Saturday, February 28, 2009

Life at the top

I've just been reading At Random, the posthumous memoirs of Bennett Cerf, who co-founded Random House, instigated the obscenity trial that allowed him to publish James Joyce's Ulysses in the U.S., and worked with countless of the greatest American authors of several decades of the twentieth century. I actually became aware of him my watching clips on YouTube of the fifties' game show "What's My Line?" on which he appeared as one of the regular panelists trying to guess a contestant's occupation (or in the case of a celebrity, blindfolded and guessing their name). More about that show another day. But the memoir is really interesting, more witty actually than he comes across on the TV show. It's chock full of interesting stories about interesting people, like FDR flying up and down ramps in his wheelchair "like a bat out of hell," or James Joyce delightedly taking money at last for the American edition of his novel. The section on Eugene O'Neill and his turbulent marriage is particularly touching. Cerf is quite charming in admitting his own foibles -- a love of publicity and an understandable vanity about his acumen -- and very generous in describing others. Though he is rather sexist (old-fashioned, if you wish to be indulgent) in the way he refers to women as little girls, honeys, and so forth, I refuse to let it stop me from enjoying what's good in his memoir. I'm going to go get some of his other books.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not worth it!

Not for me, anyway. I went to see Coraline today, and I have a serious 3D headache. The 3D was cool, and if you can make it through better than I, more power to you. I'll edit this later to add some actual content review.

ETA: I never got back to this, did I? Well, the movie was cute, a cautionary tale about childhood and getting what you wish for: ideal parents who turn out to be nightmares. It would be odd, I think, to take your child to see this; it's like saying, "See? Appreciate me!" Good voice acting from the stars Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, and John Hodgman. Cute animation, certainly, and beautiful work in making all the miniatures (one woman apparently was set to work with hair-thin needles to knit all the sweaters). Enjoyable, and technically brilliant. Incidentally, this is another Neil Gaiman work, so an interesting follow-up to my recent viewing of Stardust. I have to go tackle Gaiman's longer, more complex works; so far I'm not as wowed by his depth as his reputation led me to believe I would be. But he's extremely imaginative (and reimaginative, reworking old tropes into modern forms), so I think American Gods is going on the list.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Will I still respect you in the morning?

Yeah, sure. The Oscars finally had a reasonably tight ceremony, and all of the awards went to reasonable winners. I was right about Sean Penn, wrong about the possible upset. Benjamin Button peeled off a respectable number of awards, good considering how ridiculously many it was nominated for, and my poor Frost/Nixon was sent home with a lump of coal. At least Frank Langella got to hold Hugh Jackman on his lap.

Good points:

Band onstage. More music, always good! I hated winners glaring into the pit all the time.

Hugh Jackman did very little actual hosting. I don't care what anyone says; no matter who the host is, the odds of him being important and memorable are close to nil. I adore Jon Stewart, but the funniest thing he or his team did was putting together a clip of 'gay cowboy' moments in Westerns through the decades. Brilliant opening number, loved Anne Hathaway (who I knew can sing, because I saw Ella Enchanted. Go ahead, judge me).

Sean Penn: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns." Similarly, a lovely, touching speech from the screenwriter, Dustin Black.

Great performances for the Slumdog Millionaire songs. Might as well not have done the others, regardless of poor John Legend.

Tons of lovely dresses.

And a lovely montage of Paul Newman to end the in memoriam clips.

Bad points:

Speaking of that in memoriam reel, did we have to have the slightly bockety camera angles? Did we also need them just as Jackman went into the opening dance number? Just because we're used to music videos doesn't mean we need the whole bag of tricks all the time, guys.

Getting five winners out to celebrate the five acting nominees is fine, if self-indulgent. I miss the clips, but it's probably more meaningful for the actors. However, it sets up a nasty hierarchy. Who would you rather have hail you, Marion Cotillard or Sophia Loren? And can we make sure that they're all articulate? Was Anthony Hopkins asleep or did he just not give a crap? Plus I liked having the winner of the previous year award the new winner of the opposite sex. It was nice.

Ben Stiller mocking Joaquin Phoenix, fine, it was funny. But can anyone name the Cinematography winner now? I mean, let them have half a moment.

The producer cutting to Angelina Jolie while Jennifer Aniston was presenting. Thanks for going there, guys.

The musicals medley with Beyonce, ehhhh. Did it really have a point? They could have done something like that for the Best Song/Score, and it would have at least tied in. Just because Jackman kicked ass with a medley at the Tonys doesn't mean it's a winning formula.

ETA: The night was about connecting current work to movie history and building a sense of community. I get that. I also still haven't recovered from some of the unbelievable condescension of the scripted intros excluding us from that community. For Reese Witherspoon, presenting Best Director: "For those of you at home, a director is..."

But all in all, a relatively enjoyable ceremony, much less clunky than in years past.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Yes, I saw it. It's good. It's vivid, it's incredibly well made, well scripted, well scored, well edited. Matter of fact, I don't have a technical criticism of it -- or maybe I do. I actually think that the two leads (in young adulthood), who are the ones most seen on red carpets and so forth, were not particularly subtle or scintillating actors. They weren't bad, mind you. Overall, the ensemble is solid.

As many reviews have noted, India is really the star of the film, or rather Mumbai, with hammer over the head glory!squalor!capitalism! invading every shot. I did enjoy the film, I'm glad I saw it, and I think Danny Boyle should win Best Director, but it didn't sock me in the gut the way I thought it was supposed to. I really do think that it might be a case of elevating the story by overwhelming with spectacle (more typical for a big-budget popcorn film, ironically), which is great in some ways, but it just won't work for everyone. What if this had been a story about a young black man from a U.S. city ghetto on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I'm not saying it would have turned into Get Rich or Die Tryin', but on the other hand, I doubt it would be showered with bouquets.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Less pork

Not legislative pork, but actual pork. I happened to hear on the radio this morning (WGN, I think) an announcement of the mercantile exchange. Pork, hogs, February cattle, April cattle, April milk futures: all down considerably. The announcer concluded, "All things considered, not too bad on a day when the only exchange that's higher is the fear factor."

Then the nurse came out to draw my blood. It was a good morning.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Down with Anita Bryant!

I saw Milk with some friends yesterday, and enjoyed it. A good film, with some interesting stylistic touches -- the grainy documentary-style scenes spliced in, which have been much discussed, for example, but also the occasional freeze-framing as photographs when Harvey is taking pictures, or the extreme closeups. It certainly falls in the same Oscar classification as Frost/Nixon, a political history-based film with a brilliant central performance and an equally brilliant supporting cast. I think I'd personally rank Frank Langella's performance above Sean Penn's, but the characters are like apples and oranges. Milk's earnest conviction and Nixon's explosiveness have little in common except for a very weird sense of playfulness.

One plot thread I found quite interesting as an opera buff was the use of opera throughout the film, in the soundtrack and also when Harvey goes to the opera (in company with famed Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao, no less!). Though there's some other opera, the main one used is Puccini's Tosca, a highly political, melodramatic opera in which the Italian artist and political radical Cavaradossi is tortured and executed, while his opera-singer lover Floria Tosca tries to save him from the evil Scarpia. It's not an exact parallel by any means, though the film is just gritty enough that I suppose the melodrama of the opera might stand as a counterpoint. The symbolism that I think Gus Van Sant was trying to leverage, with minimal success, was the idea that Harvey vocalizes of opera as the expression of larger than life emotions, something that one of his young political operatives mocks. If Milk was supposed to evoke that feeling, it came closest not in the scenes of political wheeling and dealing, or even the frenzy of activism, but in the touching candlelight march after Milk's death in which the blurred lights went on for miles. Maybe I ought to have felt it in some of the scenes of Harvey telling his life story to a tape recorder, but I'm afraid I didn't.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The joys of rereading

I took Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence with me on my recent brief trip, figuring it would last a couple of flights at least. I haven't touched it since my extremely fast initial read right when it came out, when I was dazzled by the prose and scope. Though I am also enjoying it very much this time through (am almost done), this seems to be one of those rare instances in which I can't recapture that magical first read. There will be other pleasures, like enjoying turns of phrase more now that I'm not as swept up in the plot -- which incidentally feels much less complicated this time around, either because I have some recollection of what's going on or my head is just screwed on tighter these days (not likely). I'd certainly still recommend it to all.

Monday, February 9, 2009


On a complete whim, I actually took the Oscar prediction quiz on Roger Ebert's site, which comes with some kind of prize if you beat him -- but regardless, I barely disagreed with him, I'm afraid. The quiz doesn't go through every prize, but I'd say that the most wide open category is Best Supporting Actress (I put down Viola Davis for Doubt, but you never know). What I did do to differentiate myself from the Ebert, and also because I think it might happen, is pull a Crash-like surprise and put Danny Boyle as Best Director and something else -- The Reader, I think -- as Best Picture. I don't know (and can't honestly say that I particularly care). I don't think Slumdog has been out front long enough to get backlash, but there just have to be people in the Academy who don't particularly care about it very much, just as there were plenty who wouldn't vote for Brokeback Mountain.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

When bad producers happen to good films

As always... I finally got around to something, namely the film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, one of my favorite American novels. This isn't as much of a "finally" as usual, because it was only released on DVD very recently, and till then I had been hoping to catch it on someone's Tivo. The novel is mostly famous for its incisive portrayal of Europe's post-WWI ennui and barely concealed rage, as viewed through bitter American expat eyes.

I was always curious about this film not just because of the novel it's quite faithfully adapted from, but also because I, loving swordfighting films, always loved Errol Flynn's Robin Hood as a child, and this was sort of his mature character actor comeback in his turbulent middle age, right before his death. Unfortunately, I never really put that together too well with the novel to ask the logical question why someone so old and battered-looking was cast in the first place. It's one of the major flaws of the film -- the cast is mostly so old that it looks like the Lost Generation has survived the second world war and is lost again. There's not much effort to make it look like the twenties, either (I admit I am not a costuming expert, so maybe I'm wrong), and it just looks like a melodrama of middle-aged drunken drifters. With the exception of a horribly wooden young actor as the supposedly charismatic bullfighter who Brett runs off with.

The production values are reasonably lavish, though people in the production complained bitterly about filming in Mexico instead of Pamplona. As a matter of fact, they're too lavish for the film's own good. It just doesn't look right when Jake, the drunken newspaper writer hero who's probably the best and smartest of the lot, sleeps in freshly ironed striped pajamas and pulls on a lavish robe when Brett awakens him in the middle of the night. There's altogether too much pageantry around the bullfighting, some of which works to mirror the tangled emotions of the characters, but plenty of which is just show.

Adaptation's quite faithful, as I said, with three major flaws. Robert Cohn's Jewishness is entirely gone, which is something that it's possible to get away with only if you then emphasize his status as someone who didn't fight in the war. Without either, he's just damn annoying. The compression of time makes Brett look like a big whore, frankly, rather than a lost and desperate woman (even if she is commonly regarded as a nymphomaniac). And finally, and most awfully, the film doesn't have the courage to end with the bleak exchange, "Oh, Jake, we could have had such a good time together." "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Jake says it rather angrily in the last scene, rather than bleakly, but the film ends on the weak invented dialogue, "There must be an answer for us somewhere." "I'm sure there is." It's just as empty of any solution as the original, without the stoicism-cum-cynicism. Maybe Jake is supposed to be pacifying Brett, knowing full well that there is no answer, but in that case, why diverge from the great original lines?

For all these flaws, I blame Darryl F. Zanuck, who may have produced a few good films, but made a hell of a lot of bad ones to fill his Twentieth-Century Fox pipeline. Of course, solid but slightly stodgy director Henry King isn't exactly free of blame, either.

It bothers me all the more because I love the film for its ability to offer the one thing that you can't get from the novel: a look at Jake from the outside. He's the narrator of the novel, the most damaged ex-soldier psychologically and physically. The film takes care to spell this out by throwing in an awful flashback in which the doctor announces to him that he's going to be impotent, a word nowhere to be found in Hemingway. Regardless, watching Jake suffer is even more wrenching than reading his adjectiveless account of his suffering. Some of Tyrone Power's line readings were illuminating to me. Ava Gardner, as Brett, is lovely, Eddie Albert is a solid and sympathetic Bill Gorton, and even Mel Ferrer isn't bad as Cohn, but all in all, the cast could have benefited from much better direction and less stuff going on around them. A similar movie that springs to mind, filled with aging stars playing drifters, is Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable's last movie, The Misfits. It had a kind of spareness that this film unfortunately lacked.

In development

Every morning when I get up, I check IMDb for their nice roundup of studio news, which often yields interesting tidbits that I then follow up for years until the film comes out, usually a stunning disappointment. Recent case in point: Australia. Most notorious case in point (to me): Man in the Iron Mask.

Some days are good days, like the recent day when Fox announced it would swoop in and save the Narnia series. If they manage it well, they'll have a whole franchise on their hands.

Then there are odd days like today, when I read that Al Pacino and Michael Radford are going to make King Lear together, which makes me sigh a little. His Shylock was one thing, but Lear...? I was half-heartedly hoping that Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn would do a film, since their recent Lear was so acclaimed.

But hey, if that's not your speed, apparently a new Nightmare on Elm Street is being made, as well.