Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Sometimes melting pots only produce heat
By Edward Copeland
Even in the United States, which strives to be the most pluralistic of societies, we still have trouble finding peaceful co-existence between people of different ethnicities and religions. Now, imagine that struggle in the small, heated patch of land where Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, and Jews are forced to interact and those who realize the hate and resentment is ridiculous face the hard realities of centuries of conflict and anger and you get the basic idea behind Ajami.
Ajami, one of the five finalists for last year's Oscar for foreign language film, began as an unusual experiment. Often, these sorts of experiments can produce mixed results but, by and large, Ajami proves successful.
Set in a subsection of Tel Aviv where people of the various ethnicities and religions reside claustrophobically, Ajami was co-written and co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, using nonprofessional actors with a scenes that were largely improvised. It's amazing the film turns out as well as it does.
Ajami is not perfect. It is divided into chapters with lots of characters and it takes a while to keep track of what's going on with all the grudges and vendettas between Palestinian families over senseless deaths, boys trying to pay for ailing moms, Arabs ostracized for having a Jewish girlfriend, Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians ordered not to date; an Israeli cop determined to find the Arab he's certain killed his soldier brother. It can be confusing and it certainly can be grim going, but it is compelling and the pieces do eventually come together.
Still, cultural and religious differences alone don't drive the story. The grudges often derive from other sorts of conflict, lead to mistaken identity, causing characters mounting debts which lead to the burgeoning crime that exists alongside chronic unemployment and ridiculous health care in the Palestinian territory.
Most tellingly, Copti and Shani don't try to preach. The most compelling characters' motives seem noble and find the sectarian nonsense well, nonsense. They just want to live their lives. Unfortunately, centuries of bloodshed and intransigence on all sides prevent happy endings and the filmmakers don't force one or try to offer solutions that no one else has been able to secure.
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Monday, August 30, 2010
Folie a Trois
By Eddie Selover
Fox Movie Channel recently showed Lucky Lady one weekday afternoon — the first airing of this unlucky movie anywhere in my experience since its premiere in 1975. I saw it back then, when I was — ahem — in my teens, and I thought it was pretty good… my strongest memory was of Liza Minnelli playing a Bessie Smith record (“Young Woman Blues”). I’d never even heard of Bessie Smith, but her deep growling and wailing on the soundtrack made a huge impression on me. And any movie that introduces you to Bessie can't be all bad.
So I was pretty excited to see the movie again after 35 years. As a movie buff, it’s always nice to discover a “forgotten” film and tell people about it. Maybe it would turn out to be a lost treasure. They’re out there — great little movies that most people have never heard of, and you read about them on the blogs sometimes… Two Seconds, Desert Fury, Strangers When We Meet, No Down Payment, Daisy Kenyon, just to name a few that you can find rapturous little posts about here and there.
Alas, this won’t be one of them. Lucky Lady was supposed to be Fox’s big Christmas hit of 1975: Minnelli’s first movie since Cabaret, co-starring the biggest star of the decade, Burt Reynolds, plus Gene Hackman fresh off his Oscar for The French Connection. It was only a couple of years after The Sting, which had been a hit of immense proportions, and this was an imitation — another story of darling, roguish crooks set in the Roaring '20s, with cutesy ragtime music and movie stars grinning with cigars in their mouths.
It was even a bit daring for its time: the stars play a floozy and two bums during prohibition, and as they bicker and laugh their way from down-and-outers in Mexico to filthy rich rum runners, they eventually become a ménage a trois… we even see them in bed together. You can tell that the filmmakers were trying for an update of the old '30s MGM Powell-Harlow-Tracy formula, with a raucous tart battling a tough guy and a mug. Lucky Lady, by the way, is the boat they use to transport hooch up and down the California coast, chased by the Coast Guard and murderous yet comically inept rival bootleggers.
None of it works. There’s no chemistry, for one thing. Hackman was a late replacement for George Segal (who wisely bailed at the last minute). He turned it down also, until the studio offered so much money that he couldn’t refuse, but he looks shamefaced, as if he knows he shouldn’t be there, and as the movie progresses he seems to almost disappear while you’re watching him. Burt Reynolds has a more interesting role, as a klutzy puppy dog with a sad little crush on Minnelli. He’s convincing as a total boob, but not very funny or appealing. You expect Hackman and Reynolds to do the movieish thing and scrap over the woman they both love, but nobody in the movie shows enough feeling to suggest any emotion, much less love.
You couldn’t be in love with Minnelli’s character anyway. Sour and snarling one minute, emotionally vulnerable the next, she’s pigeon-toed and graceless and utterly unappealing. Abrasive boorishness worked for Harlow because her wisecracks were witty and you could feel the joy she took when she told somebody off — she was our heroine, a no-class gal giving the snooty swells a big fat kick in the rear end. Liza Minnelli is (or was...) a very talented woman, but she can’t pull off this particular act. Four or five minutes into the movie, she’s in a dive cantina in Mexico, singing a frowzy fake-cynical Kander and Ebb song, wearing a Harpo Marx wig and a gaudy print dress, and you get the dismal but unmistakable sense that you’re watching a flop.
Not that Fox didn’t try. They poured $13 million into the movie, and there are spectacularly mounted scenes of boats racing along, gun battles, explosions, etc. Some of the sets are huge, though the Teflon-coated fake art deco looks more mid-'70s disco than Jazz Age. They shot three different final scenes, too, after test audiences rejected the original "serious" ending. One of the several attempts found the three characters many years later, still in bed together; this hastily discarded scene of the three actors in lousy old-age makeup is a minor inside-Hollywood legend.
Most catastrophically of all, the director Stanley Donen (or someone; the movie reeks of too many chefs) opted to shoot the film using “flashed” cinematography. This technique lets some extra exposure in as the film is being processed. The result washes out the colors and details, puts a smeary haze around the edges, and brightens and softens everything. Basically, it makes the movie excruciating to look at. Have you ever awakened hungover on the deck of a boat in the glaring midday sun? That’s how Lucky Lady looks, for two solid hours.
There’s one saving grace note… watching again 35 years later, I was still enchanted for the brief moments when Minnelli put Bessie Smith on the gramophone. Here was the real voice of the 1920s: smoky and defiant, steeped in rueful experience, but joyful, free and reeking of bootleg gin. When she belts out her timeless lowdown blues, the contrast with the phony, uneasy little movie surrounding her couldn’t be greater.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010
From the Vault: Malcolm X
Certain to be both overpraised and overcriticized, the best assessment of Malcolm X is that it's a good film with many flaws, though the problems are cinematic, not political. Adapted by Spike Lee from Malcolm X's autobiography and a screenplay by the late Arnold Perl, Malcolm X approaches its subject epically in both scope and length but still fails somehow to make the civil rights activist's evolution from drug-addicted thief to martyred leader consistently compelling.
Much of the problem lies in the fact that while Malcolm's early life of crime and love of lindy-hopping is fascinating, it doesn't justify taking up more than a third of the film's 201-minute running time with Lee's stylized, nostalgic look at that chapter. While it is important and inspiring to see where Malcolm came from and what he overcame, the reason Malcolm X is well-known is because of what he did following his prison conversion to Islam, not before.
The film itself best emphasizes this point as it picks up speed once the imprisoned Malcolm (Denzel Washington) begins to learn about and becomes a follower of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). Despite the drag they make on the entire film, the early sequences are notable for containing the film's best performance, Delroy Lindo as West Indian Archie, who becomes a sort of criminal mentor to the young Malcolm.
As for the latter two-thirds of Malcolm X, the news is much better as the slain leader's words and deeds fill the screen with powerful sequences, including a march on a police station when an acquaintance is beaten and arrested. There also are quieter sequences that work, such as Malcolm's gradual realization that Elijah Muhammad may not be all that he says, culminating in Malcolm's Hajj to Mecca, as well as a prison debate between Malcolm and a priest (a nice cameo by Christopher Plummer).
One of the film's other major weaknesses is an instrumental score by Terence Blanchard that is so overblown and intrusive, I had to check the credits to make certain Lee hadn't hired John Williams by mistake. When the soundtrack relies on music of the different eras, it works, but Blanchard's composition is often distracting.
For anyone who has read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, they may have some questions about the choices Lee makes. For example: Why does Malcolm's pilgrimage to Mecca, a pivotal chapter in the book, seem to take up so little screen time? When Malcolm announces how the trip changes him, the film audience isn't as clear on what caused the effect as a reader of the book is.
Why was the composite character of Baines (Albert Hall) created? In the film, Baines is supposed to be a fellow prisoner who reinforces Malcolm's grammatical skills, turns him on to Elijah Muhammad and grows jealous of Malcolm's notoriety to the point of omitting him from the Nation of Islam's newspaper. Readers will realize that these actions were attributed to (at least) three different individuals: a prisoner who only helped Malcolm within the prison's walls, his brother Reginald, who brought Malcolm into contact with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad's son, who ran the publication.
Finally, why are Malcolm's siblings, such as half-sister Ella and the aforementioned Reginald, nonexistent in the film when they each played important roles in Malcolm's life?
Washington's performance is subtle. There are few big moments, but plenty of small ones, from a marriage proposal by phone to the small smile of relief before assassins shoot him down.
As for Lee as writer and director, he has again failed to hit the artistic heights of the incomparable Do the Right Thing. His direction is obvious and plodding at times and, once again, his script seems to lack structure and focus, though this may have something to do with how he adapted the previously written screenplay.
Despite my reservations about the film, Malcolm X is often riveting and works well as a sort of historical Cliff Note on the life of a man few today know much about. By the time, Lee brings Malcolm's story to a close with two powerful epilogues, most of the gaps the film has had until that point are filled and Malcolm's message becomes loud and clear, resonating with the viewer long after the credits end.
By the end, one has witnessed the evolution of a man and his philosophy, and a scope of American history seldom seen on screen. It's a shame that so much of what precedes those final passages is sloppy, but the power of its ending and of isolated moments before make the journey more than worthwhile.
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Saturday, August 28, 2010
From the Vault: Reservoir Dogs
Eight men sit around a table, speaking the language of the streets while debating Madonna song meanings and the morality of tipping. Except for two of the men, they are all dressed in matching suits and ties. They could belong to any profession but in Reservoir Dogs they are criminals and in the hands of first-time filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, their story is one of the most all-out entertaining films of 1992.
Harvey Keitel leads a great ensemble cast in this ultra-violent, ultra-vulgar portrait of a robbery gone awry.
The film mainly takes place in a warehouse, where the assorted crooks are supposed to meet following the robbery to collect their payment for jobs well done.
The problem is, someone apparently tipped off the cops to the heist and the surviving criminals begin to turn on each other in their attempts to discover the traitor in their midst.
Tarantino exhibits real flair in his direction and script, as the film takes on an unpredictable structure of flashback and straight narrative, letting the audience know just a little at a time until its blood-drenched finale.
Because of the language and violence in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese. It is another example of the attempt to pigeonhole artists early in their career, much in the way Spike Lee was declared to be "the black Woody Allen" following She's Gotta Have It. As Lee's career since has shown, he's much more multi-faceted than that, and Tarantino should be given the same opportunity to explore his artistic bents.
What can be said of Tarantino though, is he is another promising member of the next generation of filmmakers. The artists of the post-baby boom generation are making themselves known and Reservoir Dogs is the latest example.
In addition to the always dependable Keitel, the film boasts solid performances from Steve Buscemi as an acerbic member of the gang, Michael Madsen as a dangerous member of the team and, most notably, Tim Roth who gives a marvelous performance in the film's most brilliant extended flashback.
The script sparkles with wit, albeit dark wit, and the machinations are reminiscent of Deathtrap, as one wonders who will get the better of whom until its ending brings about the most appropriate ending to a film exploring criminal mythos that I can remember.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Not my usual kind of post
By Edward Copeland
With some rare exceptions, I've tried to keep this blog clear of non-entertainment-related posts, mostly because that's not what I think this blog should be about but also because I suspect that people who come here don't come here to read about me. I know I wouldn't. I've usually restricted that sort of thing to Facebook notes. There have been exceptions, but today I can't help myself. Nothing is going to be reviewed, analyzed or critiqued today, at least in the realm of entertainment, and if this holds no interest for you, I suggest you move along right now.
There have been exceptions, as I mentioned, that deviated from my purely entertainment focus. Early on in this blog's history, I was hit with one of the most painful moments of my life when I lost a dear friend and felt compelled to write about her to explain my sudden absence from the blogosphere.
When medical incompetence placed me in hospitals for four months, mostly without computer access, when I did get a chance to get online I felt compelled to post an explanation for my sudden and unexplained absence.
During the 2008 election, I was hurt when I had to break off one of my longest friendships because while I'm perfectly able to have friendships with people who differ with me politically, he'd gone off the deep end in a way that sort of previewed the way some of the scariest and most extreme anti-Obama protesters behave (and this was before the election). I had to vent, out of sadness and fear for what was happening to political discourse in this country.
Finally, when a new turn in my health and its treatment made it appear that typing on the computer and watching TV would be a near impossibility, I wrote a sad farewell, anticipating another blog hiatus. Luckily, that turned out to be a solvable problem that did not last long.
Alas, this post will be my most personal. It will be full of sadness and anger and I feel I must use this forum to scream to the world my frustrations: with the deplorable health care system in our country, the relationship with my father and to beat up on myself for mistakes that I've made. Even if no one at all is out there reading this, I have to work my way through this for myself because I'm at a particularly low point in my life and I feel as if I have more virtual friends and allies out there in the blogosphere than I do in real life, not that I have much of a real life anymore.
I've alluded often here to my health, but have never been too explicit, so I thought for purposes of this piece, I would be. In January 2005, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis or, as I refer to it now, the good 'ol days. I was still able to work full-time for three years after my diagnosis, though I did have to use a wheelchair, but I could walk short distances, especially with a walker, and could get out of bed on my own, for instance, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The M.S. actually preceded the start of this blog and I never even alluded to it for a long time because I felt it made no difference. The only reason I finally had to quit work and go on long-term disability was that the fatigue factor got to be too much and I just couldn't last through an eight-hour shift without taking breaks. I also was having severe headaches that got in the way of my focus, which didn't go well with my job as a copy editor. I might miss something important or write bad headlines.
The worst part of primary progressive M.S. is that it's one of the rarer forms of M.S. There aren't periods of remission as there are in the more common types. Sometimes the disease's progression will plateau, but it never gets better. It just gets worse and no drugs have been found to successfully treat it. However, it wasn't M.S. that made me bedridden. It was a greedy and incompetent urologist.
All my life I've had bladder problems. Well into my childhood, I was a bedwetter, though that eventually stopped. Unfortunately, I got hooked up with a cut-happy urologist who pawned most of his patients off on his P.A. (Rule of thumb: 9 out of 10 doctors who have PAs are in it for the money.) so he could spend more time on surgery in a center his surgical group owned so he could make even more money. He pressured me into installing a suprapubic cathether, saying my bladder had failed. If I'd been on my game, I should have said, "Wait. I've had these problems all my life. Let's take some tests." However, with additional pressure from my father, we had the surgery. It started going wrong that very first night. (The surgery occurred May 5, 2008. Following, we got a form sheet with no details on how to dress the wound a followup appointment set for JULY 1!) After 8 days of struggle, Dr. Greed finally suggested we go to an ER. When firemen and paramedics lifted me off the bed, we discovered in that short of time I had developed a bedsore on my backside so large you could shove two fists in it.
I'm sparing you all the details of the hospital stays because I have other things I'd rather get to, but needless to say it led to stays at two hospitals for about four months and despite my pleadings at both places, neither did much to work on my legs to get them going again and if you don't start trying to get therapy started on legs, even if you were a marathon runner, let alone someone such as myself, you lose them forever, which is what has happened to me. Of course, despite all the doctors, nurses and physical therapists who have said as much to my father, he's so nuts he still thinks that if I had therapy that somehow they'd work again and it's all my fault when the fault lies with the understaffed, underpaid, horrible health care system most Americans have to take part in. If you have the money, you can get the best. If you don't, you get what I get. During the whole health care debate, while I think it's better to have health insurance than not, part of me always was thinking: Be careful what you wish for because now people might have insurance, but they'd be subject to an awful system that's as likely to kill them as not having insurance would. Read this horror story that was in The New York Times earlier this week.
One other brief note about Dr. Greed: He decided that I had to have a second surgery to implant a new suprapubic catheter and clear out all the calcium deposits that had wrapped themselves around the first one. After I eventually fired him and got a new urologist, I asked the new guy what to do to stop the calcium deposits, which tended to clog my foley tube and lead to bladder and kidney stones. He just advised drinking lots of water. One day, it finally dawned on me: It's calcium. Cut out milk and as much calcium as possible. I did and it was never a problem again. Of course, the other doctor wouldn't have suggested that because it's not in a doctor's financial interest to get people well: There's no money in that. It makes me wonder that if Dr. Greed had bothered to X-ray my bladder and had seen the calcium before and I'd remembered my lifelong problems and reasoned the calcium out earlier, maybe I'd have deduced the reason my bladder wouldn't empty wasn't that it was failing but that it was blocked by the calcium deposits. I could have avoided the whole mess and I wouldn't be stuck in a bed right now. Instead, my still somewhat active life ceased before I was 40.
What's past is past. Now I must get to the personal stuff going on right now, stuff I wish someone out there could help me with but that I know you can't. My primary caregivers are my aging parents, 73 and 68 respectively. My father just had a hip replacement and my mom suffers from mini-strokes and gets around on a walker. When they are gone, I'm shit out of luck. What little savings I have is fast disappearing as I pay for a caregiver 11 hours a day to help move me around, bathe me, etc. Basically, all nonmedical stuff, which they are not allowed to do. My mom has been doing that since February (with little training, though I'd urged my dad to show her how to do things when I came home also) when my father threw a fit and went insane because I refused to go into a hospital for in-patient physical therapy because he still refuses to accept that a) it does no good at this point b) that it's not like a hotel you just check into and since the doctor refused to sign off on it, the insurance wouldn't have approved it anyway and c) every time I go into a hospital, I get worse because they are essentially germ factories and M.S. gives me a weakened immune system, which makes me more susceptible to infection, which I've always caught some kind of when I've had a hospital stay.
He went off on a trip (this was pre-hip replacement) anyway. Shortly after, we lost our caregiver because he went back to college and his agency dropped us, saying none of their other workers would take our case which we learned was because of the way my father mistreated their staff and the caregiver. When the hip replacement came up, he wanted the in-patient thing, ignoring all that, and I hired a new caregiving agency (which we've learned he already has a bad reputation with as "being mean"). As soon as he was given the go-ahead to drive, he took off again to go to a family reunion to meet people he'd never met in his life and he kept extending his trip until the van needed to cart me around and the only vehicle we had broke down and he finally came back. After my mom, who will remember how he yells at us and mistreats us and then forget it an hour later got made enough to hang up on him one night, I finally got her to talk to her brother to tell him the truth about our situation here. He got mad and called my dad who said he wouldn't yell anymore.
Unfortunately, I saw through him. He immediately set about doing all sorts of improvements to the house, which I knew he was doing as a pretext to putting it up for sale. Once, during one of our fights a long time ago, he admitted that he and my mom had been having marital problems since he'd had prostate cancer a decade ago — long before I ever got sick or lived with them. I understand his need for a break, but not for delusions or lying to people about my state (one of his friends called and yelled at me under the mistaken impression that I could get myself out of bed but simply chose not to do it). Never mind that one of the very first things we learned about M.S. was that stress exacerbates the symptoms.
Yesterday, he comes into my room and does what I've been waiting for and what I warned my mom would be coming. He asked if I'd be willing to do the in-patient physical therapy thing for two weeks so he and mom could go to his high school reunion. I told him once again it wouldn't be approved that it's not like a hotel and he suggested that we didn't have to tell them that's why. I suggested finding someone else to stay with me here. He said he was going and then was going to look around Indianapolis for places and when he got back, he was putting the house up for sale and we were moving. Never mind that he bought my mom a ticket for this reunion without asking and she didn't want to go because of the long car ride OR that she's told him repeatedly that she had no intention of moving back to Indianapolis because of the winters. There's also the matter that because of my still not fully healed wound, I'm not supposed to be sitting upright for more than two hours at a time, how am I supposed to travel long distances? Then again, he stopped caring a long time ago. My mother and I are nothing but burdens to him. It's terrible to experience the transformation of someone who has done so much for you into some you can't stand the sight of. I don't know if he just has a psychological problem or there is something physiological wrong with his brain.
My mom has even admitted in the past she's not sure she loves him anymore and yesterday that marrying him was a mistake, which I have to agree. It spawned me and outside of my online presence, this is not a life, especially when you add in doctors who don't listen or care when you are pointing things out to them or if you are in pain and ask for convenience sake that a prescription be able to be filled one day earlier to avoid being in pain for hours. Do they fear I'll become a drug addict? It's not like I can drive under the influence. I'm sure there are doctors out there who care about their patients more than their portfolios and do really good jobs. If you find him or her, please send me their name. The moment health care became a for-profit business in this country, it was over for everyone and it will never be fixed and we can't just blame evil health insurance companies for that.
There are the hospitals and doctors that purposely and fraudulently bill people. One nurse who worked on my wound told me of another patient, a 72-year-old woman, who was surprised to find on her hospital bill charges relating to her maternity and labor costs. I paid two bills to a hospital and the checks cleared. Two months later, I got the same two bills again along with a note saying they were being referred to a collection agency for nonpayment. In 2008 and 2009, we caught $24,000 and $22,000 in billing errors respectively. In all the talks of health care reform, no one brought up reforming hospitals in terms of quality or fraud. I'm lucky. I haven't had as many insurance problems as others, but they are far from the only villains. In fact, one case manager came to the rescue when one of the hospitals was trying to lie and kick me out on the streets when my house was unprepared. Unfortunately, like most things in this country, quality health care always will be something only available to the rich and the elected.
At the beginning of this month, I joined the ranks of Medicare. I'd hoped this would help pay for my caregiver, which is not covered by private insurance. Alas, no. Even though they say the cover those sorts of things for the homebound, Medicare goes by visits, not hours, regardless of the fact that my wound doctor wants me to be turned every two hours or so. Doctors' orders don't matter. Should have known. They seldom mattered when I was in the purposely understaffed hospitals either.
Anyway, back to my nonhealth home problems. This blog really is the only semblance of a life I have left and my dad wants to destroy it and remove from the place where I have a few friends who see me and doctors (he still doesn't get that the private insurance won't transfer). I've been lucky to have good contributors to help fill the gaps since I can't post every day myself. I'm sure I annoy them by trying to get them to turn stuff in early, but it's the M.S. that makes it necessary and I can't stay up late as I used to so I can edit and code things. Some past contributors have just failed to deliver entirely and it just becomes another letdown in a life that now seems to be nothing but letdowns. Depression may make for great art but it's not ideal for criticism and analysis. Without the blog and the setup I have where I am now, I probably will cease to exist, figuratively and perhaps literally. What little modicum of happiness I have be damned.
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Time Well Spent
By Jonathan Pacheco
Not every film we see needs to satisfy our desires for the epic and mind-blowing. Just plain good films fill out the gaps between the monumental ones of our cinematic lives, like sand settling between rocks. We complain and yearn for the rocks, the experiences that push us to emotional extremes, but truly, there's nothing wrong with the sand. Many of us are guilty of underappreciating the likes of Cairo Time, a small, unassuming Canadian film by Ruba Nadda that displays sensitivity, restraint, and nuance in the face of a potential extramarital affair.
Like the film itself, the central relationship of Cairo Time — between Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), the wife of a U.N. official, and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), the husband's good friend and former security officer — is a gentle bond with no pretensions and no forced dramas, a sort of friendship quietly settling within the cracks of Juliette's marriage. On vacation in Cairo and waiting for her husband to work out a sticky situation in Gaza so he can join her, Juliette finds herself calling upon the company of Tareq during the lonely (and occasionally mildly dangerous) days of sight-seeing.
Nadda directs her film with no obligations, so while the subject matter may retrace familiar ground, Cairo Time is never pressured into faithfully following through with clichés. The anxiety brought on from anticipating lazy and unoriginal writing vanishes as Nadda, with understanding and patience, exhibits control over her picture, dialing down emotions a little to prevent events from escalating to unrealistically dramatic levels.
Sleazy men leer at Juliette as she walks the Cairo streets alone, dressed in a casual short-sleeved blouse and an airy, lengthy skirt — typical and tasteful for a Westerner her age, but a bit risqué in her new surroundings. The men brush up against her and whisper vulgarities in her ear, but instead of pounding the viewer with drama and physical confrontations, Nadda diffuses the tension when Juliette ducks into a nearby shop to find rescue in its owner, an older Egyptian gentleman who, at the sight of Juliette's shaken expression, shoos away the would-be stalkers. This is the kind of wisdom and control you don't find in the likes of the culturally condescending Sex and the City 2.
Most importantly, you also find this restraint in how Nadda develops Juliette and Tareq's relationship. There's no rush to physicality or marital betrayal because, as excellently conveyed by Clarkson's mastery of one-sided telephone conversation scenes, Juliette loves her husband, and if we are to accept that, we should probably conclude that she wouldn't be quick to run into the embrace of another man, if ever. This "thing" sparking between these two, whatever it may be, has less to do with the small physical touches and displays of chivalry — as exciting as they may be — and has more to do with companionship and time. That word, time, so appropriately placed in the film's title. Fate, romance, circumstances — those aren't the causes of this growing relationship. It's time. Time builds friendships of all intimacy levels. And as she waits endlessly for her husband's return, Juliette is swamped with time.
In a scene before an Egyptian wedding, Juliette speaks to the mother of the bride about her own son's marriage, saying it felt like he didn't belong to her anymore. The scene ends, and those words hang in the air, almost oddly; the film has little to do with children and letting go of them, but it actually has a lot to say about "belonging." Juliette and Tareq don't belong to each other, not in the marital sense, but the time they spend walking the streets, seeing the Nile, attending this wedding — this time is their own. At the reception, as Tareq dances with the former "love of his life," it's evident that they're reliving, for that brief dance, the time that belonged to them many years ago, and as they do so, the look on Juliette's face tells us that she also is realizing that this time, soon coming to an end, is all she will ever have of this man. But it's a special time, powerful enough to cause her to consider things she'd never anticipated considering.
In a summer where we're bombarded with ads for the flagrant Eat Pray Love, Cairo Time is a relief, a modest relational study unconcerned with genre rules and expectations and more interested in spending time in the company of true emotions.
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Learning a new career in prison
By Edward Copeland
France's Oscar nominee for the 2009 foreign language film prize bears an uncanny resemblance to the prison sequence of Scorsese's Goodfellas in the beginning, only its Henry Hill equivalent is an Arab Muslim just beginning his internship with the mob, in this case a Corsican one, behind bars in A Prophet. The similarities soon dissipate in director Jacques Audiard's film which, despite its length, moves briskly and keeps the viewer's rapt attention as it charts the rise of a lackey to a kingpin during his brief sentence for petty crime.
A Prophet, which didn't receive U.S. release until this year, stars Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena, a young Arab Muslim given a six-year sentence in a French prison, though the nature of his crime is never made clear. He enters the prison as an awkward man, proclaiming his innocence and seemingly unable to fit in with any of the groups who reign over various portions of the prison, even the Muslim gang, where he's housed. One inmate in the shower offers Malik some hash, provided he blow him. Malik justifiably gets offended and refuses, despite his desire to toke up.
Word of the incident makes it way back to the inmates that hold the largest measure of control: a group of Corsican mobsters led by the aging boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Seeing Malik's vulnerability while getting word from the outside that the same Muslim prisoner will soon testify against friends of theirs on the outside, Cesar offers Malik protection in exchange for Malik getting close to the witness and killing him. So begins Malik's criminal education. He begins rehearsals to fake that he's going to blow the man, while really using the tryst as an opportunity to take his life.
Audiard directs the killing scene in a way that you imagine a real murder, especially one being committed by a reluctant amateur assassin such as Malik, would occur. It's as awkward as Malik himself and very messy, but Malik succeeds in his mission in the end and from that point on, he's the Corsicans' errand boy, despite the fact they frequently call him a "dirty Arab."
That scene of violence isn't the only one that Audiard truly rubs in the viewer's face. With all the movies and television shows I've seen in my lifetime, I've witnessed innumerable depictions of violent acts, but somehow in A Prophet, almost all of them, while bloody and often horrifying, seem to retain a character-driven nature, which is quite an achievement.
I won't delve into too much more detail into how Malik maneuvers his to achieve his climb, but it's fascinating because he's not a sudden criminal mastermind. The fact that he rises through the criminal ranks and successfully navigates so many separate criminal interest often is as much a matter of dumb luck as anything else. In fact, one such instance is how he earns the nickname the "prophet."
While Malik constantly beats the odds against veteran hoods, it never comes off as unrealistic and the film proves riveting to watch. Rahim is very good as he grows from the gawky, guilt-ridden kid to the self-assured criminal. The other truly great performance comes from Arestrup as Cesar, the aging Corsican kingpin. He tries to maintain the image of his strength, but he also projects a bit of sympathy as the bulk of his crew are transferred to other prisons and he realizes he's just a vulnerable, isolated old man.
What's also interesting about A Prophet is that despite the fact that its main character and many others are Muslim, religion barely comes up and neither does terrorism and even though the characters' actions hardly can be called admirable, the depiction is refreshing in its own way.
A Prophet is only the second of the five 2009 Oscar nominees I've managed to see and while I liked The White Ribbon, A Prophet beats it by a mile.
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Sun-baked noir drawn from a dime store novel
By Edward Copeland
As I watched After Dark, My Sweet again, in preparation for this 20th anniversary piece, I was struck once again by the melancholy that often hits people like myself who have spent much of their lives trying to devour works in various fields of artistic endeavor. My readers realize my film obsession and my brief and expensive addiction to New York theater, as well as to various television shows. I've also tried to be a voracious reader, which I have been for most of my life except for frequent periods when severe headaches interfered. There simply isn't enough time in the day to watch and read (and listen: I like music too) and then write about them. I feel like Burgess Meredith in the classic Twilight Zone episode, though at least my eyesight is holding out so I don't have to worry about breaking my glasses after the bomb falls. Anyway, among the many regrets in my life is that I've never read any of the classic Jim Thompson pulp fiction novels, which enjoyed a resurgence in terms of film adaptations in the late 1980s and early 1990s of which James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet was the finest example. Even though my finances always hover in a precarious state and Thompson's books can't be bought for two bits anymore, after I rewatched the film, I did put out $7 to read the novel before sitting down to write this tribute. Of course, I had heard Thompson's words before because he'd also worked as a screenwriter, most notably on Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and Paths of Glory.
What makes Foley's film work so well is its casting of Jason Patric in the lead role of former boxer and recent mental institution escapee Kid Collins. One difference between the novel and the movie: His first name in the book is William, but the screenplay by Foley and Robert Redlin christens him Kevin, though it hardly matters since he's almost always referred to as Collins or, once he encounters the widow Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward), Collie. The book also describes him as blond, which the dark-haired Patric certainly is not. The movie, which like the novel, is narrated by Collins, doesn't make it clear what his problem is. Has he been punched a few too many times in the ring? Did guilt over killing another fighter in the ring set him off? Maybe he just has criminal tendencies, though at times he seems as gentle as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Still, he's also prone to sudden rage that you don't want to find yourself on the receiving end of. On the first page of the novel, Collins shows the reader the classification card that has accompanied him through four mental institutions:
William ("Kid") Collins: Blond, extremely handsome; very strong, agile. Mild criminal tendencies or none, according to environmental factors. Mild multiple neuroses (environmental) Psychosis, Korsakoff (no syndrome) induced by shock; aggravated by worry. Treatment: absolute rest, quiet, wholesome food and surroundings. Collins is amiable, polite, patient, but may be very dangerous if aroused...
Except for the name change and the updating of the time period, the film sticks fairly closely to the book. Both are narrated by Collins, except the book shows that he isn't the swiftest guy in the world in terms of mastery of the English language while some of the internal lines the film gives him come off as a bit too well-formed for the character. The novel also makes his motivations much clearer than the film which by leaving things out make some scenes seem like a cheat or purposely vague. In a way, the Collie of the film is even more of an unreliable narrator than the Collie of Thompson's novel.
Of course, noir purists might dismiss a story set in modern time and filmed in sun-drenched color (to match its southwestern locale, it even includes a nice score from Maurice Jarre, the great composer of Lawrence of Arabia), but it hits all the marks. Still, as good as Foley's film is, Patric holds the key to its success in his portrayal of Collins. It's the best role of the talented actor's odd film career. Whether Collie has just been hit in the head one time too many or is just naturally mentally unbalanced (or perhaps he's smarter than we think and it's all a put on), Patric handles the turns of uncertainty in his part beautifully. The year following After Dark, My Sweet he had another good role opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh in Rush playing an undercover cop who becomes too involved in the drugs he is investigating, but that film and performance were overshadowed by Patric's tabloid fame as the man who broke up Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland before they could wed. Given that Patric also is Jackie Gleason's grandson and the son of Jason Miller, Oscar-nominated actor for The Exorcist and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season, I can't help if all that attention has played a role in a purposeful obscurity. If so, it's a shame, because Patric has remarkable talent that's not seen nearly enough as it's on display in After Dark, My Sweet or in a handful of other films such as Your Friends and Neighbors.
The plot's engine ignites simply enough. Collins steps off the hot road into a saloon to get a cold beer from a disinterested bartender named Bert (Rocky Giordani) while sitting further down the bar is an attractive woman whose name he'll learn is Fay (Ward). Collins, as is his habit, tends to ramble, but in a good-natured way, telling about how he's lost track of his friend Jack Billingsley, but he's certain he'll wander in that bar at some point. Bert and Fay, recognizing that Collins may be a bit slow, have a bit of fun at the kid's expense, until it ceases to be fun for them anymore because Collins just won't shut up. Bert grabs the beer back before Collins can even finish it and tells him to get out. Collins insists that he hasn't done anything wrong: He's a veteran and just waiting on a friend. Bert doesn't care and reaches across the bar and grabs Collins' shirt. That's a mistake. Before you know it, Bert lies sprawled and Collins has hit the road again. He's surprised when Fay pulls up alongside him in her car, offering a ride. He thinks it's a scam and she'll take him back to the bar and the cops, but Fay insists that Bert is the last person who wants to be involved with the police. Reluctantly, Collins climbs in the vehicle and they drive to Fay's rundown plantation.
At her place, Fay reveals to Collie that she's a widow (she doesn't need to reveal that she's an alcoholic; even someone as slow as Collins can figure that out) and offers him a trailer on her property as a residence. As the two are getting acquainted in the main house, a car pulls up and Fay rushes out to see the man, almost as if she wants to steer him clear of Collie. That doesn't last long. As Collie and Fay go out that night, the man stumbles upon them again. His name is Garrett Stoker (played with a wonderful sleaze quotient by Bruce Dern), but everyone knows him as Uncle Bud. Thompson's, i.e. Collins', description of Uncle Bud in the novel truly hits the mark in a delightful introductory sequence:
You meet guys like Uncle Bud — just over a drink or a cup of coffee — and you feel like you've known them all your life. They make you feel that way.
The first thing you know they're writing down your address and telephone number, and the next thing you know they're dropping around to see you or giving you a ring. Just being friendly, you understand. Not because they want anything, you understand. Sooner or later, of course, they want something; and when they do it's awfully hard to say no to them. No matter what it is.
Uncle Bud says he's a former police detective and, yes, he does want Collie for something: to be part of a scheme he's been trying to sell Fay on for several months: kidnapping the young son of a wealthy family and collecting a big ransom. Fay and Collie both humor Uncle Bud, but later at Fay's house, she tells him that Uncle Bud has been trying to find a third for his cockeyed plan for a long time and it would be in Collie's best interest to get as far away from both of them as fast as he can.
Collins takes Fay's advice and stops off at a diner, where he bring his own booze much to the counterman's anger (as well as his usual spiel about waiting for Jack Billingsley). The counterman asks him to at least go wait in an out-of-the-way booth so he won't get in trouble and Collins complies, though being slightly tipsy, he stumbles into the booth of a man who turns out to be a doctor named Goldman (George Dickerson). The doctor recognizes the signs in Collins of someone who's been in a mental health facility and offers him some help. Collins refuses, though the doctor gives him his card anyway. Later, without any prospects, Collins looks up Doc Goldman, figuring he has nothing else to lose, so he might as well work some odd jobs and maybe find a nice place to stay for awhile. The doctor, who practices out of his home, is glad to see him and lets him do yard work in exchange for room and board. He tries to talk to Collins about his past and whether or not he needs to go back to an institution or, at the very least, quit boozing, but Collins isn't receptive to the idea. The biggest problem concerning Collins is that he can't get Fay out of his mind and he wonders if she's safe from Uncle Bud's plotting. His worry eventually leads him to flee again, back to Fay and getting himself neck deep in the kidnapping plan.
While After Dark, My Sweet exists at its core as a thriller and contains the many twists you'd expect, Foley's keeps his pacing loose, yet it never loses your attention. I'll spare you the details, in case you haven't seen the film or read the book, but it's riveting and suspenseful without building tension so taut it breaks. The one misstep I think Foley makes is an extended sex scene between Patric and Ward. It is important for a plot development, but the romp wastes too much screentime and almost brings the film to a halt. In the novel, Thompson accomplishes the same thing in a mere paragraph that's mostly allusion but the film's version goes on way too long. As Orson Welles once famously said, the two things that always look fake on film are praying and making love, and Foley certainly proves that adage with the length of the boinking here.
Still, that criticism is a minor one for an otherwise great film anchored by such a magnificent performance. Since I read the novel after having seen the film multiple times, it's hard to say which is better, though the book certainly makes things clearer and works more efficiently. Foley managed to come up with a more ambiguous ending than Thompson did and how often does that happen in a film? Not nearly enough anymore really, but 20 years ago it did and thank goodness that Foley cast an actor as talented as Jason Patric to pull it off. I just wish we got to see Patric put his gifts to use in worthy projects more often.
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Darkman is everyone — and no one
By Damian Arlyn
Although it may be hard for young people to imagine, there was a time when the name "Sam Raimi" did not arouse any excitement in movie lovers. Indeed there was a time when Sam Raimi was just another unknown, ambitious director trying desperately to carve out a place for himself in the world of cinema. Like a lot of filmmakers who made a name for themselves in the late '80s/early '90s — including Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers (with whom Raimi was friends) — he was an independent, but what he really wanted was to make mainstream "Hollywood" movies and with only three features under his belt (including the "no-budget" horror flick Evil Dead and its semi-sequel/remake), Raimi was given the opportunity to helm a major studio picture. The result was Darkman and it was released (unleashed?) 20 years ago today.
The genesis of Darkman lay in Raimi's troubles securing the rights to make a movie of The Shadow (something Russell Mulcahy would do with mixed results four years later) which eventually forced him to concoct a superhero of his own. While the imprint of Walter B. Gibson's famous crimefighter on Raimi's character is apparent, so too is the influence of classic monster movies: the "mad scientist-creation" of Frankenstein, the bloodlust of The Wolfman, the split-personality of Jekyll and Hyde, the bandaged visage of The Invisible Man and the scarred, ominous figure of The Phantom of the Opera to name just a few (It is very appropriate that Raimi's film bore the Universal logo). In fact, Darkman is just as much a horror film as it is a superhero movie. The story of a horribly disfigured innocent seeking revenge on the despicable criminals who made him so provided Raimi the chance to indulge not only in some spectacular action sequences but in some delightfully gruesome acts of violence.
I could talk about the hammy performances delivered by a group of game actors doing the best they can with the material (including a "pre-Oskar Schindler" Liam Neeson attempting some kind of American accent and wife to one-half of the team of Raimi's filmmaking friends, the Coen brothers, Frances McDormand, with whom presumably Raimi had some difficulty working), but the truth is that Darkman isn't really about the acting because it isn't really about its characters. Darkman is about its visuals and they are stunning. Raimi has always been a purely "cinematic" filmmaker and Darkman feels like the work of a child finally allowed to play with big toys. His unbridled passion and enthusiasm infuses (infects?) nearly every frame of the film. Classic "Hollywood-style" montages, extreme camera angles, outrageous special effects and an ostentatiously operatic music score provided by frequent Raimi-collaborator Danny Elfman (who, sadly, is currently estranged from the filmmaker) all testify to the fact that this is a movie made by a director who doesn't have a single subtle bone in his body. His two subsequent films (Army of Darkness and The Quick and the Dead, both of which I love for the exact same reason as I do Darkman) exhibit the same "no-holds-barred" approach to filmmaking. It wasn't until 1998's A Simple Plan that Raimi pushed himself as a storyteller and fashioned a moody, atmospheric thriller-drama that then allowed him to deal with more mature, complex themes in future films (such as the under-appreciated For Love of the Game and the creepy Gift). When the Spider-man series brought Raimi back to the comic book genre, he was able to create a far more "balanced" product than he had attempted to do more than a decade earlier (likewise with his return to horror on Drag Me to Hell).
Though reviews were mixed, Darkman was successful enough at the box office to spawn two direct-to-video sequels. I was 14 when it came out and remember very well the thrilling trailer, TV ads and movie poster tantalizingly declaring "Who is Darkman?" I missed seeing it in the theater but viewed it finally when it came to video. The violence disturbed me somewhat, but I loved the film nonetheless and even purchased the novelization. I caught it again once or twice in the following years but hadn't seen it in a very long time when I sat down to watch it again recently. I found my affection for the film had not waned in the slightest and, in fact, my appreciation for what Raimi was able to accomplish (given his relative lack of experience and the number of obstacles he reportedly had to overcome) only increased. However, much of the film not only seems incredibly silly but patently absurd to me now. The fact that lean, 6'4" Liam Neeson could possibly pass himself off as the 6-foot-tall, overweight minion Pauly just stretches credulity pass its limit. It occurred to me while watching Darkman that the film was made only three years after the similarly cartoonish and ultra-violent Robocop, but that the latter holds up much better today. Raimi's vision is perhaps not as dated as Verhoeven's (except in the area of special effects) but it is also not nearly as moving or intelligent.
The most important thing that Darkman provides for contemporary audiences is a chance to see a supremely talented and eminently creative artist at a crucial point in his career. Though still a little "wet behind the ears," Darkman displayed the enormous potential that Sam Raimi possessed. It was a potential that he would fulfill much later with projects that were just as visually sumptuous but which didn't sacrifice characterization and emotion in the process. Now, when his name is mentioned (as it has been in connection with the upcoming comic book-inspired action-thriller Priest), movie-lovers have good reason to get excited.
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Monday, August 23, 2010
“I was the governor of a state, baby…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
With the success of his first stage hits The Guinea Pig (1929) and Strictly Dishonorable (1930), aspiring playwright Preston Sturges soon answered Hollywood’s siren song in 1930, landing employment at the Paramount studios as a scribe-for-hire. Throughout the decade, the talented if temperamental Sturges became a force to be reckoned with, churning out screenplays for films that have since been acknowledged as cinema classics: The Power and the Glory (1933), The Good Fairy (1935), Diamond Jim (1935), Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940), to name just a few. He’d clearly found his niche in the motion picture business — pulling down a healthy $2,500 a week and establishing a sort of early independence (Sturges often wrote on his own, at a time when most motion picture projects were pounded out by two or more writers.)
Before “What I really want to do is direct” became a timeworn Hollywood cliché, Sturges had a burning ambition to take full control of his movies, since he was often dissatisfied with how motion picture directors handled his witty, razor-sharp dialogue. In 1939, he offered to sell Paramount a script he’d written for $1 if they’d allow him the luxury of letting him direct it as well — and the studio acquiesced to such a bargain (though they later upped Sturges’ compensation to $10) but hedged their bets by budgeting only $350,000 for the venture…not to mention giving their highly paid scriptwriter just three weeks to shoot it and casting the film with inexpensive contract players. The result — which was released to American movie theaters 70 years ago on this date — was a concoction that would net Sturges (and the studio) an Academy Award for best original screenplay: The Great McGinty.
In a sleazy dive located in an unnamed “banana republic,” bartender Dan McGinty prevents a despondent American bank clerk (Louis Jean Heydt) from shooting himself in a suicide attempt, then tells the clerk and a dancer from the bar (Steffi Duna) the story of his rise and fall in politics. McGinty starts out as a mere hobo in a breadline, taking advantage of a soup kitchen set up by the machine that’s promoting mayoral candidate Wilfred T. Tillinghast (Arthur Hoyt). Informed by party hack Skeeters (William Demarest) that he’ll receive a couple of bucks for voting for Tillinghast, McGinty makes the rounds at the various precincts and comes back with 37 tickets” — demanding payment of $74. Strapped for cash, Skeeters takes Dan to party headquarters, where the head of the machine (Akim Tamiroff) — referred to only as “The Boss” — is impressed by McGinty’s initiative in participatory democracy…and gives him a job collecting for his protection racket.
McGinty’s combination of street smarts and fisticuffs paves the way for his advancement in the party — he’s elected alderman, and when a citizens’ “Purity League” begins to complain about the corruption that’s running rampant in the Tillinghast administration, the Boss decides to run Dan as a “reform candidate.” Because women voters are averse to casting their ballots for a bachelor, The Boss demands that McGinty find himself a bride as quickly as possible. McGinty’s secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) volunteers herself for this marriage of convenience, and because she was married before (with two children from the previous union); the mayoral candidate has a ready-made family that enables him to be elected handily.
As mayor, McGinty is taking in far more graft than was possible in his previous alderman duties…but his marital arrangement with Catherine (who calls him “Mr. McGinty”) and her exposure to serious societal problems (as part of attending women’s club meetings and lunches on his behalf) begins to soften his cynical shell — he even orders the boyfriend (Allyn Joslyn) she’s been seeing on the side that their little out-of-the-way dinners come to a screeching halt. Catherine realizes that there’s a good side to Dan, and that he’s a finer man than he himself gives credit…and when he’s swept into the Governor’s mansion she convinces him to go straight. This plan of attack doesn’t sit well with the Boss, who tries to give his protégé a little hot lead and is arrested for his trouble…shortly thereafter; McGinty is arrested and jailed on charges stemming from a crooked bridge construction deal from when he was mayor. With Skeeters’ help, McGinty and the Boss bust out of the joint and take it on the lam…but not before Dan calls Catherine to tell her that it’s in her best interests (and the kids’) to get a divorce, after making sure that she’ll be taken care of with some money he socked away for a rainy day.
After hearing Dan’s story, the dancer accuses him of lying, and convinces the bank clerk to return home to the States, assuring him that his situation isn’t as bad as McGinty’s, who’s just a dishonest “tramp.” When McGinty pockets the money for the American’s drinks by ringing a fake bell near the cash register, the Boss gets up from a nearby table to accuse him of being a chiseling crook — and the two men engage in another of their “brannigans” as a world-weary Skeeters looks on.
Sturges’ pointed political satire has lost a little bit of its luster over the years, but remains an entertaining comedy with more than a few kernels of truth (particularly since Sturges based the screenplay on the career of real-life politician and lawyer William Sulzer). One of the things I find remarkably spot-on about McGinty is its refusal to take sides, tarring any and all political parties with the sticky brush of corruption. A particularly telling moment occurs when the Boss confronts Dan with the news that he’s going to run McGinty as a reform candidate:
BOSS: Now, listen…do you want to be reform mayor?
McGINTY: What do you mean, reform mayor?
BOSS: Well, what do you think it means? Don’t make me say everything twice, will you? I’m a little irritated today…I said, do you want to be reform mayor—the mayor of this city?
McGINTY: Well, what do you got to do with the Reform Party?
BOSS: I am the Reform Party! What do you think?
McGINTY: Since when?
BOSS: Since always! In this town, I’m all the parties…do you think I’m going to starve every time they change administrations?
Although the days when candidates and their supporters stood on soapboxes to give spiels on why they should be elected have given way to the pithy sound bite and slick, manufactured campaign ad, the content hasn’t changed at all…as in this scene where Skeeters and an orator (Robert Warwick) stumping on behalf of Dan’s gubernatorial opponent tell two separate crowds (in a series of back-and-forth cuts) precisely what they want to hear:
SKEETERS: Look what he done to our lakefront! Look what he done to our city…for our city…look what he done for you…and you…and you!
OPPONENT: The worst crook we’ve had since the year of the big wind!
SKEETERS: The least you can do, friends…the smallest token of gratitude you can show…is to send him to the Capitol! I’m giving it to you straight, friends…you owe him that!
OPPONENT: Senator Honeywell, on the other hand, my friends…
SKEETERS: You won’t be makin’ no mistake, friends…and I’ll tell you something else…
OPPONENT: Now just compare them…coolly…without prejudice…on the one hand, he have virtue…on the other…
SKEETERS: …year alone he put 40,000 men to work!
OPPONENT: He gutted the treasury…
SKEETERS: Forty thousand lunch pails, my friends!
OPPONENT: …he raided the city…
SKEETERS: Forty thousand happy families!
OPPONENT: …he raised the taxes…
SKEETERS: Money in circulation! Prosperity!
OPPONENT: …he built miles of useless buildings…bridges…beaches…eyesores, my friends…each and every one of them a monument…a testimonial to graft!
SKEETERS: …and gave you the most beautiful city in the world!
McGinty also has one of my favorite Sturges dialogue exchanges; I love it because of its sly subtlety, as Dan “negotiates” what it will cost businessman Maxwell (Thurston Hall) to keep his bus franchise with the city running by innocuously discussing baseball game attendance:
McGINTY: Drop in again some afternoon…we’ll go to a ball game…you like baseball, don’t you?
MAXWELL: Well, I’m not a fan by any means…
McGINTY: You know, that’s where you fellows make your biggest mistake…
McGINTY: …you worry too much about business…and contracts and the flaws in them and things like that…get out in the open, fill your lungs with fresh air…forget your troubles..
MAXWELL: Yes, but let me…
McGINTY (pointing to a photograph on the wall): Now look at that crowd…how many people do you think there were at that game?
MAXWELL: I’m sure I haven’t the faintest idea…
McGINTY: Look again…how many people do you think are in that photograph?
MAXWELL: Ten thousand…now…
McGINTY: Guess again…
MAXWELL: Twenty thousand…Mr. Mayor…
McGINTY: You’re not even warm, Mr. Maxwell…
MAXWELL: Well… (Realization setting in) Oh…you mean it’s more like 40,000?
McGINTY: It’s more like it…but that ain’t it…
MAXWELL: Mr. Mayor…about that flaw you mentioned…
McGINTY: There’s no flaw in that photograph, Mr. Maxwell—it’s perfect…what was your last guess?
MAXWELL: Fifty thousand?
McGINTY (chuckling): There were 75,000 people in that stadium… (Clapping Maxwell on the back) Ain’t that wonderful? Seventy-five thousand filling their lungs with nature’s own sunshine…I’ll send the guy up to see you…goodbye…
The Great McGinty, in my opinion, is archetypal Sturges — a blueprint for the director’s comedies that follow. All of the elements of a Sturges film are beginning to take shape — chiefly the standard protagonist who, through sheer coincidence and plain dumb luck, finds his fortunes completely changed virtually overnight. McGinty isn’t quite as frantic as later Sturges concoctions such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941) or The Palm Beach Story (1942), but the expert blend of both physical and verbal comedy and sentiment is certainly present…not to mention the embryonic attendance of members the director’s “stock company,” with such Sturges stalwarts as Jimmy Conlin, Byron Foulger, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, Frank Moran, Emory Parnell, Dewey Robinson and Warwick dotting the cast. The most notable Sturges player, William Demarest, has one of his best film roles as “fixer” Skeeters (listed in the credits as “The Politician”) and also has one of McGinty’s funniest lines: “If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics…men without ambition…jellyfish!” Demarest had worked with Sturges on two of the films he wrote (but did not direct), Diamond Jim and Easy Living, and would go on to appear in seven more Sturges vehicles after McGinty.
Because Paramount was taking a big chance on Sturges despite their sawbuck investment, the studio didn’t assign any of their major stars to appear in McGinty — Donlevy was about as close to a “star” as they got, and even he was known primarily for villainous turns in films such as Union Pacific (1939), Beau Geste (1939) and Universal’s Destry Rides Again (1939). McGinty gave Donlevy a great deal more star cache, and allowed him to play more “heroic” parts afterward in movies such as The Remarkable Andrew (1942), Wake Island (1942) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943). In McGinty, Donlevy really shines here, and I particularly like the romantic chemistry between him and leading lady Angelus…sadly, this was Angelus’ final foray on the silver screen. Donlevy and Tamiroff would reprise their McGinty and Boss roles in Sturges’ 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek but there’s also a bit of McGinty in Paul Madvig, the ward heeler in the 1942 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key in which Donlevy appears alongside Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
McGinty was the beginning in an amazing streak of first-rate comedies for writer-director Sturges, who in just four years would see successes in Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Travels, Palm Beach, Morgan’s Creek (filmed in 1942 but released two years later) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). (I left out The Great Moment because it’s chiefly a dramatic piece, though it does have comedic moments.) The tragedy is that Sturges lost his momentum after that impressive string of hits — he so craved independence (he was incensed at the way Paramount had handled the release of Moment) that he hooked up with millionaire Howard Hughes to form California Pictures, and their collaboration — the 1947 Harold Lloyd comedy The Sin of Harold Diddlebock — tanked at the box office (Hughes tried to salvage it by re-releasing an edited version in 1950 entitled Mad Wednesday). A second Sturges-Hughes project (Vendetta) further exacerbated the hostilities between the two men and Sturges ended up quitting (or was fired, depending on which account you subscribe to).
Sturges then accepted an offer from 20th Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck to direct a pair of films, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). Both films were financial duds (though Yours has received some favorable critical attention with the passage of time) and Sturges found himself without work and his mojo. He would direct only one additional film before his death in 1958 — the 1956 French farce Les Carnets du Major Thompson< (U.S. title: The French, They are a Funny Race). Seventy years ago, The Great McGinty would recount the events of one man’s precipitous ascent and descent in the world of politics…and in retrospect; it’s not all that difficult to also apply this cautionary tale to the visionary gentleman who helmed this silver screen classic.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and his favorite Preston Sturges film is either Sullivan’s Travels or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, depending on the day of week you ask. He is not, oddly enough, a fan of The Lady Eve.
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Life in New Orleans is anything but easy
By Edward Copeland
Spike Lee can be a great feature filmmaker, but often ends up with mixed results. However, when Lee turns his focus to documentary moviemaking, he has yet to fail and that is the case again with his two-part HBO documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, which debuts on the pay channel tonight and concludes Tuesday evening. If God Is Willing follows up on Lee's brilliant When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a previous HBO work that also aired in two parts and examined New Orleans after Katrina. The new work returns to The Big Easy five years after that cataclysm and broadens the scope to other locales and also explores the new nightmare to hit the region thanks to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP's consistent lies about how its oil spill is much worse than it wants known and the effects on the region's ecosystem and economy may last for generations. Still, hope persists. As one of the more than 300 people Lee interviews for the film says, "We like Weebles. baby. We may wobble, but we never fall down."
After revisiting some images of the immediate destruction following Katrina, Part I focuses on a high point for New Orleans earlier this year: When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl and the entire city had a positive thing to rally around with the "Who Dat" nation. One witness describes the event as a phoenix rising from the ashes, but others have a more realistic take. After all, as proud as the victory made New Orleans feel about their town and their team, it was just a sporting event and many of the systemic problems that plague the city, many of which preceded Hurricane Katrina, continue to haunt them. The Super Bowl win gave them a chance to celebrate momentarily, but it didn't change the circumstances that still hinder the city's recovery from the 2005 disaster. Though the game wasn't their only victory, as the photo at the top of this post shows, after being denied a chance to hold the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for the failure of the levees, footage recovered from a TV transmitter proved that the Corps' story that the levees didn't fail until waters topped them was false. They failed BEFORE Katrina even made landfall because of the Corps' poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which led to the catastrophic flooding. A federal district court found the Corps culpably negligent, leading the way for long-sought financial restitution to many. Still, as historian Douglas Brinkley explains, Katrina was just part of the continuum in the history of New Orleans, which had seen more than its fair share of disasters: yellow fever, typhoid, fires, flooding, Civil War, slavery. When he spoke, the BP oil spill had yet to come. Though Katrina occurred Aug. 29, 2005, many evacuees remain in exile, for different reasons. Lee takes a side trip to Houston, where many former residents of New Orleans still remain. In the case of one family, it happens to be because they have a child with special needs and New Orleans lacks a school system for children with disabilities (and lacked one prior to the hurricane as well), so they feel they must stay in Houston for the child, despite their admission that they "hate Texans." Another reason many have failed to return were they were renters and rent in New Orleans has skyrocketed, in one case from $380 a month to $800. Some rent tops $1,000 a month. One group, led by Brad Pitt, has been doing its part to try to help build new, green, hurricane resistant housing in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The rent increase symbolizes one of the biggest outrages post-Katrina: the demolition of public housing projects that really weren't damaged much by the storm. The very first public housing project, the St. Thomas Projects, were built in 1941 under the orders of FDR. However, much post-Katrina development seemed aimed at giving largesse to contractors, even if it left the city's residents behind. Citizens led huge protests against the planned demolition, much as Clarke Peters' character Albert did on David Simon's recent HBO series Treme. In fact, it's amazing how much of the real events covered in this documentary were reflected in Treme. One of Lee's most frequent interview subjects in the film, Jacques Moriel of the Louisiana Justice Institute, actually appeared as himself in Simon's series giving political advice to Steve Zahn's character. In real life, the New Orleans City Council closed a public meeting where they planned to vote on the planned demonstration, to the point the people were locked outside and hit with pepper spray and the handful of protesters who did manage to get into the meeting were met with stun guns. It didn't matter. The council voted unanimously to tear down the projects in favor of building supposed "mixed-use" residences. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin still claims the projects were unusable, while others claim that the plan, spearheaded by then-President Bush's HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson amounted to a form of ethnic cleansing. As one protester quite reasonably asks, "Where in the United States do you find people making $250,000 a year living next to people make $20,000 a year?"
Things aren't any better on the health care side, as plans are made to close the legendary Charity Hospital and demolish other historic structures to build a new private care health complex. The health infrastructure following Katrina went from bad to worse to the point that in one woman's case, she had to go to Houston to be placed on a waiting list for cancer treatment. Many will tell you that though the storm hit almost five years ago, its aftermath still is acquiring a death toll. New Orleans' suicide rate is twice the national average, yet current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal closed the city's only in-patient mental health facility and people who need mental health help now get treated at the jail. Lee also compares how quickly the Obama Administration responded to Haiti after its catastrophic earthquake compared to the incompetent government reaction on all levels to Hurricane Katrina from the Bush Administration on down, including how though Louisiana received 75% of the storm damage, aid was split evenly between it and Mississippi thanks to the lobbying of GOP heavyweight Haley Barbour. He also speaks with Sean Penn, who was seen aiding New Orleans in When the Levees Broke, as he tries to aid the quake victims in Port-au-Prince. Lee also interviews Michael "heckuva job Brownie" Brown who reveals the logistical problems he had getting anyone in there because back in D.C. then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued for days against freeing up air support to get troops into the storm-damaged area. As with the previous documentary, the longer you watch, the angrier you get.
As we move into part two (which airs Tuesday night), we learn more of the corruption that afflicted the Crescent City in terms of its school board (where one member even managed to sell off school pianos) that preceded the storm and the police department, which was so bad that many citizens feared the criminals less than the cops. (Some police even beat up a Good Samaritan in order to cover up one of their murders.) Progress seems to be being made on the police front, which hired a civilian attorney for the first time to head its integrity unit while there's much debate over an education expert brought it to start forming charter schools. Some swear by them, others view them as yet another scheme to keep the minority population down.
The second part proves to be especially even-handed as it explores many of these issues, especially the issue of former Mayor Ray Nagin. Some feel he got a raw deal, others think he is a joke. One interesting statistic: In his first election, he garnered 80% of the white vote, but only 24% of the black vote. When it came to re-election, many African Americans returned just to help him and the vote breakdown was reversed. As one black voter indicates, they saved Nagin's ass and then he did nothing to help the minority population, continuing to believe the private sector would save the city. Things seem destined to change with the Mitch Landrieu era and then he got hit with a new catastrophe: The Deepwater Horizon explosion that led to the BP oil spill and the worst environmental disaster in the history of the world.
If your anger has subsided, once he reaches the BP section of the film, your blood will start boiling again as the endless string of lies from the oil company is recounted along with previous BP malfeasance in Texas City and Alaska. One engineer tells how when the pictures of the plumes of flowing oil begin to show and BP claimed it was only 5,000 gallons of oil, even his 5-year-old son could recognize that it was more than 5,000 gallons of oil.
What's disturbed me all along is how BP was allowed to give orders to the Coast Guard and the FAA to keep the press away from seeing what really was going on. As one witness says, "Louisiana didn't land on BP, BP landed on Louisiana." It tells how BP used a dispersant that's banned in the United Kingdom, even though other dispersants were less toxic and more effective. BP's plan though was to sink the oil to where it can't be seen. As Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquesmines Parish in suburban New Orleans said, every day brought a new lie from BP and their attitude wa "out of sight, out of mind." Tracie L. Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute sees dispersant as a metaphor for how they try to solve all problems: charter school dispersant, affordable housing dispersant, private care dispersant and now oil dispersant. As the ER doctor who lived in Mississippi said, former BP CEO Tony Hayward who wanted his life back, "deserves a beatdown." Another witness says he'd jump on him like "stink on shit" while still another tells of how he was brought up to fear the Soviets and the communists, he never knew it would be the return of the British to fear. In one of the funniest moments, a man unveils a rant with an array of other things BP could stand for.
Historian Douglas Brinkley finds some fault with Obama's reaction to the crisis. "Once in a while, presidents need to get angry." This is certainly one of those cases as it threatens already vanishing wetlands, the economic livelihood of Gulf Coast residents, especially fishermen, who provide 40% of the nation's seafood. As current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others point out, the story would probably be different if this disaster had happened off the coast of Nantucket or The Hamptons. Nungasser illustrates what a piss-poor cleanup BP is doing as he shows what he and some friends were able to scoop up early one morning using boats and run-of-the-mill ShopVacs. More frightening are the unknowns of what could happen should another storm make its way to the region, sending the oil and dispersant not only into the air but also allowing it to contaminate the fresh water supply in the area. Lee has made a more than worthy followup to When the Levees Broke with If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise. Part One airs on HBO tonight 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT with Part Two airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT.
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