longs for him to treat her badly, which I found completely authentic.

Hannah doesn't have a boyfriend, but she has a booty call, a strange guy called Adam who never wears a shirt and is frequently found with power tools. He's one of those guys who has learned sex from porn. By the end of the show, after Hannah has pursued him, he becomes her boyfriend, but then she backs off. This is also authentic.

What may gall some people is how pathetic Hannah is. She really loathes herself, has no self-confidence, and is 13 pounds overweight, which she says has haunted her all her life. She also dated an obviously gay guy in college but didn't know it. In some ways she's a version of Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, a woman with a great career who can barely function in a social situation (though Hannah doesn't even have a career).  Hannah is so full of neuroses that you might want to slap her. There's a really wrenching scene in the penultimate episode in which she is going to a reading, invited by her college professor, and she plans on reading one of her essays about a guy she dated who was a hoarder. But a guy she hardly knows tells her that's trivial, so she writes a story on the subway that doesn't go over well. This is the character--a desperately needy person who is too easily influenced by anyone she meets.

While Hannah dominates the show, my favorite character (and probably that of most men) is Jessa, the world traveler who acts like she doesn't seem to give a fuck, though she does. She gets a job as a babysitter and makes a fool out of the dad, who even resorts to come to one of those warehouse parties to see her, and brings a bottle of wine. She wants to slide through life, but life has other ideas. At the beginning of the show she is pregnant and backs out of an abortion, but nothing is said about that for the rest of the season. In the last episode she does something completely out of character, but since her capriciousness is part of her character, it works.

No matter what this says about today's young women, I just found it funny. The writing is almost Woody Allen worthy. I don't remember a lot of the lines verbatim, but I do remember Jessa telling Ray (Adam Karpovsky) to keep an eye on Shoshanna after she's accidentally smoked crack: "Don't let her jump off a roof, or get finger-banged by a beat-boxer." The dialogue is just great, but seems natural.

Girls is also incredibly frank about sex. There's one scene in which Adam masturbates, his thing just out of frame, while Hannah humiliates him. Dunham is naked an awful lot (none of the other actresses expose much), which may be her way of taking one for the team or making a point that chubby women can have beautiful bodies, too. I do wish Williams (daughter of NBC anchorman Brian) and Kirke would join the party, though.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Viva Zapata!

Directed by Elia Kazan during one of the best streaks by a director, and starring Marlon Brando during one of the best streaks by an actor, it turns out that the strongest thing about Viva Zapata! is the script by the great novelist John Steinbeck, which is tough and unflinching.

Emiliano Zapata was a Mexican revolutionary who rose from peasant to the presidency. I mentioned I saw this film last night to a co-worker, who is from Mexico, and he said Zapata is the man in his country, the equivalent of Lincoln in ours. Judging by Brando's scintillating performance, I believe it.

The film starts with Zapata as one of a delegation of Indian farmers to the pompous and corrupt President Diaz. Zapata manages to say things to get his name circled on the president's list, and he does more than that by taking to the hills as a nuisance. His closest associates are his temperamental brother, Anthony Quinn, and later Fernando Aguirre, played steely by Joseph Wiseman (who would later play a Chinese supervillain in Doctor No). .

Zapata is incorruptible but proud--he is indignant that his girlfriend's father won't let them marry (she's Jean Peters) and he's also got a quick temper, beating a gentleman who has started beating a young boy for eating food for horses. "The boy was hungry," Zapata keeps saying.

Eventually the armed resistance seeks to drive Diaz out of the country. Zapata becomes a general and they succeed, with Pancho Villa commanding the north. Villa wants no part of being president, so Zapata takes the job, but before that he has to deal with corrupt generals and the betrayal of those closest to him.

Steinbeck's script is sour on politics, and if any of this is true (some is not--Zapata was not illiterate, apparently) it's easy to see why. Everyone is after a quick buck, but Zapata is not interested in money. It's hard for idealists to survive after a revolution, because everyone else reverts back to the craven interests.

Brando was nominated for an Oscar, even though he doesn't exactly look Mexican. It was the second of four in a row he would receive in the early '50s. Quinn, who was half-Mexican, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 to ho-hum reviews, has come over the years to be considered one of the handful of great American novels. Therefore, there's a certain ring of protection around it that's been set up by English professors and their ilk to keep it from harm's way, mostly in film adaptations. There have been six, none of them very good, and the latest, by Baz Luhrmann, continues that streak.

Lurhmann, who is to filmmaking as Gallagher is to comedy, has thrown everything at the screen in his adaptation. He is really one of the worst choices for this material (Michael Bay might be worse--we'd get an explosion then), as the book, only 169 pages of carefully constructed prose, requires someone who is steeped in subtlety, a word Luhrmann doesn't understand. I can appreciate his attempt--he clearly admires the book, but in his hands it becomes a bombastic and boring spectacle. He may know the words, but he doesn't know the music.

Speaking of music, I'm one who usually doesn't care for anachronistic music, and it bristles here. This story is about a particular time--1922, the Jazz Age. There's not that much jazz in it. We do get Andre 3000, but this is not a story that necessarily works as a cautionary tale about our own time. How about making a movie about these characters in their own time, with her own music? Even when Luhrmann tries to be accurate, he missteps. Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin, heard prominently here, wasn't composed until two years after the events of the film.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a fellow on the brink of 30 who has moved to New York from the Midwest to become a bond salesman. He rents a house on a shore dotted with mansions in the fictional West Egg, New York (a stand-in for Great Neck). He eventually meets his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio), a vital man who seems to have the perfect life. When Gatsby realizes that Carraway's cousin is Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives with her husband in old-money East Egg, just across the bay, he asks Carraway to get them together. It seems that the two were in love five years ago, but were interrupted by World War I.

Daisy's husband, Tom, a former polo star who is now an angry racist, decides to look into his past, especially his relationship with a "gambler" modeled on Arnold Rothstein. Tom is having an affair with the white trash wife of a garage owner in the Valley of Ash, a destitute patch of ground between the green mansions of Long Island and the bustle of New York City. All things will come to a head, and tragedy ensues.

The novel is about a great many things, primarily about the uncanny ability of Americans to reinvent themselves. Gatsby, who comes from a poor farm in North Dakota, has managed to change himself into millionaire and man about town. The book is also about the struggle between the Midwest, where Fitzgerald came from, and the east of New York. But Luhrmann has boiled it down to a romance between Gatsby and Daisy--"It was all for her," Carraway says late. While Luhrmann's script gives lip service to the other themes, he does the book a disservice in the telling.

But what about those who don't care about the book, and have never read it? I saw a lot of teenage girls in the audience, presumably drawn by DiCaprio. What must they have thought of it? Even if I had been taken to my seat from an alien spacecraft, and had no knowledge of the book, I would thought this to be an unpleasant experience. I'll steal from another critic who says the movie is "spectacle without soul." It's brash, loud, garish (I can only imagine how in-your-face it is in 3D) and often quite boring. The party scenes, which Luhrmann must have imagined first, seem inauthentic and an excuse for Luhrmann's tendency to show off.

There are some good things about the film. The production design is good, especially the way they have used the oculist billboard, which Fitzgerald wrote into the story after seeing the cover design. I also liked most of the acting. Maguire has a difficult part, but he handles it with aplomb, even though Luhrmann makes a major mistake in framing the story from Carraway's stay in an asylum--not in the book. Luhrmann seems to think that Carraway was Fitzgerald, and assigns him his alcoholism and writing ability, but this is not true. Carraway was his own character, modeled on no one.

I also like DiCaprio. His introduction, when he smiles just as Carraway describes it, is almost breathtaking, and I never didn't believe him in the part. I was also admiring of Joel Edgerton as Tom. However, as much as I like Carey Mulligan, I didn't care for her here. Daisy is a tough character to figure out, but certainly she's not as vapid as Mulligan plays her. When Mulligan, in pre-release interviews, compared Daisy to a Kardashian, I cringed. Sheesh! Must everything have a contemporary comparison? She's not like a Kardashian, she's Daisy Buchanan, who has existed for over eighty years.

I really wanted to like this movie, and was pulling for it early, but by the twenty-minute mark a part of me wanted to leave. Luhrmann makes movies for those with ADHD, and I am not that audience. When he does take a breath, and characters talk, the pacing is deadly, and there's a lot of watch checking. I did like one thing Luhrmann did--when Gatsby meets Daisy for tea he brings a lot of flowers. A lot of flowers.

My grade for The Great Gatsby: D.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Greta Garbo's penultimate film, and the last of my little festival, is her best film, the classic Ninotchka, one of the many excellent films released in 1939, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder, among others. While the phrase "romantic comedy" is toxic today, there was a time when they mean greatness, as it does here, also being a film that lays waste to Stalinism.

We are in Paris, before the war, and three Russian envoys arrive. They rationalize taking the "royal suite," despite it being against everything they stand for. They are there to sell jewels purloined from a Russian countess (Ina Claire) who happens to be living in Paris. Her paramour (Melvyn Douglas), himself a nobleman who doesn't have too much money, tries to negotiate for the jewels, by mostly corrupting the three Russians on the many fine things Paris has to offer. The film becomes a kind of enactment of the song, "How you gonna keep down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"

The three Russians (Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kolansky, which we will have memorized by the end of the film) wire back to Moscow that they should split the take with the Countess, and this earns the arrival of a stern envoy, played by Garbo. She's no nonsense, immune to the charms of Paris, even though she does want to see the Eiffel Tower on a technical basis. She bumps into Douglas, who assists her, and by the end of the evening he is in love. So is she, sort of, even if she describes the attraction as chemical: "Your general appearance is not distasteful."  When she finds out that Douglas is the proxy for the Countess, she leaves, but he pursues her, determined to win her over and make her laugh. He finally does, by unintentionally leaning back in his chair and falling over.

This results in gales of laughter from Garbo, hence the tag line, "Garbo Laughs." It's true, but not really significant, since she laughed in other films, such as Queen Christina and Camille. But this is a laugh for the ages, perhaps the most famous in all cinema, and the scene is ubiqitous in film documentaries. In any event, it loosens her up and she falls hard for Douglas, though politics keeps them apart.

In addition to the delightful performance by Garbo, who is iron in the first half, putty in the second, and the debonair Douglas, this film is just brimming with pleasure. Just watch her face as she tries Champagne for thei first time--it's genius. Lubitsch, who was a big name in his day but isn't as well known today as he should be, shows what was called the "Lubitsch touch." Wilder and his partner Charles Brackett wrote a typically-Wilderian script, with lots of wit and a closing shot that would prefigure Wilder's own films.

Mostly, Ninotchka is a good-humored kick in the pants to the Soviets. They are depicted as authoritarian wet blankets, until they experience Western wonders, and they end up seduced. The film was not shown in Russia, natch, and was even withdrawn in the U.S. after the start of the war, when we were allies. Some of the quotes:

"The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians."

"A Russian! I love Russians! Comrade, I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last fifteen years."

"Hello! Comrade Kasabian? No, I am sorry. He hasn't been with us for six months. He was called back to Russia and was investigated. You can get further details from his widow."

As noted previously, this was Garbo's second to last film. She made a film called Two-Faced Woman that bombed, and after that, though she didn't officially retire, she backed out of films and became increasingly harder to approach. Finally she did retire, and lived in New York City, where sightings of her were like sightings of Bigfoot. She was not a recluse--she had her own social circle, but she became legendary for her aloofness, which goes all the way back to her early films, when she wanted "to be alone."

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


In an old Woody Allen routine, when he is kidnapped, he says, "The police were out of teargas, so they put on the death scene from Camille. Tear stricken, my abductors gave themselves up." Camille, a 1936 film by George Cukor, based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, has long been noted for its tissue-needed ending, in which the courtesan Marguerite Gautier dies in the arms of her beloved. However, I was dry-eyed, as this film didn't move me.

Greta Garbo is is Madame Gautier, who grew up illiterate on a farm but has worked her way up in Paris society. She is known as "extravagant and insincere," and indeed does seem pretty fickle as she balances two romances. One is with the filthy rich and cold-hearted Baron (Henry Daniell), and with the much more humble and good-looking Robert Taylor. Whenever Taylor has convinced himself he's won her, something goes wrong and she ends up with the Baron. This makes Taylor pouty and petulant, and a real drip, so I had trouble rooting for them to be together.

All the while Garbo is suffering from tuberculosis, and manages to the right thing. A big scene with Lionel Barrymore, as Taylor's father, sees her giving Taylor up to protect his future (she is not a pure woman, after all). Garbo is great in this scene, putting aside her own self-interest for the sake of her true love, even if we in the modern age scoff at the situation.

The direction by Cukor, the "women's director," is sound, and there's some nice comic relief by actresses Lauren Crews Hope (later Aunt Pittipat in Gone With the Wind) and Lenore Ulric as Garbos' scheming rival. It never really connected with me, though, despite all the melodrama.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Iron Man 3

Sometimes it's just about fun. Iron Man 3 isn't a great film, but damn I had fun while watching it. It has some pretty good action, but mostly it has Robert Downey Jr. getting out of scrapes and making quip after quip. I watched with pure pleasure.

The film, directed by Shane Black, is really a James Bond film. We have the wealthy, brilliant, megalomaniacal villain, with an industrial lair for the finale; a secondary and tertiary villain, our hero bound as he listens to the villain's plans, a femme fatale, lots of gadgets (though in this case Bond is his own Q), and the hero's coolness under pressure, with a joke for every occasion.

Of course, James Bond never had a iron suit, but in this film Tony Stark, the billionaire behind the mask, is out of the suit much more than he's in it. In fact, the suit is rendered almost superfluous, as, by my count, six different people in the course of the film wear one of them. At the end of the film there are so many of them, flown by Stark's computer, Jarvis, that you wonder if a person even needs to be in one. These are the drones of the comic book world.

The film's two villains: Adridge Kililan (Guy Pearce) who as a gawky and crippled young man gets dissed by Stark and then plots his revenge, in what seems to be an homage to The Incredibles, and the Mandarin, a quasi-Arab terrorist (Ben Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the country. Then there's the guy with red eyes (James Badge Dale) and who's hands get really hot.

Stark issues a challenge to the Mandarin and gets his house blown into the water. I do hope his homeowner's insurance covers helicopter attacks. During this sequence Stark's girlfriend (he's monogamous now) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), dons the iron suit for a few moments, a bit of girl power, but then at the end of the film she's trussed up a prisoner of the villain so nothing is really new.

The overall theme of the film seems to be Stark's struggle with his own demons. He's suffering PSTD after the events that occurred in The Avengers. Luckily, in this film, he only has to deal with people who can breathe fire and melt things at the touch. The hot-shot playboy also is forced to team up with a kid in rural Tennessee, and the sentiment is kept a minimum. I do find it interesting that Stark, at the end of the film, doesn't reward the fatherless boy with companionship, but with things. A lot of comic book heroes, such as Batman, Professor X, The Fantastic Four, etc., are filthy rich, but none so ostentatiously so as Stark. He's the hero for Wall Street.

But that's all for the college class on comic book films. For the rabble, including me, are lots of funny lines, some great action scenes (my favorite was a terrific one involving Iron Man saving 13 people that have fallen from Air Force One while name-checking the old game Barrel of Monkeys). There is probably a bit too much here--Don Cheadle is back as Rhodes, this time wearing a red, white and blue iron suit and now called The Iron Patriot, and a bland white guy president that seems quaint in the era of Obama (although they do have Miguel Ferrer as Vice-President). The finale, with all of the iron man suits at once, is too busy, but I was kind of mesmerized by the all the sound and fury. It was like watching fireworks, and I was tempted to go "ooh, ahh."

This was my favorite of the Iron Man film,s and it's due mostly to Downey Jr., who just grabs hold of the film and doesn't let go. When they cast him way back when it was an atypical move, and it's turned out to be a master stroke. Downey Jr. clearly loves playing this character: when he says, "I am Iron Man" it comes directly from the actor. He's just so much fun to watch.

My grade for Iron Man 3: B+

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Queen Christina

Greta Garbo delivers a fine, powerful performance as the real life Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated the crown. In this film, she abdicates for the love of a Spaniard, although that doesn't seem to be the true story. It makes for a good movie, though.

Christina becomes queen as a child when her father, the king, dies in battle during the Thirty Years' War. He had brought her up as a boy, so she's ready for responsibility, though is guided by a wise chancellor (Lewis Stone).

Flash forward to her as an adult, when a cousin wins a major battle, becomes a hero, and is pushed at her for a husband. She's carrying on with the treasurer (Ian Keith) but he turns out to be a rat.

One day while out riding, dressed in men's clothes (which apparently she did often) she meets the Spanish envoy (John Gilbert). They share a room at the local inn, and he doesn't realize he's a she until her figure is revealed upon the removal of her overcoat. It's a stretch to imagine that everyone thinks Garbo is a man, given those eyelashes and cheekbones, but we can play along. We can certainly buy Gilbert immediately falling into bed with her. Since this is 1933, and pre-code, it's plain what the two are up to during a snowstorm that keeps them inn-bound for five days.

Christina is a forward-thinking monarch, interested more in the arts than war. When the parliament and the populace pressure her to get rid of Gilbert and marry her cousin, she pulls a surprising move, and like a much more likable Edward VIII, gives up the crown instead. It's a nice profile in courage, and the closing shot, of her on a ship, leaving her country, her hair blowing in the wind, is a classic touch.

Queen Christina was directed by the great Rouben Mamoulian, and there isn't a bad shot in the film. A famous sequence has Garbo walking around the room at the inn, one long, slow take, as she memorizes the things in the room. Garbo here uses her silent-film technique of registering emotion just with the face.

John Gilbert was Garbo's former lover, and co-star in several silent films. His career dipped badly after the talkies (this didn't have to do with his voice, which was fine), and Garbo surely was behind him getting this role. He died in 1936.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Say a Little Prayer For Me

It was National Prayer Day this week and, of course, I did not participate. As an atheist, I don't pray, and frankly I just don't get it. I certainly see no major harm in it, but I find it to be as superstitious as crossing one's fingers or knocking on wood.

As I see it, there are three different types of prayer. There is the ritualistic prayer that is found in all major religions, that is a part of the faith. The Muslims who pray several times per day toward Mecca, or the nuns that lie prostrate before the cross, working in shifts, making sure someone is there 24 hours a day. This is prayer of contrition, to show their servitude to God, and if that's what they believe, go for it.

There's also the casual, quid pro quo prayer, such as the guy who cheats and then has remorse: "Please God, let me get out of this and I'll never do this again." I don't think anyone, including the supposed God, takes this seriously.

What mystifies me is the prayer asking for something. I see this a lot on Facebook; when someone announces an illness or some other calamity, they will either ask for prayers, or someone will say, "I'm sending my prayers!" I just don't get this. Is this like signing a petition, or sending in a song request to a radio station, hoping it will do some good? I'm unclear of how this works, since these same people will say that something bad is God's will. If it's God's will, doesn't that mean that pleas to the contrary will fall on deaf ears?

I think that prayer, like most religious practices, are self-created by humanity in order to make us feel better. The person praying feels like they are doing something, when in fact there's nothing you can do, and the prayed for feel loved, and maybe thinks that an appeal to God will work. But surely we all know that everyone must die, even the pious, so prayers at some point don't work.

What do people do when they pray? I see what the Muslims and Jews and Catholic clergy do, but what does the non-regular churchgoer do when someone is sick and they say they are going to pray for them? Is it simply a silent thought, a belief that God has the capacity to hear all our thoughts and then decide which to answer? The image most of us have is of the child at bedtime, kneeling at the bedside. But do adults still pray this way?

I have an uncle, only 67, who has stage IV cancer, and probably doesn't have long to live. It's sad, but there's nothing I can do other than let him know that I'm pulling for him. But prayer, in my book, is a waste of time, because even if there is a God, I would find it hard to believe that he (or she) could be swayed by public sentiment. It's a confusing issue.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Mata Hari

Mata Hari, from 1931, makes a no-brainer casting choice: Greta Garbo as the notorious and exotic spy. The film, some say, was responsible in increased interest in the woman (it was only 14 years after the events), and though the screenplay is kind of ridiculous and bears little factual accuracy, it's pretty good.

The year is 1917 and World War I is raging. Mata Hari is an exotic dancer in Paris, and with just a come-hither look can reduce any man to jelly. She is currently seducing a bumbling Russian general (Lionel Barrymore), and then sets her sites on a Russian pilot, Ramon Navarro, who is going to be flying secret dispatches to Moscow. But she ends up falling in love with him, and the ending makes her out to be some sort of heroine. It seems that even in death, Mata Hari is seducing us.

The film was directed by George Fitzmaurice with aplomb, as the use of light and shadow is well done and the acting is generally good, except for Navarro, who is kind of a stiff. I also liked some interesting moves such as showing only the shoes of an assassin (he's got one much shorter leg) and, since this is pre-code, there is little doubt that Garbo has slept with Navarro.

One can really see the allure of Garbo here, wearing exotic clothes and slinking around like a jaguar. When she's finally caught, and worries only about Navarro's safety, her face sublimely registers the combination of emotions.

Though the film isn't particularly realistic when it comes to espionage (Garbo is suspected, but still keeps spying as if no one knew who she was) it has a nice, suspenseful pace. It's a perfect movie to watch on an otherwise dull afternoon.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Suddenly Last Summer

I continue my march through the work of Tennessee Williams, now into its third year,with 1958's Suddenly Last Summer, a short play that was combined with another in an evening called Garden District. I previously reviewed the film version, and seem to have added a comma that isn't there, but should be.

The film is much more elaborate than the play, but the skeleton is the same: a vituperative and rich old lady, Violet Venable, is pumping lots of money into a mental institution that is experimenting with lobotomies. The doctor in charge visits to hear the "confession" of Violet's niece, Catherine, who knows the truth of Violet's son Sebastian's death in Spain. No words are minced as Violet tells the doctor that she wants him to cut the lurid story out of Catherine's brain.

What is that lurid story? Well, homosexual cannibalism. It seems that Sebastian, who Violet insists was chaste, was a gay man with a thing for Spanish boys. Something went wrong and those boys turned on him, and ate part of him. We don't know this until the very end of the play, but the reputation of the work now precedes it.

This is Williams turned up to 11, a Southern Gothic with all the trimmings. While the dialogue of the play is full of purple prose, I find that his stage directions are the most interesting reading, which is ironic since the theater-goer doesn't experience them. His description of the set, or of the garden that resides behind it, is typical: "The set may be as unrealistic as the decor of a dramatic ballet. It represents part of a mansion of Victorian Gothic style in the Garden District of New Orleans on a late afternoon, between late summer and early fall. The interior is blended with a fantastic garden which is more like a tropical jungle, or forest, in the prehistoric age of giant fern forests when living creatures had flippers turning to limbs and scales to skin." Now here is a playwright full of himself--just what is between "late summer and early fall?"

Early on Mrs. Venable speaks of Venus flytraps, and certainly she is one, just as she is the birds that feed on the baby turtles as they make their way from hatching in the sand to the safety of the ocean. Catherine, institutionalized in a fancy place with nuns, is a kind of angelic idiot, perhaps doped out of her mind because of what she saw.

As I said in the review of the film, this is a kind of self-loathing homosexuality. Sebastian, never seen, is described by his mother as a saintly poet, but when Catharine tells her story, the veneer peels away, and it's like everything the Westboro Baptist Church believes that gays are up to. It's also a tale of smothering mother, which is found elsewhere in Williams--Violet Venable could be seen as Amanda Wingfield on steroids.

The play is more of a curiosity that anything else, and I'd like to see just for the fern jungle, but it's lesser Williams.