erik lundegaard

Saturday December 31, 2011

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn (2011)

WARNING: THE PRINCE AND THE SPOILERS

We’re getting more of these, aren’t we? Let’s call them starstruck movies. They’re not “All About Eve” or “The Artist”—cautionary tales in which a star and an ingénue/flunky become rivals or switch places. No, here, as in “Funny People” in 2009 and “Me and Orson Welles” in 2010, the flunky never rises, and the relationship remains unequal, and eventually—with the exception of “Funny People,” which features a fictitious star—the star goes away, as stars always do. Stars are meant to be seen from a distance, not close up. One can get blinded that way. Why Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the titular possessive in “My Week with Marilyn,” is always blinking his eyes, almost shielding them, in the presence of the titular object of his desire.

So what do we learn from these kinds of films? That the very famous are not like you and me. That they’re often horrible to you and me. But look, look at what they create. Isn’t it worth it? In the end?

Colin, a 23-year-old recent Oxford graduate from money and power, is enamored of the movies and decides he’s going to make it in Poster for "My Week with Marilyn" (2011)the movie business “on his own.” So he loads up his sports car, drives to London, and, showing the persistence of a man who is too rich and powerful to have been beaten down by life, hangs around the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions until he’s given small tasks. When Laurence Olivier himself (Kenneth Branagh) shows up, he recognizes Colin, and directs the head of production, his flunky, to find Colin a job. Which is how Colin becomes a “third,” or third assistant director, or, more properly, gofer, on Olivier’s new film, “The Prince and the Showgirl” co-starring Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).

This was Monroe’s serious actress phase. She was already the biggest movie star in the world, which is what she’d always wanted, but it wasn’t what she wanted. Now she wanted to be taken seriously. So she got married to a serious playwright, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), started a production company with a serious photographer, Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and studied method acting under the ultra-serious Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Lee Strasberg, who ran the Actor’s Studio, where actors such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were taught how to act seriously. Oh, and she decided to make a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier, generally regarded the greatest actor in the world.

Problem? Olivier is a classical actor, not method. And the movie they’re making together isn’t a serious film, it’s a light comedy.

Bigger problem? They don’t click.

He’s professional, she’s unprofessional. He’s impatient, she’s confused. He’s ready, she can’t read a line, even during a table read, without conferring with Paula Strasberg. During takes with Olivier and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench, who is, as always, delightful), she is forever forgetting her lines. Is she nervous? On drugs? Stupid? Distracted by Strasberg? Confused by method acting? All of the above? The movie never clarifies the issue. “Use your substitutions and make it work for you,” Paula tells her. “Just be sexy: Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier tells her.

When she begins to hole up in her dressing room, it’s young Colin who’s sent to fetch her; and it’s young Colin, with his innocent, starstruck face, to whom she begins to confide—even as the wall of people surrounding her and protecting her crumbles. Her publicist, Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones), returns to the states. Her husband, with whom she fights, returns to the states. Who can she choose to help prop up the wall? “Are you spying on me?” she asks Colin at one point. “Whose side are you on?” she asks him at another point. His answer, after a momentary pause, is the one she wants to hear: “Yours, Miss Monroe.”

Off they go. He shows her Oxford (or is it Eton?) and the delighted schoolboys surround her. They visit his godfather, Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi), the official librarian at Buckingham Palace, and she asks silly, Monroe-esque questions. They have a picnic near a stream and they wind up semi-skinny-dipping. In the water, she kisses him and he looks on, amazed, as if he’s watching it all rather than participating in it. One night she has a breakdown, asks for him, and they wind up spooning in her bed, clothed. He wakes to find her taking a bubble bath and acting coquettish. Acting like Marilyn Monroe.

It’s like a dream—almost literally. I used to write down my dreams, and this is one I had nearly 20 years ago about one of Marilyn’s many would-be replacements:

Madonna came to town.  I was supposed to greet her.  I was her greeter? She was over at my father's house partially undressed and we made out on the couch.  I was worried about her because she seemed so unstable and sad.  I wanted to sleep with her but I needed to protect her.

That’s Colin’s dilemma, too. In a sense it’s every man’s dilemma (the battle between protect and fuck) but the movie doesn’t do much with it. The movie doesn’t do much with him. Does he remain the Olivierian professional or side with Marilyn? Does he protect her or sleep with her? Can he protect her while sleeping with her? He’s in nearly every scene but we get no sense of his inner life. Is there no roar there? She wants to pretend they’re 13-year-olds on a date. What does he want to pretend?

Worse, the movie thinks it’s presenting a version of Marilyn we haven’t seen before when it’s the Marilyn we’ve seen all too often before: screwed-up and pill-popping and user and used. It focuses on Marilyn, the star, versus Norman Jean, the lost little girl, as if this dichotomy is new. “Shall I be her?” she says at Buckingham Palace. “I’m not her,” she confides to Colin. “As soon as people see I’m not her, they run,” she says. Yet, even in private, she keeps acting like “her.”

“My Week with Marilyn” isn’t a bad movie but it’s not a particularly interesting one. He’s not that interesting, she’s not that interesting, and, in the process, a not very interesting movie gets made. Oh, but look at her light up the screen, Olivier says after all that trouble. Just look. He’s amazed. The movie is amazed. In the end, the movie is as starstruck about Monroe as Colin.

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Posted at 09:18 AM on Dec 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Friday December 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

“The best days of the Tri-State Mining District were ten years gone when Mutt [Mantle] moved his family to the region. The land's lucre was first discovered in 1848, the year Mantle's great-grandfther, an English coal miner, immigrated to America. The Twenties were the glory days. Between 1908 and 1930, the ore that came "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" by Jane Leavyout of the mines was worth more than $300 million. The human cost of extracting the wealth was clear as early as 1915, when doctors noted pulmonary disease in almost two out of three miners ...

”Silicosis was feared and far more common than the random but inevitable collapse of rock. A clinic opened in Pitcher in 1927, but it was for the benefit of the mine operators, who were anxious to cull the sick from the workforce. Doctors provided advice but no treatment. Annual X-ray examinations were compulsory. Miners were required to carry a wallet-sized health card certifying that they were free of disease. Those whose X-rays came back positive were fired the same day and could never be hired by another mine. An attorney for Eagle-Picher explained the company's methodology for ridding the area of silicosis and the rampant tuberculosis that ensued: 'When they get sick and can't work, we throw them on the dump heap.'“

--From Jane Leavy's ”The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," pg. 43

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Posted at 08:40 AM on Dec 30, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday December 21, 2011

Movie Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

WARNING: EXTREMELY LONG AND INCREDIBLY FULL OF SPOILERS

Extremely loud and incredibly close describes most movies coming out of Hollywood but not “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” It’s called that, I assume, because that’s the way Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a 10-year-old with inconclusive Asperger’s syndrome, perceives the world. He’s frightened of its noises, frightened of its people, sees dangers everywhere. He’s a worst-case scenario guy—like me, I suppose—but 50 times worse. Walking on a dock: What if he falls through? Walking over a bridge: What if it falls down? Swinging on a swing: What if it breaks?

Of course, he, like most of us, never saw this one coming: What if a group of people purposefully fly airplanes into tall buildings and they come crashing down?

Oskar’s dad, Thomas Horn, Jr. (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, tries to focus his son’s mind by sending him on treasure hunts. He makes up stories. He tells him there was once a sixth borough of New York City but it floated away and the only evidence remaining is somewhere in Central Park—which, itself, was once part of that sixth borough until the people of New York, working together, dragged it to its current location. He’s an ideal dad who practices tae kwan do with Oskar, creates games like Oxymorons—in which the goal is to come up with more oxymorons than your opponent (“Original copy!”)—and encourages Oskar educationally, where he shines, and socially, where he doesn’t.

Movie poster for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011)Unfortunately, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Thomas happens to have a business meeting on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center.

The movie opens to blue; then we see something flapping in front of it. A flag? No. Is that a shoe? Is it a body falling? Is it a body falling on the sky-blue day of September 11, 2001?

Yes.

Most of the action takes place a year later. In voiceover, which is used throughout, Oskar tells us that if the sun blew up we wouldn’t realize it for eight minutes because that’s how long it takes for light to travel to Earth. So for eight minutes, we’d still feel its warmth; we’d still see its light. And that’s how he feels about his father. And he fears that, after a year, his eight minutes are almost up. (This is a beautiful analogy, by the way.) So for the first time since that awful day, “The Worst Day” he always calls it, Oskar enters his father’s closet, which his mother (Sandra Bullock) hasn’t altered. He smells his sweater. He finds old film his grandfather took. And on a top shelf he spies his father’s camera, which, as he pulls it down, also pulls down a blue vase, which falls through the air and explodes on the floor. In it, he finds a small envelope, and inside the small envelope he finds a key. “Black” is written on the envelope. What could it mean? What could it open? What was his father trying to tell him? It’s the final treasure hunt.

After a neighborhood locksmith tells him that every key opens something, Oskar goes in search of that something. He figures “Black” is a name; and in the phone book he finds 472 Blacks, some of whom live together, and decides to ask each of them if they know anything about his father and/or the key. His phobias have intensified since 9/11—tall buildings, subways—so for the first Black on his list, Abby (Viola Davis), in Brooklyn, he steels himself, shakes his tambourine (which he uses to calm his nerves), and crosses the Brooklyn Bridge. She lives in a beautiful brownstone, where it appears to be moving day. She’s distracted, knows nothing about his father or the key, but he barges in anyway, asks for water, asks about an elephant postcard he finds in one of the moving boxes. Turns out she’s not the one who’s moving. A man, whose face we never see, is. It’s her husband and they’re separating. When she breaks down and cries, Oskar offers her this: “Only humans can cry tears, did you know that?” He tells her she’s beautiful. He asks, “Can I kiss you?” When she smiles and says it wouldn’t be appropriate, he asks to take her picture. At the last instant, she turns away, tears streaming down her cheeks. The Worst Day killed his father, which is why he’s there, but for her this is the worst day. What he’s doing feels awkward and awful. It almost feels like a home invasion.

More importantly, throughout, I couldn’t get past this thought: Why not phone?

Did I miss something? Are these the Blacks in the phone book without phone numbers? Did his father tell him to never use the phone in his treasure hunts? He certainly has a phone, and he’s an extremely logical kid, and he’s calculated that if he visits two Blacks every Saturday it’ll take him three years to complete his task, whereas, with the phone, he could finish it up in two afternoons, three tops. Instead, every Saturday, off he goes, meeting people and hearing their stories.

This is obviously the point. What matters is the face-to-face interaction. What matters is the journey. But the journey is so illogical, given the storyline, I couldn’t get past it. Oskar, with his Asperger’s mind, wants to think of every person, every “Black,” as a number in a gigantic equation, but after a time he realizes they’re closer to letters, and those letters spell a story, and those stories are messy. He wants a neat answer but everything just gets messier. That’s the point, too, but I still couldn’t get past the illogic. Dude, just pick up a phone.

After a time, Oskar is aided in his search by his grandmother’s renter (Max von Sydow), who showed up three weeks after 9/11, and who is obviously Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas, Sr. As a German teenager, he was caught in the firebombing of Dresden, which strangled all speech from him forever. He has YES and NO tattooed into the palm of each hand—like Robert Mitchum’s LOVE and HATE knuckles in “Night of the Hunter”—and writes everything else down. He also abandoned his family when Thomas, Jr. was young. He was a bad father. Now he’s trying to be a good grandfather.

It’s a relief when he joins the search. It’s tough to occupy the stage alone, and it’s particularly tough for a 10-year-old; and while Thomas Horn does an amazing job for someone who’s never really acted before, who came to fame winning $31,000 on “Teen Jeopardy,” his character, Oskar, is often too precocious to be believed and too annoying to be liked. Kids are often bratty, and Asperger’s kids have their own brand, but there was a tinny quality to Oskar’s flame-outs. When, in voiceover, he lists off all the things that make him panicky, in an increasingly panicky voice, it just doesn’t work. When he tries to tell his story to his grandfather, his secret story, the one he’s been keeping from us about the answering machine and the six voice messages his father left on 9/11,  he gets extremely loud and panicky about it. That, too, feels off.

Eventually, when Thomas, Sr. senses he’s hurting Oskar more than helping him, he abandons the search, and the grandson, as he abandoned the son, but Oskar keeps going. And eventually he finds the answer to the mystery of the key. It’s a good answer because it’s not Oskar’s answer. It doesn’t satisfy him but it satisfies us—in part because we get to watch Jeffrey Wright, the most underutilized great actor in Hollywood, act for a few minutes.

As for the horror of the sixth answering-machine message? It’s both less and more horrifying than we imagined. In content, it’s simply Thomas, Jr., calling again, knowing he’s about to die, and repeating, over and over again, to his son, whom he’d hoped to talk with, “Are you there? ... Are you there? ... Are you there?” It’s a kind of echo, repeated so often, but it also echoes back throughout the movie, since that’s what the son is now doing. Oskar’s search is his own query, his own “Are you there?” to his father.

Why is this horrifying? Because Oskar was there, in the room, listening to his father leave this message, but too panic-stricken to pick up. He asks forgiveness of the adult to whom he confides the story, and of course it’s granted, and Oskar feels relief—it’s a helluva thing for a 10-year-old boy to be carrying around—but afterwards the movie forgets it and I couldn’t. I thought: That’s going to weigh on Oskar more as he ages. He’s going to realize that in his father’s last moments he could have spared him some anguish, could have been that voice, the last voice he communicated with, before he went into the abyss. But he couldn’t and didn’t. It’s not a matter of the need for forgiveness; it’s a matter of overwhelming sorrow that will never end.

“Extremely Loud” is supposed to be a tearjerker so I was surprised it didn’t jerk more tears out of me. It took about 50 minutes, and Sandra Bullock’s “It doesn’t make sense” speech, before I teared up. The second time was during her flashback to 9/11. I guess it was mostly Sandy who made me cry. She’s also the tidiest aspect of the untidy end. Where was the mother during all this? How could she let her son traipse around New York, going into strange homes, in a fruitless search? Isn’t she smarter, more caring, than that? Yes. Yes, she is.

A lot of talent went into this. It was written by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider,” “Munich”), directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Reader,” “The Hours”), and adapted from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”). Both Hanks and Bullock nail it. The kid mostly works. I never tire of Max Van Sydow or Jeffrey Wright. It’s about the aftermath of an event none of us will ever forget. Yet it doesn’t quite coalesce. The mother’s 11-hour revelation retroactively covers up some of the false notes, but not all of them, and a tinny taste lingers. The movie wants us to believe in something, in all of us messy, multihued people, with all of our sad stories, making our way in the world. It wants to say that we all care about each other. But the world doesn’t care this much. It doesn’t have this much patience with us, no matter how much prep work goes into it. It’s more cruel than this. A warning should be flashed at the start of the film: Kids, don’t try this at home.

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Posted at 07:43 AM on Dec 21, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)

WARNING: “LENNY BRUCE IS NOT AFRAID” SPOILERS

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” didn’t make me melancholic but it did make me nauseous. I began to feel it halfway through the film, that awful shipboard unsteadiness, that burp that brings up more than a burp and has to be swallowed down and grimaced through, but I attributed it to the stomach flu going around, or some symptom of a thyroid problem I’ve been having lately, or maybe something I ate. Pho? Christmas cookies? Which of you betrayed me? It wasn’t until the next day, after reading the IMDb message board for the film, that I realized it was von Trier and his damned hand-held camera. Of course. Same thing happened to me while reviewing “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000. Douchebag. Get a fucking tripod.

“Melancholia” has two acts of destruction preceded by a beautiful overture of destruction. In part one, titled “Justine,” the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), at the palatial estate of Justine’s sister and brother-in-law, Claire and John (Charlottes Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland), is destroyed due to Justine’s melancholic tendencies. In the second part, (“Claire”), the earth is destroyed when a heretofore unseen planet named Melancholia crashes into us, and, as a young Alvy Singer once said, that’s the end of everything. Poster for "Melancholia" (2011)The overture, backed by the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” contains beautiful, slow-motion, stop-action shots of the moment before our doom. None of them, interestingly, correlate to the reality of the second act. They’re just gorgeous dream images from a time when life existed.

So what do the two parts have in common other than character and setting? Is it that Justine’s melancholia is as unavoidable as the planet Melancholia? That all attempts to buck her up are as futile as, say, Claire’s desperate attempt to go into the village as Melancholia looms upon us? Is the second part, in other words, mere metaphor for the first? Or is it mere perspective for the first? “Mere” being the operative word.

The wedding reception begins sweetly. An absurdly long, absurdly white limousine attempts to park in a small space by the woods. Everyone gives it a go—inept driver, amused groom, laughing bride. When bride and groom finally show up at the estate, looking beautiful, they are chastised by two severe-looking people, Claire and John. One wonders who these people are and why they’re such a drag. Don’t you cut bride and groom slack on their wedding day? Isn’t this their day? Aren’t the rest of us poor background players to the main event, which is them?

Few at the reception see it this way. Her employer and his best man, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s father), who runs an ad company, attempts, right there at the wedding reception, in the middle of a toast, to get her to come up with a tagline for a new campaign, whose photo is based upon the awful, besotted folks in Bruegel’s painting “The Land of Cockaigne.” Her father, Dexter (John Hurt), with rakish charm, holds forth at a table full of “Bettys,” but allows an opening for the mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), to loudly express her distaste for what they’re there to celebrate: love and marriage. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she toasts the handsome couple. “I myself hate marriages.”

(Irony alert: “Enjoy it while it lasts,” is the tagline for von Trier’s film.)

The groom, Michael, is a non-entity. He’s sweet but can’t hold up the weight of all the awfulness around him. Worse, he has no friends to protect him, just a silent mother and father. Many things are planned—by both the wedding planner (Udo Kier) and Claire (whom we discover, in the second act, has a desperate need to plan the inconsequential)—but Justine either avoids or sabotages these absurdities. Sweetness drains away. All the guests stand around waiting for the cutting of the wedding cake, but Justine is upstairs taking a bath. So is her mother in another room. John, who has paid for the entire affair, gets so frustrated he tosses the mother’s belongings out on the front steps, where they’re retrieved by a servant. Those who stay (the mother), shouldn’t; those who don’t stay (the father), should. Add the groom to the latter group. Justine avoids sex with him only to do it out on the estate grounds with a petty ad-agency functionary whom she despises, and suddenly he’s at the front door with the luggage and the parents. The end comes with neither bang nor whimper. “I guess we’ll take off now,” he says. “Things could’ve been a lot different,” he says. “But Michael,” she responds, “what did you expect?” She is who she is, her family is who they are, you can’t stop their trajectories. The destruction was inevitable. He leaves her, forlorn and beautiful, standing in her wedding dress. The evening is a total disaster.

In part two, we get the real disaster. A nearby planet hidden by the sun, and called Melancholia—possibly because of its tendency to avoid other planets—is, in its erratic orbit, supposed to pass close to Earth. It’s the astronomical/celestial  event of the millennia, and John, at his palatial estate, is excited, but Claire is worried. He warns her to stay off the Internet, where worriers go to worry. Meanwhile, Justine, nearly catatonic with depression, shows up, sleeps for days, then can’t enjoy her favorite food. “It tastes like ashes,” she says of the meatloaf, before breaking down in tears.

Later, we get a better sense of the enormity of her melancholia. “The earth is evil,” she tells Justine, as she anticipates disaster. “We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” She’s convinced that we’re the only life that exists, and once we go, hallelujah. That’s her attitude. Consider it the opposite of the upbeat attitude of Selma (Bjork) in von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” For Selma, life is brutish and short yet she has a song in her heart. For Justine, life should be better, easier. She’s smart, with access to wealth, and she’s beautiful. (The movie is Rated “R” for “graphic nudity” but, for the scene with Dunst, please make that “stupendous nudity.”)  She has all that but no song in her heart. Just ashes.

As Melancholia gets closer, John continues to get excited, Claire continues to fret, Justine wakes up. We’re stuck with the three of them—a sad fate—because von Trier never leaves the estate. Of course, it turns out that John and the scientists are wrong. Once he realizes it, confirms it, he takes the way out—barbiturates—that Claire prepped for herself, leaving her only fretting. Justine, meanwhile, is amazingly calm, perhaps because this is the ending she wanted or anticipated or is used to. Melancholia has crashed into her may times before, after all; now she simply has company. When the end finally comes, von Trier makes it beautiful. It’s the end of the world as we know it and he feels fine.

It’s tough to express final judgment on a movie responsible for literally making you sick, but here’s a go.

The two parts of “Melancholia” are interesting enough but they’re two still parts. If you’re creating a story about a disastrous wedding, why do a story about the end of the world as well? Perspective? And if you’re creating a story about the end of the world, why focus on this family? Metaphor?

I can posit connections between the two parts, in other words, but overall I feel a bit like Willard confronting Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”: I don’t see much ... connection at all, sir.

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Posted at 06:30 AM on Dec 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday December 19, 2011

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS?

It would be nice if kids or teenagers left the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movies wanting to be smarter. These things are roller coaster rides, like any successful Hollywood action franchise, but at least the guy at the head of the roller coaster isn’t a pun-swilling gigantus, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an ordinary schmoe yapping out of the corner of his mouth, like Bruce Willis. At least he’s a supersmart guy. So maybe it’ll encourage a few kids out there to be smart or get smart. One can hope.

On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) have, under Ritchie’s direction, become so glib in their smartness, in their ‘science’ of deductive reasoning, that, halfway through their latest adventure, the horribly subtitled “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” they began to remind me of the satiric 1960s-era Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) solving the Riddler’s riddles.

Here’s Batman and Robin from 1966. What has yellow skin and writes? A ball-point banana! What people are always in a hurry? Rushing? Russians! “I’ve got it!” Robin says, snapping his fingers. “Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!” “Right, Robin,” Batman replies with gravitas. “The only possible meaning.”

Poster for "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (2011)For Holmes and Watson, it’s this dirt on this page, and that wine stain on that page, not to mention such-and-such an inky residue, leading them, of course, to that wine cellar near the printing press in Paris! The only possible meaning.

The movie, while it mostly ignores the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, is bookended by homages. We see Dr. Watson actually writing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, which Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson did, and in 1891, which is the year Conan Doyle’s first story, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in The Strand Magazine. And we get Reichenbach Falls in the end.

But it begins with terrorism. Things are blowing up and the newspapers of the day are blaming the right or left, the nationalists or anarchists, depending; but, Watson writes, “my friend Sherlock Holmes had a different theory entirely.” Cut to: a package changing hands in the dirty streets of London. The last hands belong to Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), functionary to Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris of “Mad Men”) and love interest to Sherlock Holmes, who, disguised as a Chinese opium addict, suddenly appears at her side, warning her of unsavory men following her. Ah, but he’s mistaken. They’re guarding her, against him, and she leaves him in their care. Which leads to our first example of 19th-century fisticuffs, or, more precisely, slow-mo and super-deductive 21st-century martial arts madness.

Are we tired yet of Holmes imagining the fight before the fight even though he has no idea whom he’s fighting? Are we tired yet of explosions, of bullets ripping through trains and trees but always missing our lead characters? Are we tired yet of all the anachronisms, of machine-gun pistols and faultless plastic surgery and the general 21st-century superquick pace of movies—zipping from London to Paris to Germany to Switzerland and back to London again? Or is it just me?

The key to the movie is how to keep Dr. Watson involved. He’s about to get married, remember, and does, to Mary (Kelly Reilly), so he should be out of the picture. But Holmes bolts after the ceremony to confront Prof. Moriarty, who has already killed Irene Adler with a rare form of tuberculosis, and who then threatens the newlyweds. “When two objects collide,” Moriarty tells Holmes, “there’s always damage of a collateral nature ... I’ll be sure to send my regards to the happy couple.”

Soon after Watson and Mary board a honeymoon train to Brighton, assassins arrive, bullets fly, and Holmes, watching over the newlyweds, protects Mary, and the movie franchise, by pushing her from the train and into a river, where brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) awaits in a rowboat to take her to safety. Phew. Thank God she’s gone. We can continue.

To Paris, and gypsies (including Noomi Rapace of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), and a bombing at the Hotel d’Triomph; then to Germany and a munitions factory and a nasty bit of torture; then to Switzerland and another assassination attempt and the final tumble at Reichenbach Falls.

Moriarty’s plan? Corner the market on munitions and start a war. Yawn. Holmes prevents the immediate war but Moriarty, and we in the audience, and most likely Holmes, know it’s a stopgap. “War on an industrial scale is inevitable,” Moriarty tells Holmes. “All I have to do is wait.” Which is when Holmes reveals he’s gotten hold of Moriarty’s booklet of holdings, and, with brother Mycroft, Mary and the underutilized Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), depleted it. Cue anger flaring in Moriarty’s eyes. Cue both men imagining the fight before it happens. Cue Holmes seeing his demise. Cue the tumble into the waterfall.

Holmes’ fans know he survives. Back in 1891, Conan Doyle wanted to kill off his famed character, of whom he was tired, but there was such a yap of protest that he brought him back again, with convenient explanations for his survival. So my only question, as I watched a saddened Dr. Watson finish his story of the demise of Sherlock Holmes, typing in THE END, was whether the filmmakers would give hints that Holmes was alive or save it for the second sequel. Neither. They showed us Holmes alive, mischievously adding a question mark to Watson’s manuscript: THE END? Which, I admit, I thought was a nice touch.

But overall the script by the Mulroneys, Michele and Kieran, isn’t as clever as the first, which was written by a gang of four. The characters are now broader, the explosions bigger, the roller coaster ride blurrier. I was bored. Trees getting blown up don’t excite me. Good dialogue excites me.

You know which Holmes excites me? The one from the new BBC series, “Sherlock,” starring—and this has got to be the greatest British name that Charles Dickens didn’t invent—Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s set in modern times. He texts, he’s got a website, and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman, who played Tim on “The Office”) is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. They bring Holmes to the 21st century. The Guy Ritchie films keep Holmes in the 19th century but lavish him with the flotsam and impatience and violence and general stupidity of ours. They’re about a sequel away from the ball-point banana.

You know how Holmes imagines the fight before the fight? I wish the filmmakers, Guy Ritchie, et al, would imagine the next sequel before the next sequel, see the shoddy result, and do the filmmaking equivalent of tumbling into Reichenbach Falls. The End. No question mark.

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Posted at 06:54 AM on Dec 19, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday December 18, 2011

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

WARNING: THE SPOILERS ARE AFOOT

What if the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ had been an original 21st-century creation of this film—of Guy Ritchie and Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and (whew) Lion Wigram, as well as Robert Downey, Jr., of course—instead of a 19th-century creation of Sir Athur Conan Doyle? How well would the movie have done with the critics and how well at the box office and how well with moviegoers after they’d plunked down their $10 plus and had a day, a week, a month, a year to mull it over?

I was mulling this over because, after two years of a self-imposed embargo, and as prep for the sequel, I finally watched “Sherlock Holmes” and for the most part Poster for "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)enjoyed myself. It’s well art-directed, Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (Dr. Watson) have great chemistry, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler) is always a pleasure, and the movie zips. It zips too much for me, of course, and for top critics, whose approval rating wound up at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, but not too much for moviegoers in general, who spent $209 million on it in the U.S., $524 million worldwide, and who, having mulled it over, have given it a 7.5 rating (out of 10) on IMDb.com—akin, among Downey’s work, to “Wonder Boys,” and better than “Chaplin” (7.3) and “The Soloist” (6.7).

So what would’ve happened if this thing called “Sherlock Holmes” had been an original creation? I think its box office would’ve dropped, but not astronomically (no name recognition but everyone likes a roller coaster ride), its IMDb numbers would gone up (to 7.7 or possibly higher), because its top critics ratings at Rotten Tomatoes would’ve soared. I think the critics would’ve loved it.

“A cerebral roller-coaster ride!”
Peter Rainer
Christian Science Monitor

“A brilliant throwback to the 19th-century battle between magic and science!”
David Edelstein
New York Magazine

“In Sherlock Holmes, we have the first Asperger’s detective.”
Manohla Dargis
The New York Times

But we really can’t play that game. Sherlock Holmes has been an icon for more than a century. You can’t just wipe that away. As much as they tried.

How much did they try? Ritchie, a Brit, is the first man to turn Sherlock Holmes into both an American and a Hollywood action hero.

The real Sherlock Holmes used his mind to solve crimes and mysteries. This one uses his mind, yes, but just as often, maybe more often, his fists. In the opening scene, as a female sacrifice writhes on a table (sexy!), Holmes and Watson take on a roomful of baddies as if they’re Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

The real Sherlock Holmes used the power of deductive reasoning to solve crimes, as does this one. But in the original stories, the evidence was there for us if we wanted to put it together ourselves. We rarely could. (Or I rarely could.) When Holmes did, however, we almost always went, “Of course!” Here, the evidence by which things are deduced is simply told to us after they’ve been deduced. Zip, zip, zip, zip. Get a move on. What’s that? You want to try to solve it? Just munch your popcorn, Einstein. Roller coaster’s pulling out of the station.

The real Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user and violinist. He compared the brain to an attic—there’s only so much room, so you’d better be careful that what you put up there doesn’t crowd out worthier stuff. He had a smarter brother, Mycroft, and a nemesis, Prof. Moriarty, and a partner, Dr. Watson, who was sharp but not as sharp as Holmes, and he had informants, street kids, called the Baker Street Irregulars. He was a solitary man but found Watson’s help “invaluable”—which, to my 12-year-old ears, associating the prefix “in” with “the opposite of” (ex: “inconceivable”), sounded like the gravest insult when it was really his greatest compliment. He smoked a pipe. He wore a deerstalker cap.

This one? His plucks his violin, bowless, and smokes a pipe, ocassionally, and mentions Mycroft and sniffs some questionable substances. But cocaine and the attic aren’t mentioned, the deerstalker hat isn’t worn, and holy crap is he ever needy. The main personal tension within the film is his pain over Dr. Watson’s impending marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly). He needs Watson with him whenever the game’s afoot. You get the feeling Irene Adler, Holmes’ love interest, shows up not only because it’s the movies and you need a girl but to quiet suspicions that Holmes might be gay.

My favorite bit was early on. Holmes is in a restaurant waiting for Watson and Mary. The other patrons talk, their cutlery clinks, and the noises intensify until it becomes almost unbearable for Holmes. It seems like Asperger’s. That would’ve been an interesting direction to go in. Of course it would’ve been less lucrative so they dropped it. Too bad. It would make sense of his seclusions. The world is too much with him. The acute senses that help him solve crimes also make it difficult to live in the world.

To the plot! Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who went on to play every villain in every movie made since) is the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), head of a Freemasons-like secret society. Blackwood is responsible for the murder of several women—all writhing, one assumes—captured by Holmes, sentenced to death. But there’s something steely and menacing about him even behind bars or with the hangman’s noose around his neck. A week later, someone sees him rise from the dead. Then he’s killing again—not least his biological father.

Turns out he uses science and chemicals and whatnot (Holmes' wheelhouse) to appear magical and foster fear. He’s a 19th century terrorist. His goal is to take over Parliament and then—perhaps to ensure American audience interest—to reclaim Britain’s former colony across the pond. Amid a lot of running, fighting, explosions, and sniffing substances on his fingertips, Holmes stops him.

All the screenwriters mentioned above earned their pay; we get some fun stuff. There’s a giant Frenchman, Dredger (Robert Maillet), the “Jaws” of his day, whom Holmes must battle twice, and with whom he has the following exchange after Holmes’ weapon proves ineffective:

Dredger: Cours, lapin, cours. (Run, rabbit, run.)
Holmes: Avec plaisir.

Bailed from prison, where he has been regaling criminals with jokes and stories, Holmes has this exchange with the always incompetent Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan):

Lestrade: You know, in another life you’d have made an excellent criminal.
Holmes: And you, sir, an excellent policeman.

I also like this exchange with Watson's fiancee:

Mary: Making these grand assumptions out of tiny details.
Holmes: That’s not quite right, is it? In fact, it’s the little details that are most important.

The filmmakers do the “Batman Begins” thing of saving the iconic villain (Joker/Prof. Moriarty) for the sequel. All tentpole movies do this now. They’re all hoping for a “Dark Knight.” Good luck with that.  

“Sherlock Holmes” is fun but it’s another part of our day-to-day disconnect. It’s a movie about a man of supreme concentration with which we distract ourselves for two hours. That’s the true game and boy is it ever afoot.

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Posted at 06:59 AM on Dec 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday December 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn't ever have to rely on the press for my information.”

--Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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Posted at 10:52 AM on Dec 16, 2011 in category Media
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Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Murky.

That’s the word that comes to mind when watching Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The morality is murky, the mise en scene is murky, the code-language is murky. The film is a corrective for anyone who misses the Cold War.

But is the plot too murky? Or truncated? The movie is based upon the 432-page Cold War novel by John le Carré, which was made into a seven-part, five-and-a-half-hour BBC miniseries starring Alex Guinness in 1979. Now it’s down to two hours. In that time, amid much silence, code language, and the cold vacuity of gray-brown institutional buildings, we meet a dozen or more characters, five of whom could be traitors, all of whom are given further codenames, the titular codenames, while being investigated by George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the career spy who is pulled from a forced retirement, and who may be a suspect himself. By the time we get a handle of who’s who and what’s what, it’s time for the big reveal, and we still barely know “tailor” and “soldier,” which eliminates half our suspects. So who could it be? Oh, right. Him. There you go.

Of course the big reveal, for some, is about as much a reveal as who killed Hamlet’s father. The story is so well-known, particularly in Great Britain, that at this point it’s more about form than content: “How is the story told?” rather than “What happens?” And in this, Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) triumphs. In “Three Days of the Condor,” a 1970s-era CIA director is asked if he misses the kind of action he saw in the intelligence field during World War II. “I miss that kind of clarity,” he responds. “Tinker Tailor” is all about that lack of clarity. It’s about murkiness. Le Carré has already called it the best adaptation of his work.

Poster for Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011)It begins in suspicion and in the negative. “You weren’t followed?” Control (John Hurt) asks Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a former head of the Scalphunters division. “I want you to go to Budapest,” he tells him. “This is not above board,” he tells him.

Apparently a Hungarian general wants to come over but in Budapest things go wrong and Prideaux winds up dead. It’s such a fiasco that Control, Chief of the Circus, which is the nickname of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is more commonly known as MI6, is dismissed, along with his deputy, Smiley. This is handled so subtly that I missed it. Wait a minute, what? “A man should know when to leave the party,” Control says. “Smiley is leaving with me,” Control says. And that’s that. These are men who reveal little, after all, Smiley most of all, so I missed the power struggle in those 14 words. Control is soon dead while Smiley swims with elderly men, head gliding above the water, at Hampstead Pond. At this point, we’ve been given three characters: two are now dead and one is retired. Alfredson giveth and taketh. He leaves us nothing to hold onto. The proper feeling for the rest of the story.

Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not dead, Prideaux, whom we see teaching French in some country school, recruiting a sad, fat kid to be his lookout. Is this a flashback? What is this?

Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not retired. When Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a Scalphunter apparently gone rogue, shows up at the home of Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the permanent undersecretary, with the same news that Control told Prideaux at the open— there’s a mole at the top of the Circus—Smiley is recalled to investigate. He reacts to this news quietly, without emotion, but his words pack a punch. “I’m retired, Oliver,” he tells Lacon laconically. “You fired me.”

But he accepts the job and chooses two men, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack)—impeccable, one assumes—and off they go, slowly and steadily.

Control’s suspicions centered on five men, whom he gave code names from a British children’s rhyme: Tinker, Tailor/ Soldier, Sailor/ Rich Man, Poor Man/ Beggar Man, Thief. (In the U.S., we borrowed the second stanza.) Thus:

  • Tinker: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)
  • Tailor: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)
  • Soldier: Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds)
  • Poor Man: Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)
  • Beggar Man: Smiley

Alleline, with access to a high-ranking Soviet source, codenamed “Witchcraft,” has now ascended to the top of the Circus. Haydon, best friend to Prideaux, is a ladies man always sniffing after the new secretaries. (He even seduced Smiley’s wife, news that comes to us in pieces.) Bland is blunt, Esterhase a toady. It’s one of them. Or none of them. Since Smiley was not above Control’s suspicion, he’s not really above ours, either.

Other bits come into play. George visits Connie Sachs, a retired Circus researcher, dismissed because of her suspicions of a Soviet defector, Polyakov, whom she sees, in old footage, being saluted during a May Day parade. If he was a soldier, she asks, why hide it from us? But when she brought her suspicions to Alleline, she was told, as Control was told, that she was losing her grip on reality.

After interrogating Prideaux (he hadn’t been killed: merely shot and tortured for months), Peter and Smiley share a bottle of Scotch in a hotel room, talking about Karla, their counterpart on the Soviet side. It's a great scene. Smiley owns up that he once met him, in ’55 in Dehli, after Karla had been tortured by the CIA. “No fingernails,” Smiley says matter-of-factly, holding up his right hand. The assumption was Karla would be killed when he returned to Moscow, so Smiley tries to convince him to stay in the west, and talks about all we have here; then he talks about Karla’s wife, and how she’ll be ostracized once he’s killed, and surely he wouldn’t want that. It’s such a smart scene, and so beautifully acted. Time and again, we see Smiley lose himself in thought, in remembrance. I’ve read that some think Oldman’s performance in the movie is too minimalist, but there’s always something behind the minimalism. It’s not just a blank. And here? Where, tipsy, he’s allowed to show a modicum of emotion? My god. One wonders how actors lose themselves in thought this way. Smiley admits that in trying to win over Karla he’d revealed too much of himself—how much his wife meant to him—while Karla, silent, got on a plane, keeping Smiley’s cigarette lighter: To George, from Ann. All my love. But in revealing nothing, Karla had revealed something. Smiley:

That’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.

Then he tells Peter (because he knows?) that Peter will now be a target and better get his house in order. Cut to: Peter breaking up with his boyfriend, then crying to himself when he’s alone. Earlier, Connie Sachs had greeted Smiley with the comment, “I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.” Smiley himself, of course, is estranged from his wife, who had the affair with Haydon. These are the anti-James Bonds. It’s lonely out there for a secret agent.

Ultimately we get our answer, we find our spy, but the murkiness never goes away. The mole is not Alleline, the obvious choice, but Haydon, the best friend. He seduced Smiley’s wife at Karla’s bequest so Smiley wouldn’t be able to see him clearly. Smart. “Witchcraft” is bullshit. MI6 was played to get to the Americans. Control suspected but the higher-ups, like the permanent undersecretary, liked Alleline’s results and believed what they wanted to believe. It’s the numbers game all over again.

“Tinker Tailor” is a well-made movie for smart audiences. It conjures up the dread, ominousness, and moral ambiguity of the Cold War. It gives us a great lead performance and one of the best acting ensembles in years. But it’s a tough movie to come to cold. I was lost for much of the movie (like Smiley, I suppose), pieced it together only at the end (again, like Smiley), but feel I missed out on all the subtleties in between. I’ll probably go again. It’s a movie worth seeing but probably more worth seeing twice.

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Posted at 06:32 AM on Dec 16, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday December 15, 2011

Movie Review: Friends with Benefits (2011)

WARNING: REVIEW WITH SPOILERS

“Friends with Benefits” thinks it’s smarter than it is. It wants to comment upon the problem with romantic comedies while delivering a better romantic comedy. So Jamie (Mila Kunis) yells at a poster of recent rom-com queen Katherine Heigl, calling her a liar for the upbeat endings of her movies, but this movie still gives us an upbeat ending. So Dylan (Justin Timberlake) mocks the obviousness of the genre’s original soundtrack music when the indie-pop soundtrack of this film is equally obvious.

Those other rom-coms are fake, this rom-com is saying. We’re real. But it’s not.

Dylan’s New York apartment alone pissed me off. He’s an LA dude, headhunted by Jamie for GQ magazine to be its art director in New York. When he shows up, there’s a new apartment waiting for him: spacious, impeccably designed, wide glass-door refrigerator, stunning view of the city.

Really? On an art director’s salary?

poster for "Friends with Benefits" (2011)I happened to be watching this thing with a woman who was art director of Newsweek magazine from 1985 to 1995—back when, you know, magazines meant something—so I asked her. Did she live like that? Did she live close to that?

“You live that way in New York if you’re, like, a gazillionaire,” she said.

The beginning alone pissed me off. Not the beginning-beginning, when we see Dylan talking on his cell, late for a date, and we see Jamie talking on her cell, waiting for her date, and we think they’re talking to each other when really she’s waiting on Andy Samberg in New York, who’s about to break up with her, and he’s late for Emma Stone in LA, who’s about to break up with him. That was a good bit.

No, it’s when he flies to New York, headhunted by her, and she meets him at the airport, takes him to GQ, waits for him outside, takes him out for drinks, takes him to her secret spot in Manhattan—the roof of a building, which is her mountaintop, she says, her place of solitude—and then into the middle of a flash mob in Times Square, singing (for him?) “New York, New York.” After all that, he finally decides to take the job.

In other words, in the middle of a global financial meltdown, where most people are either underemployed or unemployed, we get to watch this little shit get wined and dined to take a high-paying job at a well-known publication in the most dynamic city in the world so he can live in this insane apartment where he gets to fuck Mila Kunis on a regular basis? Occupy Castle Rock Entertainment. Occupy Hollywood.

The early back-and-forth between Jamie and Dylan is awful. She’s from New York, see, so she’s blunt and a power walker, and he’s from LA, see, so he’s polite and waits for streetlights. She’s dynamic, he’s blank. Many things about her say “headhunter.” Not much about him says “art director.” It says “former boy-band member who’s a dynamic performer and can act a little but not well enough to make you believe he’s an art director.”

They work out the deal—the friends-with-benefits deal—on the couch. Twenty years earlier, NBC aired an episode of “Seinfeld,” called “The Deal,” in which Jerry and Elaine worked out a FWB deal on the couch. They came up with a set of rules so they could have “this” (the friendship) as well as “that” (the sex). It was a funny episode. It felt true. And it lasted only a half hour—twenty minutes with commercials. “Friends with Benefits” takes 90 minutes longer to deliver something less funny and less true.

Other characters show up about a half-hour in. Thank God. Jamie’s mom (Patricia Clarkson) is man-hungry and flakey. Dylan’s dad (Richard Jenkins) has early-stages Alzheimer’s and Dylan is often embarrassed by him—which he’ll overcome in a big way in the third act. Dylan has a nephew who does elaborate magic tricks that don’t quite work. Shaun White makes unnecessary cameos. It’s boy meets girl, boy fucks girl, boy befriends girl, boy insults girl, boy gets girl back in the final reel through his own flash mob singing the song he’s sung throughout the movie, “Closing Time” by Semisonic. I like that song (“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”). Unfortunately, it helps Jamie and Dylan get together. Happily-ever-after is implied. It’s the movies, where every new beginning leads to the same effin' Hollywood end.

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Posted at 05:49 AM on Dec 15, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday December 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

Q. How did you prepare for the role [of a former P.O.W. turned war hero who might also be an undercover jihadist in Showtime's “Homeland”]?

A. I investigated post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been to a unit where people are suffering from it, and I read a lot of literature. I looked at footage of soldiers in the combat zone. I found “Restrepo” to be unbelievably useful.

--Actor Damian Lewis (“Band of Brothers”) in the Q&A “A World War II Soldier Enters the Post-Iraq Age,” in the Sunday New York Times

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Posted at 05:45 AM on Dec 14, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday December 13, 2011

Movie Review: Zelig (1983)

I remember the early criticism of Woody Allen’s “Zelig” back in 1983: It was good, people said, but it made you want to see a Woody Allen movie.

The movie is only 75 minutes long, and, unlike “Take the Money and Run,” his earlier, funnier, but less profound mock-documentary, this one is a true mock-documentary, since it never deviates from what a real documentary can show us. “Take the Money” gives us footage of Virgil Starkwell’s high school days, and prison days, and robberies—footage no documentarian could shoot. “Zelig,” by the auteur Woody, gives us nothing that isn’t, in a sense, in the historical record of the 1920s and ’30s. As a result, the Woody Allen character in the film, Leonard Zelig, is doled out in bite-sized bits. We don’t see him much and hear him less.

Hearing his voice for the first time, in fact, is a startling moment.

poster for Woody Allen's "Zelig" (1983)The premise of “Zelig” is brilliant. In the 1920s, the decade when pop culture began, a man is discovered who has such a need to belong, to blend in, to be safe—who, in other words, has such a wish for assimilation, particularly the post-schtel, post-pogrom Jewish wish for American assimilation—that he automatically changes his physiognomy to blend in with whomever he’s around. With the Chinese, Chinese. With the obese, he turns fat. Sitting with gangsters, his eyes turns cold, his face toughens, and there’s suddenly a scar running down his right cheek. A second later, he’s a light-skinned black man playing in a jazz band. He shows up for a Yankees spring training game and winds up in the on-deck circle, while Babe Ruth takes his swings.

He’s all of these different characters. But when we first hear his voice, seven minutes into the film, in conversation with Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), it’s the familiar Woody Allen character we’ve known and loved forever: quick and buoyant, with an underside of mischief (and, here, mendacity), along with throat clearings and a tendency to land hard on sentence-ending consonants.

Fletcher: What do you do?
Zelig: Who me? I’m a ... psychiatrist.
Fletcher: Oh yeah?
Zelig: Yeah. I work [clears throat] mostly with delusional paranoids.
Fletcher: Tell me about it.
Zelig: Oh, there’s not much to tell. ...I studied a great deal. I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.

While it’s great to hear his voice, it feels wrong. Leonard Zelig is all about fitting in, while the Woody persona, though influenced by many, including Bob Hope, stands out. It is uniquely him.

I also remember how “Zelig” almost defied criticism, or analysis, since, within it, you had intellectuals—Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow—already pontificating on the Zelig phenomenon. In this manner, Woody beat movie critics to the punch.  Howe, with an amused upturn of the mouth, even states what I just stated above about Jewish assimilation:

When I think about it, it seems to me that his story reflected a lot of the Jewish experience in America: the great urge to push in and find a place and then to assimilate into the culture. I mean, he wanted to assimilate like crazy.

Finally, I remember “Zelig” being a turning point for Woody. He was already our finest comedian when in 1977 he gave us “Annie Hall,” the romantic comedy by which all other modern romantic comedies are measured (and come up short), then “Manhattan,” which put him on the cover of Time magazine, before stumbling with “Stardust Memories” and “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” Not only was “Zelig” a sign that he was back, but it was the beginning of his great mid-1980s period, marked by astounding originality and creativity. For five straight years, from 1983 to 1987, he wrote, directed and starred in “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Radio Days.” Interestingly, all but “Hannah” are backwards-looking. Three are set in the 1930s.

Woody Allen as a Chicago gangster in "Zelig" (1983)

Leonard Zelig as a Chicago gangster...

Woody Allen waits on-deck while Babe Ruth takes his cuts in "Zelig" (1983)

...and waiting on deck while the Babe takes his cuts.

So that’s what I remembered about “Zelig.” What I’d forgotten, what came back to me upon a recent viewing, was just how funny the thing is.

There’s this bit about Zelig’s rough childhood:

Narrator: Bullied by anti-Semites, his parents ... side with the anti-Semites. They punish him often by locking him in a dark closet. When they are really angry, they get into the closet with him.

When Zelig is removed from Manhattan Hospital by his half sister Ruth and her lover, businessman and carnival promoter Martin Geist, who exploit him, two former Daily Mirror reporters tell us of Geist’s background:

He was selling the same piece of property to a number of people. Matter of fact, a congressman from Delaware bought it twice.

Then there’s the following bit. I didn’t need anyone to remind me of it, because I could never forget it, because it made me laugh so hard.

It’s that moment after Ruth and Martin Geist turn Zelig into a kind of sideshow freak in the U.S. and Europe, then come to an ignominious end in a lovers’ quarrel over a Spanish bullfighter. Zelig is returned to the care of Dr. Fletcher, who is trying to learn more about Zelig and cure him in her country estate. She hypnotizes Zelig and the sessions are filmed:

Fletcher: You will become completely honest .. .Now how do you feel about it here?
Zelig (speaking slowly, under hypnosis): The worst. I hate the country. I hate the grass, the mosquitoes. The cooking... Your cooking is terrible. Your pancakes. I dump them in the garbage when you’re not looking. The jokes you try to tell when you think you’re amusing: long and pointless, they have no end to them.
Fletcher (discomfited): I see. And what else?
Zelig: I want to go to bed with you.
Fletcher (perks up): That surprises me. I didn’t think you liked me very much.
Zelig: I love you.
Fletcher (genuinely surprised): You do?
Zelig: You’re very sweet. Cuz you’re not as clever as you think you are. You’re all mixed up and nervous. And you’re the worst cook. Those pancakes. I love you, I want to take care of you. ... No more pancakes.

Comedians often talk about how this word is funny and that one isn’t. “Pancakes” is a case in point. It’s the exact right word, the exact right food. Something about it. I can just imagine those leaden things. It still makes me laugh.

Leonard Zelig comes clean on the pancakes in "Zelig" (1983)

“I love you ... No more pancakes...”

Some of the jokes in “Zelig” are so jokey they recall the earlier, funnier movies. The “get into the closet with him” above is similar to the “Take the Money” joke about chain-gang members being locked into a sweatbox with an insurance agent. (Hell is being alone in an enclosed space; real hell, Woody will tell you, is being with others in an enclosed space.)

In “Love and Death,” when Diane Keaton’s character talks about the wonder of Nature, Allen’s character, Boris, responds in classic Woody fashion: “To me, nature is... I dunno, spiders and bugs, and big fish eating little fish, and plants eating other plants, and animals eating... It's like an enormous restaurant.” In “Zelig,” Allen adds human beings to this equation. Slowly, under hypnosis, he tells Dr. Fletcher about his childhood: “My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. People down the block beat the neighbors and our family...”

You know the “It’s funny cuz it’s true” line? In a way, this is not that funny cuz it’s true. The world is a dangerous place, and the tension for the individual, even in a civil society of relative safety, is between remaining solitary and free or subsuming oneself within the anonymity and safety of the group. Zelig does the latter, we’re told, “like crazy.” Thus the great joke at the end when he winds up in Germany, a member of the Third Reich, near Adolf Hitler giving a speech. The primary joke here is that Woody, one of the most Jewish of comedians, could become a member of the Third Reich in the first place. The secondary joke is how Zelig, awakening from his trance by the appearance of Dr. Fletcher in the crowd, disrupts one of Hitler’s histrionic speeches by waving at Dr. Fletcher. In a way it’s not just Zelig waking up; it’s the individual emerging from the mass. Finally, Nazi-Zelig reveals, without stressing it too much, that what safety there is within a group is always temporary. A Nazi in 1933 was safe; a Nazi in 1944 or ’45 was not.

Adolf Hitler and Leonard Zelig (with glasses) in "Zelig" (1983)

A Woodyish brownshirt (with glasses) near the real Adolf Hitler ...

Zelig wakes up from his fascist reverie in "Zelig" (1983)

...while the real Woody wakes up behind an actor playing Hitler.

There’s another reason I loved “Zelig” this time around, and it didn’t hit me until I re-watched “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” That movie, which wasn't that funny to begin with, was also mannered in the Woody Allen style. He keeps giving us the still camera shot, where characters converse with other characters off-camera. Sometimes both characters move off-camera and converse. Sometimes it’s so obvious it distracts from the proceedings.

None of that here. “Zelig” is a parody of a straightforward documentary and remains consistently within that framework. It’s not allowed to be mannered.

“Zelig” is the second mock-documentary Woody did after “Take the Money and Run.” Both are great; both are hilarious. One wonders why he never did another. Maybe it's time.

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Posted at 06:53 AM on Dec 13, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s
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Monday December 12, 2011

Quote of the Day

“There was an unabashed movie-ness to the sequence — an exuberant yet controlled showmanship — that the drama has never before attempted. There wasn’t a trace of Coppola-style solemnity; the sequence just flew by, and the camera seemed to be tap-dancing around the actors. Jimmy’s last moments were nearly as old-movie cinematic. Having a psychologically damaged vet buy it in the shadow of a war memorial was already verging on too much; and yet somehow having the shocking double-cross and execution happen on a melodramatically dark-and-stormy night put the whole sequence over the top in a good way. 'To the Lost' director Tim van Patten, who helmed some of the best 'Sopranos' and 'Boardwalk [Empire]' episodes, is the kind of filmmaker who would have anonymously directed five B-pictures a year under the old studio system, then been discovered in the 1960s by the French.“

--Matt Zoller Seitz, ”'Boardwalk Empire' does not want your forgiveness," on Salon.com

Nucky Thomspon (Steve Buscemi) in the final episode of season two of "Boardwalk Empire"

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Posted at 07:34 PM on Dec 12, 2011 in category TV
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Gary Oldman, at SIFF Uptown, on Dealing with 'the Ghost of Guinness'

“It was very good for my blood pressure.”

--Gary Oldman on playing supercalm spy George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” during a Q&A at SIFF Uptown last night

The Uptown Theater in Seattle was shut down in November 2010 and for most of 2011 it was a garbage-strewn, boarded-up ghost of a building with a movie marquee perpetually announcing farewell, until, in late summer, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) bought it, renovated it, and reopened it in October. Last night, in its main theater, it hosted a screening of Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War novel,  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” follwed by a post-screening Q&A with the film's star, Gary Oldman.

Early in the Q&A Oldman mentioned the hurdles he has to jump for every character he plays, and whlie the immediate follow-up was never asked by the on-stage interviewer—what were the hurdles to playing George Smiley?—Oldman eventually answered at least some of that on his own.

“The Ghost of Guinness,” he said, “loomed very large.”

It's such a well-known story, he said, particularly in Britain, and the 1979 adaptation starring Alec Guinness as Smiley is so famous, so imposing, that it took him a month to even accept the part. Even afterwards, he said, he was nervous, feeling like he'd set himself up for a fall. It wasn't until he began to think of the role as akin to a classical role, a Shakespearean role, that he began to relax. Like being one of the many men to play Hamlet. “Pull yourself together, Gary,” he told himself.

Ultimately, he said, playing Smiley was “like being in the company of a dear friend. You just got comfortable with it. ... But you had to do the work.”

I'm generally not a fan of Q&As with the audience—you get stupid questions and pontificators who never ask questions and ... it's just embarassing—but last night there were surprisingly good questions from the audience, including one from a local director, who asked, “What can a director do to bring out the best in you?” After a succinct response that brought laughter—“Leave me alone”—Oldman clarified with a story about a discussion he'd had with Alfredson, the Swedish director of “Let the Right One In,” prior to filming a pivotal scene in “Tinker Tailor.” It was the first time Smiley enters the safe house that the traitor used to transmit information to the Soviets. “It's contaminated,” Alfredson said of the room. It was responsible for the death of friends, the forced retirement of others, and the tarnishing of everything Smiley had worked for. It was like a gas chamber in a concentration camp. Alfredson didn't tell Oldman how to act the scene; he didn't tell him to use this information in his performance. He merely mentioned it and walked away.

“Good directing,” Oldman said, “is knowing when to not saying anything ... to let you flower.”

Review of the movie up later this week.

Gary Oldman in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011)

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Posted at 06:55 AM on Dec 12, 2011 in category Movies
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Sunday December 11, 2011

Welcome, Albert

People keep saying “Poor St. Louis” but I say “Poor Houston.” They’ve had to suffer in the same division with Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball since 2001, and a man whose career OPS currently ranks sixth all-time, fifth if you discount Barry Bonds, just a hair behind Jimmie Foxx, leaving only the holy trinity of baseball hitting—Ruth, Williams, Gehrig—ahead of him.

Not only have the Houston Astros had to suffer Pujols—whose team, the Cardinals, they play more often because of baseball’s unbalanced schedule—they had to suffer his most famous homerun, that 3-run moonshot off of Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. There weren’t two strikes on him or anything—it was an 0-1 count—but almost everything else was absurdly, almost comically, dramatic. The Astros were leading 3 games to 1, and were ahead 4-2 in the ninth inning, with two outs and nobody on and the best closer in the National League, Lidge, on the mound. Then David Eckstein squeaked out a groundball single to left. Then somehow Lidge walked Jim Edmonds to get to Pujols. That’s gotta be the dumbest walk in baseball history.

Still, the ‘Stros were one out away from its first World Series. One measly out.

Then Albert did what he did.

Albert Pujols hits a moonshot off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.I was watching the game in my apartment in south Minneapolis near Lake of the Isles, chatting via email, pre-Facebook, with several baseball-loving friends around the country. I might’ve even been on the phone with one of them when Lidge left his slider up on 0-1.

The post-season is full of dramatic homeruns—Thomson, Mazeroski, Bench, Carbo and Fisk, Hendu, Gibson, Puckett— and some were come-from-behind, and some were in the ninth inning, or extra innings, or with two outs in an elimination game for the batting team, as this game was for the Cardinals, but none of them was ever so powerfully punctuated. I remember when the ball banged off that upper facade in left field, I began to laugh. It was the most absurd homerun ever hit. It was Hobbsian, as in Roy, as in mythical. Who does something like that? Before Albert Pujols, only fictional creations.

The Astros lost that game, 5-4, but wound up winning the next game and going to their first World Series in franchise history; but it’s the Pujols homerun we remember.

So poor Houston Astros.

The good news is that, per this year’s winter meeting, the team is being sold and is moving, in 2013, to the American League to balance the leagues. They’re moving to the A.L. West, home of the Rangers and Angels and A’s and my awful Mariners. So now the Astros only have to get past four teams to get to the post-season, rather than five as they had in the National League Central. And now they’ll be rid of having to play against Albert Pujols all the time.

Which, of course, is when Pujols signs with the Angels. When the Houston Astros finally arrive in the A.L. West in 2013, Albert will be here waiting for them.

What to make of the Pujols signing?

A part of me is bummed. I like the completeness of a guy staying with one club his entire career: Ripken, Puckett, Gwynn. Edgar Martinez and Stan Musial. Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams. Albert won’t be on that list.

A part of me is anticipating schadenfreude in a few years time. A 10-year contract for a 31-year-old? A-Rod was only 25 when he signed his 10-year deal with the Texas Rangers, and, in baseball terms, if not most terms, 25 to 35 beats 31 to 41 easy. I don’t want to underestimate Albert—remember: Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Foxx, Pujols—but A-Rod is already falling apart, at 36, and that’s the mid-point of Albert’s new contract.

But mostly I’m excited. I’ve never seen Albert play in person. Now that he’s a member of the division-rival Angels, I’ll have nothing but opportunities. It’ll be at Safeco, where the air is heavy, and balls don’t fly out to left field well. But then it’s Albert. Air schmair.

Welcome, Albert. See you this summer.

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Posted at 08:40 AM on Dec 11, 2011 in category Baseball
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Friday December 09, 2011

Movie Review: Le Havre (2011)

WARNING: SPØILERS

Early in the French-Finnish film “Le Havre,” the main character, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), is sharing drinks with Yvette (Evelyne Didi ), the owner of “La Moderne,” a small neighborhood pub. He’s telling her about his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), who was recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s bad, this cancer, but Marcel doesn’t know that. Arletty convinced her doctor to tell him otherwise. So on this night, a free drink in hand, Marcel has some relief. “Benign,” he says of the cancer with a smile. “Completely benign.”

Those were my thoughts about “Le Havre.” The film is benign. Completely benign.

Too benign.

Poster for Le Havre (2011)Marcel, a handsome man in his 60s, ekes out a living as a shoeshine in the French port city of Le Havre. As the film opens, people flood out at a subway stop and past two shoeshines, Marcel and Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen), who look down at everyone’s shoes, hoping for the dress variety but generally getting the sloppy shoes most of us wear. Then a shifty-eyed man in a suit, with dress shoes and a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, arrives. He stops to get a shoeshine from Marcel, less because he wants one than as a distraction against those who are pursuing him. Doesn’t work. They gather. He sees them here ... and there. When he bolts, they follow. Most movies would follow as well, since most movies are about such things; but Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (“The Man Without a Past”) stays on the men who shine shoes. He stays with the down-but-not-quite-out in this port city equidistant between Paris and London.

Marcel is a bit of rascal who steals bread, lets bills linger, but has the charm to get away with it. His wife awaits his return, then sends him off for an aperitif while she cooks, then shines his shoes while he sleeps. They keep what savings they have in a small tin box. The next day he does it again. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, but, since this is France, what goes into the mouth is pretty good.

Meanwhile, a port nightwatchman making the rounds taps onto a large cargo container and hears a baby cry. Authorities are alerted, including Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). They expect dead bodies but when the container is opened an entire west African family is nonchalantly living there, including Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who, seeing his chance, stands, waits a bit, looks at an elder, who nods, then makes a dash, or a kind of half-jog to the front of the container, where he stops, confronted, or not, by three or four cops. They all stare at each other with blank expressions. Then Idrissa makes a dash, or a kind of half-jog, down a row of containers to safety. No one tries to stop him, although one cop pulls a gun and aims it before Inspector Monet tells him to put it away.

It’s a pivotal scene for content as much as tone. But what to make of the tone? Some might be amused by its purposeful inauthenticity. They might like the stiffness and amateurishness of it all. It might remind them of Wes Anderson x 10. Me, I saw little charm and less amusement.

These two characters, Idrissa and Marcel, cross paths, of course. As the newspapers splash scary headlines about the escaped youth, wondering if he has links to al Qaeda, Marcel shelters him. When the police close in, the neighborhood shelters Marcel. When $3,000 is needed to smuggle the kid to London, where his mother works in a Chinese laundry, Marcel convinces local rock star, and homunculus, “Little Bob” (Roberto Piazza), to throw a charity concert. The rest of the money Marcel pulls from the small tin box. When Inspector Monet figures out everything, he, too, turns out to be benign, and misdirects the other cops to allow Idrissa’s escape. The world’s a nice place. The common people—except for a nasty neighbor—stick together.

All of these good deeds do not go unrewarded, either. Yvette makes a recovery that astounds her doctors and returns home with Marcel. “Look Marcel,” she says. “The cherry tree blooms. I’ll make dinner right away.” The End.

“Le Havre” made me laugh a few times. I like the names, the homage, Kaurismäki chose for his characters. Marcel for Marceau or Carne? Marx for Groucho, Harpo or Karl? Arletty obviously for the great French actress. Yvette for Mimeux? Even Marcel’s dog, Laika, is named for the Russian dog who was shot into space in the 1950s, and whom Ingemar eulogizes throughout Lase Hallstrom’s great film, “My Life as a Dog.”

But the film does nothing for me. It feels fake in tone and fake in content and fake in lesson. What’s the point of it? It’s been called “Keatonesque,” after Buster, but Keaton was the deadpan comedian amid great turmoil, which he often unknowingly caused. Here, Marcel is the lively character, the charmer, amid a deadpan world. Can you celebrate life by staring at it blankly? I think not, but Kaurismäki seems to think so.

Fans of “The Man Without a Past” should know: I didn’t like that one, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, either.

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Posted at 07:00 AM on Dec 09, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday December 08, 2011

R*I*P: Harry Morgan (1915-2011)

I assume I first saw him as Officer Bill Gannon in a late '60s reboot of the “Dragnet” series, “Dragnet 1967,” clean-cut and serious and busting hippies. Then I might have seen him in a “Partridge Family” episode, faking a neck injury to bilk the Partridges of imagined dough but still stooping to pick up a handkerchief dropped by a pre-“Charlie's Angels” Farrah Fawcett. Did I see him as the nutso general, Bartford Hamilton Steele, in a great, early episode of “M*A*S*H,” or did I come across that gem only in re-runs, only after actor Harry Morgan took on the role of Col. Sherman T. Potter, the gruff, lovable, former cavalry officer, doctor and commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit? It was part of the show's seamless transition after its third season. Actors McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers wanted out, so their characters were replaced by new characters, with new personalities, that still allowed the dynamic of the show to remain the same.

“M*A*S*H” was central to my life for a while, particularly from 1975 to 1977, with both Morgan and Mike Farrell on board, but before the departure of Larry Linville's Frank Burns, and, more importantly, before the departure of producer Gene Reynolds. In retrospect, I see the show as brilliant during its first three seasons (under the guidance of both Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds), good during its next two years, (under the guidance of Gene Reynolds), and then increasingly preachy and anachronistic (proto-feminist) for the last seven. Its final episode drew record ratings but by that time, in 1983, its anti-war message was lost in the chest-thumping, gung-ho era of Ronald Reagan, which, in a certain sense, we haven't left.

I haven't thought of those “M*A*S*H” episodes in years, although, for a time, being a short man, I often quoted one of Col Potter's lines: “When I was younger I was short,” and then with a twinkle, an upright carriage, and a jaunty bounce, “not like I am now.” Col. Potter also introduced me to his favorite western, “My Darling Clementine,” now one of mine, which the 4077th watched one evening. Then there was the episode Radar O'Reilly adopted a horse, against regulations, and, as a way to keep it, and keep it safe, he gave it to Col. Potter, who, tearing up while walking around it, suddenly slides on a mess the horse made on the floor. “That's disgusting!” Frank Burns says. “Son,” Col. Potter responds with a smile, “to me, that's a tip-toe through the tulips!”

In 1996, Morgan said of Sherman Potter:

He was firm. He was a good officer and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had.

Morgan was a character actor who often played the sidekick, as in “Dragnet,” or in his sixth film, which turned out to be  one of the great films, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” in which he plays Art Croft, the partner of Henry Fonda's Gil Carter, two drifters who get caught up in a town posse and witness the lynching of three men for murder. In the final reel, it's discovered that the men are innocent. Too late. Fonda plays the conscience of the story; Morgan, as he often did, as he did with both “Dragnet” and “M*A*S*H,” plays the man who stands with the conscience of the story.

The obit from The New York Times can be found here.

R*I*P., Colonel. May we all live such long, fruitful, creative lives.

Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ow-Bow Incident"

Looking at a painting of a woman “who could do better,” and about to order a whisky, which is all they had, at the beginning of “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1942).

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Posted at 07:33 AM on Dec 08, 2011 in category TV
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Wednesday December 07, 2011

The 10 Sartorial Steps to Winter Biking

There are 10 sartorial steps in the transition from summer biking to winter biking. Each one is necessary but a drag.

You start out, free and easy, some time in August, in shorts and a short-sleeved biking shirt. Wheee! To be honest, there aren't many Seattle days, or nights anyway, that allow just that. But let's start out that way--the way you start out with only underwear on the dress-up refrigerator magnet. Then, bit by bit, week by week, you add, with approximate temperatures in parentheses, the following:

  1. Long-sleeved biking shirt (60s)
  2. Biking jacket (high 50s)
  3. Slicks or long biking pants (50)
  4. Zip-up, woolish jersey for underneath jacket (high 40s)
  5. Long gloves to replace the fingerless kind (45)
  6. Cap for underneath helmet (low 40s)
  7. Long-johns beneath slicks (35)
  8. Thicker gloves (30)
  9. Fleece vest (25)
  10. Scarf (15)

I've never done the scarf in Seattle, only in Minneapolis. Last week I added the long-johns, Monday the thicker gloves. Each layer is a drag, a kind of mummification. The worst for me is the beneath-helmet cap. I hate that.

So in real terms and in biking-clothes terms I've about reached my winter solstice, which is itself a kind of relief, a Lennonesque rejoinder to the McCartneyesque optimism of “Gettin' Better”: Can't get much worse. I now look forward to the true joy of shedding each layer as the light returns and the weather warms.

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Posted at 04:51 AM on Dec 07, 2011 in category Biking
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Tuesday December 06, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I love baseball. You know, it doesn't have to mean anything, it's just beautiful to watch.”

--Leonard Zelig in Woody Allen's “Zelig” (1983)

Target Field, July 4, 2011

Target Field, July 4, 2011.

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Posted at 09:25 AM on Dec 06, 2011 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday December 05, 2011

Movie Review: Katyn (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

At the start of “Katyn,” a Polish drama about the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940, a group of refugees fleeing the German invasion in September 1939 wait for a train to pass and then set off across a bridge to what they think is safety. Halfway across, they meet another group of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. Each warns the other group that they’re going the wrong way. A succinct dramatization of the Polish dilemma.

Unfortunately, melodrama has become the lingua franca of foreign movies dealing with unspeakable, World War II-era horrors. So it was with the rape of Nanjing in both the Chinese film “City of Life and Death” and the German film “John Rabe.” So it was with the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of Jews in Nazi-occupied France in “La rafle” and in “Oorlogswinter,” that bildungsroman of Nazi-occupied Holland. And so here.

“Katyn,” directed by Andrzej Wajda, was nominated best foreign language film at the 2007 Academy Awards, (it lost to “The Counterfeiters”) so I guess I expected a lot. Or more.

Poster for "Katyn" (2007)From the refugees on the bridge, two faces emerge: Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter Nika (Wiktoria Gasiewska). They’re rushing toward the Soviet side to find Anna’s husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a Polish military officer; but the closer they get, the worse the news. The Uhlan, the Polish cavalry, is no more. The invasion is over. Poland is taken. Soldiers captured by the Soviets are let go but officers remain POWs. She arrives at a camp, looking no worse for wear, only to see doctors operating on the wounded, an INRI crucifix missing its Christ, and rows of dead. It’s Nika who spots daddy’s coat with the blue ribbon on it. It’s draped over a body, where a priest is administering last rites. With a trembling hand, Ann removes it and finds the missing statue of Christ. This prefigures future mix-ups involving corpses and clothes but one still wonders why the priest was administering last rites to a statue. A ruse? Was he hiding the Christ figure from the Soviets? I assumed they knocked the figure off its cross but maybe he did to save it.

At the POW camp, we finally meet Andrzej and his more cynical companion Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra). Andrzej is planning on writing down all that happens, recording it for posterity, while Jerzy feels things are more ominous than that:

Jerzy: The future is bleak.
Andrzej: Meaning?
Jerzy: The Soviets haven’t signed the Geneva Convention.

We get a few good, short conversations between the two. When Andrzej mentions that tanks can be rebuilt but trained officers are irreplaceable, Jerzy responds, “I hope the Soviets don’t realize that.” His best, truest line comes shortly thereafter: “Buttons. That’s what will be left of us.” But these conversations don’t build toward anything. Andrzej is honorable and attentive; Jerzy foresees doom. For good friends, they have little to talk about.

In the camp, which is not yet fenced in, Anna sees him, goes to him, cries. She begs him to flee with her in the confusion, but he refuses and winds up shipped to a Soviet camp. She and Nika, meanwhile, are trapped on the Soviet side. One wonders what she was doing in the first place. Who drags a six-year-old across half of Poland, in the middle of a war, to find a military officer?

The German side isn’t any better, of course. In November 1939, in Krakow, Andrzej’s mother (Maja Komorowska ) urges her husband, Jan (Wladyslaw Kowalski), a distinguished-looking university professor, mulling over clippings of his handsome son, to refrain from a university meeting with the S.S. But, as with the son, he does the honorable thing and stands by the chancellor during what he imagines will be a conversation with the Germans. But there is no conversation. The Poles are chastised for opening the university without permission and sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, where Prof. Jan dies of cardiac arrest.

So it goes. Characters are perfunctorily introduced only to die or disappear. Anna escapes from the Soviets with the help of a Russian captain (who has something of Tommy Lee Jones’ sad gaze about him), but then he’s off to the Finnish front. Dasvidania. Anna and Nika make it back to Krakow no worse for wear. There, the General’s wife, Roza (Danuta Stenka), gazes out windows, her stylish hat cocked at an angle.

Then suddenly it’s 1943 and Roza is ordered by the Germans, now at war with the USSR, to denounce the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest; but, even after seeing horrific footage, she refuses to be used for Nazi propaganda purposes.

Then suddenly it’s 1945, Poland belongs to the Soviet Union now, which claims that the Katyn massacre was a German operation in the spring of ’41, not a Soviet operation in the spring of ’40, and to say otherwise means death. Even so, Roza says it in the town square (“It’s a lie”), where names of the Katyn dead are read through a tinny loudspeaker. Jerzy, who has survived, pulls her away but she shows no gratitude and accuses him of being just like the Soviets. Off she goes into the fog. And in he goes to a bar, where he gets drunk and speaks the truth, then walks out into the night and shoots himself in the head. Do widzenia.

Other characters emerge. Tadeusz (Antoni Pawlicki) is an enthusiastic student whose father died at Katyn and he gets in trouble for tearing down a Soviet propaganda poster. Pursued through the streets of Krakow, he’s aided by Ewa, whom we saw earlier (on the bridge?), but who is now all grown up ((Agnieszka Kawiorska). The two talk movies, plan on meeting the next night at the local theater, share a kiss, but upon departing Tadeusz runs into the pursuing Soviet officers, who chase him into oncoming traffic. Do widzenia.

Meanwhile, Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka), of the long blonde hair and the hard, world-weary look, has her hair cut to pay for a tombstone for her brother, another Katyn victim, but includes the year, 1940, making it a Soviet massacre, and for that .... Do widzenia.

Finally, Ann receives Andrzej’s diary, and we get the massacre, which is horrific, in flashback.

These last scenes are powerful but by this point we’ve given up on the movie. I like some aspect of it in theory—characters introduced just to die, approximating the value of life in war and under totalitarianism—but the glue holding it together is still the stuff of soap opera: Anna crying across half of Poland, the cute kids kissing, Roza in her rakish hat gazing. The crime is a double crime: the massacre itself and then lying about it for decades; and the film is a reminder that, unlike western Europe, unlike the French or British or even the Germans, the Poles were not freed in 1945 but continued to live under an occupying force, an oppressive tyranny, for decades.

Even so, it’s a plain movie. Our unspeakable horrors—the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, the Katyn massacre—deserve better.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on Dec 05, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Saturday December 03, 2011

Lancelot Links

  • Earlier this week I gave a talk on how to do a good Q&A. My advice mostly involved listening, being curious, having a conversation, then editing, editing, editing. Nice that Errol Morris, master interviewer, basically says the same. As I said during my talk: It's not rocket science.
  • It's always interesting to get outsider views of the U.S., as in this Der Spiegel commentary on the GOP nominees, “A Club of Liars, Demagogues and Ignoramuses.” Turns out the outsider view of my country is my view. Money quote about the Republicans who would be president:

They lie. They cheat. They exaggerate. They bluster. They say one idiotic, ignorant, outrageous thing after another. They've shown such stark lack of knowledge — political, economic, geographic, historical — that they make George W. Bush look like Einstein and even cause their fellow Republicans to cringe.

  • Stephen King wrote a book on the Kennedy assassination called “11/22/63.” Ross Douhat wrote a semi-critical New York Times column on the book called “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Now King calls out Douhat in a letter to the editor. Fun!
  • More fun: Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker lists off departing congressman Barney Frank's greatest insults. My favorite is more waggish than insulting: “We don’t get ourselves dry-cleaned.”
  • Last Sunday, Dudley Clendinen had a nice NY Times Op-Ed on a timely (for cinema) subject: “How J. Edgar Hoover Outed My Godfather.” Sad, nasty stuff. Makes me wish Clint Eastwood's movie had been more hard hitting.
  • Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated on “Brian's Song,” 40 years later. It was as he said. I still remember the grade-school oneupsmanship on manliness. Someone would claim that he never cried, and someone else would bring up “Brian's Song,” and then we'd all admit, “Well, yeah, 'Brian's Song.' Everybody cried at 'Brian's Song.'” Hell, I still tear up hearing the theme music. “Superman had Kryptonite,” Rushin writes. “The rest of us have Brian's Song, the first — and still most surefire — Male Tearjerker.”
  • The general rule of modern political journalism is to treat stupid statements from stupid, prominent people as if they were reasonable statements from reasonable people. Salon's Alex Pareene don't play that.
  • I don't know if this is going to be a new category/meme on Andrew Sullivan's site but the first example made me laugh out loud.
  • My college roommate Dean Jolliffe, who went on to Princeton and then the Dept. of Agriculture and the World Bank, was quoted in this Freakonomics piece on poverty and obesity. Dean's original article was in Economics and Human Biology, which the Freakonomics guys tell us is “more far-reaching” research than what others have put forth. Go Dean! Money quote from Deano:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, NHANES data indicate that the poor have never had a statistically significant higher prevalence of overweight status at any time in the last 35 years.

The air-gun class was held inside. We got a lecture on safety rules and learned how to load the guns. I learned that I'm left-eye dominant even though I'm right-handed. “That's why I've been a lousy shot all my life,” I thought to myself. So I set myself up to shoot left-handed. My first shot hit the inner circle on the target, 15 feet away. So did the second. Virtually my whole round was clustered in the center ring. My kids, who have learned to ignore my anti-gun rants — even about the plastic Nerf guns taking over the block — were in awe.

Minnesota outdoors

It's usually about 40 degrees colder, with snow about five feet deeper, during Feburary in Minnesota.

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Posted at 08:25 AM on Dec 03, 2011 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday December 02, 2011

NEWSFLASH: Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Not Hot!

A funny thing happened on the way to being excited over the first shots of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln,” scheduled for a December 2012 release.

I ran into women.

OK, I ran into two women: Patricia and a friend on Facebook. Both had the same reaction: repulsed. My exchange with the friend went like this:

She: Yikes, he just dropped off my list of hotties :(
Me: But he looks amazing. He's going to be amazing.
She: I just preferred his look in “Last of the Mohicans.”
Me: This is a different role. I mean, who would he say “I WILL find you” to in “Lincoln”? South Carolina? Jefferson Davis? A decent Union general?
She: I didn't even see “No Country for Old Men” because I just couldn't bear to see Javier Bardem look so awful. Call me shallow, I don't care. Thank god men are more cerebral and don't react this way about hot actresses. ;)

After thinking about it a bit, though, I believe women, who have a rep for being less shallow than men, behave worse in this regard than men. That takes doing.

When I first saw shots of Meryl Streep's transformation into Maggie Thatcher for “The Iron Lady,” I was amazed, not disappointed—but then, one could argue, I'm not hot for Streep. (OK, not much.) So let's talk about more obvious hotties. I was amazed, not disappointed, at Charlize Theron's transformation in “Monster,” and by Marion Cotillard's transformation in “La vie en rose.” On and on. I never thought any of them would be stuck that way. I knew they were acting. In roles. For awards. And getting them.

But for female fans, it seems more personal. They can't get past it. It's like all men are one Amish beard away from forever being struck from the hearts and loins of women.

Thoughts?

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln hanging out in a Confederate (Richmond, Va.) restaurant

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln hanging out in a Confederate (Richmond, Va.) restaurant.

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Posted at 07:15 AM on Dec 02, 2011 in category Movies
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Thursday December 01, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter (2011)

WARNING: There are SPOILERS coming—the likes of which none of us have ever SEEN!

Why not “Shelter”? Why not “Storm”? Isn’t that more direct? What do you get when you add that clunky verb to the title?

You get the imperative. You get a warning. But who’s giving the warning, who’s receiving it, and what are we being warned about?

Poster for "Take Shelter" (2011)Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a blue-collar worker in Elyria, Ohio, with a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a three-year-old, deaf daughter named Hannah (Tova Stewart). For a Michael Shannon character, he's fairly normal. We see him sign “I love you” to her in the morning. We see him come home late at night and stand by her bedroom door as she sleeps. “I still take off my boots to not wake her,” he tells his wife when she comes up and puts her arms around him. Life is still a struggle. Samantha sews to make extra money. Hannah isn’t playing with other children. But it’s not bad. “You got a good life, Curtis,” his friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham, a fellow “Boardwalk Empire” actor) tells him. “I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.”

Then Curtis begins to have bad dreams.

The dreams take the same form. A storm is coming and it begins to rain. But it’s not water—it has the consistency of motor oil—and Hannah is imperiled and/or Curtis is attacked. In one dream his dog gets him. In another, it’s Dewart. People attack them in their car and carry Hannah away. They attack them in their home and all of the furniture levitates. One morning, he wakes in a sweat. Another, he wets the bed. He hides all of this from his wife. She assumes he has a cold.

He begins to act badly. His dog has always been a beloved indoor dog but now Curtis sets up a small wire-mesh fence around the doghouse outside and sticks him there. “Sorry about this, buddy,” he says. He opens up the old storm shelter in the backyard, goes inside and breathes as if he's home. At the library he checks out books on mental illness—his mother first suffered from paranoid schizophrenia in her 30s, and he’s now 35—but on the way home he buys huge quantities of canned goods.

He keeps doing this kind of left hand/right hand thing. He seems to realize his paranoia is a consequence of his mental illness, and sees a therapist, and takes pills, etc., to be cured of it; but he still acts on the paranoia. Things must be done to get ready. So he and Dewart borrow equipment from work to dig a huge hole in the backyard to expand the shelter. He takes out a risky bank loan to pay for the expansion. “Are you out of your mind?” his wife asks.

Initially, the sleeping pills help. He wakes up, no bad dreams, white curtains billowing. But he’s merely chased the bad dreams into daylight. At work, under blue skies, he hears thunder that Dewart doesn’t. Driving home from a sign-language class, wife and daughter asleep in the back, he stops the car on the side of the road and watches a lightning storm light up the horizon. “Is anyone seeing this?” he wonders.

Just him.

We assume the problem is compounded by his lack of communication. “If only he’d talk to his wife,” we think. He does and it doesn’t help.

When he isolates himself from anyone he dreams about—giving away his dog to his elder brother, talking the boss into taking Dewart off his crew—we wonder what would happen if he dreams about Samantha. Then he does. That morning he flinches away from her touch. A second later, he sees the boss in the backyard, looking over his expanded storm shelter, and panics. Samantha had managed to get their daughter an operation for a cochlear implant, and when she’s told that her husband’s insurance will pay for most of it, that he’s got good insurance, it’s like a rumbling of thunder in the distance. We know he’ll lose it. And he does. The operation is still five weeks away when the boss shows up, alerted by Dewart over the equipment “loan,” and fires him. There’s a great economical scene when Curtis drags himself back into the kitchen, where his wife is doing dishes. “I’ve been fired,” he says. She stops, doesn’t look at him, her back up. “What about the health insurance?” she asks. “I got two more weeks,” he answers. She walks up to him, slaps his face, takes their daughter on her hip, opens the side door, opens the screen door, leaves. The choreography alone recommends the scene.

At this point in the movie, we have two possibilities: Curtis is right and vindicated or he’s wrong and nuts. Generally, I'm not a fan of either/or movies.

This sense of limited choices is crystallized—gloriously, I should add—when Samantha insists they go to a Grange Hall function and eat lunch with their neighbors. They get nods, smiles, paper plates with chicken and baked beans. But Dewart is there, still angry over the betrayal, and he starts a fight with Curtis. But it’s Curtis, tall and lanky, who ends it with a kick, then stands and upends their long, fold-up table. And suddenly he's shouting at his neighbors like a Pentecostal preacher:

There’s a STORM coming! The likes of which none of us have ever SEEN! And not a one of us is prepared for it yet!

Up to this point, Curtis has been bottled up, and we’ve been bottled up with him, so the outburst itself is like a long-delayed storm. If he’s told anyone about his dreams, he’s mentioned them in mumbles, embarrassed, full of doubt. In this scene, doubt is removed. He sounds like a prophet. Or a crazy man. We wait to find out which.

We don’t wait long. That night he has another bad dream ... until Samantha wakes him because a real storm is bearing down on them. They grab their daughter and make for the shelter, where, inside, they huddle wearing gas masks and oxygen tanks, expecting the worst. After sleeping, their opinions diverge. Should they go outside? “What if it’s not over?” he asks, doom in his voice.

Oddly, I began to flash to a bad 1999 comedy, “Blast from the Past,” in which Christopher Walken plays a man in the early 1960s so paranoid about the Cold War that he builds an extensive bomb shelter in his backyard, down which he takes his family during the Cuban Missile crisis. They live there for 35 years. I’ve long thought that Shannon should play Walken’s son in a movie—there’s not only a physical resemblance but both men play determinedly off-kilter roles—and he does, in a sense, in this one. Thankfully, it’s in a better movie. It’s also a stunning performance by Shannon, who’s getting Oscar buzz.

But again, we're down to an either/or proposition. Either they stay in the shelter forever, perhaps even die there, or they go outside where the world is either ruined or being cleaned up after a nasty summer storm. It takes cajoling from Samantha to get them out. “This is what it means to stay with us,” she tells him. “This is something you have to do.” So he does. He opens the storm doors, shutting his eyes tightly on his imagined apocalypse ... only to open them on neighbors and workers cleaning up fallen branches and power lines after a bad summer storm.

Sitting in the audience, I was reminded of all the hand-wringing and apocalyptic-warnings of the U.S. after 9/11. What do you do with the thing you fear the most? Do you let it control you—this thing you can’t control? Do you take the family into the storm shelter, real or metaphorical, and hole up there? Or do you live your life? Most movies, and not just horror movies, teach us to fear, and “Take Shelter,” I felt, was teaching us the opposite. Its message was Rooseveltian: It was our fear we needed to fear. It took a tortured path, through an atmospheric, often painful movie, to this realization. But realization came.

Then it went. Curtis sees a psychiatrist, not just a therapist, who recommends distance from the storm shelter, the thing Curtis thinks will keep him safe. So off they go to the beach. What beach? I assume along Lake Erie. There, Curtis and his daughter build sand castles, those careful constructions designed to get wiped away, and he seems to be enjoying himself. Then Hannah points toward the water. He’s slow to respond, but when he does it’s with a mixture of shock and recognition and vindication, and he slowly stands; and in their beach house, Samantha sees it, too, and goes outside as the rain begins. But it’s not rain. She rubs the dirty substance between her fingers, as Curtis did in his dreams, and he looks back as if to say, “See?” She nods. She knows now. And only then does writer-director Jeff Nichols pull back so we can see what they see: a huge storm over Lake Erie, with multiple tornadoes bearing down on them, the likes of which none of us have ever seen.

That’s the end. That’s the image we take with us from the theater.

Afterwards, the four of us—Patricia, Vinnie, Laura and I—had dinner in Wallingford and talked about the movie. Vinnie couldn’t abide the new ending; he wanted the old ending. He only perked up slightly when I mentioned that the new ending could still be a dream, Curtis’ dream, or maybe even Samantha’s. Maybe she was in on it with him now. But that hardly resonates, does it? To me, if the ending is a dream, it makes the movie worse.

But what to make of the new ending? Curtis, instead of being a loon, a mild schizophrenic, is in fact a prophet; and the movie, instead of a mild warning against fear, is a stern warning to fear. The title, in this respect, could be part of that warning. “Take Shelter” isn’t just what Curtis does, it’s what Nichols is telling us to do. He’s telling us a storm is coming the likes of which none of us have ever seen. One assumes he’s talking about global warming/climate change. You could argue that “Take Shelter” is the most powerful movie about climate change ever made because it isn’t about climate change until the very end. Until it’s too late. “Is anyone seeing this?” Indeed.

Unless you choose to see the storm as a metaphor. In which case it could be about ... anything: corporations, terrorism, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama. Prophets of the world unite! The only thing we have to fear is... the end of everything we know and love. And it’s right around the corner.

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Posted at 06:22 AM on Dec 01, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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