erik lundegaard

Sunday February 27, 2011

Live-Blogging the Oscars

1:50 PM, PST: Patricia and I were going to be hosting an Oscar party tonight but poor Patricia came down with the crud and we thought better to keep it mellow and not infect anyone. So instead of a party it'll be just P and me and a cat named Jellybean (a rejected Lobo B-side, I believe).

But their loss is your gain. Or their gain is your loss. I.e., I'll be liveblogging the Oscars.

In the meantime my votes: Who I'd choose if I could ch-ch-choose. The Oscar statuette(That's a “Simpsons” reference, not a “King's Speech” reference.) This is want-to-win, not think-will-win. Off the top of my head. Or heart:

  • Picture: “True Grit”
  • Director: Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”
  • Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”
  • Actress: Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”
  • Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter's Bone”
  • Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”
  • Original Screenplay: Christopher Nolan, “Inception”
  • Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, “The Social Network”
  • Animated Feature Film: “Toy Story 3”
  • Art Direction: “Inception”
  • Cinematography: “True Grit”
  • Costume Design: “Alice in Wonderland”
  • Documentary: “Restrepo”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Film Editing: Andrew Weisblum, “Black Swan”
  • Foreign Language Film: N/A. I've only seen “Biutiful” and was disappointed.
  • Makeup: N/A. Haven't seen anyof these.
  • Original Score: Hans Zimmer, “Inception”
  • Original Song: Randy Newman, “We Belong Together”
  • Sound Editing/Mixing: What do I know about these categories? Less than I know about the others.
  • Visual Effects: “Inception”

A lot of these choices are razor-thin. “True Grit” barely over “The Social Network.” Eisenberg barely over Bridges. Aronofsky and Portman because they get you in the head of the character. It's Dostoevsky-type stuff. 

The main one I want to win apparently has no shot: “Restrepo.” Maybe someday people will know.

See you in a bit.

**

3:30 PM: Some Oscar linkage before the broadcast:

Mila Kunis in that dress  Mila Kunis in that dress (close-up)

Talk of the town.

4:20 PM: Question: How come Nathaniel hasn't mentioned Mila Kunis' outfit yet? She's definitely living up to her Black Swan character in that thing. She's even handling Ryan Seacrest well. On the red carpet he asks, “How did you ge that role?” Doesn't it sound like he's asking: “How did YOU get that role?” I barely see the dude but every time it's nails-on-a-chalkboard.

I'm trying to make up for the lack of females here by being catty during the red carpet for Patricia:

“Where did Cate Blanchett get that dress? From Rachel on 'Glee'?”

I know. Needs work.

From Patricia: “What's up with all these strapless gowns? I'm not a fan of strapless gowns. For the last five years there's been nothing but strapless gowns.”

Patricia on Jennifer Lawrence: “She looks gorgeous. And that is a beatiful dress. And it has straps on it!”

**

4:55 PM: Does Sandra Bullock look like she's had some recent work done? She looks tight and unhappy. P not a fan of the red dress, either. Strapless.

E! broadcasters: “Let's talk about Celine Deon.” Patricia: “Why?”

And there's Jeff Bridges. He'd be back anyway to present best actress but finds himself nominated again. Is that like picking up a spare after a strike? Do you get more points in the final tally this way?

Hey, how many other Oscar livebloggers give you bowling metaphors during the red carpet?

**

5:05 PM: WTF? I thought the show started at 5:00 not 5:30. Oh, man. See you in a half hour.

**

5:53 PM: Odd opening, no? It's nice to see the lines of “Winter's Bone” side by side with the lines of such blockbusters as “Toy Story 3” and “Inception”; but Anne Hathaway (AH) and James Franco (JF) going through the year's best picture nominees seemed much ado about not much. (Though I loved her wink at Colin Firth's Duke of York.) And what's with the “Back to the Future” homage? Because AH and JF are the future of movies? I'm confused.

Having the moms and grandmoms stand up was cute. But then they begin with “Gone with the Wind”? “Let's celebrate the best of this year ... by looking back 72 years.”

First award: Art Direction. Patricia wanted “Inception.” Instead: “Alice in Wonderland.” 

Second award: Cinematography. I wanted “True Grit.” Instead: “Inception.” Wally Pfister: “Thank you... for all the respect you've shown to all the cinematographers.” Except, of course, Roger Deakins.

**

6:00 PM: OK, I'm fine with Kirk Douglas. But one should never milk it when one is holding the winning envelope. Just say the name. And one should get offstage when the winner (here: Melissa Leo) gets on it. Though.... Holy crap! She just swore on international television. Fun! She gives one of the oddest acceptance speeches but looks great.

Is anything going right here? Justin T. and Mila K. have nothing going on. Weak back-and-forth. iPhone apps jokes. Blech.

The best line so far is from the winner of the short animated film. “Our picture is about a creature no one pays attention to, so this award is wonderfully ironic.”

Animated feature? Pixar. “Toy Story 3.” I wonder if Vegas would even accept money on that bet.

**

6:22 PM: AH with a story about the first Academy Awards, which leads to an intro of ... Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem? I am SOOOOO confused.

Adapted Screenplay: Should be Sorkin. And it's Sorkin. Hugs for and from Aranofsky and Eisenberg. Let's see how articulate he is. Hey, shout-out to Paddy Chayefsky! Cool. “I wrote this movie but Darren Aronofsky made this movie.” Classy. “This movie is going to be a source of pride for me for the rest of my life.” Classy again.

Now original screenplay. Getting the writers out of the way early, apparently.

And it's David Seidler for “King's Speech.” Christopher Hitchens is throwing a fit somewhere but screw him. I'm happy for this guy ... who can't find the mic. “The writer's speech, this is terrifying. [pause] My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.” Great line. Dude has something of Norman Mailer about him, doesn't he? He's been through battles.

Anne Hathaway and James Franco (in drag) host the 2011 Oscars

Drag.

6:50 PM: BTW, family and friends: P is already back in the bedroom, coughing and achey. Poor thing. Just me out here alone in the living room. Well, “alone.” I've got a beer.

Another odd bit: AH singing a short, angry song about Hugh Jackman and JF showing up in drag. Plus a Charlie Sheen joke. Is it me or does this feel like the worst Oscar show ever?

Foreign language film. Hey, Denmark in the house!

Best supporting actor. Why Reese Witherspoon as presenter? Who won supporting actress last year? (Psst: Monique.) This category is stacked. First time I've applauded tonight: for John Hawkes. But I'm glad with Christian Bale winning—if only so the world can hear his British accent. “Bloody hell.” “Mate.” Overall, a weak acceptance speech for him. He blew it all at the Golden Globes.

Apologies. Ducked out. Had to get P advil and water and search for a thermometer. Has anyone seen it? She said she left it on the bedside table.

So I've come back to a tribute to... sound? Music? The sound of music? Yes. Best original score. I've heard Desplat will win for “TKS.” But “TSN” was quite good, too. As was “I.” And it goes to “TSN.”

Now it's sound, mixing, for .. “Inception.” Hey, nice looking sound engineer! Lora Hirschberg. Waving to the back row.

Now sound editing. Also “Inception.” That happens often, doesn't it? The sound awards going hand in hand? How often? Anyone know?

**

7:30 PM: Best line of the night so far: Catie Blanchett's “Gross” for the “Wolfman” clip. And she didn't even have to watch the entire movie. As expected, it wins best makeup. Expertise in the service of mediocrity.

Costume design? I've heard “Alice.” And it's ... “Alice.”

I like Jake G's message about seeing short films throughout the year because it might help you with your Oscar ballot.

But it's the “best live-action short” guy with the Sideshow Bob haircut, Luke Matheny, who steals the show. He wins for “God of Love” and says the following with genuine enthusiasm and meaning:

I should've gotten a haircut. [crowd laughs] Hey, everybody. Thanks to the Academy for this amazing honor, I need to salute my fellow nominees ... I invite the world to check out these films, they can be found on iTunes, you're gonna love 'em ... Finally [I'd like to thank] my mother, who did craft services for the film [crowd laughs], my dad, the state of Delaware, and last but not least, my brilliant composer and love of my life: Sasha Gordon, you're my dream come true.

Now documentary feature. Will we get to see Banksy? Will we hear about the global financial meltdown? We'll hear about the global financial meltdown. “Inside Job” wins.

Now a standing ovation for Billy Crystal. Is that a sign of how badly things are going tonight? Come back, Billy! Come back!

Visual effects. “Inception”? “Inception.”

Film editing. This is a big one. Could be a sign of best picture. And it's ... hey! “The Social Network”! Fingers crossed, babies.

Here's our tally thus far: “inception”: 4; “The Social Network”: 3; “The Fighter”: 2; “The King's Speech”: 1

**

7:50 PM: Original song. Who cares? I care! Randy Newman wins! Plus his speech is great. He and Luke Matheny in a competition for best accepatance speech thus far.

Final four. Could “The Social Network” pull it out? The tension is ... ehh. I guess it'd be nice but I'm not losing sleep.

But why bring out Hilary Swank simply to introduce Katherine Bigelow? Why waste the time? Hollywood, I dunna understand thee.

Best director: C'mon, Fincher! Fincher Fincher Fincher. And it's ... Tom Hooblah! As expected. So odd. BAFTA gave the award to the American, Fincher, for “The Social Network,” and we give it to the Brit, Hooper, for “The King's Speech.” Grass is greener, I guess. Except they're right this time. Our grass is greener.

Jeff Bridges suddenly seems so at home on the Oscar stage, doesn't he? He fills it.

My god, Natalie Portman looks loverly. And they chose a great clip for her. And they chose her.

Now Sandra Bullock with best actor. Do we like these personal intros? I guess we do. Sandra is particularly good with Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth. And it's Colin Firth. “I have a feelng my career has just peaked.” Classic Brit line. And then the threat of the dance moves. Post-speech commentary. Me: “Very British.” Patricia (back from the dead): “Sooooo cute.

So now it's all pretty much a foregone, in'it? The only hope was Fincher, with director, but Hooper got director, so ”TKS“ will get picture, too. As it does. Just after a great intro by Steven Spielberg, reminding everyone, particularly the ”losers,“ of the good company they keep:

In a moment, one of the 10 movies will join a list that includes ”On the Waterfront,“ ”Midnight Cowboy,“ ”The Godfather“ and ”The Deer Hunter.“ The other nine will join a list that includes ”The Grapes of Wrath,“ ”Citizen Kane,“ ”The Graduate“ and ”Raging Bull.“ Either way, congratulations, you're in very good company.

**

So (with apologies to Alvy Singer) here's my awards for the awards show:

  • Best dressed (female): Mila Kunis
  • Best dressed (female again: because who cares about best-dressed males?): Natalie Portman
  • Best woman who stunned me with her beauty all over again: Halle Berry
  • Best acceptance speech: Firth, Sorkin, and Newman were all good, but I give it to the kid: Luke Matheny
  • Best intro: Steven Spielberg
  • Biggest surprise: Probably Melissa Leo's f-bomb. There weren't many surprises tonight. Or laughs.

The show was an odd mix of youthful hosts, giving it a go but not being particularly funny, and constant looks back to ”Gone with the Wind“ and ”sound“ and ”Bob Hope“ for no reason I could fathom. Rather than focusing on this year, it kept darting back 70, 80 years, to apparently remind everyone of the glorious history of the movies. Yet when it had a chance to honor that glorious history of movies now, with Coppola and Godard, it did so off-stage. Almost every move was wrong: from the Hugh Jackass song, to the ”mashup" of faux musicals, to the iPhone app. What a waste. Bring back the comedians. Give us new producers. Something.

On the plus side, we found the thermometer.

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Posted at 01:52 PM on Feb 27, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday February 26, 2011

Plus Ca Change...

I was reminded of the JFK “Wanted for Treason” poster, popular in Texas in the early 1960s, while watching the documentary “Oswald's Ghost” the other night, then easily found the Obama poster, one of the milder anti-Obama propaganda pieces out there, via Google. I've said it before: In 50 years, the extreme right in this country has managed to change exactly one letter. They've gone from Birchers to Birthers.

    Wanted posters for JFK and Obama

The content of the above posters may be the same but the form of each bears scrutiny. In the early '60s, it was enough to convict Pres. Kennedy through a modern, FBI prism. Maybe the extreme right now views the FBI, a government organization, as equally suspect, so they have to delve even deeper into American history and mythology to make their case. They need to see themselves as cowboys, not knowing the derivation of cowboys. They're forced to rely on Hollywood mythmaking, even as they despise Hollywood. They think they're protecting America when they represent the worst of America.

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Posted at 06:47 AM on Feb 26, 2011 in category Politics
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Friday February 25, 2011

Movie Review: “Oswald's Ghost” (2007)

WARNING: MAGIC SPOILERS

Norman Mailer gives us the title. “Oswald is the ghost that lays over American life,” he says, with his usual twinkle, near the end of this well-made documentary. “What is abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can’t know because the ghost isn’t telling you.”

Yet “Oswald’s Ghost” tells us plenty—because it’s less conspiracy theory, or conspiracy debunker, than conspiracy history. It takes us chronologically, and cleanly, through events, and delves into why we began to believe there was a cover-up, and what it means that we now believe there was a cover-up, and how we now act as a result. It sees the Kennedy assassination as the great dividing point of the American century, the break from which we never recovered. John F. Kennedy began his administration with the pro-government rhetoric of his inaugural—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—and yet the mystery surrounding his assassination, along with the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, set the stage for the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and all of his acolytes, from which we still haven’t recovered.

Is there a story of the last 50 years that’s been told more often than the Kennedy assassination? Yet filmmaker Robert Stone, working for PBS and “The American Experience,” finds footage, and photos, I’ve never seen before. Here’s Oswald in the Dallas police station professing his innocence so matter-of-factly that I began to believe him:

Oswald (in glare of TV lights): I'd like some legal representation, but these police officers have not allowed me to have any. I don't know what this is all about.
Reporter: Did you kill the president?
Oswald: No, sir, I didn't. People keep asking me that. ... They are taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy.

One suddenly wonders: Hey, how did they trace him to the murder of Officer Tippit? How did they find him in that Dallas movie theater? How did they make him the focal point of the worst American murder of the 20th century?

Newsman: Was this the man that you believed killed President Kennedy?
Dallas police: I think we have the right man.

You think?

Dan Rather: Confusion reigned inside the Dallas police station.

Confusion?

Abraham Zapruder didn’t help. Instead of showing his film to the American people, he hired a lawyer and sold the rights to Life magazine, which printed individual frames. The film itself wouldn’t be shown on television until 1975.

Oswald’s mother didn’t help. She said her son was being framed, which one expects, but she also said her son was a government agent, which raised spectres.

Jack Ruby certainly didn’t help.

Did Mark Lane? The New York lawyer became the first man to openly question whether Oswald acted alone, in a December 1963 article in The National Guardian entitled “Lane’s defense brief for Oswald.”

Did the Warren Commission? Shouldn’t its hearings have been public? Shouldn’t we have taken our time with the matter instead of rushing out a verdict before the 1964 elections?

Yet, at the time, most Americans accepted the lone-gunman theory. That would quickly change as conspiracy books began appearing, then proliferating, two and three years later: First Lane’s “Rush to Judgment,” then Edward Jay Epstein’s “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.” Then it was off to the races.

Initially outsiders were blamed. It was Castro or the KGB. It was the South Vietnamese government, responding to the Diem assassination. Eventually we began blaming ourselves. It was some rogue CIA element. It was some right-wing element that wanted to stay in Vietnam just as JFK was getting ready to pull us out. “And like all those theories,” Mailer says, “it had a certainly plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.”

That didn’t stop New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, wild-eyed and bug-eyed, and the worst of the conpiratorialists, who went after Clay Shaw, a prominent, closeted businessman. Stone (Robert, not Oliver) includes a fascinating 1967 news report critical of Garrison:

Garrison’s investigation has seemed to concentrate on homosexuals. That of course is an old police trick, and homosexuals have been a particular target of Garrison’s over the years. Even members of his staff have been privately critical of his emphasis on men whose deviation makes them vulnerable.

1968 didn’t help. Both MLK and RFK were assassinated by “lone gunmen.” Both were progressives. How could it not be conspiracy? (But did it have to lead to the inaninities of “The Parallax View”?)

Post-Watergate, the Church Committee detailed all of those early 1960s CIA assassinations of foreign leaders. Was Malcolm X more right than he knew? Was the JFK assassination a case of the chickens coming home to roost?

It’s the Ruby factor that’s always bugged me. He had mob ties. He was a strip-club owner. Yet he killed Oswald, effectively silencing him, out of respect for Jackie? Out of sudden anger? Tie that with the difficulty of Oswald's shot, of squeezing three bullets out of the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle in the time allotted, and of the whole back-and-to-the-left thing, with that final shot, the kill shot, looking, in the Zapruder film, like it’s blasting him from the front, well, you know, maybe there was something to it.

It's Jack Ruby's dog who pushes us back from the brink. Oswald was scheduled to be moved at 10:00 a.m. that Sunday morning. Here’s Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter:

Ruby slept 'til probably 9:30 or 9:20 something of that sort, and then he drives with his dog down to the Western Union and sent a telegram at 11:17 that morning. Came out and he looked one block up and he saw the crowd there at the police department. Jack Ruby was always on the scene of action, whether it be a fire, whether it be a raid, whether it be a parade, whatever. He had to be there. And he knew some of those cops. The fact that he left the dog in the car indicates to me that he thought he was going down to send a telegram and go back home. He took that little dog everywhere with him.

Few have assumed conspiracy longer and more vocally than Norman Mailer—yet even he comes around. “The internal evidence just wasn't there,” he says. “There were too many odd moments that just didn't add up.” Instead he focuses on Oswald’s mindset:

I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then, he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. He would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history ...

When he shot Tippit, I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, “I'm a patsy.”

“If you shoot a policeman, forget it, you're a punk.”

“This is not a whodunnit,” says Stone (Robert, not Oliver) in a DVD special features interview. “This is what a whodunnit has done to us.” He adds: “Conspiracy theory is part of the human condition; and it always will be.” Think of the doc as one Stone to correct another.

Is conspiracy the new American religion? The notion that we exist as small nothings for a short span of time in a cosmic eternity is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. The notion that this small nothing brought down the most powerful, glamorous man in the world is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. It was our enemies—foreign or domestic. It was the left or right. It was anything—please, God, let it be anything—other than little Lee Harvey Oswald.

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Feb 25, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Wednesday February 23, 2011

Movie Review: “The Housemaid” (2010)

WARNING: REVENGE-SERVED-HOT SPOILERS

Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” (2010) is based upon Kim Ki-young’s “The Housemaid” (1960), a classic Korean film that was only recently discovered by cineastes in the West. Both “Housemaids” are about the horror that results when a new maid has an affair with, and a pregnancy from, the man of the house; but there are two major differences in terms of story.

In the original, the family is middle-class. They’ve finally bought a home, which they’re fixing up, but the husband has to work two jobs and the wife takes in sewing. At the same time, they’re happy. It’s the housemaid, a sexually predatory femme fatale, who instigates the affair, and ultimately destroys both happiness and family. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside corruption destroys a collective, familial innocence. Meaning it’s a story as old as the Garden of Eden and as oft-told as “Fatal Attraction,” “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and the tabloid exploits of Angelina Jolie.

In Im Sang-soo’s new version, the family is fabulously wealthy and powerful, and their home is vast, clean and cold, with an elongated fireplace that seems to produce no heat. The housemaid, Eun-Yi (Jeon Do-yeon), is an innocent, and it’s the husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), who instigates the affair. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside innocence is destroyed by a collective, familial corruption. Meaning it has more in common with most westerns than it does with Kim Ki-young’s original.

The housemaid as outside malevolence who destroys a familial innocence (above, in the 1960 original), and as an outside innocent who is destroyed by familial malevolence (in the 2010 remake).

The new “Housemaid” begins in almost cinema verite fashion. On what looks like a Friday night in Seoul, an unnamed and unknown woman moves out on a four-story ledge as, below, vendors prepare food, girls frolic in a second-story danceteria, and couples wonder where to go for the evening. A minute later she jumps. It causes a minor stir but life, such as it is, goes on. One of the vendors, Eun-yi, with her friend, visits the scene of the crime: a chalk outline stained in blood. Is this what spurs her to improve her position and get the housemaid job? This reminder of the shortness of life? She doesn’t know it, but looking up to the height from which the woman jumped, she’s looking into her own future.

We’re introduced to the family piecemeal. Here’s the older housekeeper, Mrs. Cho (a glorious Yoon Yeo-jeong), who is herself so entitled she enters Eun-yi’s apartment without permission before hiring her. Here’s the young mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), with huge, swollen belly, doing pregnant yoga and reading picture books on Matisse. Here’s the young, stoic daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyun), acting less childlike and more knowing than Eun-yi, who dotes on her. Finally, here’s the father, Hoon, or Mr. Goh, arriving late, walking before two bowing associates, drinking his expensive red wines and playing his Beethoven sonatas.

Is there a correlation between the westernization of the Gohs and their corruption? Have they lost their Koreanness and thus their souls? Jean-Michel Frodon of Cahiers du cinéma compared the original director, Kim Ki-young, to Luis Buñuel. Is Im Sang-soo, in this regard, the Korean Olivier Assayas?

We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.

A question: If Eun-yi is truly innocent, why does she go along with the affair? Her own answer, to her friend, is compartmentalization. She tends to the Mrs. during the day and the Mr. during the evening. Mr. Goh, meanwhile, deals with any romantic thoughts she might mistakenly have by tucking a check into her shirt. I pay for this, too.

We also know the affair will blow up—badly. The question: Who will be ally to Eun-yi and who an enemy? Or is she surrounded by enemies?

Mrs. Cho is the wild card. Early on she seems as dismissive as the family; but then we get a great scene in the bathroom of the servant’s quarters. Eun-yi is on the toilet while Mrs. Cho, cigarette going, holds forth from the bathtub. She calls the job RUNS (Revolting, Ugly, Nauseating and Shameless), and counsels Eun-yi away from it:

“You get up in the morning and think about what you have to endure and [grimaces] it makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.”

Mrs. Cho already knows about the affair; and it’s while eyeing Eun-yi in the bathroom that she figures out she’s pregnant. What to do with this information? She goes to Ha-rae’s mother (Park Ji-young), even more beautiful than her daughter, who is full of distant, flutey compliments about Mrs. Cho’s son becoming a prosecutor, but who proves to be the most villainous element in the story. She knocks Eun-yi off a ladder, and watches her fall two stories to the cold, marble ground. She is never far from her daughter’s ear, into which, Lady Macbeth-like, she pours her calm, poisonous thoughts. “I should’ve pushed her from someplace higher and ended things,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s the matter-of-factness that’s scary.

Ha-Rae fixates on the affair and its various betrayals (“with a common maid,” etc.), but her mother sees the baby as the real problem. It gives Eun-yi power, makes her a rival, almost an equal, and they can’t abide that. Eventually they confront Eun-yi, who is now aware that she’s pregnant, and give her money for an abortion; but Hae-re, eyes opening, recalls the way Eun-yi talked baby-talk to her own swollen stomach, and figures Eun-yi will want the baby. The poisoned thoughts of her mother become literal poison, which she slips to Eun-yi, which induces a miscarriage. It happens in the bathtub. “No, don’t do this,” Eun-yi cries as she tries to hold it all together. “No, baby!” It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Now the family is through with her but she’s not through with them. “I can’t get it out of my head,” she says later. “What happened here. It’s so horrible.” So she does to them what they did to her. She creates an image so horrible they can never get it out of their heads.

“The Housemaid” is melodrama, and occasionally over-the-top, but it’s anchored by great performances, including Jeon, whose Eun-yi is, sweet, childlike, and slightly off throughout, and Yoon’s Mrs. Cho, whose stoic demeanor hides, not a secret smile for her employers, but a secret hatred. (Yoon, recently seen stealing the show in “The Actresses,” also played the lead in Kim Ki-young’s second housemaid film, “Woman on Fire,” in 1971.)

Woo, meanwhile, managages to coat Ha-Rae’s nastiest lines with a topping of sweetness. When she slaps Eun-yi for the affair without mentioning the affair, and Eun-yi apologizes for the affair without mentioning the affair, she comes back with a faux innocent, “For what?” She wants Eun-yi to say it. She can’t forgive Mrs. Cho, either, for going to the mother rather than her with the bad news, and for the rest of the movie wears her down. “Mrs. Cho,” she says in her dreamy, singsongy voice, “why are you chattering on late at night with that annoying voice of yours?”

Ultimately, for all its “erotic” and “steamy” qualities, this is a movie about class, and how the very rich are different than you and me—although Mrs. Cho would probably flip that cause-and-effect order. “Scary people,” she says at one point. “Probably why they’re so rich.”

The epilogue is a dreamy sequence right out of David Lynch, as the Gohs, seemingly mad, celebrate Nami’s birthday outside in the snow, with champagne, Hollywood art and English. No one speaks Korean. Their corruption is complete. They are homeless now.

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Posted at 06:47 AM on Feb 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday February 22, 2011

Lancelot Links

No one knows where the ladder goes
You're going to lose what you love the most
You're not alone in anything
You're not unique in dying

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Posted at 06:21 AM on Feb 22, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday February 21, 2011

Oscar B.O.: It's the Distribution, Stupid

So “Unknown,” with 58-year-old Liam Neeson in the lead, took the top weekend spot from a bunch of kids in “I Am Number Four.” Final estimates: $21.7m vs. $19.5m. Through Sunday.

The bigger news is that two Oscar contenders, “Black Swan” and “The King's Speech,” each passed the $100 million dollar mark, while “True Grit,” despite losing 607 theaters, grossed enough to pass “Grown Ups” and “Clash of the Titans” for 13th place on the 2010 box office chart. Its current gross: $164 million. Wow.

I wrote about the surprising box-office success of best-picture nominees a few weeks ago (“Are Best Picture Nominees Making a Comeback?”), and Patrick Goldstein finally got off the schnied to write about it last week (“The Oscar box office mystery: What brought adult moviegoers back to the theaters?”); but even with his L.A. Times access, he's not asking the right questions; or maybe he's just not getting the right answers.

Why is this happening? Here's an easy answer: It's the distribution, Stupid.

For most of the 2000s, certainly in the second half of the 2000s, Oscar pictures barely got seen because they barely got distributed.

In 2005, one only of the best picture nominees, “Brokeback Mountain,” was distributed into more than 2,000 theaters, and that high point lasted exactly one week.

Things have gotten better since.

In 2006, one picture, “The Departed,” was distributed into more than 2,000 theaters, for a total of six weeks.

In 2007, three pictures, “Juno,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Michael Clayton,” were thus distributed, for a total of 10 weeks.

In 2008, two pictures, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Benjamin Button,” for a total of 11 weeks.

In 2009, among the best director nominees—the best correlation to five best picture nominees we now have—three pics (“Avatar,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air”) were in 2,000+ theaters for a total of 19 weeks, but that was mostly “Avatar.”

2010? All five nominees have been distributed into more than 2,000 theaters for a total of 27 weeks. And counting. (“The King's Speech” is currently at 2,086, but I wouldn't be surprised if it dipped below 2,000 next week.)

Some may say, “Well, sure. Movies in general get wider distribution now.” Yes and no. In 2005, 109 of the movies released during the year were distributed into more than 2,000 theaters. By 2008, it was 123 movies. In 2010? Only 121 movies.

No, these best picture/best director movies are getting wider distribution, and sooner in their runs, less from historical trends than because each is perceived to have box office potential.

But this only raises the deeper question: Studios, movies or audience? Are the studios reawakening to the box office potential of Oscar films and getting them out there? Or are these particular movies somehow more distributable/more appealing than the nominees five years ago? Or is the audience for such pictures simply there in a way they weren't five years ago?

And that's just the start.

Why is “The King's Speech” more than doubling “The Queen”'s box office take from four years ago?

How did “Black Swan” get to $100 million? A claustrophobic, paranoiac, Darren Aranofsky film about ballet? Is it that Fox Searchlight can distribute and market anything? Or is “Black Swan” less about ballet than about the cattiness and competition of girls, and thus has that B-movie “Single White Female” appeal?

Oddly, the one of the five movies that seemed to have the best shot at boffo box office, “The Fighter,” an uplifting underdog story starring a pumped-up leading man and a slimmed-down superhero, is doing the least well of the five. Find me somebody who predicted that in November.

Chart below.

No. of weeks best picture nominees were distributed
into more than 1,000 or 2,000 theaters: 2005-2010

The distribution of best picture nominees: 2005-2010

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Posted at 08:24 AM on Feb 21, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday February 19, 2011

Hollywood Values: Patriotism

“[Adolph] Zukor, like so many of the Hollywood Jews, had used [World War I] as an opportunity to prove his patriotism; visiting Frank Wilson, director of publicity of the Liberty Loan program, which raised money from bond sales, he announced that the industry was happy 'to show its patriotism [and] to prove beyond all question its worth to the Government as well as to the people of the United States,' as if these had been at issue. The Jews mobilized the entire industy; Lasky and De Mille, now headquartered in California, even formed a Paramount brigade that marched up and down the studio grounds with prop rifles in preparedness.”

—Neal Gabler, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” pp. 39-40

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Posted at 07:43 AM on Feb 19, 2011 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Friday February 18, 2011

Charters and Caldicott and the “Night Train to Munich” (1940)

The other night Patricia and I were watching a not-bad film from 1940: Carol Reed's “Night Train to Munich,” starring Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison. Not sure why I rented it. Probably Carol Reed.

Night Train to Munich posterAfter the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Allies manage to secret out of the country an inventor of a better kind of armour plating, Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), but his daughter,  Anna (Margaret Lockwood), still veddy veddy British, is captured and placed in a concentration camp. There she encounters a dashing freedom fighter, Karl Marsen, played by Paul Henried, who, two years later, would play the most dashing freedom fighter of them all, Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca.” Even so: knowing it was still early in the film, knowing Lockwood's true co-star was Rex Harrison, and seeing that Henried was billed as Paul von Hernried, I thought, “He's a plant. He's a spy. To get to her father.” As he was. As they did: secreting him and daughter back out of Britain and to Germany just before Sept. 1, 1939. 

Ah, but intrepid agent, Gus Bennett (Harrison), seen to this point mostly as a boardwalk barker, decides to go to Berlin undercover, as Major Herzoff, monocle and all, to get father and daughter back.

I should add that I'd never seen a youthful Rex Harrison before and was fairly blown away. The movie felt run-of-the-mill until he came onscreen and then: zap! That Henry Higgins persona is already there: distant, faintly amused by it all, protected with a kind of armour plating of his own that still allows his charm-for-charm's-sake to seep through. He has a kind of flirtatiousness with women but it's wrapped in a challenge that's intellectual and dismissive rather than sexual and complimentary. “Do you have any brains at all?” he seems to be saying. “Let's see, shall we?”

At one point Lockwood and Harrison are having a great back-and-forth in her swanky bedroom in Germany, going over the escape plan. It's not much of an escape plan. He'll say he persuaded her to persuade her father to stay and work for the Germans, and while the high command is congratulating themselves they'll all make their escape via airplane in a nearby field.

Anna: But why should the admirality believe you persuaded me?
Gus: I shall indicate that once again you have succumbed to my charms.
Anna (aghast): Once again?
Gus: (pleased with himself) It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.
Anna: And you told them a fantastic story like that?
Gus: Fantastic? It was four years ago, there was a harvest moon, I was younger and more dashing then...

scene from Night Train to Munich

“It happened in Prague, I'm afraid.”

“Night Train to Munich” is amazingly light for a film about Nazis produced as bombs were raining down on London. Stiff upper lip and all that. They make jokes about Nazi propaganda:

“Any day now,” a Nazi officer says at one point, “Poland may provoke us into invading her in self-defense!”

There's an extended piece with two Germans that, between “Heil Hitlers,” is simply wordplay:

Kampenfeldt: It's been reported to me that you've been heard expressing sentiments hostile to the fatherland!
Schwab: What — me, sir?
Kampenfeldt: I warn you, Schwab, this treasonable conduct will lead you to a concentration camp.
Schwab: But, sir, what did I say?
Kampenfeldt: You were distinctly heard to remark, [sarcastic] “This is a fine country to live in.”
Schwab: Oh no, sir. There's some mistake. What I said was, [upbeat] “This is a fine country to live in!” 
Kampenfeldt: You sure?
Schwab: Yes, sir.
Kampenfeldt: I see. Well in future don't make remarks that can be taken two ways.

Both Kampenfeldt and Schwab are even less German than Rex Harrison That's part of the fun of watching cinema from other countries. Everyone does it as badly, as myopically, as Hollywood.

Following the titular train to Munich, we see, at a German train station, a man asking for a copy of “Punch,” the British humor magazine. Me to Patricia: “OK. They're not trying to pass that guy off as German, are they?” They're not. The man is British. He's frightfully put off, for example, that the Germans don't carry this week's “Punch,” and both he and his companion seem completely oblivious to the danger they're in as British nationals in Nazi Germany after Sept. 1st.  Which is about when the other shoe dropped.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Patricia. “Aren't these guys the same guys from 'The Lady Vanishes'?” A second later: “I think they're playing the same characters.

Charters and Caldicott in a scene from "Night Train to Munich"

Charters and Caldicott: Terribly put out in the midst of this how-do-you do.

I'm probably the last movie critic in America to know this story. Charters and Caldicott are two obtuse, cricket-obsessed British characters, played by Basil Radford (Charters) and Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), who made their first appearance in Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes. They proved so popular with British crowds that screenwriter Sidney Gilliat, who had written a good half-dozen screenplays since ”The Lady Vanishes“ in '38, resurrected them for ”Night Train to Munich“ in 1940, then for ”Millions Like Us,“ about a British factory girl, in '43. They were given the lead in ”Crook's Tour“ in '41, but Gilliat wasn't involved in that project.

Apparently the actors had a falling out with Gilliant in '45 when he refused to expand their roles for ”I See a Dark Stranger“ and they walked, both away from Gilliat and the names, but not from each other. In subsequent films they played similarly self-regarding characters with different names: Prendergast and Fotheringham in ”A Girl in a Million“ (1946), Gregg and Straker in ”Passport to Pimlico“ (1949) and Bright and Early in ”It's Not Cricket.“ Radford died in 1952, Wayne in 1970, but the characters returned in a 1979 remake of ”The Lady Vanishes,“ and then on the BBC for a eponymous 1980s television series.

How well known are they? I mentioned all this to a friend at a party recently, American but an Anglophile, and when I had trouble coming up with the names he provided them. Is there an American equivalent? Abbot and Costello maybe? But they were stars, known by their own names. Statler and Waldorf maybe? Muppets. Could you do American versions of these characters? They'd probably have to be baseball fans. Football fans seem too Paul Fistinyourface to allow for C&C's dry humor:

Charters: Bought a copy of ”Mein Kampf.“ Appears to me it might shed a spot of light on all this how-do-you-do. Ever read it?
Caldicott (sucking on a pipe): Never had the time.
Charters: I understand they give a copy to all the bridal couples over here.
Caldicott: Why, I don't think it's that sort of book, old man.

Charters reading "Mein Kampf" in Carol Reed's "Night Train to Munich"

Not that sort of book, old man.

In ”Night Train,“ Caldicott recognizes Major Herzoff as Dickie Randall (Gus's real name), who used to play for the Gentlemen, a cricket club, and his questions rouse the suspicions of Karl Marsen, who's already jealous of Herzoff's apparent hold on Anna. Eventually, through the fog of their British obtusness, Charters and Caldicott realize they've put old Dickie in a bit of a spot and come vaguely to his rescue. There's a car chase, then a tramway adventure high in the Alps, but everyone makes it safely to Switzerland, where Dickie falls into Anna's arms, and, one imagines, Bomasch's armour plating helps win the how-do-you-do and Charters and Caldicott finally, finally get their copy of ”Punch."

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Posted at 07:35 AM on Feb 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Thursday February 17, 2011

How to Get Ahead: Billy Martin

In honor of pitcher and catchers reporting and hope springing eternal...

“In 1969, we [the Minnesota Twins] started the season 0-4. We're in Anaheim for a series against the Angels and I'm sound asleep in my hotel room when the phone rings at 3:30 a.m. It's Ted Uhlaender, and he says: 'We've got an unbelievable party going on. You've got to come down to room 203.' I could hear women and music and laughter in the background. I was 22 years old and single at the time, but there was no way I was going down to that party. It was the middle of the night, we'd just lost our first four games and I wasn't going to do anything that might get me sent to the minors. I told Ted I wasn't coming down and he tells me to hang on because someone wants to talk to me. Another guy gets on the phone and says, 'Hey Big Shooter, this is Billy. You've got five minutes to get your ass down here.' It was Billy Martin, our manager. I said, 'I'll be right down.'

”I get dressed and go down to the party. Half of our ballclub is there with a bunch of Hollywood types. Billy comes over and asks what I'm drinking and I say, 'Billy, I just got up. I'll have what you're having.' So he give me a scotch and I have a seat. I remember thinking: 'This is the big leagues.' I left the room at 6 a.m. and the party was still going on.

“We won our next seven games.”

Charley Walters, as recounted in the book “The Twins at the Met,” by Bob Showers

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Posted at 06:23 AM on Feb 17, 2011 in category How to Get Ahead
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Wednesday February 16, 2011

Movie Review: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest” (2010)

WARNING: SPÖILERS III

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest”? Really? How about “The Girl Who Lies in Bed While a Bunch of Old, Decrepit Hornets Buzz their Last Buzz”? If some trilogies follow the Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the Millennium trilogy goes a slightly different route: thesis, thesis, anesthesia. I felt nothing but sleepy here.

The thesis of the series is in its Swedish title, “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.” So “Dragon Tattoo,” the first film, gives us not only Martin Vanger, a Swedish Nazi who has been torturing, raping and killing women for 40 years, but, for extra credit, Nils Bjurman, lawyer, guardian, and rapist of our fidgety, feral heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Both villains get theirs. The second film, “Played with Fire,” brings back Bjurman for a final bow before kicking him to the curb. There are also allusions to human trafficking, but these gets buried when it’s discovered the man running the sex trade, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), is Lisbeth’s father, whom fire played, while his blonde, brutish henchman, Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), is the half-brother she never knew she had. These guys hate, sure, but they overflow our thesis. They’re EOE. They hate everybody.

By the third film? We’re left with Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), the director of the institute where 12-year-old Lisbeth was incarcerated after she played with fire. Apparently he was in the second film, too, but I don’t remember him. Apparently he tied up Lisbeth for more than a year of her two-year-stay, and there are allusions he abused her, along with vague, grainy, flashback footage. But he’s a toothless beast now, more pathetic than horrifying. When not the main government witness in a trial to incarcerate Lisbeth again, he jerks off to child porno.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest“Hornet's Nest” is less revelation (for us) than attempted cover-up (by the powers-that-be). Because Lisbeth survives that bullet to the brain from the second movie, and her father, Zalachenko, survives that axe to the head from the second movie, the authorities are intent on charging her with attempted murder (of him), and him with ... isn’t it also attempted murder? Of her? So shouldn’t these two charges off-set each other somewhat? Someone, anyway, has a good self-defense argument.

Old, powerful men keep gathering. They talk in hushed tones. They need things hush-hush for the remainder of their sad lives and will do anything to make it so. Example: Zalachenko, from this hospital bed, demands protection from the powers-that-be or he’ll implicate them. He’ll spill the beans. He says to Evert Gullberg (Hans Alfredson), “You have no choice.” To which Gullberg, who reminds me of former baseball manager Bill Rigney, sagely replies, “Life has taught me there’s always a choice” and promptly shoots Zalachenko in the head. Then he goes after Lisbeth. But the door to her hospital room is barricaded, and after one or two feeble attempts, oof, he sits down, an old man on a waiting room bench, to catch his breath. Then he puts the gun to his cheek and pulls the trigger.

“What are these guys trying to cover up again?” I asked Patricia halfway through the film.

“That stuff about Zalachenko,” she replied. “How he worked for them. How they protected him.”

“That’s it?”

There really is nothing new here. We already know what the truth is. So do the main characters. We’re just waiting to see if the rest of Sweden will catch up. Shocking revelations are made in Millennium magazine: the stuff from the first two movies. Shocking revelations are made in court: the stuff from the first two movies. Basically we get to watch while lawyers and judges watch plot points from the first two movies and agree how horrific it all was.

It’s an odd trilogy, isn’t it? Men who hate women, sure, but also men who nurture women. Or a woman. How many good men does Lisbeth have on her side to offset the bastards? Count ’em off:

  1. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), our journalist hero.
  2. Dragan Armanskij (Michalis Koutsogiannakis), her employer from the first film, who does some investigative work for Blomkvist in this one.
  3. Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), her first guardian.
  4. That boxer from the second movie, Paolo Roberto, who kicks ass.
  5. Plague (Tomas Köhler), the computer hacker, always there to act as a modern deus ex machina, extracting information, as it became necessary, from other people’s computers. This is never more true than at the end of “Hornet's,” when he saves the day and is then forgotten. All credit goes to Blomkvist.
  6. Finally, “Hornet's” gives us Dr. Anders Jonasson (Aksel Morisse), the surgeon who extracts the bullet from Lisbeth’s brain. She barely says anything to him but he’s quickly smitten. He keeps the police at bay for her. He buys her pizza when she wants it. He gives her gifts: a book on DNA. She nods her thanks.

As for the women? For a trilogy that feels feminist, the women, with the exception of Lisbeth, are kind of lame.

In the first movie there’s Harriet Vanger, who would rather let her brother rape and kill for 40 years than confront him or even warn the authorities about him.

Erika Berger (Lena Endre), the publisher of Millennium, is a wishy-washy mess. In “Hornet's” she gets a few threatening emails warning her not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Then a rock is thrown through her window. What does she do? She decides not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Hardly Katie Graham.

One has higher hopes for Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister, pregnant, and a no-nonsense lawyer, but she disappoints, too. She takes Lisbeth’s case reluctantly, grumbling all the while, as a favor to her brother, even though it’s probably the biggest case in the country. Does she do investigative work? Who knows? Everything seems handed to her. Blomkvist gives her Lisbeth’s story, along with documentary evidence of some of the authority abuse she suffered (a DVD of the Bjurman rape), but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. When the main government witness, Teleborian, claims the Bjurman rape is part of Lisbeth’s paranoid schizophrenia, Annika doesn’t introduce the DVD into evidence to discredit him. Not immediately. We still have half an hour of film to watch. So she wrings her hands, and whines, until Plague, hacking Teleborian’s computer, delivers the coup de grace: evidence that Teleborian created his diagnosis of Lisbeth before even seeing Lisbeth. Plus there’s all that kiddie porn. Plague hands off to Blomkvist who hands off to Annika, who finally makes her case. Hardly Maureen Mahoney.

Even Lisbeth seems to regress in the third film. Remember the first film? She was almost too interesting there: tough, feral, a computer hacker with a photographic mind who saves the day and vanishes like the Lone Ranger, leaving Blomkvist and us to wonder: “Who was that stoic girl?”

In the second film she begins to let people in—Blomkvist literally—but by the third film, with her hacking skills and photographic mind a thing of the past, she has trouble just saying tack. The “Godfather” trilogy suffered from its Arte Johnson-like ending (an ancient Michael Corleone falling off a park bench and dying), and the Millennium trilogy, which ain’t nearly in the same category, suffers from its almost shrug of an ending. Lisbeth, sure, takes care of Niedermann, who shows up like a Bond villain in the denouement; then she takes a bath. Blomkvist comes by. They exchange awkward greetings. She finally says what she hasn’t been able to say, tack för allt, thank you for everything. Should the movie have ended there? With a close-up of her face? Or his? Instead we get more awkwardness, then a flat, distant shot of Stockholm from the water; then the credits start rolling. Hej då.

For all my problems with the series, the girl with the dragon tattoo, who played with fire, who kicked the hornet's nest, deserved a better ending than this.

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Posted at 06:27 AM on Feb 16, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday February 15, 2011

Lancelot Links

For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. Slawenski reports that of the 3,080 members of Salinger’s regiment who landed with him on June 6, 1944, only 1,130 survived three weeks later. Then, when the 12th Infantry Regiment tried to take the swampy, labyrinthine Hürtgen Forest, in what proved to be a huge military blunder, the statistics were even more horrific. After reinforcement, “of the original 3,080 regimental soldiers who went into Hürtgen, only 563 were left.” Salinger escaped the deadly quagmire of Hürtgen just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, and shortly thereafter, in 1945, participated in the liberation of Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later told his daughter, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.”

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Posted at 06:52 AM on Feb 15, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday February 14, 2011

Erik Lundegaard and the Power of Kissing: A Valentine's Day/ABC-News Exclusive

I should be happy that I'm mentioned in an ABC-News article on the power of kissing.

But I'm more bemused than happy.

Here's the article: “First Kiss Is More Powerful Than First Sexual Encounter” by Susan Donaldson James. I'm mentioned near the end:

Some of the most memorable kisses have come out of Hollywood. Burt Lancaster's famous kiss in the surf with Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity,” still ranks as the most memorable of all screen kisses, as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst ranked second in their upside-down kiss in the 2002 movie “Spider-Man,” followed by George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the 1990 move “Ghost.”

How much do they love me at ABC? Let me count the errors:

  1. Burt Lancaster's famous kiss ... still ranks as the most memorable of all screen kisses, as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. The article they're referencing is here, or, really, here. I wrote it five years ago for MSNBC.com to coincide with Valentine's Day. But I didn't rank the kisses. I categorized them: the desperate kiss, the kiss in the rain, the manhandle, the woman takes charge, etc. I also wrote how many Hollywood kisses, stuck in the rut of their perfection, are actually unmemorable.
  2. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst ranked second in their upside-down kiss in the 2002 movie “Spider-Man”... Again: not ranking anything. Are they just counting pictures here? They seem to be.
  3. ...followed by George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” and Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in the 1990 move “Ghost.” Now it gets odd. I mention “Tiffany's,” but negatively. “Ghost” I don't mention at all.
  4. ...as rated by entertainment writer Erik Lundegaard. The link should lead you to MSNBC's site or to the index page of my own site. Instead it goes to my review, from last April, of the movie “Kick Ass.” Which has nothing to do with kissing. It merely begins with a k-i and ends with an s-s. What bots are doing ABC's research for them?

Four mistakes from one little paragraph. Impressive. Made me think of two Elvis Costello's songs from “King of America.” The first, “Our Little Angel,” reminds us the man knew a thing or two about heartache and Valentine's Day:

You think that you'll be sweet to her but everybody knows
You're the marshmallow valentine that got stuck on her clothes

The second, “Brilliant Mistake,” reminds us that the man knew a thing or two about news divisions:

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use

Smooch.

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Posted at 04:49 PM on Feb 14, 2011 in category Media
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Hollywood's Most Memorable Kisses

Quick: Name a great kissing scene in the movies.

I’ve asked that of a lot of people over the last month and while some come up with an answer, most simply furrow their brows, put their hands on their hips, look at the ceiling and say, “Isn’t that funny.” And not just the guys either.

Kissing is one of cinema’s most common actions (right up there with punching), and yet what stands out? Something from “Casablanca” surely, and “Gone with the Wind.” “Titanic”? Did Leo kiss Kate on the prow of the boat or was that just in the poster? More memorable for me are the two of them steaming up the car windows, and Leo drawing a topless Kate. It’s like what my friend Seth admitted when I asked him for kissing scenes: “I only remember the boob shots,” he said.

Here’s part of the problem with movie kisses: they rarely further plots and often end them. It’s the action we’ve been waiting for, and yet for the plot to kick in again the kissing has to stop. It’s like dance sequences in this way.

Ask for a favorite dance number, though, and you’ll get besieged. There’s an infinite variety to them — limited only by the dancers’ abilities and the choreographers’ imaginations — but Hollywood long ago perfected how a kiss should look and it’s been stuck in the rut of its perfection ever since: Woman’s arms around man’s neck, man’s arms around woman’s waist, man 4-8 inches taller than woman. It’s even called “the Hollywood kiss,” and it’s almost always the same. I once asked a friend in a rock band how they can play the same songs night after night and keep it interesting, and he responded, “We fuck up.” That’s what Hollywood needs to do with their kisses. They need to fuck up.

But with the help of some friends I did manage to cobble together a few memorable kisses. Here they are, just in time for Valentine’s Day, in easy-to-read categories. I apologize in advance if your favorite isn’t listed.

Kiss between Rhett and Scarlett (Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh) in "Gone with the Wind" (1939)

“Frankly, my dear ...”

The desperate kiss
Two people need each other, hunger for each other, want to merge into one another. Often something is keeping them apart; often their affair is illicit. In “Casablanca,” Rick and Ilsa (Bogart and Bergman) have to worry about poor cuckolded Victor Laszlo, a great war hero, for whom they will have to give up their love. But in the meantime: Pucker up. For Sgt. Milton Warden and Karen Holmes (Lancaster and Kerr) in “From Here to Eternity,” it’s cuckolded Capt. Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (who apparently isn’t so dynamite), who is the sergeant’s superior (at least in the military). But in the meantime: Let’s roll around the beach as waves crash upon us. It’s the Hollywood kiss with the addition of “wet” and “prone.” Never underestimate the power of “wet” and “prone.”

In both of these scenes the men are pretty cool customers while the women melt, but men in the movies can get desperate as well. The best recent example is in “Brokeback Mountain,” when Jack and Ennis meet again after four years apart, and discover, during their initial hug, four years of unspent passion. Why is this kiss memorable? Because it’s unexpected, and rough, and they risk so much for it (life itself, you could say). There is anger as well as love in it. Hollywood often sweeps this untidy fact under the carpet but anger should be part of a desperate kiss. Think of it. I’m me. I’m happy being me. But then you come along and make me need you. You’ve got your nerve.

That’s why my favorite desperate kiss is between good ol’ George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed) as they listen on the phone to that ass Sam Wainwright blabbing away in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George knows that if he kisses Mary he’s giving up everything for her — his last chance to shake the dust of this crummy town off his shoes and see the world. Who wouldn’t be mad? Jimmy Stewart is a smart enough actor to show that anger. Still, he kisses her and the next thing you know they’re married. The scene I want is post-coital. Is he still happy? Still in love? Or is he thinking: “What the hell did I just do?”

The desperate kiss from "Brokeback Mountain"

Quitting, not an option.

The kiss in the rain
Rain works on so many levels. Metaphorically it represents passion — the long storm front finally unleashed. It also adds the aforementioned “wet,” which is what we want our kisses to be. It also puts good-looking actors into clinging clothes. So many levels.

The kiss in the rain is usually a subset of the desperate kiss. Witness “Witness,” when John Book and Rachel Lapp (Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis) finally unleash their long storm front — despite her engagement to that lemonade-sipper Daniel Hochleitner.

Three recent additions in this category include “Match Point,” “The Notebook” and “Spider-Man.” Yeah, the upside-down kiss with Mary Jane. Everyone remembers that one. It’s different. He’s upside-down. Hollywood, take note and think of the possibility of infinite variety.

The most famous kiss in the rain is probably from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Unfortunately I’m not a fan. I’m a fan of Truman Capote’s novella, of which Norman Mailer — who didn’t exactly parcel out praise to his competition — once wrote “I would not have changed two words.” It’s a love story without sex, and maybe without the possibility of sex, since its narrator is basically Truman, who was gay. Still he loved her. That’s part of the ache of the book that the movie completely misses, and that the movie’s happy ending, in the rain, nullifies. In the book she does not find her cat (he does, later), and says, “[I]t could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away... my mouth’s so dry, if my life depended on it I couldn’t spit.” So Hollywood added rain and a kiss and the bland George Peppard as the-anything-but-bland Truman Capote. Blech. Read the book. I love Audrey Hepburn but ... read the book.

Spider-Man and MJ kiss upside-down in "Spider-Man"

Not stuck in the rut of their perfection.

The manhandle kiss
Before feminism, Hollywood gave us a lot of manhandle kisses, but the ones I recall later wound up having a sensitive or comic update.

In John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” Sean Thornton, in perpetual Irish tussle with flame-haired Mary Kate Donaher (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara), drags her back into the cottage and kisses her. In “E.T.,” our extraterrestrial friend is watching this very scene on television and translates its needs to his empathetic partner, Elliot, who, to pull off the classic Hollywood kiss, must, like Alan Ladd, stand on a box in order to kiss his taller classmate. A sweet update from Steven Spielberg.

One of the best manhandle kisses is in “On the Waterfront,” when Terry Malloy bursts into the room of the virginal, cloistered Edie Doyle (Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint). Terry is responsible for the death of Edie’s brother and his conscience is bothering him, and his love for Edie is bothering him, but when she admits, in the negative, her love for him (“I didn’t say I didn’t love you...”), he pins her against the wall and kisses her and the music stops and they slide down that wall. And there goes the convent. The music stopping is a nice touch. In most kissing scenes it wells up, but a good kiss makes everything stop.

Its modern update?” Rocky,” when Rocky pins the virginal Adrian (Sylvester Stallone and Tali Shire) against the wall and kisses her. Down they slide. Rocky’s approach is certainly more sensitive than Brando’s — Rocky talks her through it, calmly — but this actually makes the scene feel creepier. He comes off as calculated, which isn’t Rocky at all. An argument why sensitivity isn’t always sensitive, and why unthinking brute force sometimes feels clean.

But where have all the good manhandle kisses gone? The best recent example, where an actor grabs an actress and just plants one, wasn’t even in the movies. It was at the Academy Awards, when Adrien Brody won best actor and celebrated the way that any man at a high moment in his life would like to celebrate: by kissing someone as beautiful as Halle Berry.

As to what Ms. Berry thinks? That would be in the next category.

Adrien Brody and Halle Berry at the Oscars: the manhandle kiss

Manhandled.

The woman takes charge
Two words: Lauren Bacall. She slinks through “To Have and Have Not” as Slim, the woman who gives instructions on how to whistle. But she has a greater line earlier, when she lands on Bogart’s lap and kisses him.

He (smiling): What was that for?
She: Been wondering whether I’d like it.
He: What’s the decision?
She: I don’t know yet.

She goes in for another and this time he kisses her back. Finally she stands, gives him a sidelong glance.

She: It’s even better when you help.

Now that’s cool.

You could place various woman-on-woman kisses here as well — Marlene Dietrich soft-kissing a female customer in “Morocco” and then tipping her cap in thanks, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair sloshing tongues in “Cruel Intentions” — but you’d expect more post-feminist examples since we’ve all gotten so liberated. Apparently not. Fewer manhandle kisses, fewer woman-takes-charge kisses. We’re all so equal now. How boring.

Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar sloshing tongues

Sloshing.

Cartoon, Comic, of Death
There’s more categories, of course: The cartoon kiss (“The Lady and the Tramp”), The kiss of death(“The Godfather – Part II”) and The comic kiss: Anne Bancroft exhaling cigarette smoke in “The Graduate”; Susana (Valerie Golina) kissing Raymond in the elevator in “Rain Man.” Both involve Dustin Hoffman. Some men know how to work it.

How about “The kiss we’ve been waiting the entire freakin’ movie for”? Recent examples include “When Harry Met Sally” (that’s for you, Brenda), “Lost in Translation” (that’s for you, Brett), “Never Been Kissed” (that’s for you, Kelly) and “A Princess Bride” and “A Mighty Wind” (that’s for me).

And don’t forget “The kiss that sets up the rest of the movie.” In “Notorious,” we get exactly one scene where Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are a couple, and most of it consists of a single, two-and-a-half minute take which includes many soft, nibbling, hungry kisses on the part of Ms. Bergman. Nice work if you can get it.

But I've saved the best for last.

Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, let's go make a picture ...

The wow kiss
Let’s face it. Most of the time we know before the movie starts that this actor and that actress are going to kiss. It’s what people do in the movies. Most of the time, too, their characters know it, and desire it, and the kiss is just a culmination of something that’s been building and allows that something to continue on its trajectory. The kiss furthers trajectories but it doesn’t change trajectories.

I would argue that the best kisses in the movies are those that change trajectories. The characters are stunned — visually or verbally. They had seen their life going in this direction, and then they get the kiss and see it going in that direction. A kiss. Boom. Life changes.

In “The Philadelphia Story,” Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is about to marry that ass George Kittredge; but on the night before her wedding, she’s drunk and flirting with reporter Mike Conner (James Stewart), teasing him by calling him “Professor.” He shuts her up the best way he knows how. One kiss. “Golly,” she says. Two kisses. “Golly Moses,” she says. The next morning the wedding is called off. Oddly, she winds up marrying another man. Not so oddly, that man is Cary Grant.

Something similar occurs in “The Wedding Singer.” Julia (Drew Barrymore) is about to marry that ass Glenn, when, at the prompting of her cousin, she and wedding singer Robbie Hart (Adam Sandler) practice the wedding kiss. Boom. They back away dazed. Life changes.

Finally there’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Guy (Mel Gibson) is a reporter in 1965 Jakarta and he’s begun a flirtatious friendship with diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who is scheduled to return to Britain. At a swanky party, he takes her away from boring old men and out onto the veranda where he plants one and then asks her to leave with him. “I can’t leave with you now,” she says amused. “Everyone in Jakarta...” He plants another. Suddenly her voice gets serious and throaty. “I’m leaving in less than a week,” she says. It looks like he’ll go for a third, but he backs off and leaves the party. Before he can start his car, she gets in the passenger’s seat.

Now that’s good kissing.

By the way: Some people may consider this information incidental, but, as a writer, I feel it’s part of the public’s right to know. Two of the three “wow” kissers I just mentioned? They share the same occupation. They’re writers.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Lancaster and Kerr in the beach scene in "From Here to Eternity" (1953)

Never underestimate the power of “wet” and “prone.”

2014 UPDATE: So have we had any memorable movie kisses since? Of course we have. Maybe something from this series? Or this movie? Or, most definitely, this movie? Oh yeah. That one. Right there.

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Posted at 08:23 AM on Feb 14, 2011 in category Movies
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Sunday February 13, 2011

How to Get Ahead: Be Ravenous, Mad, and Want

“Ambition! You must want a big success and then beat it into submission; you must be as ravenous to reach it as the wolf who licks his teeth behind a fleeing rabbit; you must be as mad to win as the man who, with one hand growing cold on the revolver in his pocket, with the other hand pushes his last gold piece on the 'Double-O' at Monte Carlo.”

Marcus Loew, who formed the Loew's theater chain, in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” by Neal Gabler.

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Posted at 10:28 AM on Feb 13, 2011 in category How to Get Ahead
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Saturday February 12, 2011

Movie Review: “Biutiful” (2010)

WARNING: THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD SPOILERS

The world of Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) tends to be a polyglot of crowded, marginal characters. It’s a world where everyone ekes a living off of each other, and what light there is is fluorescent. Halfway through his latest, “Biutiful,” the sun shines on a family eating breakfast together. “Ah, the sun,” I thought. Then it goes away. The sun is for other people’s movies.

Iñárritu is all about border crossings. At the start of “Biutiful,” Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is facilitating between two immigrant groups, the illegal Chinese and the legal African, in Barcelona. The former make bootleg products in basement factories, which the latter then sell along Las Ramblas or in the Plaza Cataluña. Uxbal bribes la policia to look the other way.

He’s also clairvoyant. Did I mention that? He can communicate with the recently dead and help them cross that final border to the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. I should add that never has such a gift been presented in such by-the-way fashion in a movie. Uxbal has an answer to the most profound question in human history—does the individual consciousness survive death?—and he views it like it’s pro bono work, like it’s a hobby. He does it on the side when he has the time.

Despite this gift, Uxbal’s life is no great shakes. He lives in a cramped, basement apartment with his two kids. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is bipolar, an addict, and sleeping with his brother. He’s really only a step or two up from the immigrants he’s helping or exploiting. Then he’s diagnosed with cancer and given months to live.

So is this going to be that kind of story? The inconsequential man, forced, by the proximity and sudden inevitability of death, to see the beauty of life? Yes, there’s some of that. Uxbal is a hulking figure for much of the first third of the film. (You realize what a powerful back, and what a huge head, Bardem has.) After his diagnosis, he softens a bit. He visits his clairvoyant mentor, who tells him, “Put your affairs in order.” Both she and he know that the biggest problem for the recently dead is worry over unresolved matters, which get them to linger, to remain where they shouldn’t, and neither wants that for Uxbal.

So Uxbal begins to put his affairs in order. He tries to help the Africans, who are being deported for selling drugs. He tries to help the illegal Chinese immigrants, who live in horrible conditions, by buying them space heaters. He reconnects with Marambra, who still loves him, and he and the kids move into her apartment. They have breakfast together. The sun shines through the window. Life is good.

But life, as short as it is, lasts longer than “good.” The Africans are deported despite Uxbal’s efforts. Marambra goes back to partying, and doing drugs, and she beats the youngest, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), forcing Uxbal to move everyone back into his basement apartment, which he’s already given to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of one of his deported Africans.

Most horrific: the heaters Uxbal buys for the Chinese immigrants—made, no doubt, by people under conditions similar to theirs—don’t work properly. Iñárritu telegraphs the moment. Twice in the movie we see the Chinese foreman unlock the doors to wake the workers at 6:30 a.m., but both times we’re inside the room. The third time Iñárritu places the camera outside the room, over the foreman’s shoulder. The door opens and, lo and behold, dozens of dead bodies lying on the floor. Patricia, watching next to me, gasped in horror, but I was only surprised that it was an apparent gas leak. I was expecting charred bodies burnt to a crisp.

So now Uxbal has dozens of deaths on his conscience just as he’s dying himself. How does he deal with the weight of all this? Poorly or not at all. He makes a few motions, feints in several directions, but he’s really too busy dying to do anything proper. He withers, wears diapers, is confined to bed. Ige begins to watch his kids, to feed them. Will she be his savoir? On his deathbed, Uxbal gives her money to pay a year’s rent, so at least his kids will have a place to live for a year, but she uses the money to travel back to Africa and her husband. She abandons his for hers.

Every attempt to put his affairs in order, in other words, leads to chaos and heartbreak. It’s as if a sick God is foiling his every move. One is.

What is it about Iñárritu? He deals with themes I care about but his execution always bores me. His scenes are gritty but peculiarly weightless and airless. He shoves too many characters on the screen, shrinking them to make them all fit. He pisses me off.

I did like two scenes, however, shown both the beginning and end of the movie.

In the first scene, the camera focuses on two pairs of hands, male and female, and we hear voices, male and female, talking about a diamond ring. “Is it real?” she asks. Yes, he answers. She wants to wear it. He lets her. It could be a young couple, postcoital, at the beginning of their journey, but by the end of the movie we know it’s Uxbal and his daughter, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), and the conversation is the last he will have in this world.

In the second scene, Uxbal is in the woods eyeing a handsome young man. They smoke cigarettes and have an odd conversation about owls. The man, younger than Uxbal, shorter than Uxbal, seems the dominant one, while Uxbal has a kind of shy, flirtatious love shining in his eyes. Initially confusing, by the end of the movie we know the man is Uxbal’s father, who died when Uxbal was young, which means Uxbal is now dead. This is the afterlife. But it’s almost like a dream, isn’t it, pieced together from life in the way of dreams. Freud once observed that anything we hear in a dream we first hear in life, and so it is with the conversation about the owls. Initially it was Mateo’s conversation to Uxbal. The woods themselves seem culled from a refrigerator drawing of Mateo’s: childish woods beneath the word “biutiful.”

But this is only the beginning of death. In the woods, Uxbal’s father moves away, and Uxbal says “What’s over there?” He follows him. The camera stays behind. And that’s where the movie ends.

Patricia loved it. When the lights came up I looked over and her cheeks were soaked with tears. For a moment it made me question my own nonplussed reaction. But only for a moment.

Iñárritu is all about border crossings but his movies don’t inspire any border crossings in me. They don’t take me any place I haven’t been or want to go. I remain (stubbornly? frustratedly?) on this side, in the place I started.

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Posted at 06:44 AM on Feb 12, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Friday February 11, 2011

Hitchcock at the Nickelodeon

Reading Neal Gabler's book, “An Empire of Their Own,” about the early years of Hollywood, made me curious about Peter Bogdonavich's movie “Nickelodeon,” about the early years of Hollywood. I knew the movie had been panned in '76 but hoped it was one of those that aged well. Nope. Still a mess. Lurches between slapstick and melodrama. Not enough about, you know, nickelodeons. Just one scene in a nickelodeon, in fact, my favorite scene, when our troupe (actors, directors, etc.), realize the power of the movies ... for the actors. For the stars. But there wasn't enough of this: the moment of revelation into what would be.

At the same time, I was startled by the beauty, particularly in profile, of the leading lady, Jane Hitchcock (here with star Ryan O'Neal):

She also wasn't bad. As an actress. “Why haven't I heard of her?” I wondered. “What other movies has she made?” The answer to the second guestion was the answer to the first: none. She was a model who got the part because the studio refused to bankroll Cybill Shepherd, Bogdonavich's girlfriend, in the role, so Shepherd recommended her friend Jane. It's who you know and what your profile looks like. From IMDb.com:

Jane was the only novice in a star-studded cast that included Burt Reynolds and Ryan O'Neal fighting for her character's affections, creating a love triangle in the period film. Although, she gave a charming performance, she received mixed reviews, and the film became a flop. She was disappointed and acted in only one more project, before returning to her modeling career.

The other project was a TV movie starring Esther Rolle (of “Good Times”) and Kene Holliday (of “Carter Country”).

More about “Nickelodeon” from TCM:

In the story, the central characters, who have been toiling away at quickie shorts, go to see D.W. Griffith's landmark feature The Birth of a Nation (1915). Using footage from a special tinted archival print of the film, Bogdanovich and his actors convey the sense of excitement and wonder that accompanied the release of Griffith's film and the momentous change in the art and business of moviemaking that it signaled. After the fictional screening in the movie, the producer Cobb (played by Brian Keith), suddenly realizing the power of the medium, remarks that filmmakers are “giving people little pieces of time that they never forget,” a quote taken from an early Bogdanovich interview with James Stewart.

That's the part of the movie that should've worked but really didn't. Cobb, throughout, has been a blustering businessman, so why give him Jimmy Stewart's line—a line that has the ring of someone working in the industry, and believing in the industry, for decades? Meanwhile, O'Neal's character is too milquetoast and self-pitying to be of interest, while the more racist elements of “Birth” were left out at the Hollywood screening. I know I'm asking for the impossible, but what great mixed feelings we would've had watching our likeable stars getting excited by the KKK rescuing damsels from rapacious actors in blackface? Now that's entertainment.

Despite this, how little things have changed. I looked back 35 years to a movie that looked back 70 years to the birth of the movie industry, and my question was the question on the lips of audiences 100 years ago: Who's that girl?

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Feb 11, 2011 in category Movies
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Thursday February 10, 2011

Critical Quote of the Day

“Any critic who is any good is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born. This struggle with oneself as well as with the age, out of which something must be written and which therefore can be read—this is my test for a critic.”

—Alfred Kazin, 1960

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Posted at 06:20 PM on Feb 10, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday February 09, 2011

What Brings You Here

I'm always fascinated by the searches that bring visitors to my site. I'm not sure if it's kosher, if it violates some rule of the Internet or not, but here are some recent examples of searches—with links to the pages it led them ...

Here's to finding what you're looking for.

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Posted at 04:52 PM on Feb 09, 2011 in category What Brings You Here
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Tuesday February 08, 2011

Lancelot Links

  • WTF? Rob Neyer is signing off from ESPN.com? What happened? 
  • Oh, he's going here. I wonder if there's any story behind the move? Besides a guy wanting to switch jobs after 15 years.
  • I guess this is the story. I'm not a fan of the in-your-face Snickers ads but ... I'll follow him. Why stop now?
  • Did you know? The MLB Network is counting down the 20 greatest games of the last 50 years, and it turns out I was at no. 15. It's the fifth and final game of the 1995 ALDS, M's vs. Yankees, but people in the Pac NW just call it Game 5. (We don't have many Game 5s.) Patricia and I watched MLB's show last night. Fun revisiting—I have respect for David Cone for showing up, and wow does Lou Piniella look great—but so bittersweet. The M's won the battle but lost the war. Bigtime.
  • But buck up, M's fans! Inside the Book has discovered something that Chone Figgins does better than anyone in baseball.
  • Wow. Bill O'Reilly is dumber than we think. And remember: he's the smart one on FOX-News.
  • Richard Brody has some interesting snippets from an interview Philip Roth gave to a German newspaper two years ago. But doesn't Brody mean Roth made comic hay of Jewish anger and paraonia in the first of the Zuckerman trilogy, “The Ghost Writer,” rather than the third, “The Anatomy Lesson”? “Ten Questions for Nathan Zuckerman,” and all that. Resurrecting Anne Frank, and all that. Just talking about it makes me want to read it again. I haven't read any new Roth in years, and it'll take more than Brody's passing recommendation to get me to try “Nemesis.” Anyone else read it?
  • Man, I just loved this takedown of memoirs, or at least three out of four memoirs, by Neil Genzlinger (Gunslinger?) in the Jan. 30th New York Times book review section. The one he liked? Johanna Adorjan's “An Exclusive Love.” One of the three he didn't? Allen Shawn's “Twin,” which received a positive write-up in The New Yorker. For a second I wondered if ol' Genzlinger was being too hard on his charges ... until I remembered: “Shawn,” as in William's son, and The New Yorker, where William once reigned. I'd link to the NYer review but it's subscriber only. Odd thing to keep from the masses, isn't it? “Books Briefly Noted”? Yeah, that'll get 'em to subscribe.
  • “Why the Arab World is Seething” seems like an Onion infographic, but this one from The New York Times is helpful.
  • On the new “Roger Ebert Presents...” show, correspondent Jeff Greenfield takes down, in very humorous fashion, one of the worst tropes of political movies: the insulting speech that wins everyone over
  • Meanwhile, Ebert co-hosts Ignatiy Vish­ne­vet­sky and Christy Lemire go over the smaller Oscar noms they're pleased with, including John Hawkes for “Winter's Bone.” Couldn't agree more.
  • Glad to see them disagreeing with each other, too, as with “The Green Hornet.” She views it as a Hollywood genre film (thumbs down), which it is, and he views it as a Michael Gondry film (thumbs up), which it also is. I'm mostly with her, but the movie is still messing with the heads of its audience, even if the audience doesn't know it.
  • Does this mean I have to like Paul Haggis now? Nah.
  • Never has one critic (A.O. Scott) devoted so much space (two big NY Times pages) to a subject I care so deeply about (foreign films), and told me so little.
  • The Brothers Coen talk here about the surprising box office success of “True Grit.” “When we finished, we put it out there and thought, 'This might cross over,'” Ethan says. “For us, that meant doing the kind of business that 'No Country for Old Men' did. What's happening now, this did not seem to be in the realm of possibility.”
  • Finally, the best headline I've read about the AOL-HuffPo thing comes from Kim Voynar over at Movie City News: Arianna $300 Million, Writers 0. I say this as a reformed HuffPost poster. (“Hi, my name is Erik. It's been more than two years since my last Huff post.”) They got me when MSNBC stuff was drying up and kept me because I had something to “say” about the 2008 election. Eventually I realized I was part of the problem. Now I never even go to the site. If there's a writer you care about, you shouldn't either.

 

No. 15 for the MLB Network. No. 1 in the Pac NW.

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Posted at 06:26 AM on Feb 08, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Monday February 07, 2011

The Tardiest and Positively Last List of TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2010

The movie year increasingly reminds me of the old video game “Space Invaders.” In the beginning, the invaders drop down intermittently and at a snail's pace—easy pickings—but as the game progresses they come fast and furious until you can't keep up, and then ... Blam! Game over.

That's my movie year. It starts out slowly, luxuriously, with huge gaps between one good film (“The Ghost Writer”) and another (“Un Prophete”). The dashed hopes of spring (“Kick Ass”) eventually give way to the heat of summer blockbusters (“Toy Story 3”; “Inception”). In fall, there's September pretenders (“The American”), October surprises (“The Social Network”), but before you know it you're inundated (“Black Fair Rabbit Fighter Job Speech Grit”) until ... Blam! Game over.

Long way of sayng I should've posted this sooner but kept trying to pick up all those I missed. Then I looked around and it was February and I knew I had to go with what I've got.

This is what I've got.

10. “Inside Job” is the first of three documentaries in my Top 10. It's the least powerful but probably the most necessary since it goes into the whys and hows of the global financial meltdown, which most of us, including especially me, don't quite understand yet. The talking heads we want poster for Inside Job(Henry Paulson; Larry Summers) aren't talking, of course, but enough middle-management types, flattered to be asked, are. My favorite? Little Freddy Mishkin, tanned and suited up, who hems and haws through a series of questions, including one on a 2006 independent study he co-authored, for $125,000, for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. He called it “Financial Stability in Iceland.” This was just before the Icelandic economy collapsed disastrously. So now in his CV it's called “Financial Instability in Iceland.” When questioned on the switch, he responds with his usual grace: “Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing—if it's a typo, there's a typo.” Review excerpt:

Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, a lot of which will be their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?

9. I had problems with “The Ghostwriter,” particularly the ending, in which the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) figures it all out then gives it all up to his enemies, the faux-Bush administration, and dies two seconds later. It's as if U.S. government agencies are quick, coordinated and supersmart rather than the slow, clumsy battleships we know them to be. So I never thought this movie would make my top 10. It's the weight of it that finally won me over. It's the images that stayed in my head: the lone SUV, alarm blaring, on the ferry; McGregor next to the full-paned window revealing the dunes outside—making it appear he's half in the room and half out; the unsexy sex scenes; the investigation through GPS; the cold and the gray and the paranoia of it all. For all the problems with story, the feel of it was created by a true artist. Review excerpt:

In the 1970s, and in political thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got. In “The Ghostwriter,” the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.

8. There are two big reasons why “Black Swan” is on my list. Half an hour after watching it, I still had to remind myself to “breathe” because I'd barely breathed at all during the last half hour of the film. And I'd barely breathed during the last half hour of the film because director Darren Aronofsky, and star Natalie Portman, get you into the head of the main character, Nina, as well as Dostoevsky gets you into the head of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment.” That's the realm of novels not movies. But Aronofsky is making it the realm of movies. Review excerpt:

No, Nina is hardly innocent. She’s covetous. Early in the film, after Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) trashes her dressing room when she learns she’s been summarily dismissed as prima ballerina of their New York ballet company, Nina sneaks in and sits at the vanity mirror and looks at herself and tries out Beth’s lipstick; then she pockets Beth’s lipstick. It seems a minor thing. Until later in the film when Beth is in the hospital and Nina brings out all the things, including diamond earrings, that Nina stole from her over the years. She’s been coveting the role of prima ballerina for years, and now it’s hers, but she can only see versions of herself ready to take it away again. She assumes the world is like her—we all do—and that’s why she’s paranoid. She knows how awful the desire to take.

7. I still think about it sometimes. What if the creators of “Toy Story 3” had not given us their deus ex machina at the junkyard and allowed the toys, our favorite cinemantic toys, to be pulled into the furnace? What if we had all watched the beloved face of Woody (Tom Hanks) melt away as if he were the Gestapo officer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? How much stronger the lesson would've been about our wasteful, throwaway culture. Of course: the howls of protest that would've emerged; the billions of dollars that wouldn't have been made. Instead we got our happy ending. Andy's life goes on but the toys are eternal. They will never die. It's a bit of a lie, but an argument can still be made that the “Toy Story” series is still the greatest trilogy Hollywood has ever produced. Each film builds on, and deepens, the previous one. Review excerpt:

Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What the toys go through is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away. “Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both safe and useful. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz, and finally has to put away its childish things.

6. There's always a hint of unreality when one leaves a movie theater—it's as if you are waking from a dream—but I felt this tenfold leaving Chris Nolan's “Inception,” a movie which knows all about the connection between movies and dreams. And video games? Our inception team goes several levels into the unconscious of its victim and has to fight its way out of each level before surfacing in our own. Or is it our own? That's not just a question for Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb at the end of the movie, or for us in the audience watching “Inception”; it's the question in our heads as we walk the streets afterwards. Why is this level the real one? I guess because we're stuck here. Until we aren't. Review excerpt:

There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has. Not bad for a summer blockbuster.

5. “A Film Unfinished” ran from August to November in the States, played in 16 theaters at one point, and grossed $320,000. What a shame. Everyone should see this documentary. It's not just about the Nazis, or the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Holocaust; it's about what propaganda truly means. It's about what evil truly is. The Nazis filmed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the months before its liquidation in 1943. Why? Forty years later, historians realized they actually staged some of those scenes—creating scenes of comfortable and/or rich Jews. Again: Why? To hide what they were doing before they finished doing it? But hide ... from whom? And why film scenes of poor and starving Jews as well? The answer, when it hit me, hit me with a blow that both clarifies and sickens. Review excerpt (and spoilers):

The juxtaposition between rich Jews and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination. In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.

4. “The Social Network” sizzles with intelligence, doesn't it? That's how I still think of it three months later. It begins with a tabletop conversation that Quentin Tarantino would slit his wrists to have written, goes into an all-night, intellectual, misogynistic bender, and doesn't stop. The first half is about the creation of a global phenomenon. What fun! The second half is a love triangle between three boys with Sean Parker playing homme fatal. That's less fun. If the first half is about getting ahead in the Internet age, the second half is about who gets left behind. Sorkin's Zuckberg may not be the true Zuckerberg, but Eduardo is us. Review excerpt:

The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then refreshers her page again and again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because we're social animals, and socializing online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.

3. “True Grit” is a movie without adjectives or adverbs. It just tells its tale. It's not pushing us in any particular direction, it's just allowing us to ride along. The spectacle, if there is spectacle, is there in the main character, Rooster Cogburn, and in the language, most of it culled from Charles Portis' novel. But within its simple structure, its straightforward storytelling, the Coens make you feel things. You feel the violence of fingers chopped off and the heavy weight of hanged men. You feel the bark of trees and the biting cold of winter. You feel the power of a single gunshot. You feel the damp sweat of horses. Mostly, you feel the Old Testament logic to the world. As Mattie says: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” Review excerpt:

Each character surprises. Each has his own code. Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, robbed banks in his youth, then dismisses it with a shrug and an excuse about never robbing a citizen. Lucky Ned, wearing the nastiest set of teeth in movies, and trading spittle-filled invective with Cogburn while pushing a boot into Mattie’s face, later acts the man of honor. Bargains are made—you do this and I’ll do this—but both Cogburn and Chaney go back on their word. Only Ned Pepper keeps his. This is a rough and absurd world, an Old Testament world, where a laugh is followed by the horror of fingers being chopped off; where an anticipated showdown with a killer becomes the absurdist image of a bear toddling through the woods on a horse. (Should the Coens adapt John Irving? Or is he too New Testament for them?)

2. You know how you hear, say, a political speech that moves you, and then the talking heads on cable news get our their knives and forks and cut it all up? That's how I felt during the Q&A for “Restrepo” after a Friday night showing at the Harvard Exit last May. Both directors were there, Timothy Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, and I was in the back row, still mesmerized by the power of this documentary; then the crowd, Seattle International Film Festival folks, got out their knives and forks. They wanted the doc to say what they wanted it to say. Why didn't it critique our Afghanistan policy? Why didn't it attack the Bush administration? They wanted it narrowed and defined. In the Stephen Daedalus sense, they wanted an improper art that is kinetic and didactic, and Hetherington and Junger merely gave them a painful ode to the fragility of the human condition. They gave us a tragic tale that arrests the mind above desire and loathing. They gave us art. Excerpt:

Finally, there’s Cortez, who’s smiling, always smiling in the post-deployment interviews. One wonders: “Why is this dude smiling?” Then you realize there’s a disconnect between the look on his face and what he’s saying. Near the end, he talks about how he can’t sleep.

I’ve been on four or five different types of sleeping pills and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep, and not dream about it, than sleep and see the pictures in my head. It’s...pretty bad.

The smile never leaves his face.

1. Am I too much a Francophile for reasons beyond Marion Cotillard? The French are now 2-for-2 on this site. Olivier Assayas's “L'heure d'ete” topped my list last year (posted Dec. 31st!), while, this year, it's Jacque Audiard's “Un Prophete,” the story of Malik, a young, illiterate Muslim who survives prison, first, as assassin, and then as lacky and go-between for the powerful Corsican mob. It's a kind of Malcolm X story: deliverance, and ultimately redemption, through incarceration. Malik is a Muhammadian figure the way Cool Hand Luke is a Christ figure. He enters as the most marginal of figures and leaves a powerful one. But it's the moments of quiet beauty that ultimately recommend the film. Review excerpt:

The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me, such as Malik’s first plane trip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, but trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of a deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.

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Posted at 06:54 AM on Feb 07, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday February 06, 2011

Are Best Picture Nominees Making a Box-Office Comeback?

In June 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced a break with more than 65 years of tradition by doubling the number of best picture nominees from five to 10. It's obvious why they did this. During the 2000s, the Academy was no longer nominating box office champs, and the ratings for the TV broadcasts were down, and there was fear that Oscar was on the verge of irrelevancy.

So what's happened since?

Last year, box office champs were indeed nominated, including “Avatar” (No. 1), “Up” (No. 5), and “The Blind Side” (No. 8), and the ratings for the TV broadcast did indeed go up: by 14 percent. Some may argue that's a lousy tradeoff: a 100 percent increase in best-picture nominees to get a 14 percent increase in TV ratings. But it's been done. Can't be undone.

But the move also seemed to allow the Academy to ignore box office altogether when it came time to actually giving out its awards. For more than 20 years, the best picture winner had the best or second-best box office among the nominees. (“American Beauty” was an exception: it had the third-best box office among 1999's nominees.) “The Hurt Locker” last year? Eighth among the 10 nominees. That's the same as fourth among five, and that hasn't happened since 1988, when “The Last Emperor” got the Oscar. More telling: “The Hurt Locker” ranked 116th for the year. The previous box-office low for a best-picture winner, as far as I can tell, was “Crash”: 49th in 2005.)

Most important, and despite the above calculations (fourth of five = eighth of 10), the doubling-down of BP noms has made it difficult to compare current nominees with past nominees to see where we stand. The Academy has disconnected itself from its past.

This year's best-picture nominees, for example, the ones that feel like best picture nominees (as opposed to, say, “The Blind Side”), are doing shockingly well at the box office. To wit:

  • “True Grit.” Only two Coen brothers' movies have grossed over $50 million: “Burn After Reading” in 2008 ($60m) and “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 ($74m). Six of their 15 films didn't even gross $10 million. But “True Grit”? It's already shot past $150 million and could wind up the 11th or 12th highest-grossing film of the year.
  • The Coens, though, are Steven Spielberg compared to Darren Aronofsky, whose films have grossed, chronologically, $5, $5, $12 and $29 million. But “Black Swan,” about ballet of all things, starring a girl of all things, is about to pass $100 million in U.S. grosses. (It's currently at $96 million.)
  • “Black Swan” has done better than even “The Fighter,” which is about boys and boxing. But David O. Russell's film is still doing well: $82 million. As is “The King's Speech” ($84 million), which is coming on gangbusters. In fact, every movie by a best director nominee is in the top 50 in terms of annual box office.

Having every best picture nominee in the top 50 used to happen all the time, even as recently as the 1990s, when it happened four times (1990, 1991, 1992, 1997). But in the 2000s it happened only once, in 2000, and the trend was definitely in the opposite direction. In 2006, for example, every best picture nominee save one (“The Departed”), finished out of the top 50.

So it would be nice to compare this year with previous years to see where we stand. But we can't. We resort, as Nathaniel resorted here, to guessing games. We resort to sounding like lawyers drawing up a contract:

  • IF the Academy were still nominating five best pictures nominees, and ... 
  • IF those five nominees were the five nominees in the best-director category (“The Social Network,” “True Grit,” “The Fighter,” “Black Swan” and “The King's Speech”) ...
  • THEN the five best picture nominees would all be in the top 50 in terms of annual box office for the first time since 2000.

The irony. The Academy doubled its best-picture nominees to 10 for fear of box-office irrelevance. But the change has frustrated our abiity to gauge its current box-office relevance.

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Posted at 09:56 AM on Feb 06, 2011 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday February 05, 2011

Squabbling Founders

“[George] Washington was a very good President, and an unhappy one. Distraught by growing factionalism within and outside his Administration, especially by the squabbling of Hamilton and Jefferson and the rise of a Jeffersonian opposition, he served another term only reluctantly. His second Inaugural Address was just a hundred and thirty-five words long; he said, more or less, Please, I’m doing my best. In 1796, in his enduringly eloquent Farewell Address (written by Madison and Hamilton), he cautioned the American people about party rancor: 'The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.' And then he went back to Mount Vernon. He freed his slaves in his will, possibly hoping that this, too, would set a precedent. It did not.”

--Jill Lepore in her article, “His Highness: George Washington scales new heights” in The New Yorker. Much recommended.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Feb 05, 2011 in category Politics
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Friday February 04, 2011

My Top 10 Movies in a Word Cloud

Next week I'll finally get around to posting my top 10 list. Yes, of 2010 movies. Yes, I know it's February. But since I couldn't be the first to post such a list, I aim to be the last. I'm nothing if not thorough.

In the meantime, here's a word cloud, or Wordle, of the 200 most common words, minus your “the”s and “and”s, from my reviews of my top 10 movies. How many can you name? (Click on the word cloud for a bigger version of same.)

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Posted at 06:34 AM on Feb 04, 2011 in category Movies - Lists
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Thursday February 03, 2011

Lancelot Links

Hold onto your seats; it's going to be a bumpy Lancelot Links.

  • To start. The Star-Tribune's Colin Covert recently asked me, vis a vis my review of “Vincere,” what responsibility the critic has in parsing fact from fiction in historical dramas. I shrugged, adding, “Historical context should get more play if the filmmakers fudge history in a way that makes the film less interesting.” To wit: “The King's Speech,” which Christopher Hitchens' reminds us, gets its facts wrong in its drive toward the obvious and comfortable conclusion. In reality Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) was a Nazi sympathizer while George VI (Colin Firth), our sympathetic, tongue-tied hero, was an appeaser who wanted to stick with Neville Chamberlain even after Sept. 1, 1939, and whose first choice as successor was another appeaser, Lord Halifax. “And so the film drifts on,” Hitchens writes, “with ever more Vaseline being applied to the lens.”
  • Then our old friend Michael Cieply gets into the act. He writes of the attempts by other filmmakers, not to mention Hitchens, to take down frontrunner “The King's Speech.” The Weinsteins, he adds, are ready to fight back:

And it is lost on few here that a primary competitor, “The Social Network,” has also faced questions about the veracity of its portrayal of the Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, so any showdown between that film and “The King’s Speech” over matters of fact and fiction might end in a draw.“

  • To which Richard Brody of The New Yorker parses the difference between the two movies:

    “The King’s Speech” is an anesthetic movie, “The Social Network” an invigorating one—and their scripts’ departures from the historical record serve utterly divergent purposes. The tale of royal triumph through a commoner’s efforts expurgates the story in order to render its characters more sympathetic, whereas the depiction of Mark Zuckerberg as a lonely and friendless genius (when, in fact, he has long been in a relationship with one woman) serves the opposite purpose: to render him more ambiguous, to challenge the audience to overcome antipathy for a character twice damned, by reasonable women, as an “asshole.”

  • To which Tom Shone, former critic for The London Sunday Times, objects on grounds that indie films like to wallow in misery as much as Hollywood films like to revel in happy, stupid endings:

It is the reigning aesthetic consensus of the day. In Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher we have a pair of twin dark princes for whom life is misery and pain and unpleasantness not just every now and again, but all the time. Black Swan is virtually a primer on developing-your-own-dark-side, in much the same spirit that teenagers take up smoking to annoy their parents, but presented as if this represents the loftiest of artistic aims.

He thinks I’m complaining about pleasantness, and about viewers who enjoy “The King’s Speech”; not at all. ... “The King’s Speech” is pap, but I have no argument with the people who enjoy it. I’m not against the film’s existence or the audience’s pleasure, I’m against giving it awards for any supposed artistic merit. Because, as it turns out, my point of view regarding character in art is one that has some precedent. It is, in fact, the core of what we call Western art: inducing the audience to overcome feelings of repugnance or derision (i.e., prejudices or settled moral values) and enter into sympathy with people who, despite (or even because of) their virtues, make themselves into monsters (in tragedy) or asses (in comedy)
  • Updates as they come. In the meantime here's a nice Sundance rundown from MSN's James Rocchi, who chronicles the hits (”Martha Marcy May Marlene“) and misses (”Son of No One“). But it's his list of superlative documentaries that most intrigues me. From Morgan Spurlock on product placement (”The Greatest Story Ever Sold“), to the daily newspaper in the internet age (”Page One: A Year in the Life of the New York Times“), to personal injury lawsuits (”Hot Coffee“) to the man inside a muppet (”Being Elmo“), I kept thinking, ”I'm there, I'm there, I'm there, I'm there.“
  • I haven't read Daniel Zalewski's profile of Guillermo del Toro in The New Yorker yet, but his video on del Toro's monsters, particularly the ”pale man“ from ”Pan's Labyrinth,“ is way, way cool.
  • Are you reading Alex Pareene over at Salon.com? Here he is on media coverage of events in Egypt: ”It goes against the nature of the medium to suggest that we just watch and analyze the events of a faraway nation and examine America's role only in a historical sense.“
  • My friend Jerry Grillo takes a break from Facebook (for non-Tom Shone reasons) and makes a list of what he's missed. Answer: Not much.
  • Finally, we have a new Superman: Henry Cavill. Here he is talking about his role on ”The Tudors." Yeah, he's a Brit. Like Batman (Christian Bale), the new Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), the young Beast (Nicholas Hault), and the old and young Professor Xes (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy). But the U.S. still has Ghost Rider! Plus Iron Man, of course (Robert Downey, Jr.). Who also plays Sherlock Holmes. Is that our tit or our tat? Either way, it feels like a trade deficit.

After yonks, Cavill wangles the bleedin' superbloke. Brilliant.

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Posted at 06:56 AM on Feb 03, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Wednesday February 02, 2011

Frontier Airlines: New Babysitters Club

Do airlines no longer handle suits? I mean the clothing kind. Just last May, on a Delta flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, the flight attendants took care of my suit—hung it in a closet—but this past week, flying to a memorial service in Minneapolis, both US Airways (to) and Frontier (from) had nothing for me. “You can lay it on top of the suitcases in the overhead bin,” I was told. “If there's room.” On the last leg, I didn't even get this option. I was told, because I had a bag in the overhead bin, to stuff my suit under the seat in front of me.

This wrinkle, so to speak, fits the way airlines increasingly treat customers: as children rather than suit-wearing adults. The Frontier flight attendants in particular, on both legs of the journey, had a kind of hectoring, head-shaking attitude toward its customers. Listen people, keep moving. Stay in your seat. Hey! I said stay in your seat, young man!

Admittedly we're an unruly crew in this country. Admittedly it's a tough, cramped job. But is it necessary to resort to the methods of the worst babysitters? We were given a single chocolate-chip cookie and essentially put in front of the TV set. Each seat, on that final leg of the journey, came equipped with a TV screen, which you could dim into nonexistence, but which few people did. Thus everywhere you looked: a multitude of screens watching a multitude of shows. I know Louis CK has mocked modern complaints; but that last leg of the journey, stuck on the Denver runway for an hour before takeoff (de-icing), with a baby wailing and 180 people channel-flipping and landing on crap, well, it felt like a new circle of hell.

My own fault. The book I brought (“Freedom”) was digital, on an iPad, and had to be powered down for the hour we were on the runway. I'm sure my report card would've read poorly: “Erik tried to read while we were on the runway and he refused to watch TV. Plus he brought a suit along. But he did eat his cookie.”

Finally makes sense why they keep showing us how to use a seatbelt.

Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.

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Posted at 06:35 AM on Feb 02, 2011 in category Personal Pieces
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Tuesday February 01, 2011

Née: “An Empire of Their Own”

I suppose it's appropriate that a documentary about Hollywood moguls such as Sam Goldwyn (née: Goldfish), Adolph Zukor (née; Cukor) and William Fox (née; Vilmos Fried) would come to me with its name changed. It's still annoying.

The doc in question is based on Neal Gabler's excellent book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” and has a similar title: “Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own.”

At least that's what it's called on Netflix's Web site, Netflix's envelope sleeve and Netflix's DVD casing. But once you start watching it, the true name of the doc appears: “Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream.” It's from A&E, always a bad sign, and, though Gabler helped write it, the doc merely begins with Gabler's book, then goes further afield, into areas that feel legitimate (Superman: created by two Jewish kids), and illegitimate or downright lies (the positive images of African-Americans promulgated in 1930s Hollywood films).

In the process, the doc loses the personalities of these moguls: the fierce determination of William Fox or Adolph Zukor; the fierce paternalism of Louis B. Mayer. Harry Cohn, a fierce personality, a real SOB in life, actually comes off without personality here.

The thrust of both book and doc is more or less the same. The six major movie studios (MGM, Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Columbia) were each created by Jews born within a 500-mile radius in Eastern Europe. Each fled the nightmare of pogroms and each created a dream factory on the west coast of the United States. These dreams were assimilative, patriotic, and family-oriented. At the same time the nightmare they fled is still reflected in their movies; it's just been transported. It can be seen, for example, when sudden violence (from outlaws, bandits, etc.) bears down on a hardworking family trying to scrape a living out of the American west.

“Hollywoodism” is ultimately too sloppy to recommend. Example: The first thing we see is that quintessential Hollywood western scene of sudden violence bearing down on a family, which reflects the violence of pogroms the moguls fled. “These images conceal memories,” the narrator intones. Except these images are from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” an Italian film, not a Hollywood film. It's Sergio Leone. It has nothing to do with the moguls or their memories. In fact, by the time Leone filmed this scene, all but one of the moguls were dead.

Stick with the book.

   

Louis B. Mayer (MGM), William Fox (20th Century Fox) and Adolph Zukor (Paramount).

   

Carl Laemmle (Universal), Harry Cohn (Columbia), Jack Warner (Warner Bros.)

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Posted at 08:22 AM on Feb 01, 2011 in category Movies
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