The Things They Couldn't Carry
I'm nearly done with Mark Harris' excellent book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” about what Hollywood directors Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston did during the war, daddy. The most moving stuff is probably Stevens filming the liberation of Paris, and then, a year later, the liberation of Dachau. He returned from the war silent, and played golf day after day. When he did talk of returning to work he wanted to make a war picture. But no studio, in the days after the war, wanted to make a war picture. Harris writes:
Those who knew him begged him to forget the idea of making a statement and to simply try doing what he did best. Katharine Hepburn, a good friend and one of his greatest champions, told him he needed to return to comedy, a genre in which she believed his talents were unrivaled by any other director in Hollywood. But Stevens would never, for the rest of his career, direct anything but drama. “After the war,” he said, “I don't think I was ever too hilarious again.”
“I hated to see him leave comedy for the other stuff that came later on, the more serious stuff,” said Capra. “None of us were the same after the war, but for him . . . The films that he took of Dachau, the ovens, and the big, big piles of bones that nobody could believe existed . . . He had seen too much.”
Quote of the Day
“Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done — to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama's de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world's two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?
”The President Obama of the last six weeks is willing to take that bet.“
-- Timothy Egan, ”Obama Unbound," in The New York Times. I agree with much of this but not the last sentence. Obama has already made his mark a thousand times over.
Film Critics Wrap 2014: Consensus at the Frye
Patricia and I went to the Frye Art Museum's “Critics Wrap 2014” (film version), hosted by critic Robert Horton for the 10th and apparently last time. He and his wife are moving to Scotland in February.
For the brunt of the evening, before we all repaired to the alcove for champagne, toasts, and a tidbit of conversation, we watched the four on stage debate the best movies of the year. Except, per Seattle, there wasn't much debate. There was mostly agreement. Except from me in the audience. I kept disagreeing with what they were saying.
Here are the top 5 movies from each critic (Andrew Wright wasn't in attendance):
The two movies at the top of each list are “Under the Skin” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I wasn't a fan of either—although I predicted, in the first graf of my review back in April, that “Skin” would be a topic of critical conversation at the end of the year. I'm actually willing to revisit “Skin,” to be honest. You never know. One critic, Kathleen Murphy, says she didn't like the movie the first time she saw it, but after the second time it became her favorite movie of the year. Quite a leap. Woody Allen once talked about his first screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and how disappointed he was with it, and how after two more viewings over the years he realized what a sensational movie it was. So maybe that'll happen with me and “Skin.”
But “Only Lovers Left Alive” has a big problem that none of the four people on stage mentioned. It's a very nostalgic film but its nostalgia is writer-director Jim Jarmusch's, not the characters'. The leads, Adam and Eve, are vampires who have lived for centuries, maybe millennia, and are well-versed in the arts and sciences; but their nostalgia is particular to, say, 60-year-old hipsters. They play 45s, read Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI, lament the death of culture. The heroes on Adam's walls are the heroes of a college student in the late 1960s, not a vampire who was born in, say, 838 A.D. It's a good movie, but ... top 5? For everyone? That's a bit much.
There was a bit much consensus on stage, too. No one really disagreed on a movie until a kid in the audience asked about “Gone Girl,” which Emerson liked and the others didn't. But that was after more than an hour of scenery chewing.
Is this a danger? This consensus? Does it demonstrate that these are in fact “the best” or does it demonstrate that Horton and his friends, two of whom were his teachers, have similar backgrounds, tastes, experiences, predilections, conversations?
I'm looking forward to “The Homesman” anyway. And my own top 10 list. About which even I don't have much consensus.
Quote of the Day
“Here's hoping North Korea pre-hates the next Expendables sequel.”
-- Jerry Grillo, Atlanta.
Along with everyone else, Deadline has craeted a timeline on the Sony hack attack, which, the FBI confirmed today, was in fact perpetrated by North Korea under the guise of the hacking group “Guardians of Peace.” It's good to remember that the movie chains started pulling out first, after threats to its theaters were made by GOP. Then Sony pulled the movie from the few theaters remaining. I don't get why they don't go Video-on-Demand, to be honest, but the criticism has been rampant: from George Clooney (who also faulted the media for publishing hacked salacious emails) to Pres. Obama, who sympathized but wished Sony had come to him before essentially bowing to terrorist demands. Is this the first time a country has cyber-threatened an international corporation? A brave new world.
The Genius Moment of 'Star Wars'
Here's Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, in a must-read interview with Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:
To my mind, one of the genius things about “Star Wars” is that it was one of the first movies to really say, “This is in no way, shape, or form connected to Earth.” It’s “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Even with superheroes, as soon as you set it on Earth, you’ve limited it to one culture or another. But “Star Wars” is irredeemably distant. From that initial moment of genius sprung so much of what we love about “Star Wars.”
To my mind, too. From my nearly 20-year-old review of ”Star Wars“:
Perhaps the most imaginative thing we see is the first thing we see: The words ”A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." This allows George Lucas to come up with anything his imagination desires. He does.
I still remember thinking, in 1977, at the age of 14, how visionary that was. Unlike almost every other attempt at sci-fi at the time, it wasn't the future and it wasn't Earth. It wasn't us. It was somewhere far away and at a time waaaay in the past. That seemed genius to me. Still does.
Read the whole thing. Most interesting tidbit for me? That in Lucas' Vietnam-era mind, the Empire was the U.S. military, the Emperor was Nixon, and the Rebel force (Luke, Obi-wan, Wedge, etc.) was North Vietnam. Someone alert Rick Perlstein.
Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.
The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:
- Girl meets boy
- Boy is a jerk
- Boy becomes less of a jerk
- Girl becomes more of a jerk
- Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
- Boy gets girl
If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.
A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Everyone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.
But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.
Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.
Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.
War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?
But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.
START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English.
The world doesn''t cooperate.
But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy.
Unfortunately, he''s a jerk.
Fortunately, she's goofy.
But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)
Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game.
Or a SWAT team nightmare.
But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*
Quote of the Day
“There's no black male my age, who's a professional, who hasn't come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn't hand them their car keys.
”[But] the small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced. It's one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It's another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.“
Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)
I thought “Whiplash” was about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an innocent kid who just wants to be a jazz drummer.
Instead, “Whiplash” is about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an arrogant bastard ... who just wants to be a jazz drummer.
So it’s much better than I thought.
At first, Andrew (Miles Teller) seems another fish-out-of-water kid. He’s at a prestigious school, Shaffer Conservatory of Music, seemingly without friends, and goes to the movies (“Rififi”), with his father, Jim (Paul Reiser), a put-upon teacher whose wife left soon after Andrew was born. At the theater, an unseen man bumps Jim’s head with a bucket of popcorn and it’s Jim who apologizes. He’s that kind of guy. The kind of guy, it turns out, that Andrew doesn’t want to be.
The movie opens with Andrew on the drum kit, playing away, when the school’s best teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), arrives and listens. Andrew stops when he sees Fletcher. “Why did you stop playing?” Fletcher asks. So Andrew starts again. “Did I ask you to start playing again?” Fletcher says. “Show me your rudiments.” The kid is desperate for attention and Fletcher enjoys not giving it. He leaves without a word (to Andrew’s disappointment), then returns (to Andrew’s relief). But instead of encouragement, he says, “Oopsie-daisy, forgot my jacket.” Then gone again.
The “oopsie-daisy” is like a little knife in the side. The knives will get bigger.
Initially we think Andrew is like us—just more talented. But he’s not like us. And he doesn’t want to be.
This becomes painfully clear at an extended family dinner. His accomplishment—making Fletcher’s class—is run over by family talk, and when he returns to it no one seems to get it. They shouldn’t, really. Fletcher? Who’s Fletcher? Plus it’s jazz, not football. Now Uncle Frank’s boys, they’re on the football team. “Yeah,” Andrew says dismissively, “third division.” In the next minute, we get Andrew’s philosophy. It’s all about the work, the music. Friends? Family? They just get in the way. Charlie Parker is held up as the exemplar, to which Jim mentions his drug-addled death. Andrew’s response? “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me, than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”
In this sense he’s the perfect student for Fletcher.
Is that why Fletcher focuses on him so much? Because he senses this drive in him? The anecdote that’s constantly brought up is that moment in 1937 when drummer Joe Jones threw a cymbal at a teenage Charlie Parker. Parker was humiliated, but practiced for a year until he was, well, Bird. Then he blew everyone away. That’s what Fletcher says he hopes to do: be the Joe Jones who brings out the Bird in a new Charlie Parker.
Does he see that in Andrew? Or is it simply the sadist feeling out the masochist? Because—beyond an introductory lesson in humiliation in which Fletcher calls out a student for being out of tune (even though he wasn’t)—Fletcher focuses completely on the drum kit.
Andrew starts out as alternate, replaces 1st drummer Carl (Nate Lang) when he misplaces Carl’s sheet music, then competes with both Carl and Ryan (Austin Stowell) for 1st chair, and Fletcher’s attention. Fletcher keeps them all off balance and yearning. With Andrew, he tells him he’s rushing or dragging. “Not my tempo,” he says over and over.
That’s among the nicer things he says. His talent for invective would give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money:
- Parker, that is not your boyfriend’s dick: do not come early.
- If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig.
- Oh dear God, are you one of those single-tear people? You are a worthless pansy ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a 9-year-old girl!
Also this: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
Does the movie agree with this assessment? Is this a wake-up call for the audience, sitting in the dark, listless, munching on popcorn and wish fulfillment, about what it really takes to get ahead? The rest of us are the family at the dinner table, or Jim apologizing because someone else was rude, or Nicole (Melissa Benoit), whom Andrew dumps two scenes into their relationship because she’ll just get in the way. Andrew, willing to get blood, sweat and tears on the kit, is ruthless in his determination. That’s why he gets where he does.
I buy that argument to some extent. In my own life, I’ve made choices, and they’ve invariably been “Minnesota Nice” choices. What ruthlessness I’ve displayed is usually followed by pangs of guilt and self-abnegation. I think most of us feel trapped between these two unpalatable options: getting run over by life, like Jim, or being a massive asshole like Fletcher.
But there are other options.
The counterbeat to all of this played in my head even as the story played out onscreen. It’s the story of Ferguson Jenkins. I don’t remember where I read it—I can’t find it online—but he was a pretty good player, a Major Leaguer, certainly, but he wasn’t great yet. Then a coach instilled confidence in him. The coach made him believe he could be what he became: one of the great pitchers of his era, a 20-game winner for six years in a row, and an eventual Hall-of-Famer. That coach built up; this one tears down.
“Whiplash” is written (sharply) and directed (beautifully) by first-timer/squeaker Damien Chazelle, and it progresses smartly. Andrew’s bus breaks down on the way to a concert, he has to rent a car to get to the hall—but he leaves his drumsticks behind. When he goes to retrieve them, there’s a car accident, a truck upending his rental (beautifully filmed), and Andrew crawls from the wreckage and runs to the show, where, despite being in shock, despite being bloodied unable to hold his sticks, he sits in. Does Fletcher appreciate this? Show concern? No. After Andrew flubs it, Fletcher dismisses him. Then Andrew attacks him and is expelled; then he becomes an unnamed part of a lawsuit against Fletcher for abuse. An earlier student, whom Fletcher had held up as an exemplar (and who died, he said, in a car accident), had actually hung himself—in part, the lawyers say, because of the years of psychological abuse Fletcher had inflicted on him.
When Andrew sees Fletcher again, he’s playing piano in a jazz club, and he asks Andrew to play drums with his band at the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall. Andrew hasn’t been practicing much since his expulsion, and he’s slightly worried as he sits at the kit. Someone doesn’t play well at JVC, they’ll probably never get another gig. That’s the idea. And that’s Fletcher’s idea. Because he knows it was Andrew who ratted, and he begins with a song that Andrew has never practiced, and for which he has no sheet music. He’s humiliated, leaves the stage and collapses into the arms of his father, who consoles him.
The end? No. He doesn’t join the Jims of the world. He goes back and fights the Fletchers.
Andrew returns to the kit, and without instruction begins playing; then he tells the band when to join in, and they do. (Why do they listen to him exactly? What’s the protocol on this?) It’s like he’s taking away Fletcher’s band from him. He’s the leader now. But that’s not it either, exactly. There’s no comeuppance for Fletcher. By the end, Fletcher and Andrew are working together. You can see Fletcher’s eyes light up in a way they haven’t yet. He’s wondering if this is the moment. He’s wondering if he’s finally getting his Charlie Parker.
It’s a triumphant ending. Two jerks create something beautiful. That's kind of ... beautiful.
Why 'Knight of Cups' Needs to Kill at Berlin Fest
Per Box Office Mojo, the widest release of Terrence Malick's films in the U.S.:
- The Thin Red Line (1998): 1,657 theaters
- The New World (2005): 811 theaters
- The Tree of Life (2010): 237 theaters
- To the Wonder (2013): 60 theaters
“To the Wonder” I can see, but only 237 for this?
Trailer: 'Knight of Cups' is Terrence Malick's '8 1/2' and 'La Dolce Vita'
Or has aspects of each anyway: the director who's lost his way, the journalist who's lost his soul.
“Knight of Cups” is apparently a Tarot card. From Wiki the wicked:
If the card is upright, it represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature. It can mean invitations, opportunities, and offers. The Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.
Reversed, the card represents unreliability and recklessness. It indicates fraud, false promises and trickery. It represents a person who has trouble discerning when and where the truth ends and lies begin.
One assumes the creative one is Malick, easily persuaded, easily made unreliable and reckless, by Hollywood in the ... '70s? “Let me tell you about you” means “I'll make you the you I think you are, while you lose you in the process.”
Of course, we all lose you in the process, don't we?
But thank God for the conflict. Otherwise it looks too much like “To the Wonder,” and that's Malick's weakest film. Bale is Affleck (Batman bros), and Portman, Poots and Blanchett are some combination of Kurylenko and McAdams.
Another concern: No script. It was all improvised. Malick is disappearing down the hole of his own creativity and he's either going to bring back something amazing, or drown.
Sheets again, too. They're replacing wheat.
“All of those years ... living the life of someone ... I didn't even know.”