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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes, a Japanese film from 1964, is one of those films that has so many layers that its almost mentally exhausting. I can imagine people back puzzling over its meaning, and fifty years later I don't think that meaning is any clearer.

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, and based on a novel by Kobo Abe, Woman in the Dunes is no less about the nature of existence and free will. It begins with a schoolteacher and amateur entomologist (played by Eiji Okada) wandering around some sand dunes, collecting insects. He misses the last bus, but local villagers offer to put him up for the night. He is sent to stay the night with a widow (Kyoka Kushida), who lives in a sand quarry. Okada climbs down a rope ladder, and enjoys her hospitality.

She tells him how the sand gets into everything, and how it killed her husband and daughter in an avalanche. By night she digs sand and sends it up a rope to the villagers, but it keeps sliding back down. She tells Okada this Sisyphean work is the only way to keep her house from being buried. He asks her why she stays, and she simply says that it is her home.

Okada awakens the next morning to find himself in a Serling-esque nightmare--the rope ladder is gone. It dawns on him that he has been lured there, and Kushida confirms it. The work is too much for a woman alone, so the villagers kidnap men and keep them in slavery. Okada, like anyone in a similar situation, is outraged and immediately plots how to escape, and tells her he will be missed and surely someone will come to his rescue.

That is the set-up, and the rest of the film follows just these two characters. Kushida is resigned to her fate, and laughs when Okada tells her about freedom. "It must be tiring to walk around aimlessly," she tells him. He is determined to outsmart his captors, but as time goes on he, too, becomes resigned. He does try to escape, and manages to get out of the quarry, but is caught in quicksand, and the villagers pull him out and take him back.

This film is fascinating on so many levels. The themes are constructed brilliantly. First, we have the insect collector, who pins his specimens on boards, becoming one of the collected himself. Then there is the relentlessly moving and shifting sand. The film was shot by Hiroshi Segawa, in what appears to be natural light. There are many interstitial shots of sand flowing like water (the opening shot is of a grain of sand). In the world of this film, sand is everything.

Woman in the Dunes telescopes outward to be a commentary on life itself. Okada asks Kushida, "Do you dig sand to live, or do you live to dig sand?" and doesn't get an answer. Late in the film he figures out a way to make a cistern, and this preoccupies his time. This well gives him hope, though it does not offer a way to escape. It as if it is an escape in his intellect.

Of course the two characters have something of a romance, as they are kept together and nature takes its course. There is a very brutal scene late in the film when Okada asks the villagers to be let out to see the sea. They agree, but only if he and Kushida put on a pornographic scene for them. She refuses, and Okada desperately and pathetically tries to rape her while the goggle-eyed villagers look on.

As stated, this film reminded me of certain Twilight Zone episodes, where characters are trapped in a nightmare scenario. It also vaguely reminded me of such stories as "The Lottery," in which a small society makes a bargain with evil to keep their way of life intact. In any event, this is a disturbing, brilliant film. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 1964, and Teshigawara was nominated for Best Director the following year.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Age of Ambition

China has always been a mystery to the West, since the days of Marco Polo. They have been a people reluctant to join the rest of the world, at least until recently, as they are on the verge of having the largest economy in the world. In Evan Osnos' National Book Award-winning book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, a paradoxical nation is put under an excellent reporters' microscope. Here is a nation that has brought its nation prosperity, but at an Orwellian price.

"In the eighteenth century, imperial China controlled one-third of the world's wealth; its most advanced cities were as prosperous and commercialized as Great Britain and the Netherlands. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was crippled by invasion, civil war, and political upheaval." Economically, it became a backwater, and under the suffocating rule of Mao Zedong, while the country was a power, its people were not particularly happy or prosperous. The China of today is not Mao's China.

China's transformation has been breathtaking: "In 1949 the average life expectancy was thirty-six, and the literacy rate was 20 percent. By 2012, life expectancy was seventy-five, and the literacy rate was above 90 percent." "The Chinese people no longer want for food--the average citizen eats six times as much meat as in 1976--but this is a ravenous era of a different kind, a period when people have awoken with a hunger for new sensations, ideas, and respect. China is the world's largest consumer of energy, movies, beer, and platinum; its is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined."

But, as Osnos points, this is a deal with the devil. "The government was offering its people a bargain: prosperity in exchange for loyalty. Chairman Mao had railed against bourgeois indulgences, but now Chinese leaders were actively promoting the pursuit of the good life."

That loyalty is not so much asked for but enforced. Osnos mentions many Orwellian touches, such as journalists receiving text messages demanding that certain words be left out of news stories and that news items be downplayed or completely ignored. When a devastating earthquake hit and killed many schoolchildren in what was apparently a shoddily-made school, the government did not reveal a list of the dead. June 3rd, the date of the Tiananmen Square protests, is perpetually banned from articles. The Central Publicity Department, or what Orwell called "The Ministry of Truth" in 1984, does not exist on paper. It has no address and no sign.

Osnos, who lived in Beijing for about a decade, covers a lot of ground. Mostly he interviews dissidents, such as the artist Ai Weiwei, who tried to get the names of those dead children, but ended up getting arrested for tax reasons. He talks to Liu Xiaobo, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, which enraged Chinese authorities (he, nor his wife, were allowed to go pick it up--he was in jail). The most interesting story is that of a blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who helped the people of his village fight the government. He is eventually kept under house arrest, but escapes, breaking his foot, crossing a river, and making it to the American embassy. He is now in the United States, a human rights advocate.

Osnos also talks to those who have been swept up in China's prosperity, such as a woman who became rich by starting an Internet dating service (because of one-child laws, sonograms, and abortion, there are many, many more men in China that women), a man who created something of a cult while teaching English (by shouting, mostly) and a man who created a fortune and lost it through corruption. Corruption is very rampant in China--almost everything is bought, including government positions.

It has become more difficult for China to keep a lid on dissent. The Internet plays a great part, although the government has a "Great Firewall" to try to block sensitive information. But a blogger and novelist, Han Han, has managed to tweak the government without being arrested. In contrast, Osnos talks to another blogger who has attempted to back up his country's government, believing that a free market economy and liberal democracy are not compatible.

I found some statistics and facts in the book stunning. China now hungers for Olympic gold medals--Mao did not believe in athletic competitions, because they undermined equality. China has an average of sixty coal miner deaths a week, which I have trouble wrapping my mind around. And for all the advancements in the economy, China's per capita income falls between Turkmenistan and Namibia.

Though there has been no revolution to speak of, the China of Mao, which believed in everybody being the same, to the China of today, is profound, as income inequality is greater than that of the United States. And like the United States, the poor seem unwilling to do anything about it, because the government has led them to believe that it can all be theirs, with a little luck.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls, much like Pirates! Band of Misfits, took me for a pleasant surprise. Both of these films were nominated for the Best Animated Film Oscar, and both are resolutely British in humor and tone. I watched The Boxtrolls with a smile affixed to my face.

The directors, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, are American. The source material, though, a novel called Here Be Monsters! is English, and that has come through in the film. We are in England sometime during the past, and living underground are creatures called Boxtrolls, who look like some kind of goblin but wear boxes as clothes.

They are blamed for stealing and killing children, but they are, of course, very peaceful, and instead like to steal junk. The boy that they are accused of stealing has grown up among them, and doesn't realize he's not a Boxtroll until he is old enough to find himself in the city above.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that an exterminator, Snatcher, is a villain intent on destroying all Boxtrolls so he can earn a White Hat, which means he will be in high society. This mostly means he would be able to attend fancy cheese tastings, which is odd because he is allergic to cheese.

There's a lot to love about this film, As I said, it's steeped in things English, so the characters have bad teeth and a penchant for dressing in drag. Two of Snatchers' henchman have a running debate on the nature of evil--they think they are good, which is a kind of interesting philosophy as I think most of us think we are good, even if we do bad. The character of Portly-Rind, the swell who hires Snatcher, is also a great one--he's more interested in cheese than his own daughter. The creators of this film, by the way, share something in common with me--they agree that the word "cheese" is inherently funny.

I must admit that the end had me caught up in suspense. The Boxtrolls themselves are cute, with names associated with what's on their box, so we have Fish, Eggs, Sweets, etc. I think if I were about eight I would want to live with them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

No Cities to Love

I have all of Sleater-Kinney's albums, so when I heard they were releasing their first album in ten years, No Cities to Love, I, like many rock geeks, was giddy. I have listened to it for about two weeks solid and it's absolutely fantastic.

Sleater-Kinney just might be the best rock band of the last twenty years--they certainly are the best thing that emerged from the riot grrl movement. They formed in the Seattle area some twenty years ago, and found great success in the college rock area, without ever really breaking into the mainstream--my guess is they have never headlined an arena or stadium.

Their sound is pounding post-punk, toe-tapping hooks, great guitar licks, over-enunciated vocals, and superlative drumming. They are a power trio, without use of a bass. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are on guitars, Janet Weiss on drums.

No Cities to Love has ten cuts, and each one is a gem. There are a few that are classics, such as the title track, which lyrically reminds me of Talking Heads "Cities," and seems to be from the same notion--we choose where we live for subconscious reasons:

"There are no cities, no cities to love
It's not the cities it's the weather we love"

"Price Tag" appears to be about working in box stores like Wal-Mart:

"We never really checked
We never checked the price tag
When the cost comes in
It's gonna be high
We love our bargains
We love the prices so low
With the good jobs gone
It's gonna be raw."

The songwriting is credited to the band as a whole--interestingly, the name of the band members are nowhere to be found in the liner notes. They have always leaned left and feminist, though, and exhibit a rebellious spirit, even as they edge into middle age. In "Surface Envy" the refrain is:

"We win, we lose, only together do we break the rules
We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules"

My second favorite track is "A New Wave." I'm not sure if this is a linguistic references to the music scene in the 1970s, which certainly must have inspired the group. But it's a powerful song:

"Let's destroy a room with this love
We can drain out all the power
Steal from the makers who unmade us
Leave them nothing to devour
I am raw material, make me plastic make me fuel
I can be, I can be, I can be"

It's early, but this might be the best album of 2015.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Still Alice

I managed to see Still Alice before Julianne Moore won the Oscar for the role. She very much deserved it. In fact, she elevated a standard disease-of-the-week film into something more special.

Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, based on a novel by Lisa Genova, Moore stars as Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor who, as the film begins, is starting to feel not herself. She has trouble finding words in her brain, and gets lost on familiar territory.

She seeks the help of a neurologist, who rules out a brain tumor, but instead finds she has early-onset Alzheimer's, rare for someone her age (50). She breaks the news to her family--her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a successful doctor, her eldest daughter is a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a son is also a medical student (Hunter Parish).

It is her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart) that reacts differently. This relationship is the heart of the film. Stewart plays a wayward soul, who has gone to Los Angeles to be an actress, despite her mother's wish that she go to college. While Bosworth, notably, dances around the issue of her mother's illness, Stewart approaches it without sentiment and head on, asking her pointedly how it feels.

Baldwin, meanwhile, while outwardly concerned, is subtly shown as putting his career ahead of Moore's difficulties. Late in the film, in one of Moore's crowning scenes in the film, she gives a speech to the Alzheimer's Association, talking about living with the disease. Baldwin can't make it because he has "business in Minnesota," which we will later learn is an offer from the Mayo Clinic that will cause problems in the marriage.

The film is very smart about how a devastating disease can roil a family, especially one like this, which is genetic. But I was kind of annoyed by one thing--did it have to be another film about an absurdly rich family, who has a beach house and a Manhattan townhouse? Moore, even as a professor of linguistics, wouldn't make that much money. At no time is finance or health insurance an issue.

I'd also like to comment on Kristen Stewart. This is a nice role for her as she seeks to put Twilight behind her. But she still acts like she is holding something back, with that little catch in her voice and her lower lip thrust forward. In the film she acts a scene for Chekhov's Three Sisters and she still has that pouty approach. She needs to play a part in which nothing is held back. I suggest she'd play Puck.

But this is Moore's show. Of course, as we see in Oscar history, playing someone with a disease or disability gets you awards. This year we had Alzheimer's and ALS take the top prizes. But she does give the role a shading that is missing in most films of this sort. In one scene she looks at a video of her lucid self, and I'd swear it was two different women. In a sense, it was.

My grade for Still Alice: B.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar 2014: Tightie-Whities

The 87th annual Academy Awards telecast is now history, and it may be remembered for a few things: a writer thanked his dog, Lady Gaga showed old people than she has a great set of pipes, and tightie-whities got lots of mention and exposure.

What it will not be remembered for is a good show. Everyone had high hopes for Neil Patrick Harris, who had hosted just about everything and now was after the brass ring of the Oscars. He bombed almost completely. He's a great song and dance man, and full of charm, but he was given some very bad jokes and had some exquisitely bad timing. After a woman dedicated an award to her son, who had committed suicide, he made a crass joke about her dress. Bah-dum-bum.

When a man has to resort to coming on stage in his underwear to get laughs, we know things are desperate. He did this in tribute to a scene in Birdman in which Michael Keaton did the same thing, but it's funnier for a man out of shape to have to jog through Times Square in his underwear than a buff guy backstage at the Dolby Theater. This wasn't the only joke made about that Birdman scene--Alejandro G. Innaritu, during one of his three Oscar acceptance speeches, made a joke about wearing Keaton's underwear. Those Jockeys may end up in some movie costume museum.

It was a Birdman night. It won only four awards, but three of them were big: Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It did not win Best Actor for Keaton, my major disappointment of the night, instead honoring the puppyish Eddie Redmayne, another actor playing a disability to win. The other acting winners--Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, and J.K. Simmons, were all overwhelming favorites.

There were some surprises. That Boyhood, which was the favorite for Best Picture a month ago, walked away with only win (Arquette's) seems kind of stunning. I knew it was doomed when it didn't win Best Editing. I mean, taking twelve years of footage and putting it together in a film seemed a natural, but instead it went to Whiplash, which won three awards. The Grand Budapest Hotel also won four awards, and Wes Anderson got many thanks, but he didn't win anything personally.

In an amazing bit of fair play, each one of the eight nominated Best Pictures won at least one award. The Imitation Game got Adapted Screenplay, allowing Graham Moore to give my favorite speech ("Stay weird"), Selma got Best Song, Common and John Legend were favorites if only because the Academy were desperate for some black people to win. And American Sniper got a Sound Editing Award, prompting the usual indignation from Sean Hannity.

As for the speeches, they were a mixed bag. There were some politics--Patricia Arquette came out for equal pay for women, which seems a safe platform, even if it isn't in effect, and Common and John Legend gave a fiery speech about black incarceration. J.K. Simmons was more sedate--"Call your mother" he said. I do think that the screenwriter for Birdman--I'm sorry for not knowing which one--thanked his dog Larry. This has to be the first canine that was thanked at an Academy Awards, at least since Lassie.

But the evening overall seemed sour and ugly. Sean Penn made an inside joke about Innaritu's immigration status that was certainly okay between them--Penn made 21 Grams for him--but sounded like a xenophobic rant. Idina Menzel and John Travolta made up, but did he have to fondle her like a bubbe fondles her grandson? And what was Terrence Howard on?

Some of the musical performances made the evening for me. I loved Tegan and Sara and Lonely Island doing "Everything Is Awesome," including cameos by Questlove and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and the performance of "Glory" was epic. It was almost outdone by Tim McGraw's simple and heartfelt rendering of Glen Campbell's song.

But I think I will most remember Lady Gaga paying musical tribute to The Sound of Music. On paper this sounds horrible. The Sound of Music is one of those phony classics, a movie that nobody under 50 likes except when they mock it at live sing-alongs. And Lady Gaga, a woman known most to some for wearing a dress made of meat (and appeared on the red carpet in red gloves that looked ready to perform a prostate exam) cleaned up, wearing a stunning white dress, flowing blonde hair, and a fabulous voice. Then, when Julie Andrews strode out and the two hugged, well, somebody must have been cutting onions.

I think NPH will be one and done, as ratings took a nose dive. Of course, this is always based on the movies nominated, but he will take the fall. They should probably go back to a comic, because its the approaching-vicious monologues that people remember the next day, not Jack Black singing about tentpoles (but Anna Kendrick can do anything in my book). I would lobby for one of the Jimmys--Fallon or Kimmel--or maybe Stephen Colbert will be ready by then. Let's keep trying until they figure it out.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar 2014: Picture, Director

Wow, we've got a year, a rarity, when Best Picture is actually a nail-biter. It's between Boyhood, which won all the critics awards, and Birdman, which won all of the guilds. We've also got an example of a year when you can actually sense the shift in momentum. For a few months, as Boyhood was wracking up critics awards, it seemed like the film to beat. But I think Birdman will win.

Why? Remember, there are no critics in the Academy. No film has swept the guild awards (PGA, SAG, and DGA) and not won Best Picture since Apollo 13. And Birdman, like The Artist and Argo, is about the movie business. I've heard people that I know who have hated the film, and it's understandable, since there are no sympathetic characters--it's a calvacade of narcissists. Well, that pretty much describes Hollywood.

The only catch about Birdman is that it did not get a Best Editing nomination. No film has won Best Picture without it since Ordinary People. But Birdman has a caveat--the film appears to be one long take. That it is not would suggest to me that the editing is quite brilliant, but since it appears to have no edits, maybe that's why the Editing Branch (which should no better) left it out.

Boyhood amazed everyone with its back-story--filmed in patches over 12 years to show the natural aging of its characters. Richard Linklater has gotten many kudos for his dedication to such a project. But over time, the whispering has become, "Are we voting for the film or the gimmick?" Perhaps industry insiders are looking more at the film than the process. I think it's a worthy winner but not as strong as many of the other nominees.

Could Linklater win director and Birdman Best Picture? A distinct possibility. It used to be that Picture and Director went to the same film, and a split was a rarity. That is no longer the case. Since the turn of the century, it has happened five times in 14 years, so it is no longer an outlier. But I think Birdman's director, Alejandro G. Innaritu, will win, simply because he won the DGA, the most reliable predictor of this award.

If there is a dark horse, it might be The Grand Budapest Hotel, which looks to win several "below the line" awards. The Academy has never shown much attention to it's director, Wes Anderson, before, but it sure embraced him this time. I think Anderson's best chance is in the Best Original Screenplay category.

What of American Sniper, which has made more money than all of the other films combined? It's political controversy, plus the fact that director Clint Eastwood was not nominated, would seem to spell doom for it.

The other nominees are along for the ride. The Imitation Game would seem to be a contender--it's nominated for Best Director (Morten Tyldum) and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Actor--but it has gotten no love from any precursor. Perhaps whisper campaigns about historical inaccuracy hurt it. That may have also hurt Selma, which somehow got a Best Picture nomination but nothing else except Best Song. Whiplash is nominate for Best Adapted Screenplay (which I think it will win) but no Best Director, the same for The Theory of Everything.

Lastly, there's Bennett Miller, who got a Best Director nomination despite the film, Foxcatcher, not getting a nomination. That hasn't happened since the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees to ten (and now five to ten). Needless to say, Miller doesn't need to write a speech.

Here is my full slate of predictions:

Best Picture: Birdman
Best Director: Innaritu
Best Actor: Keaton
Best Actress: Moore
Best Supporting Actor: Simmons
Best Supporting Actress: Arquette
Best Original Screenplay: Birdman
Best Adapted Screenplay: Whiplash
Best Foreign Language Film:Ida
Best Animated Film: Big Hero Six
Best Cinematography: Birdman
Best Editing: Boyhood
Best Production Design: Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Costume Design: Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Song: I’m Not Going to Miss You Best
Musical Score: Theory of Everything
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Documentary Short Subject: Joanna
Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Short Subject: The Dam Keeper
Best Live Action Short Subject: Parveneh
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper Best
Sound Mixing: American Sniper
Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Every year the Animation Branch of the Motion Picture Academy nominates a film or two that I otherwise would have never heard of, let alone seen. There are two such films this year--one of them is the Japanese film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

When the nominations were announced, and The LEGO Movie was not included, some thought it was a rebuff of CGI, and that the members, who tend to be older, wanted to honor hand-drawn films. That may be true, as Kaguya is handcrafted with pastels and watercolors. However, there is no animated film more CGI-based than How to Train Your Dragon 2, which was nominated.

In any event, the film, directed by Isao Takahata and released by Studio Ghibli, is luscious and contemplative, if not a little dull in spots. It is well over two hours long, and could have used a trimming.

Based on a folktale, the film is about a bamboo cutter who one day finds a very small princess in a bamboo shoot. He takes her home to his wife and the little lady turns into a baby, albeit one that grows very quickly. Later, the cutter will find gold and robes coming out of the shoot, and he interprets this as that the baby is a divine presence, and a princess. He takes the gold and moves to the capital, determined to make her into a noble princess.

But Kaguya misses her friends, and the cutter's attempts to be nouveau riche are ridiculed. Eventually other noblemen, impressed by her beauty, seek to win her hand, but she sends them on impossible quests. She is torn by her father's attempts to make her happy, and the simple life that really did make her happy. At the end of the film we discover her true origins, which I won't give away here.

The film resembles a picture book come to life. While so many animated films seek to render every detail perfectly, it's nice once in a while to see one that doesn't pretend to be anything but animation. The story's rhythms and structure are defiantly anti-Western--there's no perfection to it, and that makes it more interesting.

But it does lag at times. I think this would be a tough sit for a small child, even though the subject matter is perfectly appropriate. Perhaps showing it in installments on DVD would work.

The English-language cast is quite eclectic. James Caan, of all people, is the bamboo cutter, Mary Steenburgen is his wife, and Chloe Grace Moretz is the princess. It's always fun to try to guess famous voices--I missed George Segal as a high priest.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 film by Jacques Demy, is a prime example of art for art's sake. It's a charming, extremely Gallic slice of chiffon pie that tells a very simple story in a unique way: it's all sung.

But it's not an opera, at least not in the way we think of opera. The music is light, not even as heavy as Gilbert and Sullivan. The very recognizable theme, which I've heard many times but had no idea was from this film, was composed by Michel Legrand, one of the great movie music figures of the last half century.

The film is also notable for its brash use of color, particularly reds and pinks and blues. And, I might add, for the appearance of a very young Catherine Deneuve, one of the great beauties of cinema.

The film tells the story of her romance with a simple auto mechanic, Nino Castelnuovo. She is the daughter of the proprietress of an umbrella shop, which gives the film its title (Cherbourg is a seaport that is probably most notable for all the war that has gone on trying to capture and keep it). Deneuve's mother, Anne Vernon, doesn't approve of the relationship. Castelnuovo gets drafted into the service, and is shipped off to Algeria. But before he leaves the couple share one night of passion and she gets pregnant.

Vernon pushes a suave diamond merchant, Marc Michel, on Deneuve, but she resists. But when Michel agrees to raise the child as his own, she finally agrees to marry him, and leaves town. Castelnuovo comes back, wounded, and hears the crushing news. He becomes something of a basket case, but falls in love with his aunt's caretaker. The two main characters, now married to other people and with a child, have a serendipitous meeting at a gas station as the film ends.

There's nothing wrong with this film, and some parts are quite brilliant, especially the photography by Jean Rabler. But it's rather flimsy and not very moving. You can see the star power of Deneuve, though, she outshines her co-star by quite a bit. I assume all the actors were using their own singing voices (there's no info I can find that counters that) so in that sense it's a strong cast.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an interesting curiosity, but not a particularly great film.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Centaur

I've read many of John Updike's books, but I missed this one, published in 1963. I was compelled to read it after reading so much Greek mythology. In this book, Updike updates the story of Chiron, the centaur.

In Greek mythology, Chiron was the wisest of centaurs, and a teacher of sorts. Most centaurs, like satyrs, were wild and lusty beasts, but Chiron was wise, and taught many of the great figures of myth, such as Achilles, Ajax, Theseus, and Aeneas.

Updike's story is of a middle-aged science teacher in the quiet of Olinger, Pennsylvania (Updike was from Shillington, PA). He is George Caldwell, and in the very first pages of the book he is shot by an arrow by one of his students (happily, this has not happened to me yet), The prose then seems to blend both Caldwell's experiences and that of Chiron.

But then the book settles down into one of Updike's stories of quiet desperation in the middle class of America. Caldwell kind of fell into teaching, getting a job during the Depression (the book is set just after World War II). The point of view changes, with most of it told by his son, who was a teenager at the time but is now an artist living in New York City. The son, Peter, is more like a father, as George is something of a mess. He is approaching a nervous breakdown, and worries about x-rays taken at the doctor's office (he's so worried that an obituary, apparently dictated by himself, appears in the middle of the book).

Father and son spend three days trying to get home. One night the car won't start, and the second night there's a snowstorm. Both times they are helped immeasurably by Al Hummel, a relative by marriage who I think is supposed to represent Hephaestus (or maybe Heracles, but Hephaestus fits better).

This is pure Updike, in that the most mundane things in the world are written about as if they were the Fourth of July. Here's a description of a snow fall: "Snow puts us with Jupiter Pluvius among the clouds. What a crowd! What a crowd of tiny flakes sputters downward in the sallow realm of the light above the entrance door! Atom and atoms and atoms and atoms. A furry inch already carpets the steps. The cars on the pike travel slower, windshield wipers flapping, headlight beams nipped and spangled in the ceaseless flurry." What florid prose! What a use of exclamation points!

The best parts of the book are those that follow Caldwell, a great character, and one that has meaning to me since I'm now a teacher. Caldwell is both a cynic and a romantic, and he has a great answer for everything. He cares nothing and he cares everything. "'The Founding Fathers,' he explained, 'in their wisdom decided that children were an unnatural strain on parents. So they provided jails called schools, equipped with tortures called an education. School is where you go between when your parents can't take you and industry can't take you. I am a paid keeper of Society's unusables--the lame, the halt, the insane, and the ignorant. The only incentive I can give you, kid, to behave yourself is this: if you don't buckle down and learn something, you'll be as dumb as I am, and you'll have to teach school to earn a living."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscar 2014: Best Actress

My last look at the acting categories for this year's Oscars is Best Actress, which has absolutely no drama, and I'm okay with that because it means Julianne Moore will finally win an Oscar.

This is only Moore's fifth nomination, but it seems like she's been nominated a lot more times and is always gracious about losing. She's one of the few performers who have lost twice in one night--in 2002 she lost for Far From Heaven and The Hours (she was also nominated for Boogie Nights and The End of the Affair). I haven't had a chance to see Still Alice yet, in which she plays a linguistic professor with early-onset Alzheimer's, but by all accounts this will not be a pity Oscar.

Is there anyone else who could shock us all and win? No, not really. Reese Witherspoon, if she hadn't won before, might have a shot with her role as the woman out to walk away her troubles in Wild. Witherspoon produced the movie and the role was an arduous one, but the movie didn't impress as expected. Similarly, Marion Cotillard might have more of a chance if she hadn't won before. Her role as woman on the brink of losing her job in Two Days, One Night is powerful stuff, but there's no way she's winning twice for a French-speaking role.

Felicity Jones plays a standard Oscar type--the dutiful wife to the great man--in The Theory of Everything. But she's not a faithful wife. This may be the only romance I've seen where the couple get divorced. She's fine, but I'm not sure it's Oscar-worthy.

Perhaps the only actress here who has a distinct shot at beating Moore is Rosamund Pike, for her richly-layered portrait of Amy, the villainous wife in Gone, Girl. Given that this is the only thing that film got from the Academy, she is what the voters liked most about it (and they really, really hate David Fincher). If the film had about eight nominations I'd give her a decent chance, and she may finish second, but no one knows what except the Price Waterhouse guys.

Will win; Julianne Moore
Could win: Rosamund Pike
Should win: (reserving my vote until I see Still Alice)
Should have been nominated: Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Force Majeure

When the nominations were revealed for this year's Best Foreign Film, the one that everybody thought was missing was Force Majeure, from Sweden. The makers of the film, if their short video is to be believed, are also disappointed, to the point of crying.

I have only seen one of the nominees, Ida, which may very well win. But I don't think Force Majeure would be out of place, given what I've seen over the years. It is a very smart, very adult look at how a moment can change a couple forever.

Tomas and Ebbe (Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) are two Swedes on a ski vacation in France with their children. It's all going great when they are sitting in an outdoor cafe and an avalanche starts in the distance. Tomas tells them it's one that is controlled, but the snow gets closer and closer, until they are sprayed with it. Everyone is okay, but Ebbe notices that Tomas, rather than instinctively protecting his family, ran away.

This incident haunts the film. Everyone goes about the business of a ski vacation, but Ebbe can't help bringing it up, even to strangers in the bar, much to Tomas' chagrin. He disagrees with the events. When his friend Mats shows up with his girlfriend, Mats takes his side, saying who knows what people do when confronted with a disaster. But Ebbe still says she is disappointed in him.

This will even creep into Mats and his girlfriend's bed, as they discuss what they would do and Fanni wonders if Mats would protect her. Eventually Tomas will have a breakdown of sorts, and Ebbe, like us, wonder if his tears are real or just a passive-aggressive strategy.

The film is well done on all accounts, finely acted and written. I was a bit puzzled by the ending, which has all of the tourists getting off a bus incompetently driven down a mountain switchback, and everyone walks down the hill. Tomas, who is a nonsmoker, accepts a cigarette. I'm going to have to puzzle that out for a while.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

In a rather naked attempt to duplicate his success with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich made another film with much of the same cast and feel, a Southern Gothic called Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was originally to re-team Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as two older spinsters locked in a death struggle, but Crawford dropped out, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.

Set in Louisiana, the film opens with a prologue. A Big Daddy type, Victor Buono, tells young Bruce Dern that he will not elope with his daughter, Charlotte. Dern gets the idea and tells Charlotte at a party (her face not-so-subtly obscured, as this will be Davis for the rest of the movie) that the marriage is off. Dern ends up getting murdered with a cleaver, his hands and head cut off. Everyone thinks Charlotte did it, but she is never convicted, and lives alone in the antebellum mansion, except for her devoted maid (Agnes Moorhead).

The state has decided to tear down the house to make way for a new road, but Davis will have none of it. Her cousin, de Havilland, comes to visit, ostensibly to help her. She was the old girlfriend of Davis' doctor, Joseph Cotten. Just who is in Davis' best interest becomes a guessing game.

Hush...Hush,Sweet Charlotte has a lot of Grand Guignol fun. I was taken aback at how explicit the de-handing of Dern was handled, and of course there's lots of juicy arguments and bitter recriminations. Mary Astor, in her last screen role, plays Dern's wife, who is harboring a secret or two, and Cecil Kellaway, as a British insurance investigator, ingratiates himself into the mess to try to get a handle on what happened.

At this point Davis was well into her "pscyho-biddy" phase, and would from then on play demeaning roles in bad horror films. De Havilland is icy cool in her role, often stealing from Davis just by underplaying. Moorehead, who somehow got an Oscar nomination, really doesn't do more than a Mammy Yoakum routine.

The film, like Baby Jane, was a success, which goes to show that you can steal from yourself and get away with it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Father Goose

In looking at films from 1964, one wouldn't expect that Father Goose, a war comedy that suggests The African Queen crossed with Gilligan's Island, would merit discussion. But it did win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. So I watched it.

This is not a good film. This was Cary Grant's penultimate film, and he acts as if he doesn't want to be there. He plays a kind of hobo of the sea, who is just taking it easy around coast of Australia. He is drafted by an old friend, now a commander in the Australian Navy (Trevor Howard) into staying on an uninhabited island, spotting Japanese planes (it's set during World War II). Howard has to resort to telling him the location of hidden whiskey bottles in order to get Grant to cooperate.

Howard later has a replacement for him, but Grant has to go fetch him on another island. It turns out that the man is dead, but there is a young French woman (Leslie Caron), who is the chaperon of seven schoolgirls. Ah, so this is what this is--the old opposites attract number. Incorrigible drunken slob Grant and prim, spinsterish Caron. Of course they will fall in love.

This film doesn't work at any level. If Bogart and Hepburn were an unlikely couple in The African Queen, at least the script gave them a chance. This one just shoves the two characters together and tells us, "See? They're really in love!" A key scene is when Grant thinks that Caron has been bitten by a deadly snake, and gives her liquor to kill the pain. They exchange secrets about their lives, and supposedly this draws them together. But it's while they are slapping each other's faces that they decide to marry.

To keep things real, there are occasional scenes of menace by the Japanese navy, including all of them getting fired on, which kind of takes this out of the realm of a children's picture, which it really is. So it exists in a kind of limbo, where neither adults or children will like it.

1964 was a pretty lean year for original screenplays--the obvious winner should have been A Hard Day's Night, but I can see why it wouldn't win. The other three I've never even heard of before: One Potato, Two Potato, That Man From Rio, and The Organizer. So it fell to the lowest common denominator.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Guns at Last Light

Rick Atkinson ends his magnificent three-volume history of the War in Western Europe with The Guns at Last Light, which covers the conflict from just before D-Day to the VE-Day, almost one year of bitter fighting, as the Allies landed at Normandy and then punched their way to Paris and then on into Germany.

This book probably covers more that is known to most Americans than the first two books, which covered North Africa and Italy, respectively, as many of us have heard of Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge, Remagen and Arnhem. But Atkinson brings to brilliant life once again, capturing the personalities of the combatants, from the highest generals to the lowest privates.

He stars, of course, with OVERLORD, the invasion of France on June 6, 1944, which was bedeviled by bad weather reports. The American forces were gathered en masse in England--more Americans there than in all Nebraska--and they finally landed. This was Dwight Eisenhower's baby, and he was aware of criticism: "In his own diary he lamented the depiction of him in British newspapers as an administrator rather than a battlefield commander." He had a long-running feud with Bernard Montgomery, "Monty," the British Field Marshal. "Eisenhower came to believe that 'Monty' is a good man to serve under, a difficult man to serve with, and and in impossible man to serve under."

One wouldn't think one could learn more about D-Day, but of course, like some other historically significant events, there's always more. And Atkinson can get very poetic: "For those who outlived the day, who survived this high thing, this bright honor, this destiny, the memories would remain as shot-torn as the beach itself. They remembered waves slapping the steel hulls, and bilge pumps choked with vomit from seasick men making 'utterly inhuman noises' into their gas capes. Green water curled over the gunwales as coxswains waited for a tidal surge to lift them past the bars before dropping the ramps with a heavy clank an a shouted benediction: 'It's yours, take it away!'"

After D-Day, the Allied brass realized they would win the war, but it took a lot longer than they thought. "The pursuit and annihilation of a beaten foe is among the most difficult military skills to master, as demonstrated from Gettsyburg to Alamain; and defeats in Russia, North Africa, and Italy how to retreat." Atkinson chronicles the mistakes, such as MARKET GARDEN, which was the largest airborne operation up to that time, but a failure ("an epic cock-up" as one Brit described it), and the Battle of Arnhem, which attempted to take a series of bridges in the Netherlands.

He also writes extensively about the Battle of the Bulge--"For decades after the death struggle called the Battle of the Bulge, generals, scholars, and foot soldiers alike would ponder the worst U.S. intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor and the deadliest of the war. Only from the high ground of history could perfect clarity obtain, and even then the simplest, truest answer remained the least satisfying: mistakes were made and man men died."

This was Germany's last shot, their Hail Mary, with a Panzer tank attack that caught the Allies flat-footed. But, after a month of miserable winter warfare, aided by a tremendously effective bombing campaign over civilian Germany, the tide was turned. Much of this was due to personalities like George S. Patton, who appears in all three books and is as hard to dislike as much as he does offend. On December 25th his diary read: "a clear cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans."

Eisenhower is a much more complex figure. Atkinson writes of him smoking 80 cigarettes a day and reading Western pulp novels to relax, until he finds them no good, and says that he could write them better left-handed. He has internecine problems, other than Monty--"'Next to the weather,' Eisenhower would tell George Marshall, the French 'have caused me more trouble in this war than any other single factor. They even rank above landing craft.'"

As Patton and others head toward the major cities of Germany, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin met at Yalta, which gets ample coverage here. This is where Germany and Eastern Europe was carved up, and many think that Stalin got too much. But the Russians had paid a terrible price, and without them it would have been a very different outcome: "Two generations later, Yalta can be seen as neither the portal to Roosevelt's 'world of justice and equity' nor a disgraceful capitulation to red fascism but, rather, an intricate nexus of compromises by East and West."

There is also a moving section on the liberation of concentration camps, with the devilish names still fresh to us: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau. Grown men wept at what they saw. Eisenhower said, "Now do you know why we hate them?"

The Guns at Last Light is also full of interesting facts and anecdotes. One in ten of the American casualties in World War II occurred at the Battle of the Bulge. Almost as many Americans died in April 1945, the last month of the war, as in June 1944. Eighty years after the Civil War, white Americans were still reluctant to arm black troops, thinking that if they shot at white people they'd carry the idea home. Trench foot accounted for one-fourth of all hospital admissions. My favorite story is when, on the lookout for spies, sentinels asked questions that presumably all Allies would know the answer to. When the actor David Niven was asked "Who won the World Series in 1940?" he answered, "I haven't the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.'"

It's hard for any book or series of books to capture the totality of what happened in Europe seventy years ago. But Atkinson comes pretty close: "Twelve years and four months after it began, the Thousand-Year Reich had ended. Humanity would require decades, perhaps centuries, to parse the the regime's inhumanity, and to comprehend how a narcissistic beerhall demagogue had wrecked a nation, a continent, and nearly a world."

As big as this story is, this was only one theater of the war. I wonder if Atkinson would like to write about the war in the Pacific. I'd be glad to read it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My Neighbor Totoro

My very long and entertaining look at the films of Hayao Miyazaki comes to a close with his 1988 film, My Neighbor Totoro, which had an ungodly wait on Netflix. It's one of his charming "magical" films, and once again emphasis the cooperation of man and nature.

Two little girls move into an old farmhouse with their father, a professor. Their mother is in the hospital, and they are cared for during the day by the old lady caretaker, whom they call Granny. The house seems to be haunted, which excites them all rather than scares them. Little furry black balls called "soot gremlins" scurry about.

One day the younger daughter, Mei, stumbles across a large, furry creature. He looks kind of a like a bear, and grumbles that his name is Totoro. The father tells her he must be a forest spirit, and can be seen only when he wants to be seen.

This happy stuff takes a sharp turn when the family gets a telegraph about mother in the hospital. Mei runs off, trying to find the hospital. The entire village searches for her, but the older daughter, Satsuki, seeks Totoro's help.

The film is not one of Miyazaki's best. The story is pretty thin and the use of a sick parent is a cliche even he can't overcome. But it is full of wondrous images. The best is when the girls go to meet their father's bus in a rainstorm. The bus comes and he's not on it, so they wait for the next. It gets dark. Totoro shows up, and they hand him an umbrella, which he doesn't know how to use. Then a bus does show up, but it's in the form of a giant cat. Totoro gets on and leaves, and the girls stare after him. Brilliant.

In the most recent English version, the Fanning sisters, Dakota and Elle, voice the two girls. I think this would be a great movie for small children.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Today I begin my annual look at the newest inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I discussed Lou Reed after his death over a year ago. First up: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

To be honest, I hardly knew anything about this group, as they really didn't have any hits and were never played on standard classic rock radio. Ironically, the one song I knew them for, "Love March," which is included on the original Woodstock soundtrack, is an anomaly to their sound.

Butterfield, who was already an acolyte of Muddy Waters in Chicago, and a prodigy on blues harmonica, formed the band in the early '60s with guitarist Elvin Bishop. Later they would add other members from other Chicago blues bands, and were perhaps the earliest integrated blues band. They added Mike Bloomfield later (interestingly, I've heard of members of the band even if I haven't known they were in this group) and gained heights by playing the Newport festival in 1965 (the one where Dylan went electric--a few members of Butterfield's group backed him).

The band had shifting lineups, and later took on a more jazzy sound, with saxophonist David Sanborn (for years a mainstay of Paul Schaeffer's CBS Orchestra). Butterfield died in 1987.

So what we have here is a group that appeals to a particular audience. I'm not much a blues fan--I can listen to it, but eventually it all sounds the same to me, as it always has the same rhythm. If you into long jams with long harmonica solos, this stuff is for you. There's some old standards here, like "Mystery Train," and new stuff, like "Born in Chicago." A lot of the titles seem standard fare, like "Shake Your Money Maker," "Walkin' Blues," "Work Song," "Mornin' Blues," and "Love Disease."

As for "Love March," it probably shows that I'm not much into blues as this is my favorite track. It's a drum march with lots of peace and love talk, including a rejection of the "sins of the father" argument. I also greatly admired "Song for Lee," which sounds like the theme song of a blaxploitation movie.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Oscar 2014: Best Actor

Now, here's an Oscar race to savor. Best Actor has a pair of front-runners, each with their own stories and strengths, and I'm frankly at a loss to tell you who is going to win.

Michael Keaton, in a bit of a meta role, plays an actor much like himself in Birdman, who was on top of the world playing a superhero and then disappeared from sight, only to stage a comeback by trying to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play. Keaton likewise disappeared for awhile, at least from the Hollywood scene, and his re-emergence in this work has reminded everyone who much they missed his slightly skewed take on things.

Ordinarily, this would be a slam dunk for Keaton, because the Academy has mostly actors in the membership and what actor can't root for Keaton here? But then comes the other Oscar bait: the great man with a disability. And here is where Eddie Redmayne  comes knocking, playing the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the world's most famous Lou Gehrig's Disease sufferer aside from Lou Gehrig. If the Academy loves a comeback, they also love it when an actor changes their body, and then on top of that, plays a real person.

The other actors here are along for the ride. Bradley Cooper, as American Sniper's Chris Kyle, does a remarkable job of transforming his body into Texas beer-belly, but this movie has become such a controversy I don't think anyone wants to touch it. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, gives a finely nuanced performance, and at one point, when the film had more steam going, might have been a contender. But he and the film have been shut out in all precursors.

Finally, Steve Carell got in with the comedian-turns-sinister gambit, wearing a lot of makeup and acting creepy in Foxcatcher. I really like Carell but I thought the performance here was based on gimmickry, and he probably took the nomination away from David Oweloyo in Selma, who was far more deserving.

I'm going to go out on a slight limb and pick Keaton to pull through, since Redmayne is still young and perhaps hasn't payed his dues yet. He has a lot more chances for a nomination, and for Keaton this is probably it. It is a nail-biter, though.

Will win: Michael Keaton
Could win: Eddie Redmayne
Should win: Michael Keaton
Should have been nominated: Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Black-Eyed Blonde

Raymond Chandler is one of the most copied authors in history. Ergo, he's one of the most badly copied authors in history. Every novel that has a cynical but ethical private eye being hired by rich beautiful women to prowl the streets of L.A. (or San Francisco, or New York, or even London) can be traced back to Chandler.

Authors have copied him subconsciously, completely openly but illegally (just change the name Philip Marlowe to something else) and now even with approval. Raymond Parker wrote one many years back, and now John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, has gotten the right to use the character of Philip Marlowe, Chandler's greatest creation.

It's not a failure, but I think Black would admit that it's not Chandler. Consider the opening line: "It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it's being watched." What, exactly, does that mean? I wasn't optimistic after that opening, but it does get better.

Black, to his credit, does not play fast and loose with Marlowe. He doesn't have him go into a time machine to the days of Shakespeare, or as an astronaut on the moon. He's a gumshoe in L.A. in the 1950s, and he's hired by a beautiful perfume heiress to track down an ex-lover of hers that she thought was dead, until she saw him walking down the street in San Francisco.

As with any Marlowe book, it's not that simple. Soon Marlowe is being threatened by a pair of Mexican goons, gets a Mickey Finn ("It wasn't the first time in my life I'd been slipped a Mickey Finn, and it probably won't be the last"), gets trussed up and nearly drowned in a swimming pool, and, of course falls head over heels with his client, even though he's pretty sure she's using him. "I was still in love with her, in some sort of painful, hopeless way. What a chump I was."

The world of Marlowe is intact. There's Bernie Ohls, from the sheriff's office, who is Marlowe's friend/enemy. A character from Chandler's The Long Goodbye shows up (I haven't read that, but it tickled my memory bank because of the Robert Altman film). Black even uses Chandler's advice: if you're stuck, just have a man come through the door with a gun.

At least Black doesn't leave any loose ends--all murders are solved. And Black keeps trying in the simile contest: "Around here there are days in high summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana." And there's the commentary on the absurdity around him: "I can't decide which are worse, bars that pretend to be Irish, with their plastic shamrocks and shillelaghs, or Cockneyfied joints like the Bull." Or the almost fetishistic descriptions of appearance: "He had a head the shape of a shoe box, sitting on three or four folds of fat in the place where there used to be a chin, and a flap of thick hair dyed the color of oiled teak was plastered sideways across his flat skull."

But, in the end, one can't help but go back to Chandler. Black writes Marlowe saying, after being beaten up, "Bad as I felt, it was better than being dead, but only just." That's not bad, but it pales when Chandler had Marlowe saying, in The Big Sleep, "I felt like an amputated leg."

Monday, February 09, 2015

Two Days, One Night

A woman returns to work after medical leave for depression. While she was away, the company learned that sixteen could do the work of seventeen. In a gutless, heartless solution, the workers vote whether the woman is to be laid off, and they get bonuses, or kept, and they don't get bonuses. Besides being extremely bad management, that's the crux of Two Days, One Night.

The woman, played with alternating despair and desperation by Marion Cotillard, gets the boss to schedule a re-vote on Monday morning, a secret ballot. She has the weekend to visit her co-workers, face to face, in an attempt to change their mind. This is so gut-wrenching that at times it's as difficult to watch as if the audience member were put in her place.

The film was written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have made other excruciating films to watch (The Child comes to mind). This one even is brutal in its rhythm--every time she visits someone, she repeats the same speech--in another movie, it might be manipulated so she didn't have to. She then waits for her answer, quivering, realizing she needs to do this all while being totally ashamed.

Each stop gets a variety of responses. Some, knowing what she wants, won't speak to her. Another man breaks into tears, saying of course he will vote for her, and tells her he was ashamed that he voted against her in the first place. A father and son come to blows over it, while another woman tells her the bonus was going to be used for a patio. That woman ends up coming around, so it was good Cotillard didn't do what I would have done, and tell her to enjoy her patio while my children starve.

There are a few missteps in an otherwise very good film. Cotillard is constantly popping Xanax, so the overdose that comes is predictable yet quickly glossed over. And why is her husband, Fabrizio Rongione, so supportive but won't accompany her to the doors of those she wishes to speak to? It reminded me of when I had to sell cookies for Cub Scouts and my parents made me go to the door by myself, but a lot less was at stake then.

But Cotillard, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, holds this all together. You can see the pain etched on her face, and every once in a while a smile. As she walks away from the first "yes" vote she gets, her face beams in a kind of way that is just perfect. And the ending, when she is confronted with the same choice, is also perfect.

By the way, I would like to think I could never take a bonus at the expense of another person's job, especially when it's someone I know. I hope all my readers feel the same way.

My grade for Two Days, One Night: A-.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Luminaries

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, won the Man Booker Prize, but it has polarized many readers. It is a long book, over 800 pages, but as with movies, no good book is too long and no bad book is too short. What The Luminaries is is puzzling.

The book opens with a man named Walter Moody landing on the West Coast of New Zealand in the year 1866. In his hotel he finds a strange gathering of twelve men. Most are white, but there are two Chinese men and one Maori. They tell him a bizarre story that involves the death of one man, the disappearance of another, and the near death of a whore from an overdose of opium.

The town is Hokitika, at the time of a goldmining boom. Gold is one of the overarching themes of the book--who has it, who wants it, who is hiding it. Anna Wetherell, the whore in question, has some sewn into the lining of gowns. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, turns out to have a small fortune left behind, even though he is basically a hermit. But then a lovely Mr.s Wells shows up. And where is Emery Staines, the young co-owner of the Aurora gold mine?

The Illuminaries is told in the style of a Victorian novel, with florid prose and chapters that give summaries before they begin (like a person having a breakdown, the summaries start to get longer than the chapters themselves). It includes a trial, a murder, double-dealing and backstabbing, but somehow I got the impression it was like large jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing.

There is also another level to the book: astrology. In front of each section of the book, Catton gives a star chart. Apparently each one of the twelve men in the beginning of the book have a different astrological sign, and other characters represent planets. For someone who has no belief in astrology, this mean nothing to me.

The prose is occasionally rich and fattening, such as: "That a whore might attempt to take her own life did not strike him as a remarkable thing, nor a very sad one, in this particular case, he might even call a termination merciful. Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever." Or, there are bon mots like this one: "No man likes to called a coward--and least of all, a man who is feeling downright cowardly."

The Luminaries requires a great deal of concentration. It is my habit to read more than one book at a time, so perhaps stretching it out over two months I lost some things. I found the ending unsatisfactory--did someone kill Crosbie Wells or not?--and a tad sentimental. Still, it was an interesting read.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Begin Again

Begin Again isn't really a very good film. It's corny, overly sentimental, and doesn't have a shred of authenticity. But I kind of liked it, mostly on the charm from the performers and the "let's put on a show" spirit,

Written and directed by John Carney, who also made Once (he's not much for fancy titles), Begin Again is also about musicians. Mark Ruffalo plays a famous record producer and A&R man for a label. He's a movie type--the dissolute genius--and he plays it to the hilt, smoking, drinking, and not using a planner. He hasn't signed a hit band in years, and as the film opens he gets fired by his partner.

Carney so overdoes the next sequence, which shows Ruffalo in his depths of despair, even throwing in the way overused cliche of his car not starting.

But Ruffalo is offered redemption when, in need of a drink, he ducks into a club having an open-mic night. Keira Knightley is coaxed onto the stage by her friend (James Corden) and sings a song to little applause. But Ruffalo loves it, and in a nice scene imagines how he would arrange it, adding musicians. In his cups, he offers to help her make an album.

Knightley has her own story. She came to New York as the girlfriend of a singer on the rise (Adam Levine) and while she has her own talent, she ends up getting coffee. Levine breaks up with her, leaving her alone in the city. It is that night that she takes to the stage.

The rest of the film is the two making the album, with the help of many, including Cee Lo Green as an artist that Ruffalo got started. Knightley has to deal with her issues, and Ruffalo with his, including his relationship with his aloof daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). I expected more conflict to crop up, but Carney seems to like his characters too much, and it's all very warm and fuzzy. When they are recording in an alley, Ruffalo tries to get some kids to be quiet, and instead lets them sing back up. And wouldn't you know that Steinfeld, who everyone says is a terrible guitar player, has hidden talent?

But the movie made me feel good. Knightley sings for herself, and has a nice voice. And the songs are pretty good, including "Lost Stars," which was nominated for an Oscar.

Friday, February 06, 2015


We've had so many amazing technological advances over the last century, from sending a man to the moon to digitizing the world's information so it can be accessed in an object that fits in your pocket. One of the most important was the development of vaccines that have eradicated many of the dangerous diseases that ravaged the population for centuries. This is a good thing.

But, as we spin into the maelstrom of the lunatic fringe gaining power, this miracle of science is now suspect. I'm not sure when it started--is a third-tier TV personality and former nude model, Jenny McCarthy, really the person that started this? Whoever did, they have certainly caused the loss of many lives

Anti-vaxxers, as I believe they are called, base the supposition that vaccinations cause autism on a completely debunked paper that was written by a man who later lost his medical license. There are others in the tin-foil hat brigade that think the government is implanting chips of some kind into our children. My response to these kind of conspiracy theories is that the government can't do anything right, let alone pull off a secret operation like that.

Meanwhile, diseases that had been almost completely wiped off the planet are back, measles especially. Here in Las Vegas there has been an outbreak, and there was an outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, in an area high school. There was an outbreak in Disneyland. And yet, politicians who are weak-kneed are ignoring common sense and saying that parents should be able to "opt out" of vaccinations (one, North Carolina Thom Tillis, even thinks that restaurants shouldn't require employees to wash their hands. I wouldn't shake hands with him). Chris Christie, one of the most venal politicians on the scene, waffled like an Eggo by not coming out for mandatory vaccinations.

Much of this, as most controversies in America boil down to, comes from religion. I'm not sure why. A pastor in a Texas mega-church came out against vaccinations, and now his congregation, in perfect poetic justice, has had an outbreak of measles. There has even been a book written called Melanie's Marvelous Measles, which indicates that measles are just a part of childhood, like acne or growing pains. Dumbkopf Laura Ingraham has said that measles aren't so bad. Just ask the parents of those who have died, or those who were deafened or otherwise permanently harmed. Measles is a killer, and if everyone was vaccinated it was cease to exist, because humans are the only animals that get it.

This is not a political or religious issue. It is an issue of public health. If you are so stupid as to not want to protect your child from a major disease, then don't enroll that kid in school, don't take him Disneyland, don't take him out of the house. Just as we don't want drunks driving cars, we don't little germ factories roaming the streets. Fortunately, Nevada is a state that requires enrolled students to have the major vaccinations. All states should.

Talk to someone old enough to remember the polio nightmare, when every summer parents fretted about their children going outside and catching a horrible disease. When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine he was hailed, rightly, as a hero. I guess the crackpot contingent would suspect his motives.

The U.S.A. is getting stupider by the day.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Finding Vivian Maier

The first film in the Best Documentary Feature category I've looked at is Finding Vivian Maier. I was pretty certain Life Itself, which I have seen already, would get nominated, but that film, about Roger Ebert, did not. Instead, this film, about a mysterious woman who took amazing photographs, was, and it was co-directed by....Charlie Siskel, Gene Siskel's nephew.

Finding Vivian Maier deserves its nomination. I had no idea what it would be about and I was absorbed. The other director is John Maloof, who drives the story. He's one of those guys who haunts storage auctions and estate sales, and he came across some negatives taken by a Vivian Maier. He googled her and came up with nothing, but the photos were so striking--think of Robert Frank crossed with Diane Arbus--that he did a little digging and found out she was a nanny. The last family she worked for was about to toss everything in her overstuffed storage space, and offered Maloof the opportunity to take anything he wanted. It turned out to be the artistic find of the decade.

Maier, who worked as a nanny in various places from the 1950s to near her death in 2009, was a street photographer. She used one of those old-fashioned cameras that you hold at the waist, looking down into the lens. She tended to prowl the less fashionable neighborhoods, getting shots of everyday people in their everyday environment. Master photographers hailed her work. Even by limited understanding of photography, I could see their brilliance.

But she never showed her work, and it wasn't even printed. Maloof found hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film. In all there was more than 150,000 photographs, which he had scanned. Like a dog with a bone, he went back to the French village where Maier's mother was from (she had a French accent, but was born in New York, and a linguistics expert claimed her accent was phony) and met people who knew her. He tracked down and interviewed children she oversaw and the parents who worked for her. Some had nice things to say, others did not. One woman claimed Maier beat her. All agreed she was eccentric. She never married or had a social life. By the end of her life she was a compulsive hoarder.

I'm sure there are many out there like Maier. She even went to supermarkets and interviewed people on tape about politics, but never did anything with it. She gave false names, and told one man she was a spy. The difference between her and a garden-variety nut is that she had immense talent.

Most who knew her said she would have hated the intention. One man, in a kind of a twisted irony, said she would probably have liked that she was only famous after she was dead.

This is a terrific film, a mystery and a fine story about the artistic imagination. See this movie, and take a look at her photos online.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Oscar 2014: Best Supporting Actor

The Supporting Actor race at this year's Oscars seems to be a fait accompli, with a journeyman character actor looking to live the dream. It reminds me of the old SNL skit, "Jeopardy 1999," when we a clue was revealed, "Once the Tidy Bowl Man, he went on to win 8 Oscars."

J.K. Simmons, for his ferocious turn as the sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, is the odds-on favorite. He's won the Golden Globe and the SAG, and his story is irresistible. He's the guy in the Farmer's Insurance ads, he's the voice of the Peanut M&M, and he's about to win an Oscar. The best part of it is that he totally deserves it. His Terence Fletcher was one scary dude, the kind that live forever in nightmares.

If he shouldn't win, I expect it would be Edward Norton, as the narcissistic actor (oxymoron?) in Birdman. Norton has a lot of fun with this role, even so far as spoofing himself a little bit, but the performance is also edgy and uncompromising. Norton is the kind of actor you would have already expected to have an Oscar, and I hope he gets one one day.

That puts Ethan Hawke, as the single dad in Boyhood, out of the running. In another year, he might have shared the spotlight with Patricia Arquette, but the competition is just too strong this year. Unlike Arquette, he doesn't really age, looking pretty much the same, so since Arquette did show age, she may get it and not Hawke. Incidentally, counting his screenplay nominations, Hawke has been nominated five times.

The also-rans this year are two great actors. Mark Ruffalo plays one of the wrestling brothers who come under the spell of creepy John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Ruffalo underplays, and it's nice to see that being rewarded. Ruffalo, like Norton, is one of those guys you expect will win one day. Robert Duvall, nominated as the title role in The Judge (a film I have not yet seen) can see this nomination as a testament to the respect he has earned, for if it were anyone else in this role it wouldn't have been recognized.

Will win: J.K. Simmons
Could win: Edward Norton
Should win: J.K. Simmons
Should have been nominated: Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six

"The body is a place of violence. Wolf teeth, amputated hands. Cover yourself with a cloak of leaves, a coat of a thousand furs, a paper dress. The dark forest has a code. The witch sometimes dispenses advice, sometimes eats you for dinner, sometimes turns your brother to stone." So writes Jeannine Hall Gailey, in her prose poem, "Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales," one of the may fine selections in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six, edited by Ellen Datlow.

That passage is very representative of the work displayed here, much of which displays a simmering evil beneath the surface. What's scary is not so much what it detailed, but what is left out. I suppose you could call this creepy, but it's also a presentation of craft. I think of "The Good Husband," by Nathan Ballingrad, about a man who keeps his wife "alive," even while she is decomposing. Or "The Dog's Paw," by Derek Kunsken, about a village of Africans who are gaining canine limbs. Or "The Anatomist's Mnemonic," by Priya Sharma, about a man who has a thing for hands.

As I flip through the book, almost all of the 23 stories have something good to offer. I think the strongest ones are the longer, almost novella length ones. "Jaws of Saturn," by Laird Barron, has a great opening line: "'The other night I dreamt about this lowlife I used to screw," Carol said." Later, he manages to describe the lighting of a cigarette in a way I've never seen before: "Franco flipped open his lighter and set fire to a cigarette." The story concerns a mob tough guy who goes head to head with a warlock, and loses badly. I was captivated by the first half of the story, but it gets far too disorienting by the end.

"That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love" fulfills the creepy quotient. It's about a young girl who executes her dolls, by her brother's insistence. In a different vein is "The Only Ending We Have," which takes a (fictional) look at the body double used in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, who happens to be driving alone on a rainy night when she comes across a spooky motel.

There's three stories that I think really stand out. One is a sequel of sorts to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," titled "The Same Deep Waters as You," by Brian Hodge. This story finds a host of a TV animal show called upon to try to communicate with some creatures that are being held by the government. If you know Lovecraft, you know these creatures are very strange looking. It's even more creepy when you realize they were once human.

I also commend Tim Casson's "The Withering," in which a cynical reporter tags along as a kind of necromancer, carrying around the dehydrated husk of a small child, attempts to contact a murder victim to clear the name of her alleged killer. The writing here is fast-paced, but the spookiness is intact.

Finally, there's "The Soul in the Bell Jar," by KJ Kabza, about a young girl who is sent to live in her great-uncle's house. He's some kind of scientist, and what she finds in his rambling old house, well, let's just say that the title is literal.

All in all, Datlow has assembled an excellent collection.

Monday, February 02, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year takes place in 1981, but it really suggests the 1970s, as it is a gritty, urban, shadowy film that recalls the work of Coppola, Scorsese, and Lumet (even if it isn't quite at that level). There are many shots of men in suits standing in parking lots, and I got kind of a shiver remembering the old days.

The film was made by J.C. Chandor, who has, in his three films, showed astonishing breadth, first with the very talky Margin Call, then the dialogue-free All Is Lost, and now this film, which is a brooding story the cut-throat home heating oil business (who knew?) and the dark side of the American dream.

Oscar Isaac, suggesting Al Pacino in his salad days, has built up a company he purchased from his wife's father. She's played by Jessica Chastain, who more than channels Lady Macbeth. Isaac's trucks are being hijacked, the fuel stolen. He suspects competitors. He's also facing indictment by an ambitious D.A. (David Oyelowo). Oh, and he's just put a deposit on a large piece of land and has thirty days to close. Tick tock.

Aside from a very well-done chase scene, partly on car and then on foot (which made me think of The French Connection) most of A Most Violent Year isn't very violent. The violence is mostly in the intense conversations which are reminiscent of meetings of mobsters. There is one, near the end of the film, in which Isaac meets with his competitors, and it was clearly an homage to the scene in The Godfather when Marlon Brando addresses the heads of the Five Families.

At times the pace slows too much and becomes inert. In Isaac's best acting scene, he instructs his salesmen that to close the deal, one must stare into the eyes of the customer until it feels uncomfortable. In a way, Chandor is doing that, staring into our eyes just a bit too long.

The cast is great. Isaac, after this part and Inside Llewyn Davis, is a must-see for me in anything he does. Chastain is brilliant, as usual, especially when she coughs up a laugh when he tells her that he built the company. Albert Brooks, who now specializes in playing sleazy types, is fine as Isaac's lawyer, even though he is wearing a ridiculous toupee.

A Most Violent Year is a must for those who long for the good-old days of the '70s, or who just like an intelligent, well-made crime thriller.

My grade for A Most Violent Year: B+.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Saving Private Ryan

I've been reading about D-Day and it inspired me to take Saving Private Ryan off the shelf and watch it again. I hadn't seen it in a long time.

Saving Private Ryan is a flawed masterpiece. Like almost all of Steven Spielberg's films, it shows off his best tendencies and his worst. It is thrilling and expertly shot, with the D-Day sequence that opens the film probably the definitive narrative record of that day. But it also gives in to Spielberg's weakness for sentimentalism. Orson Welles wrote that sentimentalism was John Ford's weakness. Well, to Spielberg, it's a chronic illness.

The screenplay, by Robert Rodat, incorporates two of cinema's basic tropes: the mission and the journey. After the brilliant, 20-minute sequence showing Tom Hanks as a captain in the Army Rangers move his men up the beach, they are given a mission to find a soldier whose three brothers have been killed in action. A group of eight soldiers, each of course with different backgrounds and ethnicities--Brooklyn, the South, Jewish, Italian, and the requisite newbie who has never fired a gun in anger--head across France, finding "a needle in a stack of needles."

This format may be old and hokey, but it works, because Spielberg has bathed the film in nostalgia. It's not a replica of a 1940s war film--the violence and language are explicit--but in spirit the film is like many that were made during the period.

Spielberg's strengths are shown in the battle sequences. The D-Day landing is breathtaking in its economy and savagery. He and D.P. Janusz Kaminski use a hand-held camera, making you feel right there, the dirt kicking up in your face, and perhaps ducking bullets along with the men. The arbitrariness of death is overwhelming--some men are shot before they can get off the boats, others jump over the side and drown with their heavy packs. A soldier takes a bullet in the helmet, and he takes it off to admire its efficacy, and then gets another bullet right in the forehead.

In what I think is the most amazing sequence of the film, which only lasts about a minute, is when Mrs. Ryan receives the three telegrams notifying her of her sons' deaths. First we see a military car running along a farm road. Then Mrs. Ryan in the kitchen. Then, she looks out the window at the approaching car. The shot reverses, showing her in the window, with the car reflected in the glass. She goes out on the porch, the shot taken from inside the house. When she sees a minister get out of the car, she faints. This should be taught to every prospective director.

The closing battle scene is no less thrilling, but much more conventionally filmed. I particularly like the shot when the team's sniper, Barry Pepper, sees the gun barrel of the tank pointing up at him, and he knows he's doomed. Spielberg shoots it at as a POV, so the barrel is pointed at us, and we feel it, too.

Where the film shows Spielberg's weakness is the incredibly corny bookend sequences in the American cemetery in Normandy. The aged Ryan visits the graves of his comrades, and asks his wife, "Have I been a good man?" Jeez. Talk about syrupy. The only thing I like about this section is Spielberg's decision to show the flag filtering the son, giving it a washed out appearance.

This bookend also exposes what I believe William Goldman pointed out as a severe structural error. We are led to believe that this is all a flashback by the old man in the cemetery, whose identity we don't yet know. But this could not be Ryan's flashback, as he did not take part in the first three-quarters of the film, such as the D-Day landing (he was Airborne) and the subsequent search for him. The flashback had to be from the perspective of one of the eight, of only two who survived.

The cast, aside from Hanks, who was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time (and much too old to be playing a Ranger, who's average age was about 22) was made up of indie actors, like Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jeremy Davies. A young Vin Diesel is there, as well, and the film has a host of stars that pop up, like Dennis Farina and Ted Danson, and future stars like Paul Giamatti (who as he's running across a bombed out French town, complains of his "ankles like an old woman"). The script is not as sentimental with these actors. Davies, as the coward, does not get his redemption in the true-blue American way, and Goldberg, as the Jewish soldier, who is well aware of Nazi anti-Semitism, has a particularly stinging ending.

Also, Matt Damon was not yet a star when he made the film. Between the filming and its release he did become one, with the release of Good Will Hunting, which might have burned Spielberg because I'm sure he wanted a no-name as Ryan. The scene in which they finally find him, completely serendipitously, would have worked better if we the audience didn't say, "Hey, that's Matt Damon!"

Though Saving Private Ryan uses war film tropes, and has perhaps too many big speeches (the one in which Hanks reveals his past is close to the edge of maudlin) it is one of the best war films of this generation, and holds up incredibly well.