Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Let's get this straight. After years of debate, the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" bill has been abolished and President Obama will sign a new bill on tomorrow allowing men and women to serve their country without being thrown out because of their sexuality. No longer will vitally needed, highly educated translators, engineers, soldiers, and many others have to lie about who they are. What lessons have we been teaching our young people over the last decade? It's okay to be gay as long as you lie about it. It's okay to betray your fellow worker if his or her choices are not in agreement with yours.....AND THIS IS WHAT JOHN MCCAIN AND MANY OTHER SPINELESS LEADERS ENDORSED?!

Bravo to the GOP senators and representatives who voted for the new measure and SHAME on those GOP and DEMOCRATIC members who voted against it or stayed away out of cowardice. 80% of Americans were for the change, the major military brass were for it, and the rank and file of military were for it or just didn't care. And what's left hanging in the wind? A tattered old man still raving along with his cronies. If John McCain were King Lear, we could pity him. But he's not, and we don't.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Last night we watched the serious comedy THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, which has been touted as an Oscar contender for 2010. This film reeks with the California life style and weather. It never rains, people drink too much, crises loom in every corner of the kitchen or bedroom, and that's just for openers. Filled with some of the best actors around, KIDS explores the lives of two happily married lesbians, one an uptight doctor, the other a free spirit who wants to talk everything through. They are the parents of two delightful teens. All is well until the kids hook up with their sperm donor. At first glance, Mark Ruffalo is certainly more than all right--he's casual, cool, owns his own restaurant, rides a motorcycle, the works. But things develop, putting a great strain on the relationship of the lesbian parents. Annette Beining and Julianne Moore give heart-wrenching performances as their love is tested by their children and this new man in their lives. In fact, all the acting is natural. This could be any married couple facing the reefs in their mid=years. Except for the excessive use of graphic sex and language, this is a very fine film.

Friday, October 22, 2010

So many loyal friends...The Social Network

I finally made it out today to see the acclaimed drama THE SOCIAL NETWORK, although I have seen so many previews and interviews that I almost felt as if I had already seen the film itself. Based very loosely on an account of the rise of Facebook, THE SOCIAL NETWORK gives a slanted but extremely entertaining view of the life at Harvard in the early part of this decade when competing computer geeks attempted to create social internet sites for their campus. Directed by David Fincher, who gave us provocative fare like SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB, and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, this film was written by Adam Sorkin of WEST WING fame. The director and writer have assembled an almost perfect cast of young men to play both the nerds and elites of Harvard undergrad life.

And the picture of the priviledged, often snobbish enclaves at one of the top Ivy schools is often scathing in its look at old money, entitlement, and rampant ambition. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, a brilliant, self-absorbed computer whiz who may be somewhat autistic in his social skills (he seriously lacks them). His performance is so on spot that he is sympathetic, annoying, and downright ridiculous all in one scene. Sorkin sets up his screenplay by cross-cutting among two trials against Zuckerberg from fellow students who claim he stole the Facebook idea from them, and the writer cleverly never tells us exactly what happened in the creation of the new site. But we do see friendships betrayed, millions lost, and billions gained. Perhaps the strongest performance comes from Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, an idealistic but naive young man who worships Zuckerberg for his computer skills and funds the initial site. Garfield's enlightenment about the world of business and being taken by his best friend is almost heart-breaking and deserves attention at Oscar time. Justin Timberlake perfectly embodies Sean Parker, the huckster founder of Napster who lures Zuckerberg to Silicon Valley and steals much of the company away from Saverin.

Sorkin and Fincher keep the action and social satire moving so quickly and smoothly that we hardly realize we are also being hustled. Who and what are we to believe about these people? One thing's for sure: be careful who and what you post on Facebook.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Franzen's Frantic Decade

Since Jonathan Franzen's hugely critical and popular success with THE CORRECTIONS in 2001, the world has undergone far too much "shock and awe." THE CORRECTIONS was a family drama about a middle American clan that falls apart in quiet and occasionally spectacular ways against the background of the last decade of the twentieth century. Now Franzen is back with a vengeance with another novel that deals with family implosion, but this time the period is primarily the George W. Bush/Cheney years, and the equation between the Bergland family and the financial, political, and wartime failures of the Bush years is much closer. When the characters, especially the male ones, speak, they unleash tirades against everything from global warming to government corruption to over-population. Sometimes the message overwhelms the character's development as a believable human being. But, for the most part, FREEDOM succeeds in most arenas. It is a strong wake-up call for Americans to keep fighting those seemingly impossible fights for a better life for every person.

For over 500 pages, Franzen chronicles the love/hate triangle among three terribly matched college friends--Walter Bergland and Patti Bergland, and Richard Katz. One of the major criticisms of these characters is that they are unlikable, self-absorbed, and totally unaware of how much damage they are doing to themselves and t hose around them. This is a justifiable complaint, though Franzen has the knack of keeping us interested in several ways. Just how low will Patti go before she finally caves into her insatiable sexual desire for the Dylanesque rocker Richard? How much more debasement can the puritanical husband Walter put himself through as he tries to maintain his love for both Patti and Richard? How long can the Bergland marriage last? Patti, an outstanding college athlete with little self-esteem and a great loathing of her family, to Walter, a young man who has seized his success despite his poor background. Richard is the one who seems to lack a moral center. He thinks about not using people, but thinking does not trump action. As for Walter, his love of nature leads him to make compromises that lead to the dissolution of his dreams, his marriage, his friendships, and his family. Now, if all this seems too heavy or depressing, be aware that Franzen is a terrific writer who blends wry humor with irony and surprise plot twists. If you have read THE CORRECTIONS, you know that he knocks the reader over in the middle of the book and then withholds the punchline for many chapters.

I certainly won't spoil any surprises in FREEDOM, a novel that is annoying, satisfying, and brilliantly written. This one takes effort and interest on the part of its readers, and that makes it worth the work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One of the Greats

One helpful way to get better while restricted to bed and/or a chair is to return to your favorite entertainments. The other afternoon I watched Joseph Mankiewicz' masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE. This 1950 serious comedy scours the New York theater scene, its divas, its traditions, and even its fans. But basically, Broadway theater is a stand-in for the follies and shenanigans of Hollywood, an even better target. It would take Billy Wilder to face the extremes of fame and desire with SUNSET BOULEVARD in the same year. These two films produced two of the most memorable performances in screen history--Bette Davis as the age-fearing diva in ALL ABOUT EVE and Gloria Swanson as the silent star Norma Desmond, desparate for a come-back in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

ALL ABOUT EVE set the record for Oscar nominations, 14 in all, and won six including Best Film, Direction, Screen Play, and George Sanders for Best Supporting Actor. The film often makes top ten lists of all American films and deservedly so. The writing, acting, pace, and depth of a film whose subject seems so flimsy are astounding, since Mankiewicz and crew make it entertaining and profound at the same time.
The plot centers on a young ingenue (Eve, Anne Baxter) who insinuates herself into the inner circle of Margo Channing, a brilliant but insecure actress facing her age. Before long it is obvious that Eve is after more than shelter. She wants it all--Margo's talent, her roles, her boy friend, anything--Eve becomes an insatiable monster whose sweetness turns to poison. And she has a strong ally in the acidic critic Addison de Witt, played with withering precision by George Sanders.

Much of the joy in ALL ABOUT EVE comes from Mankiewicz' dialogue bandied about by some of the best actors in the business. It is difficult to pick the "best" scene in this film, but three loom large. First there is the cocktail sequence which begins with a battle between Margo and her much younger boy friend (Gary Merrill). Striding through the room, hands on her hips, Davis puffs away and picks up a chocolate, puts it down again and finally pops it her mouth as she finishes her argument. And then there is her most quoted line: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." In a later scene, Addison tells Eve that she is his because he knows the truth about her background. This is surely the scene that won that Oscar for Sanders. And then there is the closing scene. SPOILER ALERT. Eve has won her award but lost all her friends. She returns to her apartment to discover a beautiful high school student asleep on her couch. Soon the girl has insinuated herself into Eve's life. The last shots show Phoebe donning Eve's evening cape and standing before a multiple mirror holding the award. As the music swells ironically and majestically, we see multiple images of the next Eve. This is an ending without words that is much more powerful than any clever line.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Three to Treasure

Feeling down or blue? Here are two winners that will lift your spirits. We had a friend over for dinner and a double feature the other night. Before eating, we sang along with Disney's Beauty and the Beast and relished for the umpteenth time the delightful antics of Jerry Orbach's French candlestick Lumeire and David Ogden Stiers as the fussy British clock Cogsworth, the warmth of Angela Lansbury's teapot, and the hilarious Richard White as the vainglorious, self-loving Gaston ("I use antlers in all my decoration"). This great film rejuvenated the classic Disney animation department and spawned a hugely successful Broadway production, which makes sense. After all, when you look at this film with its big opening number, its heartfelt solos, and the show-stopping "Be My Guest," you're looking at a stage hit on screen.

After supper, we shared Some Like It Hot, a classic comedy she had not seen. For almost two hours we were all in stitches. In fact, the jokes and pratfalls rush forward so fast that it takes multiple viewings to get most of them. Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood's greatest directors, places this farce in Chicago in 1929, when gangsterism ruled the city. Two out-of-work musicians witness a version of the St. Valentine's Day massacre, led by Spats Colombo, perfectly played by a steely George Raft, who starred in the original Scarface in 1931. Joe becomes Josephine and Jerry becomes Daphne to join an all-girl band headed for Florida. And so begins the greatest gender-bending comedy of all time.

Soon, the girls and Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators are on a train to Florida, where the aging millionaires are eagerly awaiting them. Almost immediately Jerry (Daphne) disguises himself as an effete millionaire playboy while Joe (Josephine) is plagued by a lecherous septagenerian, played hilariously by Joe E. Brown, another star from the 1930's. What ensues is a classic sequence in which Wilder cuts back and forth between two seductions. Jerry (Tony Curtis) takes Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) to Brown's yacht and in some of the most innuendo-filled dialogue in film convinces her to seduce him. As their tryst gets hotter, we cut to the millionaire tangoing with Daphne (Jack Lemmon). The sensuous romantic music for Curtis-Monroe has a perfect foil in the overdone beats of the Brown-Lemmon tango. And in a way both seductions are successful in a way that movies today couldn't understand. And let's not forget, Marilyn Monroe's skin-tight, sequinned dress, which in 1959 was close to naked. Or Curtis's spot-on take of the Cary Grant accent.

To complicate an impossible situation, Spats and his gang arrive at the boys' hotel for an opera lovers' convention. Soon Jerry and Joe are on the run again, improbably finding themselves at the feet of Spats and a room of gangsters. Throughout Some It Like Hot, there are references to the golden age of Hollywood, particularly Warner Brothers in the 1930's. When Spats checks his guns in, a young hood is flipping a coin. Raft sneers, "Where'd you get that cheap trick?" The opening car chases are almost exact copies of the old black and white shootem-ups in so many Warner Brothers gangster flicks. After many close calls, the film ends with Joe E. Brown saying one of the classic comedy lines, but you'll have to watch to hear it!

And one more quick recommendation for an entirely different kind of movie treat: The Last Station, a loving look at the political and personal relations of the novelist Leo Tolstoy in his last year. Christopher Plummer, who is amazingly similar to the photos of the real novelist, gives a robust performance of a man of ideals who is torn between family and society's greater needs, and Helen Mirren plays his often melodramatic wife in one of her best roles. James McAvoy is the sensitive young secretary to the literary giant through whose eyes we see the conflict. The film is full of humor and sadness and politics and is sure to spark some discussion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Ago Today

Nine years ago today I found myself in the ICU unit at Emory Hospital. It turns out that I had incurred a weird virus on July 4th of 2001, so that I was unaware of my heart transplant until I came to in early September. I was still learning to make words that beautiful September morning. In any ICU there is little concept of day or night with the bright flourescent lights always on and medical machines humming away, but I am told it was beautiful. Lying there unable to move, I began to notice that the nurses were crying and holding each other as they looked up at the suspended tv set. Later my wife told me why.

Things changed irrevocably for all Americans that September 11th, and we were plunged into a new world of fear of attack, doubt in our national strength, and a sad realization that no longer were we an invulnerable nation. But we also saw heroism and caring on a scale that was inspiring and still is. It took a while for me to get out of Emory and back home and into the classroom, but my 9/11 experience, as remote as it was, will always be with me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second Thoughts

Earlier this week I watched Christopher Nolan's smash hit The Dark Knight for the second time. Last year on the theater's big screen, I was blown away, but this time less so. For one thing, the movie is bloated to well over two and a half hours. It could be cut by at least 30 minutes and be a much sleeker, more effective thriller. The film also emphasizes violence over character and often exploits violent torture. When the Joker is thrown in jail, Batman smashes his head against the bars repeatedly. Various bad guys are dispatched in excruciating ways, usually having no relation to advancing the plot.

The cast itself seems dumbfounded by all the plot twists, and no one seems more out of it than Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne or (spoiler) Batman. Bale began his career as a serious child actor in Steven Spielberg's masterful Empire of the Sun. As an adult, his performances have been stone cold, especially in the new Batman series. In scenes with legends Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Bale speaks in a dull, raspy monotone. Even legends can't spark any fire in this guy. There are several strong performances that led me and others to over praise the film. Chief among them is the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. He has created a vivid psychopath that is difficult to forget. Watching him ambling away from the hospital he is blowing up is truly scary.
But one great performance does not a classic make. Other great actors are wasted, especially Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who mumbles unintelligibly to no effect.

Aside from these weaknesses, there is Nolan's complete lack of humor. Nothing causes laughter or even a chuckle. No wonder he's called the Dark Knight. In contrast, think back to the first two films of the first big Batman series, both directed by Tim Burton, a master of macabre humor. Though these two films are uneven as well, they are full of bravura film making and performances. Jack Nicholson's Joker is as much Jack as Joker, but his leering, cackling villain is less frightening than comic. Michael Keaton makes a surprisingly human and likable Bruce Wayne, though it's hard to imagine him pulling off Batman's prowess. In the second film Danny DeVito is a somewhat sickening but fully developed Penquin, and Michelle Pffeifer steals the movie as Catwoman. Her showdown with Batman is full of cunning, sharp dialogue, and sexual chemistry.

As for the look of the two Burton films, they are dark and brooding, but they are also pure Hollywood in that they make no pretense towards realism. Gotham City is a hugh, decaying set. The Gotham Cathedral is obviously a reference to Gaudi's Barcelona Cathedral with its melting decadence and to The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Joker playing Quasimodo. Hitchcock's Vertigo is resurrected in the tower scenes as the Joker and Batman ascend to the belfry. Anton Furst set designs are some of the most evocative in modern film history and deservedly won an Oscar while Danny Elfman's score combines humor with darkness and fright. Two perfect examples can be seen and heard in the following: the dynamic credit sequence and the delightful art museum scene in which the Joker destroys priceless works of art and attempts to seduce Kim Bassinger with references to the witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, times and moods have changed, but we still need humor and artistry. Nolan's Batman films have the technical panache he is famous for, but he has chosen to place comic book characters in a ultra realistic setting without any relief for his viewers. Instead of comic relief, we get more explosions and more noise. Perhaps The Dark Knight needs to lighten up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Define Stupid

According to the latest Pew Poll, 34 per cent of those polled believed Barack Obama is a Christian; 18% believed he is a muslim; and 43 % don't know. So what does this say about the mental abilities of the American public? Here are some possibilities:

1. 18% of Americans are stupid.

2. 18% of Americans are either tea party members or far right extremists or racists who would say anything to bring Obama down.

3. Some of the 34% are either rational, fair-minded, or Christian or a combination of the three.

4. Most of the 43% don't care, don't know, don't want to know, or should be in groups 1 and 2.

Conclusion: If you add group 1 and 4, then the majority of Americans either don't care or are stupid or both.

We used to read our kids books about the Stupid Family. They were hilarious. For example,
they would look in a store mirror, see their reflections and say how stupid those people look.
My favorite was The Stupid Family Wakes Up Dead, in which the family wakes in the middle of the night and assume they are dead since all the lights are out.

Sadly, many Americans are members of the Stupid family since all their lights are out.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Luv Paris..in real and reel life

According to NPR, France is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, and one of the reasons is its capital city Paris. The City of Light has been celebrated in fiction and film as much as any capital for many reasons. Loaded with historical sites, artistic treasures, incredible food and wine opportunities, architectural masterpieces (and a few disasters), Paris is a never-ending wonder. In 1985, my wife and I took our three daughters, 17, 15, and 7 to Paris for a month's stay in a rented apartment in the sixth arrondisement. Each day we ventured into the city to explore some of its many treasures. It remains the most memorable and happiest trip I have ever taken.

Of course, Paris is a part of our consciousness through films that usually feature the city as a major character. No other film resonates Paris as much as Michael Curtiz's
Casablanca, a film that was shot entirely at or near Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. For the Paris scenes, he used stock footage from before the war; we see Bogart and Bergman tooling down the Champs Elysees in a convertible with the Arc du Triomphe in the background, cruising down the Seine, and sitting in a typical French cafe with wine and checkered table cloths. All of this is imagined, but we buy it just as our parents and grandparents did, because we cannot believe that such happiness and beauty could be despoiled by something as morally repugnant as Nazism. But that is what happened several years before the film was made, and that was a major reason for its success in America.

Casablanca is in beautiful black and white, giving the cinematographer opportunities for film noir shadows and suspenseful tracking shots. But in the 1950's Paris bloomed in color with three classic musicals. First there was Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli's frothy concoction An American in Paris, which won the Oscar as Best Film of 1951. Why? It wasn't because of the plot or the acting or the writing, all of which were serviceable. No, it was the film's stunning conclusion, a dream ballet in which our hero Kelly pursues Leslie Caron through colorful sets based on paintings by Renoir, Rousseau, and Lautrec, among others, all set to George Gershwin's famed piece An American in Paris. The choreography, the zest, the color, the set design all coalesed into a perfect mini-movie.

In 1957 Paris received the fashion treatment in Stanley Donen's Funny Face, which took some George and Ira treasures and inventively refreshed them. He also added several delightful non-Gershwin numbers, especially the parody of fashion magazines called "Think Pink," led by the evervescent Kay Thompson. But the film as a whole belongs to the Gershwins, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Paris. The thin plot throws Hepburn and Astaire into various fashion shoots in picturesque spots throughout the city. Sheathed in Parisian haute coutre, Hepburn transforms from a drab philosophy student into a fashionista butterfly, thanks to Gershwin music, Astaire's charm and dancing, and Paris. Although not a natural singer or dancer, Hepburn gives an enchanting performance, especially about the wonderment of falling in love in "How Long Has This Been Going On." But the real show-stopper is the pair's rendition of "S' Wonderful," set in a church yard outside Paris with a stream, doves, swans, and Hepburn in a white wedding dress. Astaire, 30 years Hepburn's senior (a pattern in her male co-stars) removes the age distinction when he sings and dances. It's magic.

At the end of the decade, Vincent Minnelli directed another Best Film winner, M-G-M's production of Lerner and Lowe's Gigi, an original musical coming fast on the heels of their smash hit My Fair Lady. This time, the movie takes place in the Paris of the late 19th century, where the belle monde was expressed with fashion, manners, and mistresses. Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, is being raised by made her mother and aunts to be a courtesan. Louis Jordan is a wealthy young man of leisure who knows her family well and is stunned to find himself falling in love with the blossoming young lady. This is beautifully shown in the montage of the song ''Gigi," in which Jordan romps through the gardens and fountains of Paris declaring his adoration. Maurice Chevalier brings his timeless charm to "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "The Night They Invented Champagne." Although Funny Face and An American in Paris are delightful films, Gigi is a classic film, made with care, grace, artistry, and the best talents of Broadway and Hollywood.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Let's Go to Level 4...In your dreams!

Now that I have returned from the simple pleasures of Vermont, I have seen Inception, Christopher Nolan's cryptic puzzle of dreams within dreams. I was warned I would not understand a word of it, so I decided to go with the flow, as we used to say. The flow in this film consists of some of the finest special effects, editing, and pulsating action that Hollywood can offer. And it also boasts strong characters, clever writing, and a poignant love story. But is Inception anything more than a maze of tricks and mirrors?

Certainly the film is constantly entertaining, sometimes humorous, full of cultural allusions, and critiques of corruption in big business. But some critics have carped about too much style over substance, but perhaps Nolan is making style the substance of his film. With a cast that parades Leonardo DiCaprio in his most guilt-ridden role yet, Ellen Page as the architect who designs dreams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as dream navigator who dances on ceilings and walls as nimbly as Astaire did in Royal Wedding, and the ravishing Marion Cotillard as wife, muse, and enemy to DeCaprio, Nolan does not disappoint. I won't attempt to unravel the plot...because I can't! But let's say that you work for a corporate espionage group that is able to plant alien ideas into a competitor's mind, but your team leader (Leo) has so many inner demons (remember we left him on Shutter Island) that they keep spoiling the team's mission. Of course, this only makes the film more interesting, and every time Marion Cotillard appears the film sparks alive more effortlessly than any modern city collapsing on itself.

Did I mention that Inception is full of film allusions, some to famous films of the past, some as inside jokes. Two quick and clever examples. To be pulled out of the dream state, the team hears a certain French chanteuse. Didn't Marion win an Oscar playing her a few years ago? And our dream architect who builds imaginary worlds for other subconscious states to explore is named Ariadne, not a common name but the name of the mythological woman who lost a spinning match to Athena and was turned into a spider..ah, what a tangled she weaves.

Inception is a movie for movie lovers to treasure. Many have already seen it several times either to understand it or just to enjoy the sheer pleasure of great film-making. Nolan has already given us the two latest Batman films, the second of which was a dark, but often humorous romp that boasted a bravura performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. But his masterpiece is still 2000's eerie cult favorite Memento, a mind-bending mystery that turns chronological time on its head. As a footnote, let me recommend Roman Polanski's latest mystery drama The Ghost Writer, a tense, intelligent film about modern world politics told on a personal scale. It is full of surprises, all logical, and great writing and acting. Rent it now!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Notes from Ticonderoga on our current wars

Earlier this week my oldest daughter, her two sons (10 and 8), my granddaughter (almost 3), and I toured Fort Ticonderoga in New York. It was a bright, sun-filled day with a view of Lake Champlain from the fort ramparts that stirred one's love of beauty. But I was reminded that the soldiers who manned that fort in various sieges probably weren't thinking that way. They were hoping their muskets wouldn't misfire or that one of their shots might hit an unknown enemy, whether French, British, or American, since the fort was held by all three powers. We watched a group of smartly trained high schoolers, boys and girls, personify the American drum and fife corps. Their precision and dedication as well as their musicality was impressive, and they were obviously proud of their part in preserving the traditions of the fort.

But I couldn't help thinking of the original drum and fife corps who not only bravely announced the coming regiment but also ran messages behind lines and risked their lives on a daily basis. Most of these boys...and they were often small boys..... did not live to see the freedom they and their older compatriots fought for. And then my thoughts then moved to older boys, girls, men, and women who have been fighting, hurting, and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Somehow the comparison won't wash for many reasons. Let me be clear: I support
our troops, but I do not support these needless and wasteful wars. Not only have we lost lives but also family relationships. We are still spending billions of dollars on the most threadbare excuse for invasion..and that is what it is. We will not democratize Afghans. They don't want it, and they won't have it.

Yes, the boys who proudly marched and played their bugles, fifes, and drums stir the hearts of Americans today, some of whom still have the outmoded notion that war is necessary. Let us pray that they will stir us to a vision of peace like the one we see from Fort Ticonderoga, a calm, untrouble Lake Champlain

Saturday, July 10, 2010

50 Years On...What an anniversary says

This seems to be a year of 5o year anniversaries. Among them is Chubby Checker's "The Twist." But let's look at two milestones that came out within the same summer in 1960. One of them changed the look and subject matter of movies forever; the other was a milestone in our country's understanding of racism. Of course, these cultural events are Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of the obvious similarities is that both are mysteries and operate on a "we want to know what happens" basis. They both deal with heinous crime, a form of madness, and strong characters. But here the similarities taper off. Psycho is a purposely low-budget horror flick that Hitchcock shot quickly on old television lots, almost as a joke. But the joke was on American moviegoers. Viewers went into the film cold and quickly identified with the main character Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. After 30 or so minutes of involvement in her theft and her growing psychosis, we are horrified to watch her (SPOILER ALERT) brutally knifed in a motel shower. More bloody murders occur until the final denouement when we find out the weird truth behind the Bates Motel murders. So why should such a lurid film be considered a cultural milestone. Obviously, Psycho unleashed the never-ending stream of much bloodier, more sadistic, and less thoughtful movies such as the Halloween series, the Elm Street franchise, and even the lowest of the low--the wretched Saw movies. But Hitchcock's film also proved to be a truly deep exploration of the depths of mental illness. Its extremities of horror emphasized how easily "normality" can sink into madness. The central scene of the film takes place in Norman's parlor where he and Marion Crane discuss their backgrounds and the traps they are in. Norman points out that Marion stepped into her trap while he was born into his. Ironically, she declares she will try to correct her mistakes just minutes before her death; Norman never gets the chance. Through brilliant writing, lighting, and acting, Hitchcock pulls us into a foreign world, horrifying but enthalling as well. For better or worse, movies grew up and addressed issues only hinted at during its golden age.

The now legendary To Kill a Mockingbird came at an auspicious time. Racial tensions were rising throughout the country, especially in the South. Civil Rights marches, sit-ins, riots were already on the horizon as the turbulent sixties began. Millions have read Harper Lee's revealing and all too human look at the South of an earlier time, and many of them began to understand the complexities of the racial situation that media could only hint at. Perhaps they trusted the author because she was a Southerner from a small town in Alabama. The novel addressed controversial issues such as rape, racial prejudice, and mob violence while telling a gentle tale of a child's emergence into a difficult world. Fortunately that child, Scout, has a wonderful mentor and single parent in the lawyer Atticus Finch. Finch raises his two children in a loving but Socratic way, urging them to "get into another person's skin" to understand him. For Scout, that includes her neighbors; Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a "white trash" girl; and Boo Radley, the reclusive, perhaps mentally ill man who lives nearby. Lee pulls these diverse strands together masterfully and gives us a novel of purpose, empathy, and compassion. Few works have had the powerful influence on American thinking that To Kill a Mockingbird has had.

Fifty years ago the world was rapidly changing. Hitchcock and Lee mirrored those changes. Today their works, Psycho and To Kill a Mockingbird , still resonate with modern audiences.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Repression, Punishment, Guilt...ah, movies to love.

The front-runner for the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar were Germany's The White Ribbon and Argentina's The Secret in Their Eyes. Both are dramas that deal with repressive communities where people must watch what they say and who they see. Michael Haneke wrote the story and screenplay for The White Ribbon, which he also directed. It's a strange film, shot beautifully in stark black and white with allusions to Ingmar Bergman in themes and characters and to the westerns of John Ford in images and compositions. A small village in northern Germany in 1913 begins to experience disturbing events: a doctor and his horse felled my a wire near his home, the local baron's small son tortured, a suicide. Is this a parable for what is to come for Germany or a commentary on the innate evil in men as seen in their children, a la Village of the Damned? Or is it just a really creepy movie with no clear answers. The director cuts from story to story without a seeming logic, but the feeling engendered is that of a vise that will finally strangle the community. The White Ribbon is worth seeing, but one is relieved when it is over and would not want to experience it again.

The same could not be said for The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian filmItalic that surprised Oscar viewers by winning over The White Ribbon. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, it is a moving meditation on politics, repressed love and speech, and the need to punish. This drama is in color and switches time periods as it releases the details of its mystery. It involves a low level legal counsel and his near obsession with solving a murder-rape case and his long unspoken love for his superior officer. After his retirement 20 years later, he tries to write a novelization of the crime. The more he investigates, the more labyrinthine and dangerous the search becomes. To say any more would perhaps give away too much, but this film is full of surprises, all of which are valid and work towards its stunning climax. The performances of the principal actors are deeply affecting so that they seem more real than most Hollywood film performances.

Both The White Ribbon and The Secret in Their Eyes are films that explore the darkness of repressed societies and desires that lead to violence and death, but only The Secret in Their Eyes offers redemption and even hope. If you rent any foreign film this year, make it this one.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rough times for us all.

The continuing oil spill crisis has brought out the best and the worst in many of us. Coastal residents, for the most part, are doing what they can to survive the possible end of their way of life. British Petroleum is spending millions on apology ads in the media, money that should be going to the victims and to clean-up on the coast, in the wetlands, and for wildlife. And the media has had a field day yakking about President Obama's lack of passion or attitude. What do they want? Do they think Obama should weep as he says "I feel your pain"? Sorry, that one's taken. Do they want a raging fury that promises Armageddon for BP? These are not the man Barrack Obama. He is a man who feels, but he is also a methodical and logical thinker, one who studies a problem, consults with the best minds, and then acts. Since he was elected he has been attacked, especially by the GOP and the crazed right wing fringe for everything he has supported. Whether it is the oily Rush Limbaugh, the innane Sarah Palin, the lunatic Glen Beck or the daily sniping of cartoonists like Mike Lester of the Rome News Tribune, Obama has been viciously attacked for acting or not acting. In all of this, the civility that needs to be in public discourse is sadly missing. And it seems likely we won't see it again for some time. But at least there should be a moratorium on damning the President. Show some respect, folks!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BEST IN SHOW...still the Best!

Tonight we are watching director Christopher Guest's classic comedy BEST IN SHOW, co-written by Guest and Eugene Levy, both of whom have key roles in their film. We have watched this movie many times, often to alleviate boredom or even depression, but now it's summer and nothing is on the telly or here from Netflix. Guest and his usual troupe of parody actors made their biggest mark with WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, a witty look at a small town drama group's effort to mount a major production. Needless to say, everything goes awry, and the laughs abound. Guest helped spur the documentary, straight to the camera style that is so popular in television today (THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, MODERN FAMILY).

BEST IN SHOW uses this technique to perfection. The major characters and their dogs are headed to Philadelphia for the annual Mayflower Dog Kennel Show. Any similarity to the Westminster show is purely intentional. As they prepare for the show, the characters get into ridiculous situations that expose typical American foibles that are not exclusive to dog owners.
Guest plays Harlan Pepper, an amateur ventriloquist whose dog is a bloodhound. Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy are a childless couple devoted to their Norwich Terrier. Their main problem is her past lovers who seem to show up at all the wrong times. Then there are Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as J. Crew preppies who met at Starbucks, actually one shop facing the other in a big city. Their neurotic behavior is seen in their nervous Weimaraner who sees a dog psychiatrist. Jennifer Coolidge is the buxom young blonde wife of an doddering octogenerian (think of Anna Nicole Smith) who has hired Jane Lynch as her trainer for their white poodle. Lynch here is a prototype for her role on GLEE, domineering, emasculating, even trying to psyche out the other contending trainers. Rounding out the owners are Scott Donlan and Michael McKean, the gay owners of Shih Tzu. For 2000, they are the best and least of stereotypes; the younger is flashy, the older is more reserved. They have some of the wittiest lines in the film. And to top it off, there is Fred Willard as the co-host of the show, a man who has no clue about sports or anything else. His hilarious non sequiturs are fine on their own but even better as we watched the restrained pain of his co-host, a knowledgeable Brit.

Too often parody can be cruel but not here. Though the characters are outrageous at times, they display humanity, with the exception of the preppy couple. BEST IN SHOW is one of the great comedies. I would rank it with classics like SOME LIKE IT HOT and TOOTSIE. And compared to the slovenly slacker gross-outs on the screen today, Christopher Guest's film is a masterpiece.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"I'm LOST without a clue!"

Earthquakes, volcanoes, black smoke, plane crashes, deep and dangerous mines. No, I'm not talking about recent news events. Quirky characters, meaningless chases, unbelievable underground scenery, scary monsters. No, I'm not describing Tim Burton's eviseration of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND. You guessed it...LOST's long-awaited and long on lack of logic finale. Robert Bianco, USA's tv critic gave this muddle four stars and called it one of the great finales and series in tv history. I generally respect this fellow's opinions, but I think he got suckered big time.

Granted, I am not an avid fan and I have never been on line with rabid LOST devotees, but I have watched the show over the last six years and have grown fond of some of the characters.
One of the cardinal rules of LOST is to kill off characters that viewers like. A prime example is the beautiful relationship that developed between Sun and Yin, played with warmth and sensitivity by Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. The couple struggled against almost impossible odds only to be torn apart time and time again. In this year's final season they are finally together only to drown with each other. A number of other viewer favorites also bit the dust.

But, lo, the writers and producers of LOST have wrought many miracles, none greater than bringing the entire cast, dead and alive, back for the finale. How? In the last century when I was teaching Coleridge we would discuss the importance of "the willing suspension of disbelief." This divided classes into two warring groups, the realists and the imaginists. Frankly, I have always sided with the latter group and remain a staunch romantic. However, LOST has stretched this axiom beyond the breaking point with the use of flashbacks, flashforwards, parallel times, the disappearance of the island, and even a trip to the 1970's, which might be a worse fate than being on that island with a bunch of warring creeps.

Last night's finale shattered any hope of tying up all the loose ends. People are debating the meanings, religious or otherwise, but in the final analysis we got a giant cop-out. Jack, our hero by default, saves the island but dies in the process just as the plane takes off with some of the original survivors. We have been cutting back and forth to what we thought was a flashforward. It turns out we have been prepping for the show's funeral. Jack enters a church where he meets not only his father whom he never got to bury but also most of the cast. Have they all died? Did they die at the first of season one and all that followed was a fantasy tease? Did some escape and re-start their lives? All we really know is that Jack is in a heavenly church with his former friends and enemies in one great love-in. And as the music swells lugubriously, Jack walks through the door into blinding light. I thought this was LOST, not TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL.
Did Coleridge fail me or was it those guys at ABC?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Time to get back to Basics

If you've seen any American movies lately, you know that they are in dire shape. The industry has fallen for the newest craze--3 Dimensions. Though AVATAR uses stunning three-dimensional technology, the story is trivial and threadbare. How many big budget action films condemn American industrial and the military complex while taking full advantage of both? The first IRON MAN, GI-JOE, the X-MEN franchise, the list goes on and on. So what's missing from these films?

Try plot, character development, meaningful and often witty dialogue. A few recent main stream movies have attempted to adapt the process after filming and they have been limited in their success. Tim Burton's beautiful but meandering ALICE IN WONDERLAND lost itself in special effects and make-up and forgot Lewis Carroll's inventive wordplay. Perhaps Burton thought audiences couldn't handle verbal cleverness, which is surprising when one considers some of his better films. A much lesser success was the joyless CLASH OF THE TITANS, which managed to make us long for the original production (1981) with Lawrence Olivier as Zeus and Harry Hamlin as a pretty boy Perseus and Ray Harryhausen's famous stop-motion special effects. Remember Medusa and those creepy scorpions?

Did summer movies once have plot, character development, and witty dialogue? You have to head for Netflix, but they still entertain far more than the current crop. Think of Robert Shaw as the salty and slightly daffy boat captain or Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist in JAWS. What about Karen Allen and Harrison Ford exchanging both verbal and physical blows in perhaps the greatest of all adventure films, RAIDERS OF THE LAST ARK? And then there are classic series such as STAR WARS and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, whose unique appeals captured viewers of all ages and intellectual backgrounds. Time and time again American audiences have shown they can enjoy intelligent, story-based, character-driven action films. But Hollywood just doesn't seem to get it.

We can hope the business, and it is a business, will improve, but demanding more is our job, not theirs.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Two strong contemporary novels

I am always looking for great reads. I have just finished two wonderful books that have a lot to say about our world today in entertaining, often surprising ways. Rather than being political polemics, they approach their topics with suspense, humor, and drama. The first of these is Adam Haslet's UNION ATLANTIC, a prescient novel about a soulless stocks trader and an aging blue blood who opposes him. Doug Fanning is second in command at Union Atlantic, a world-wide commodities firm. He is one of those charismatic young men who woo both men and women with their ambition, charm, and success...but not Charlotte Graves, an old school Bostonian liberal who wages war against Fanning over his utra MacMansion built right next to her decaying home in a historic district. Complicating this conflict is Nate Fuller, a grieving teenage boy who is divided in his loyalties between them. Raging beyond this personal conflict is Fanning's addiction to risky financial ventures that could bring him and his company down. The parallels between this Enron and 9/11 novel and the current financial catastrophe are obvious but not blatant. UNION ATLANTIC is a quickly paced, character-driven novel that builds to several stunning climaxes.

The popular Swedish author Henning Mankell, best known for his Wallendar novels that were adapted by BBC television, has written a doozie of a mystery novel laced with fascinating characters, sudden revelations, gripping descriptions of life in modern Sweden and Beijing, and moving depictions of the brutal treatment of Chinese immigrants (as well as others) during the building of America's continental railroad. The event that triggers these events is a mass murder in a tiny village in northern Sweden. 19 people, all elderly with the exception of a visiting boy, are slaughtered with a machette type weapon. There is only one clue, a red ribbon found in the snow. The leading character is 60 year old judge Birgitta Roslin, whose children are grown and whose husband is growing more and more distant. As she becomes more and more involved in the case, her research takes her into the past and present of both Sweden and China.

Birgitta's quest places her in conflict with the Swedish authorities and eventually with Beijing's highest authorities. Eventually her life is in danger because the villain thinks that Birgitta knows his or her identity. While chronicling China's rocky movement into capitalism, Mankell tightens his suspenseful plot and increasing the body count. Interestingly enough, he does not fall prey to the somewhat seedy qualities and people that undercut the novels of Stieg Larsson.

Both UNION ATLANTIC and THE MAN FROM BEIJING are novels of intelligence, suspense, and wit and would be great summer reads.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

WITNESS....It's still a great movie

Last night Betsy and I watched WITNESS with our daughter Kristin and son-in-law Jared in Maryland. Betsy often used this movie in her ESL classes to point out cultural differences, and I used it once or twice in my Cinema class. How did it hold up? As we know, most movies made in and about their time periods don't age too well. But WITNESS is a rare and worthy exception.
Filmed in 1985, WITNESS stars Harrison Ford as tough, principled Philadelphia cop John Book, who is drawn by accident into an Amish community. A young Amish boy is the only witness to a brutal knifing in a public bathroom. This scene creates suspense through the use of sharp editing and close-ups of the boy as he sees the assault. His near discovery by the killer is harrowing. The investigating officer John Book is forced to go into hiding in the Amish community to protect himself and the boy from corrupt police officials he wants to expose. The stark contrast between Book's ordinarily violent life and the calm peace of the Amish farmland provides the strongest part of the film. A hardened loner, Book finds himself falling in love with Samuel's mother Rachel (Kelley McGinnis) and the Amish ways. The soothing shots of golden wheat waving in the wind and the Amish men erecting a barn while the women prepare their meal are among the most beautiful in the film. But the quiet, breath-taking images of McGinnis standing in a door with golden light illuminating her face and her simple Amish dress are the most memorable in their allusions to the painter Vermeer. Of course, we see these images through Book's eyes, which makes them even more poignant.
Austrailian director Peter Weir has given this material grace and subtlety and a perfect cast, especially Lucas Haas as the boy Samuel. Those wide, wondering eyes see so much and lead us to see even more. Time to see WITNESS again.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sitting in on Greatness

This past Wednesday my wife Betsy and I drove to Atlanta to hear the Atlanta Symphony with guest artist Lang Lang, the internationally popular classical pianist. I have been to many classical music concerts, but this one surpassed them all. Robert Spano led the ASO through Tchaikovsky's magnificent 5th Symphony, a work of full-blown romantic yearning balanced with bustling rhythms and racing tempos. Those who place Tchaikovsky as a second tier composer after the big three--Bach, Beethoven, Brahms--should extend their appreciation to other masters as well. Chopin was the second great romantic on the program. Though not as big or emotionally open as Tchaikovsky's 5th, Chopin's 2nd Piano Concerto (actually written first but published second) displays Chopin's melodic genuis and his brilliant musical designs.

You probably know Lang Lang as the 27 year old Chinese superstar who was the Elton John of the opening night ceremonies of the Chinese-hosted Olympics. His piano virtuosity led 40 million Chinese children to take up lessons. Lang Lang has been criticzed for being too flamboyant with his physical gestures as he plays, but in this performance he balanced showmanship with true feeling. His speed, delicacy, and pianistic fireworks created a performance that had the full house standing and cheering numerous times until he gave an encore. I can honestly say we were witnessing artitic greatness.

For those who have allowed themselves to enjoy true romantic music, my fond congratulations. For those who have not, it's not too late.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


On a visit to sunny but cool California this month, I cajoled my grandsons, 10 and 8, into watching one of my favorite movies, THE PRINCESS BRIDE. At first they were resistant. What could Papa George know about adventure movies? Rob Reiner's loving adaptation of William Goldman's comic fantasy novel (Goldman did the script as well) begins as a grandfather(Peter Falk, never crustier or sweeter) reads THE PRINCESS BRIDE to his sick grandson, played perfectly by Fred Savage. Marvelous one-liners ensue. "Wait, is this a kissing book?" and "Are there any sports in it" are only the tip of a witty script, mostly lifted from the original book.

As we watched the movie, my wife and I kept peeking at the boys, who quickly became enraptured by this most unusual mix of fantasy, comedy, and swordplay. What other movie can boast a cast of characters as surprisingly offbeat and satirical as the prissy Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), the Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya with the terrible accent (Mandy Patinkin, who nearly steals the movie), or the has-been magician Miracle Max (Billy Crystal resorting to his New York roots). And who can forget the unlikely Wallace Shawn as a brilliant egotist who has the best line in the film...you'll have to go back and listen, folks. With these great characters and dangers like the Fire Swamp and the Cliffs of Insanity, THE PRINCESS BRIDE pays loving homage to the great adventures of the past but with a modern sensibility. Yes, the sets are obviously sets, the clouds don't move, the costumes are too bright and look rented, the music is cheesily emphatic, and the rocks are obviously foam. All of these elements produce a comic masterpiece that had my grandsons chuckling and occasionally yelling. This is one movie that will never be dated and one my grandsons will watch again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Best American Actor?

Last night I gave the Olympics a rest and switched to a time-worn PBS documentary about my favorite actor James Stewart. My respect for Stewart grew tremendously over the years I taught a high school film course. Whether it was an awkwardly charming and naive young idealist, a grizzled, tough westerner, or a middle-aged man in throes of unexpected passion, Stewart gave perceptively deep performances. Many credit Spencer Tracy as America's finest male actor because of his natural ease on the screen, his lack of "acting." But Stewart is often accused of just being himself, and he is the object of much parody because of his occasional habit of wide-eyed innocence and even stuttering. Obviously, the detractors have not really seen the art of Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart began as a light comedian in the 1930's and became a star when he climbed aboard the Frank Capra American express in 1937's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, a comedy about a family of eccentrics. Stewart plays a stiff blueblood who falls for the only normal member of the family, a spunky Jean Arthur. The film hit big and even won a Best Film Oscar. In 1939, Capra, Stewart, and Arthur collaborated on a much more memorable film in the most memorable year in film history. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON established Stewart as a romantic lead as well as a symbol of the good, unspoiled American. Among many priceless moments is one in which he awkwardly tries to say goodbye to the Senator's daughter, knocking over a lamp and losing his hat in the process. His comic timing is flawless. In 1942, Stewart won his only (!) Oscar as Best Actor for George Cukor's sophisticated comedy of manners THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Katharine Hepburn plays society belle Tracy Lord opposite Cary Grant as her former husband and Stewart as news reporter. Naturally both men want her and spend the majority of the film in pursuit. Stewart's finest scenes come when he is drunk on champagne. After a midnight swim the two spar romantically with some of the best dialogue in all of romantic comedy. But the real pay-off comes when Stewart visits Grant and declares his love for the playboy's former wife. Grant is wonderfully suave and sober opposite Stewart's free-wheeling drunk.

After Stewart's outstanding military service, he returned to film his most iconic role, George Bailey, in Frank Capra's fantasy IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Sporting one of the finest ensemble casts in Hollywood's history, this tale of an ordirnary man who does far more for the world than he knows has now achieved its own sainthood, and the main credit goes to its star. Whether he's playing the cock-eyed optimistic youth who must give up his dreams to save the Savings and Loan or the desperate man attempting suicide after his firm loses its money, Stewart invests his role with a humanity that few actors can muster. Two scenes stand out. George goes to Mary's house and they awkwardly argue. When George's wealthy friend calls, Mary calls him to the phone as her nervous mother listens above. As the friend prattles on, George and Mary close in on each other until he grabs her and denies his affection and then they break into tears and embrace each other. The second comes on Christmas Eve when George thinks he has lost everything. As he walks into his home, he is besieged by his children with Christmas good will, but he finally breaks down, yells at his child, then embraces her before he storms out of the house. There is a ferocity, a helplessness that Stewart pulls out for these scenes that is almost scary.

But it was late in his career that Stewart gave his defining performance. The film was Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO, based on a French psychological novel. Filmed largely in San Francisco and drawing on the city's history and aura, VERTIGO originally puzzled viewers and was not a success with critics or audiences. However, it has reached the status of being on practically every top best films list and is definitely Hitchcock's finest film. The story depicts an aging bachelor cop who has had to retire from the force because of his condition of vertigo. Except for this disablity, he seems steady with his life. All that changes when he accepts a detective's job following the beautiful but strange wife of a multimillionaire. We embark on a dreamlike descent into romantic obsession as Scotty Ferguson becomes obsessed with Madeleine. The film has many surprises and magnificent set pieces. Of the latter, Scotty and Madeleine's embrace by the Pacific sets the mark for all-out romanticism of the old Hollywood style. Of course, the tower scene ranks as one of Hitchcock's most mesmerizing, and we get to see it from three different perspectives, all of them answering but posing more questions. There have been many studies of middle-age crisis, but none probes such depths as this one. That can be seen and felt in Stewart's wrenching performance. James Stewart went on to play many other roles, but he never again received the challenge of VERTIGO.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Movie Valentines

Hollywood has given us many great and not so great romantic moments. To celebrate Valentine's Day, here are five great ones.

5. NOW VOYAGER, 1942. At the end of this classic tear-jerker, Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, sacrifice their love for his daughter, but they share one last cigarette together. He lights both, inhales, and hands her one. Bette says, "Let's don't ask for the moon, Jerry, we have the stars." Max Steiner's music swells, the camera lifts, and we see those stars through the wispy smoke. I know cigs are taboo now, but this scene smokes!

4. QUEEN CHRISTINA, 1933. The queen of Sweden, Greta Garbo, renounces her throne, disguises herself as a boy (right!) and spends an evening with the Spanish ambassador for whom she pines. After their happy discovery, she slowly walks around their room touching objects as though they are holy relics as he watches adoringly. Garbo is mesmerizing with the help of high key lighting. No one ever held a camera close-up like Garbo.

3. CINEMA PARADISO, 1988. This exquistely lush Italian film shows the growth of a cute kid into a romantic young man into a cynical film director. Among the many poignant sections, we watch as he waits through rain, snow, and finally New Year's Eve for his beloved to open her window. When she does, he walks away. But fret not,
they have a romantic meeting later on. Ennio Morricone's provides a beautiful background.

2. CASABLANCA, 1942. First Ingrid Bergman attempts to seduce Bogart to get those letters of transit. When that fails she pulls a gun, but she melts into his arms as the film dissoves. Later Rick tells Ilsa, "We thought we lost Paris, last night we got it back." Aaah, it gets better and better "as time goes by."

1. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, 1961. To the strains of Henry Mancini's "Moon River," Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard search for her forsaken "Cat" in the pouring rain. When Cat finally meows, Hepburn with kitty in tow falls into Peppard's arms. Gulp. Cut, print it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

HBO scores one for Peace

Although HBO has given us some questionable boons such as ROME and, in my minority opinion, THE SOPRANOS and ENTOURAGE, they deserve high praise for their film TAKING CHANCE, which recently won a Golden Globe for Kevin Bacon as Best Actor in a TV film or series. Bacon plays a career Marine who saw little action in Desert Storm and settled down to a life as a numbers cruncher and family man in the service. The latter is established quickly and poignantly in scenes with his wife and young children. The otherwise button down Marine is a happy, giving family man once he crosses the threshold of home. But he happens to scan the latest casualties from Iraq and something strikes him deeply. Within days he has volunteered to accompany the body of a young marine to his home in Wyoming.

TAKING CHANCE could have been another sentimental take on the suffering of families or a open attack on the Bush policies of war. Instead, it artfully shows what the government did not show until the end of the last decade: those body boxes draped with American flags. One telling shot shows a number of them being loaded onto a giant plane headed for America. Other scenes show the preparation of the body, the careful cleaning and repairing, the perfect uniform replacing the savaged, bloody one, and much more. These scenes are intercut through the action of the film, as Bacon's character grows more anxious and intense. He begins to notice the respect that everyone involved in the journey shows him and Chance. From encounters on his plane to conversations with air mechanics to funeral home directors, his disciplined salute and attention to his duty draws people to Chance and what he has sacrificed. In a strong scene near the end of the film, the Marine almost breaks down as he admits his disappointment that he did not serve in Iraq, but the Korean veteran he confides in and Chance's family show that he has done a great service. Bacon plays this Marine with steely reserve but also with feeling. The look on his face at the funeral makes a strong statement about this boy's death. The film ends (spoiler alert) with photos of the real Chance, from his maturity at 20 down through the years of his boyhood. He is blond, smiling, athletic, filled with fun. TAKING CHANCE has made its point. Both my wife and I were fighting back the tears and the anger.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Impersonating versus Being

On film or on the stage, actors have always attempted to embody real people, many of them still living. The biggest challenge they face is being seen as only an impersonator as opposed to getting to the heart of the character. Jamie Foxx's dead-on take of Ray Charles earned him an Oscar, but he rarely rose above the tics, the raucous laughter of the beloved genius of soul. Some actors have pulled back a bit and infused their own personalities into famous personalities. The Australian actor Judy Davis has tackled three of the most famous personalities of the 20th century: Judy Garland, Nancy Reagan, and George Sand. With both Sand, Chopin's lover for 10 years, and Nancy Reagan, Davis doesn't attempt to look like them; instead she infuses her own strong personality into these women, therefore making them even larger than they may have been in real life. The most difficult attempt is to both look like the person as well as inhabit that person. As the adult Judy Garland in the television series based on her life, Davis has all of the star's mannerisms, both endearing and annoying, on display. But she digs deeper into the Garland mystique and her indomitable need to entertain, to please. Whether fighting her addictions or attempting another comeback, Davis' Garland is a creation of anguish but admirable spirit. Fortunately, Garland's recordings are used and synched perfectly with Davis' superb performance.

But perhaps the finest performance of a real person on film came with Marion Cotillard's creation of the legendary Edith Piaf. Again the original recordings are used. LA VIE EN ROSE is a traditional biographical filmed in France with English subtitles. What's amazing about this film is the total immersion of actress Cotillard into the difficult, unpredictable woman who remains France's most popular entertainer. She seems to have shrunk herself into "the little sparrow" at different times in her life. Piaf came from the streets and during her meteoric rise she suffered tragic romantic losses and became addicted to drugs. Cotillard embodies Piaf's sufferings with incredible sensitivity and shocking realism. One scene shows Piaf in rehab on the California coast. She looks almost deathly ill, her body shrunk to that of a waif, her hair falling out, her voice breaking. Like Garland, Piaf attempted to continue entertaining, as if her singing was her life's blood. When I saw Marion Cotillard on the Oscars, I was stunned. She is a radiant beauty, but, unlike some actors, she did not use a prosthetic nose (Nicole Kidman in THE HOURS) or radical make-up (Charlize Theron in MONSTER). She acted.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finally...An Iraq Movie that connects

THE HURT LOCKER'S Director Kathryn Bigelow's harrowing account of the days and nights of bomb defusors in Iraq is one of the leading contenders for Oscar trophies for film, director, and screenplay, yet hardly anyone has seen it. Now that the DVD is out, you owe it to yourself to forget those blue creatures and George Clooney and watch a really great movie. Unlike earlier Iraq-based movies, THE HURT LOCKER doesn't take sides, doesn't push an agenda, doesn't bash Bush and his agenda; it simply and graphically takes us through the physical and emotional challenges of the men who defuse bombs under grave circumstances.

Jeremy Remmer, a James Cagney look-a-like and type, plays the best ofthese brave people, but he is also a man who puts his fellow soldiers' lives in greater danger, takes ridiculous risks, drinks and smokes to excess, and cannot face himself or his family at home. Remmer brings a perfect balance of swagger and insecurity to his role, and he is supported by strong actors like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce in small roles. The film itself is episodic as we count down the days to the end of the group's mission. One bomb crisis after another, including one in the open desert, builds the film's tension as well as the body count. There are moving small moments as well, such as Remmer's friendship with an Iraqi boy. You know almost instinctively where this will end. In another mistaken good deed, an army psychiatrist loses his life because he wanted to find out what it was like "out there."

Using lots of hand-held camera shots, Bigelow lets us get close to the danger. Her best device is the subjective shot from Remmer's point of view. The viewer is inside the bomb defusor's protective outfit and can hear his breathing as he gets closer to his possible extinction. This is a film that is hard to watch but also difficult to forget.

Friday, January 15, 2010


One of the topics that most people don't want to talk about or face is death, their own or that of loved ones, but director Yojiro Takito has boldly made a sensitive yet entertaining film call appropriately DEPARTURES. The story involves a cellist who loses his gig in Tokyo and returns with his wife to his home in a small city. He takes a job as an assistant encoffiner and at first is repelled by his duties and the grief and sometimes ugly aspects of his job. But the more he watches his mentor, an aging encoffiner, and the gentle, respectful care he gives the families of the disceased, the more devoted he becomes to his new career. The Japanese ritual of encoffining before cremation is a highly stylized and beautiful one and it is repeated numerous times throughout the film, each time making a stronger impression on the young man, eventually his wife, and the audience. There are also themes concerning the young man's father and his desertion and the young couple's love threatened by his career choice.

DEPARTURES deservedly won the Oscar as Best Foreign Film of 2008. Its musical score is personal yet often sonorous and depends heavily on the cello, which happens to be the young man's instrument. The acting, writing, and directing are all of the highest
calibre. This is a film that entertains and moves the viewer, and in this age of nonsensical films like GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS II, it is one that deserves our attention.