Sunday, October 31, 2010
From the Vault: Four Rooms
No matter how good the idea looks on paper, the odds seem greatly stacked against feature directors combining their talents on short films around a common location or theme. For every small masterpiece such as Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons" in New York Stories, you get four works such as the ones found in Four Rooms.
Four Rooms revolves around the misadventures of a bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth) on his first night on the job (and it's New Year's Eve no less) at the Hotel Mon Signor, a Hollywood landmark that once attracted the major stars of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.
Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) wrote and directed the first segment, "The Missing Ingredient," which doesn't start things out well since it's the weakest segment. Set in the hotel's honeymoon suite, Anders' effort concerns the gathering of a coven of witches (including Madonna, Lili Taylor and Valeria Golino) who try to summon a long dead virgin goddess. Unlike the goddess, this segment never comes to life.
Things improve slightly in the second short, "The Wrong Man," which tells what happens when Ted wanders into the wrong room and becomes embroiled in a domestic dispute between a married couple (David Proval, Jennifer Beals). While this segment written and directed by Alexander Rockwell doesn't succeed either, Proval provides some good moments and Rockwell does manage to build some suspense (even though we know Ted has to be OK since there are two more rooms to go).
Writer-director Robert Rodriguez contributes the most enjoyable section with "The Misbehavers" which features a great comic performance by Antonio Banderas who leaves his two rambunctious children in the poor bellhop's care while he and his wife hit the town. "The Misbehavers" contains the most chuckles of any part of the film and has been so well conceived that it makes the two previous shorts look even weaker.
The final segment, "The Man From Hollywood," offers the first writing-directing effort from Quentin Tarantino since his masterful Pulp Fiction. Taking its basic premise from the classic "Man From Rio" episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it works best when Tarantino's character (a successful Hollywood filmmaker) deconstructs himself to often funny effect.
Overall, Four Rooms mostly misfires. The sporadic laughs don't make the entire package strong enough to earn a recommendation the way "Life Lessons" and, to a lesser extent, Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" helped New York Stories overcome the burden of Francis Ford Coppola's horrid middle section.
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Saturday, October 30, 2010
From the Vault: Heat
Sometimes more is less, as in Heat, where more judicious cutting could have turned a good film into a great one.
Even though its length weighs down Heat, most of what's there rivets the viewer enough to make the point moot.
Michael Mann wrote and directed Heat, an epic cops-and-robbers story that places screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro within the same movie scenes for the first time.
Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, a workaholic L.A. detective on his third marriage who becomes consumed with tracking down a band of exceptional thieves. The crooks follow Neil McCauley (De Niro), a cool, professional loner who advises his partners never to make attachments they can't drop at a moment's notice if the police get too close.
As one might expect, Pacino and De Niro bring out the best in each other, especially in their main scene together where the adversaries share coffee and conversation in a diner. The verbal volleys make for mesmerizing acting tennis.
The rest of the cast excels as well, including Val Kilmer and Jon Voight as De Niro associates, Ashley Judd as Kilmer's wife and Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson as members of Pacino's team.
The story Heat tells proves so complex that it isn't easy to absorb it all in one viewing. It may sound unseemly to criticize the movie for ambition, but many scenes could have excised without losing any of the scope. For example, a plot strand involving a bad apple on De Niro's team widens to include the fact that the robber also serially kills prostitutes, a completely unnecessary development.
Many of the romantic elements, including Pacino's troubled marriage and his distraught stepdaughter, also add little to the movie. The focus should remain on the two professionals on the opposite sides of the law and their symbiotic relationship. Without each other, they have no purpose.
As in Mann's Last of the Mohicans, the technical credits are impeccable, with great sound and cinematography that contribute greatly to the film's success as in a conversation on a balcony overlooking the lights of Los Angeles.
Heat also finds itself blessed with one of the year's most subtle and best musical scores by Elliot Goldenthal, a pulsating piece that underscores the action without drowning out the movie itself. For fans of action melodrama, Heat is one of the best recent efforts in the genre, despite its flaws.
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Friday, October 29, 2010
Hitch a Ride
Winnebago Man is the sort of film that gets me exited. It's festival fare, it's an indie doc and it's about something I know a little something about, namely obscure viral clips that ooze their way through the Internet.
To be quite honest, I was unimpressed with the trailer for Winnebago Man. It made the film seem like a lame attempt at making money and fame on the back of "some guy." it felt like it would be nothing more than a one-trick premise drawn out to a feature length with little in the way of hooks, surprises or comedy. Instead, director Ben Steinbauer's film goes about about Jack's story in a much more fascinating way.
The film begins by deftly punching through what could have been a "niche piece" by introducing us to Jack Rebney's viral video in such a way as would explain the core of Winnebago Man to even the staunchest Luddite. We learn how viral videos happen, who they happen to, how they make people (in)famous and what happens when that fame is instead finger-pointing humiliation, with references to other famous viral vids such as the Star Wars Kid. From here director Ben Steinbauer follows the themes of humiliation and isolation to a degree that is a little too heavy-handed for drama's sake, but still manages to create an enjoyable mystery to surround our bitter RV salesman. The film soon becomes a quest to find and meet Jack Rebney. What makes him a man worthy of a documentary all to himself? Simply put, he's Internet-famous enough that an indie filmmaker got curious, turned on his camera and asked the question, "Who, where and how is Jack Rebney?"
The endeavour was a risky one, since the first meeting Ben has with "The Angriest Man In The World" is somewhat uneventful. We have a sense of accomplishment to our director's journey, but, as is often the case, the legend was mightier than the man. It seems that Jack Rebney, 20 years later, was nothing more than a secluded, content, mellow, happy guy. The tale gets deeper when Ben Steinbauer receives a call from Jack, who explains that he was on his best behaviour, and the admission that that serene man was but a façade. Jack Rebney is still mad as hell. He's humiliated, he cares nothing about the idiotic fame he's receiving, and he hates his imbecilic audience all the more for making him a meme, because seriously, what does that say about American society?
Aaaaand hook. Now, half-way through this 85 minute tale, we come to the ironic situation where Jack must decide if he wants to continue on this path of fame, or hiss his final public curses at the camera. This is where Ben Steinbauer takes his bias-free documentarian card, rips it up and jumps in. Rather than staying innocuously behind the camera, he dares become a part of the story himself and builds an on-screen bittersweet rapport with Jack that takes Winnebago Man and delivers the sort of human character study that make these types of docs great.
In following Jack Rebney in this character arc brought on by the news of his infamy, Winnebago Man is profound without being preachy, funny without being saccharine, and a first feature that director Ben Steinbauer can be proud of.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Thursday, October 28, 2010
No adult wants to surrender his autonomy
By Edward Copeland
That Evening Sun spent more time on the festival circuit than it did in actual release, but for a small film such as this, that's to be expected, despite another great late-inning performance from Hal Halbrook as an 80-year-old man who escapes his nursing home to return to his farm and reclaim it as his own even though he's discovered his son (Walton Goggins) has leased it to a down-on-their-luck family with plans to sell.
Based on William Gay's short story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, sickened that he's been confined to a nursing home by his successful lawyer son (Goggins), makes his way back to the Tennessee farm that still bears his name. He isn't pleased to find that living in his house is a man who he thinks been no good since he was a teen, Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), who now has a wife, Ludie (Carrie Preston), and a daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska).
While the women try to be kind to the unexpected arrival, telling him that his son gave them a three-month lease on the property, Choat is not as charitable and he and the old man start butting heads immediately. Choat feels Abner should leave ASAP, slightly difficult since the Choats haven't paid their phone bill and there's no way he could call someone even if he wanted to leave.
Abner takes up residence in the tenant house where Choat has dumped all Meecham's leftover possessions and the two keep verbally sparring, especially since Choat spends most of his time drunk and even abuses his wife and daughter at one point, leading Abner to walk to a neighbor (Barry Corbin) and have the police come and arrest him.
Written and directed by Scott Teems, That Evening Sun proves to be a pleasant enough slice of life but it's Holbrook who holds it together. No matter what the age of the adult, if he or she still has mental faculties, nothing proves more frustrating that having others try to make decisions for you such as where or how you should live, especially when you still have enough wits about you to know that you know better than they do.
Granted, Abner does need some practical aid getting along in life, but his son carries bitterness and is treating him like a price for past wrongs. I can relate to that very personally. Still, even though I can relate to Abner, that doesn't mean I think this is a great movie by any means, just a situation with parallels to my own, even though I'm half Abner's age.
Another aspect of the film that's quite touching is the wordless appearance in flashbacks of the late Dixie Carter, Holbrook's real-life wife, as Abner's late wife. It must make the film a particularly meaningful piece for Holbrook.
Co-stars Goggins and McKinnon also produced the film much as they did the Oscar-winning live-action short The Accountant in 2001 with Lisa Blount, though thanks to silly Oscar rules Goggins, so great on TV's The Shield, only got to go on stage while McKinnon and Blount are the only officially credited winners who received statuettes. (By pure coincidence, Blount, McKinnon's wife and also an actress best known for An Officer and a Gentleman, has been found dead at age 53.)
Though the budget on That Evening Sun must have been small, it does contain a very nice look by cinematographer Rodney Taylor and an evocative score by Michael Penn.
In the end though, the movie belongs to Holbrook. He's always been good, but it's pretty amazing the performances he's been giving in his twilight years, not only here, but in the episode "The Fleshy Party of the Thigh" from the first part of The Sopranos' final season and his Oscar-nominated role in Into the Wild.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
NY Theater Flashbacks: 95-96 Season
As I mentioned in the second installment of this series, while the previous installments covered years, the future ones would cover seasons as my obsession grew and I saw more shows. While my last installment wrapped up in the summer of 1995, this one picks up in October of the same year but in a few months, I'd move from Oklahoma to Florida, making travel to New York easier and more frequent. On the plus side, while what I'd seen in 1995 so far had been a disappointment, the rest of the season turned out to have some of the best productions I would ever see on Broadway, though some dogs remained as well. One unusual thing though: The further ahead in time I go, the harder I'm finding it to locate art or clips to go with my words.
As I wrote in my piece earlier this year marking the 40th anniversary of Stephen Sondheim's landmark show, as with many of his works, the score always proves stronger than the book.
Still, the talented cast of Roundabout Theatre's revival of the show (the first since its original production) gave it their all. Led by Boyd Gaines in the lead role of Bobby, the cast included Debra Monk, La Chanze, Jane Krakowski and, exciting for a Soap fanatic such as myself, Diana Canova — Corinne Tate Flotsky herself.
Veanne Cox got the assignment of doing the frenzied mouthful of "Getting Married Today" and earned a Tony nomination for it, one of the few the revival received. Even as much of a Sondheim worshipper as I am, I found that understandable. Something seemed stillborn about the show. For every great moment — as when La Chanze belted "Another Hundred People" — the musical seemed to stop in its tracks in the silly skits, even when songs surrounded them. Still, it's hard to call it a loss of an afternoon when you get well-sung renditions of "Being Alive," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "The Little Things You Do" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."
Much as Sondheim's score propped up the weak book beneath Company, the performances, particularly the powerhouse lead, saved Terrence's McNally's lackluster Master Class. Zoe Caldwell won a well-deserved fourth Tony for her starring role as Maria Callas in McNally's play which showed the grand dame of opera running roughshod over three students who had earned the chance to be taught by the great one, one of whom was played by an equally good Audra McDonald who picked up her second Tony on her way to four total (so far). Interspersed with the class sequences are Callas' recollections of various events and loves throughout her life which might play as nothing more than filler in the rather short play if they were placed in hands less capable than Caldwell's, but she makes them work and helped McNally win his 2nd consecutive Tony for best play following the previous season's Love! Valour! Compassion!, even though Master Class was far from the best in its category but we'll get to my choice later.
After enduring what had been done when Andrew Lloyd Webber musicalized one of my favorite films of all time, Sunset Blvd., I started to question whether it was a good idea to turn any movies into musicals since more times than not the results turn out badly. You would think though that taking Victor/Victoria to the stage, which was essentially a movie musical to begin with, with the same star, albeit 14 years older than when she originally played the part, and the film's director guiding the production, despite the fact he'd never directed a musical for the stage before, what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, pretty much everything. First of all, the film's composer, Henry Mancini, died early in the process, so the new songs needed to flesh out the show were composed by theatrical wunderhack Frank Wildhorn, a man I'm thoroughly convinced was invented for the sole purpose of improving Lloyd Webber's own reputation. The YouTube clip above of "Louie Says" is an example of one of Wildhorn's contributions with terrible reaches for rhymes by Leslie Bricusse to the show. I won't feel bad if you don't make it through the whole clip. On top of that, those 14 years did make a bit of a difference for Julie Andrews, who tried her best. The comic timing was terrible. As luck would have it during the show, a man came out of the side exit near my seat in the Marquis Theatre. It was Blake Edwards. It was all I could do to keep myself from getting out of my chair and taking Edwards aside and trying to advise him on some ways to improve the show. The cast tried their best but I didn't even get to see the performer who got the best reviews, Rachel York: She was out the day I went. It remains the worst musical I ever sat through on Broadway.
Now, a much better revival of a classic Sondheim, his first (staged on Broadway anyway) for which he composed both the music and the lyrics. Furthermore, it was a great comic farce with a book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove. Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, it has proved a Tony success for every actor who took on its lead role as the scheming slave Pseudolus, first for Zero Mostel in the original, then for Phil Silvers in a revival in the 1972 and this time out for Nathan Lane.
Directed by the old pro Jerry Zaks, it's a joy from start to finish with a cast of top-notch musical comedy talents such as Mark Linn-Baker, Mary Testa, Ernie Sabella, Lewis J. Stadlen, William Duell and Cris Groenedall. Unfortunately, the night I saw it, Stadlen, who received a Tony nomination as Senex, wss out but MacIntyre Dixon did a more than adequate job. When I was in grade school, we often visited my grandma during summer and would attend Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, an outdoor summer stock, and it was there that I first saw Forum and fell in love with it. Being a young autograph hound, I got autographs of the entire cast afterward which included Arte Johnson, Avery Schreiber, Hans Conried and John Carradine. Sadly, Johnson is the only one of the four who still is with us. One word of warning: The clip of "Comedy Tonight" above was filmed very poorly, but the infectious spirit of the song and the production remains.
As I mentioned when I marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kramer's film version of Inherit the Wind earlier this year, I'm just a sucker for this play in whatever form it takes. So, when Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre announced it would be staging a revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized take on the Scopes monkey trial with George C. Scott as Henry Drummond and Charles Durning as Matthew Brady, I was as good as there. Needless to say, I was not disappointed as its lines and messages got to me as they always do. If it had a problem, it was Scott. Not because his acting was weak: He was phenomenal. This was toward the end of his life and his ailing nature showed. In fact, he had to leave the play in the middle of one performance because he felt faint. As my dear and much missed friend Jennifer said at the time, Brady is supposed to be the one who seems to be in frail health.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this installment, I had great difficulty find photos of any of the productions from this season, but I did luck out on this one and by this one I realized for the first time that I had seen Garret Dillahunt on Broadway playing Bertram Cates. Dillahunt was fine, but he didn't make much of an impression on me, but it's funny how much of one he would make many years down the road in not just one but two roles on Deadwood and he now pops up quite frequently in movies such as No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road as well as on many TV series. He currently is a regular on the new TV comedy Raising Hope.
Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't hear me expressing relief that a new Sondheim show for which I held a ticket closed before I could see it, but boy am I glad that is what happened to Getting Away With Murder. You see Getting Away With Murder wasn't a Sondheim musical, it was a mystery play that went along with the composer's obsession with puzzles, along the lines of the 1973 screenplay he co-wrote with Anthony Perkins, The Last of Sheila. Anyway, having come all the way to New York with a ticket to a show now closed, I had to exchange and I made one of the greatest decisions of my life by choosing to cash it in for the revival of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance starring George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris and the incomparable Elaine Stritch. I got to see one of the best afternoons of Broadway theater I ever have. As much as I love Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this may have become my favorite Albee that day with its tale of would-be empty nesters facing suburban angst and a fuller nest than ever with an alcoholic sister, a grown daughter returning home after the breakup of a fourth marriage and a similarly married couple who just suddenly found themselves "scared." The entire cast was brilliant, with Grizzard winning a much deserved Tony. Harris and Stritch unfortunately not only had to compete against each other, they also had to contend with Zoe Caldwell in Master Class, so they couldn't make it to the podium. I didn't even mention the great work of the other three cast members: Mary Beth Hurt, Elizabeth Wilson and John Carter. The show won best revival of the play and its director, the late great Gerald Gutierrez, won director of a play for the second consecutive year after giving The Heiress new life the year before. If not for Angels in America, A Delicate Balance would be the best thing I ever saw on Broadway.
Here's one of the plays that was more deserving of the best play Tony than Master Class: Seven Guitars, another of the plays in August Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle which depicts the African-American experience in the U.S. in the 20th century in each decade. This play, set in 1948, takes its title from its seven characters, the six we see and the seventh whose funeral begins and ends the action of the play. Keith David starred as a blues guitarist who squandered an advance from a record label while juggling women and making his way to his mother's funeral.
The excellent cast received Tony nominations for four members of its six-member ensemble: Viola Davis, Michele Shay, Roger Robinson and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with Santiago-Hudson winning the prize. While Seven Guitars wasn't as solid as other works in Wilson's cycle such as The Piano Lesson and Fences, it still was quite good and provided a great mix of harrowing drama and boisterous comedy.
Its atmospheric scenic design by Scott Bradley also earned a nomination, though it lost to the colorful spectacle of The King and I since this was back in the days before there were separate technical categories for plays and musicals.
I love Shakespeare and while it's a pleasure to read The Bard's plays, I've found it's always much better to see his works performed, either on stage or film. Given that, you would think that no one would prove better at interpreting and staging Shakespeare's plays that a company such as The Royal Shakespeare Company. Then why on earth did their production of one of his most delightful works, A Midsummer Night's Dream, almost bore me to tears?
I seldom laughed as the natural comedy came off to me as the clumsiest of slapstick and many of the performers treated the language the way I hate: so carefully that it seemed as if they feared the iambic pentameter might break if they weren't careful. Looking back at my Playbill to see if any of the company included anyone I came to know better but the only name that leaped out at me was Lindsay Duncan who played Titania and Hippolyta here but would go on to give a wonderful turn as the vengeful Servilia on HBO's Rome.
Apparently, I wasn't alone in having lukewarm memories of this production. While, as I have mentioned, art of these various productions were difficult if not impossible to come by, I could usually guarantee I could find art of the corresponding Playbill. In the case of A Midsummer Night's Dream, even that could not be found. Thankfully, my wireless printer I was given a while back also scans and I used it for the first time to scan my own Playbill because that's the only way I could get art of it.
If Sunset Boulevard didn't make it a concrete decision and Victor/Victoria didn't cinch it as a rule, the musical version of Big made it a personal principle of mine not to go see a Broadway musical based on a movie. Now I know this means I would have missed, if I'd still been able to go to New York at the time, well-reviewed examples of movies-to-musicals such as The Producers, Billy Elliot, Hairspray and The Full Monty (another acclaimed musical, Grey Gardens, even came from a documentary), but look at some of what I would have avoided: Urban Cowboy, Footloose, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Fidelity, High Society, Saturday Night Fever, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, 9 to 5, Mary Poppins, Young Frankenstein, Shrek, The Addams Family (I know, based on the cartoons, not the TV show or movie. Uh-huh). Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sweet Smell of Success, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Color Purple, The Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby to name a few too many. I gave a break to a few others that got some passable reviews such as Legally Blonde, Xanadu and A Catered Affair. Before my obsession ended and my ability to go to New York went away I would still see a couple, with qualifications, but enough was becoming enough.
The saddest part about Big is that I saw it on its very first night of previews and I heard it improved slightly later but it was a sign of my mental illness that I went in the first place because I wasn't that crazy about the movie in the first place. I always thought Tom Hanks played the character as far too young for what age Josh was when he grew and the musical didn't fix that. Even worse, they took the sweet simplicity of the moment from the movie when the big Josh and his boss at the toy company played "Chopsticks" on the giant keyboards at F.A.O. Schwarz and transformed it into an overblown production number, sapping it of all its charm.
What luck did I have getting to see Rent when I did. First, I ordered my ticket the day before it received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a rare feat for a musical. Secondly, on the day I was to see it, flying in from Florida, I thought I had plenty of time. I'd get to New York, check into the hotel and get to the theater. Unfortunately, flight delays started to push it and when we got to New York, for some reason we were sitting on the tarmac, not allowed to get to the gate, for an interminable amount of time. The clock ticked. It got past 7 p.m. Finally, a flight attendant got on the intercom and asked the passengers to sit down and we could finally go to the gate. Some idiot businessman was still rifling through his overhead. I shouted, "Sit the hell down! We have places to be." Thankfully, I only had a carryon. I grabbed the first cab I could and told the driver I would make it worth his while if he got me to the Nederlander Theatre before 8 p.m. I love N.Y. cabbies: I got there at 7:45 p.m. I had to sit through the show with my carryon bag at my feet, but the show, which also happened to have recently received all its Tony nominations, was well worth it. Quite simply, I was enthralled. It's still the best new musical I saw on Broadway and the only one I paid to see twice. It still was as great the second time. I did see a few problems: I knew it would be almost immediately dated, but it was a show I couldn't stop talking about, wanting to spread the word and share it to everyone I knew. Of course, it became a phenomenon and I can always say I saw it with the original cast. It was magical. It also played to my age at the time: It seemed to speak to it and my generation. Who knows? While I still love the music, today as I become an old fogey, I might relate more to Benny the landlord than the squatters. For the record, I never saw the movie version and I never will because it was obvious how they were ruining it. Usually I support using the original cast members, but they were all more than a decade too old for their parts by then. Having Chris Columbus direct? Ugh. Again, with the clip above, the filming isn't the best, but the song, "What You Own," one of my favorites, still comes through fairly well.
The above clip is not from the actual revival of The King and I that starred Lou Diamond Phillips and won Donna Murphy her second Tony but of a brief rendition of "Shall We Dance?" the pair performed on the 1996 Tony Awards broadcast. I thought I'd begin with it because the thing I took away most prominently from seeing this show which I'd never noticed before but which I wanted everyone to listen to is how closely the refrain of "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast resembles "Shall We Dance?" Now, I don't want to accuse Alan Menken of plagiarism, but let your ears decide. As for the production of The King and I itself, it was fine. Murphy was great and Phillips put any skepticism I might have had about his casting to rest. It was a gorgeous production. It also finally made clear to me the lyric about "Eliza on the ice" in "Getting Married Today" in Company. It's a reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I bet Sondheim would have never referenced it if they didn't enact the scene in The King and I by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II first.
May 22, 1996 marks the date of the best night in terms of entertainment I ever had in Manhattan. On my way to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to see the Broadway premiere (even though it was really a New York revival) of the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, I passed The Supper Club and noticed that at the same time, Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve would be performing. I went on in and saw Buried Child, which was absolutely superb. Directed by Gary Sinise, it starred Terry Kinney, Jim True (of Wire fame, before he added the Frost to his last name), and, in their Tony-nominated roles, the great Lois Smith and the late James Gammon. Darkly funny and just as disturbing, Shepard's play remained riveting. Thanks to the ever-changing Tony rules, since it had never played Broadway before, it was eligible and was nominated for best play. It would have been my choice. Both it and Seven Guitars were leaps and bounds better than Master Class. I did not see the fourth nominee, David Hare's Racing Demon. Floating on air after such a stupendous night of theater, I exited the Brooks Atkinson and began the walk back toward my hotel. There were still lines outside The Supper Club. It seems Costello and Nieve were giving two performances that night and someone was selling tickets outside the club: at the ticket price no less. I bought one immediately and went straight from Buried Child to Elvis Costello, who gave a great performance, including many songs off his most recent album at the time that I still adore, All This Useless Beauty such as "The Other End of the Telescope": Shall we agree that just this once/I'm gonna change my life/Until it's just as tiny or important as you like?/And in time we won't even recall that we spoke/Words that turned out to be as big as smoke/As smoke that disappears in the air/There's always something that's smoldering somewhere/I know it don't make a difference to you/But oh! It sure made a difference to me/You'll see me off in the distance, I hope/At the other end/At the other end of the telescope. The next morning, I boarded a plane and went back to Florida after my greatest two-day N.Y. jaunt ever: Rent, The King and I, Buried Child and Elvis Costello — all in two days time. Those were the days.
Labels: Albee, Blake Edwards, Deadwood, Durning, Gelbart, George C. Scott, Hammerstein, Hanks, J. Carradine, Julie Andrews, Phil Silvers, Shakespeare, Shepard, Sondheim, The Wire, Tony Randall, Viola Davis
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Arthur Penn: Target
By Edward Copeland
Finally, after having to get discs from two far-flung Netflix shipping facilities, one DVD which turned out to be defective, I've finally been able to see Arthur Penn's Target and complete my journey through his feature films. I'm fairly certain, except for directors who only made one film, this makes Penn the only director with totals in the double digits that I've seen each of their feature films. I think I just lack one Kubrick and one Scorsese, but they are only others who come close. Anyway, that's beside the point. Let's talk about 1985's Target.
Much like Dead of Winter which Penn would make two years later, Target serves more as a pure genre piece than Penn usually made, though this time it's the action thriller. Also like Dead of Winter, it's fairly enjoyable as long as you don't think too hard about the plot. It also marks the third and final time that Penn and Gene Hackman worked together.
Walter Lloyd (Hackman) works at a lumberyard in Texas with his devoted wife Donna (Gayle Hunnicutt) and his estranged son Chris (Matt Dillon). Donna is preparing to go on a tourism package visit to Paris and she asks her men to try to bridge their gaps while she's gone. They will, but in a totally unexpected way. Soon after she's gone, Walter gets a call informing him that Donna has disappeared from the tour group.
We don't start getting the full story until the Lloyd men get to Paris and a man approaches Walter with proof he has his wife but Walter quickly spots a man about to open fire on him and moves the kidnapper in front of him, steals his ID and tells bystanders to get a doctor, the man's had a heart attack. You see, Walter isn't your average lumberyard worker: He's a retired CIA agent and Donna has been kidnapped for some reason by someone who wants to see him which may or may not be related to the people who keep trying to kill him.
Of course, he slowly has to let his son in on the truth of his past life, including the fact that Chris Lloyd is not his real name (He should know that's the actor on Taxi, but surely I jest). Basically, the rest of the film turns into one long combination of a mystery and a chase and Penn moves it along at a brisk pace even if it's pretty obvious early on who the bad guy is if the reason behind the whole affair remains murky.
One thing that is disappointing, and this may be due to the DVD transfer, is that it seems to have come from a very faded, bad print so that the color scheme bears a startling resemblance to old 1970s television series. Given the difficulties I had obtaining a copy of the movie in the first place, I suspect that this is probably the story and it didn't really look this bad in its original 1985 release.
In a way though, it's kind of sad. Though Target turned out fine as did Dead of Winter, Penn was trying so many exciting things when he really launched his film directing career with abandoned in the 1960s, that I feel viewers were robbed of other unmade masterpieces. Perhaps too many disappointments or too much meddling by others led Penn to prefer the theater or like many, he just couldn't get projects off the ground. Whatever the story, it seems as if there should be a longer list of Arthur Penn features than there are.
So, now I have finally completed my Arthur Penn journey. Though I have seen a lot of his films that I hadn't seen before, I still ended up holding the same films of his as my favorites as I did before I became a completist. Ranking the top 4, I'd go in this order: Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Alice's Restaurant and Four Friends.
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Monday, October 25, 2010
Boardwalk Empire No. 6: Family Limitation
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along. Hopefully, next week's recap will be timely, but HBO is cutting it close with sending out the next batch of screeners and I have two doctor's appointments this week, one of which sometimes leads to infection, and the usual M.S. fatigue issues to deal with, so it will be a struggle to watch the Oct. 31 episode and write the recap and have it ready to post as I have the others which I got far in advance of the series' premiere.
By Edward Copeland
With "Family Limitation," we've reached the sixth episode of Boardwalk Empire's premiere season, precisely the halfway point. Additionaly, director Tim Van Patten has taken the job behind the camera for the third time in the show's short history and he's produced what may be the most memorable opening sequences since Martin Scorsese's pilot and his own second episode depiction of Big Jim Colisomo's Chicago funeral. A crane shot on high gives the viewer a wide view of the series' incredible Boardwalk set before moving downward and closing in on a corner where the Cafe Beaux Arts stands. Ward Boss O'Neill exits the establishment and crosses off a name in a long list of names in a notebook while adding a substantial amount of cash to an already bulging pile. As he stands there, one of the D'Alessio brothers, I believe Pius (I have as hard a time keeping them straight as Mickey Doyle does) addresses him as fatchops and asks if he has the time. O'Neill asks him what he says and Pius says something else disparaging and spits in the alderman's face before taking off running. Despite the ward boss's age and girth, he chases the young man at a good pace, captured n slow motion offering even more of a view of the fabulous set until he reaches a section the separates the Boardwalk from another part of Atlantic City and another D'Alessio brother appears and knocks O'Neill down with a blow to the head and takes his collections. You almost want to rerun the sequence again on slow play, just so you can examine the details on that fabulous set and admire Van Patten's setup once again.
Lucy Danziger may not be the apolitical Christine O'Donnell of 1920, but she has good instincts and she's been smelling Nucky's attraction to Margaret Schroeder probably long before he did. So, during one of their usual raucous romps in bed, Lucy literally assumes the role of jungle cat and marks her territory: scratching Nucky's chest so violently that she draws blood. She wants to make damn sure the other woman remember there's someone else and that she hold proprietary interest.
If Boardwalk Empire has a theme, in the way that David Chase said The Sopranos' point was to show that people don't change, then Boardwalk Empire seems to be week after week showing that there is more to people than meets than eye or, to use another cliche, don't judge a book by its cover. All of its characters seem criss-crossed by contradictions, none more than Margaret as we've discovered in the last few episodes. Margaret though hardly is the only case of someone who defies appearances. Last week, we saw Mrs. McGarry, the temperance crusader, excuse the drinking of those in Nucky Thompson's class, and she surprises us again when Margaret visits her for advice. Margaret tells her that a man has made her an offer. Mrs. McGarry asks if it is of a financial or sexual nature and Margaret responds yes. McGarry says there are words for that kind of woman, none of them flattering, leading you to expect what she will say, but the she turns (and does so wonderfully in the hands of the great Dana Ivey). Margaret tells her it will help provide for her children. Mrs. McGarry tells Margaret that the reason she lives in Atlantic City is that a man from Standard Oil paid her husband a large sum of money for oil on their Pennsylvania property. Her husband took the money and built a large, oceanfront mansion in AC. Six weeks later, he was dead of influenza and she sold the estate, moved into a smaller home and uses the money for causes she's passionate about, such as women's suffrage, which is just one state away from ratification. "The ballot box will free us," she says. Mrs. McGarry then recommends that she read a book she has and hands her Family Limitation by Margaret Sanger, dealing with birth control methods of that time. "Do as you see fit," Mrs. McGarry tells Margaret. "You owe no one an explanation."
Nucky and Lucy aren't the only couple in Atlantic City having a vigorous round in the sack. Lucky Luciano and Gillian are giving a bed quite a workout. As they take a break, Luciano expresses his gratitude to Gillian, telling her that no woman has been able to give him as much pleasure as she has in quite some time. Gillian thinks he's just trying to flatter her and brushes off his compliment but Luciano tells her he's serious. He confesses that a couple of years ago he had an "affliction" down there and ever since, he's had a difficult time getting any woman to hold his "wood." Given the evidence she's been experiencing, Gillian still finds his words doubtful. Honestly, Lucky insists, she's the first woman to keep the lead in his pencil in a long time. Their reverie is interrupted by the phone. Luciano answers to find Rothstein on the other end. Luciano wants to know how he knew where to find him. "I have a crystal ball Charlie, I see everything," Rothstein tells him. "For example, I see you aren't wearing any trousers." Lucky laughs and asks if he can call him back later. Rothstein wants to know what the progress is on the James Darmody situation. Luciano tells him he can't really discuss that at the moment. He's with his wife right now. "No you're not Charlie," Rothstein tells him. "You're with his mother." Luciano's jaw drops as Rothstein ends the call.
O'Neill, sporting a helluva shiner, is discussing his mugging with Nucky and Eli in Nucky's office. They agree it has to have been someone who knew his routine. O'Neill mentions that the kid had a "dago" look to him. Eli chimes in that the Italians don't respect the rules. O'Neill is steaming to get some guys and take care of the thugs himself, but Nucky insists that he let Eli handle it and tells him to go put a steak on the eye and dismisses him. Once he's gone, Nucky laments to Eli that he can't believe this could happen on the Boardwalk, just a few steps from his own office. He then asks if Luciano still is hanging around. Eli doesn't know who he is talking about. "Rothstein's greaseball. Have you seen him?" "He comes and goes," Eli responds. "I've had other fish to fry." Nucky suspects that Luciano either was behind it or knows who was and tells Eli to bring Lucky to him. Then there is a weak knocking at the door that Nucky can barely hear. Finally he says come in and Eddie enters. He chides him for not knocking like a man, but Eddie says he didn't want to disturb him. He brings a message from Jersey City Mayor Hague. Hague says he's been waiting at a hotel for a meeting for three nights and if he doesn't see Nucky tonight, he's leaving and Nucky should be reminded that, "There are many roads to Rome but there will only be one through New Jersey." Nucky tells Eddie to set up a dinner with Hague for that night.
Jimmy's showing off for a crowd in the club at Torrio's place with a large knife playing what I've always known as mumblypeg where he stabs the knife into the table between each gap of his fingers of one hand at ever-increasing speeds. When Capone sees what he's doing, he expresses concern for an accident. "Didn't you ever play five-finger fillet over there?" Jimmy asks. "No, we were too busy winning the war." Al tells him that Torrio is coming. Johnny joins them, complaining about a cracked molar. He tells the two that he's going to sit down with Sheridan and get out of Greektown. Capone gets livid. Torrio says he wants to get him into a war, but he doesn't need the money or the aggravation and tells Al to go clean the car. He then turns to Jimmy, and asks him if he's smart at all. Jimmy says he understands him not wanting a war, but if he retreats, what kind of message does that send?
Supervisor Elliott pays a surprise visit to Agent Van Alden's makeshift offices at the Post Office. Van Alden apologizes for the disarray of the office, saying he'd have tidied up if he'd known he was coming. That would defeat the purpose of a surprise inspection, wouldn't it? Elliott tells his underling before asking him what he has for him. Van Alden mentions the report on Nucky Thompson he was preparing to send. One of Elliott's men jokingly comments that it looks as if they have plenty of stamps for it. He says he's linked Thompson to much of the illegal alcohol business, but Elliott wants numbers. Elliott needs bottles brokens by the thousands, seized stills and boats. Van Alden mentions capital crimes. Elliott asks what capital crimes and Van Alden brings up the five murders in the woods and the death of Hans Schroeder. "What is your obsession with this Schroeder?" Elliott demands to know, mentioning that Van Alden had requested the immigration file on Mrs. Schroeder. "I'm just being thorough sir." Elliott hands the file back to the agent. "I need numbers, stills. You are a Prohibition agent, not Bulldog Drummond."
As Nucky and Margaret lounge in bed after an early afternoon encounter, Nucky takes her to task for trying to sound "American." He wants an "Irish lass," Margaret suggests. "Perhaps I do," he replies. Margaret wonders what her neighbors are going to think and Nucky tells her they won't be her neighbors much longer. She notices the marks left by Lucy on his chest and ask how he got those. Thompson claims they were from a hunting accident. "Who was hunting whom?" she asks. She then leaps out of bed at a speed that makes Nucky question where she was going, but she says she'd be back. Margaret heads to her bathroom and takes the copy of Family Limitation off the shelf and turns to the page showing how the disinfectant Lysol when mixed with water could be used as a post-coital contraceptive. Who knew? Life in the Roaring Twenties.
Jimmy accepts an invitation for dinner at the Capone household and the cramped apartment seems even more claustrophobic with the family tension between Al's Italian-speaking mother, his Irish wife and his sadly quiet boy who sits in the middle of the kitchen floor playing with a toy as his father routinely calls him a dumbbell. Al's wife Mae (Marcella Lentz-Pope) expresses sympathy to Jimmy over Pearl's death, saying how awful it is that she was run down by a streetcar like that. Capone says that he's gonna talk to that streetcar driver to be more careful and gives Jimmy a wink and a smile. He asks his mom to make some coffee and she says in Italian, referring to Mae, that she supposes that stupid cow doesn't have arms. "I may not speak Italian, but I know what stupido means," Mae says. Al asks Jimmy how many sausage links he wants. Jimmy asks for one; Capone says he'll give him three. Mae says he's a grown man, he knows what he wants. Al pushes his son with his foot, startling him and tells him it's time to eat before Mae picks him up and puts him in his chair. Jimmy says he has a kid about his age. Mae asks if he looks like him but Jimmy says no, he has dark eyes like his mother, but he definitely has a mind of his own. Al says, "I bet he answers when you call him" and then demonstrates and repeats his assertion that he's a dumbbell. Capone's mom trips over the toy, causing a huge noise and a mess and Al and Mae get up to check on her and clean. Jimmy notes that the boy doesn't notice a thing. He starts snapping his fingers next to the boy's ear and gets no response. Al notices what he's doing.
At Madame Jeunet's shop, Lucy pays a visit under the pretense of shopping, but much as her fingernails did to Nucky's chest, she's there to face Margaret and further mark her territory. She describes in great detail the type of sheer undergarment she's looking for to Madame Jeunet and then says she wants to see how it looks — pointing an accusatory finger at Margaret. Reluctantly, Margaret, Lucy and the underwear disappear to the dressing room where Margaret slowly disrobes. Lucy asks Margaret if she wears a bra. Margaret says she has tried them, but finds them uncomfortable. Lucy advises she try again. She says Margaret is saggy and you can tell she's had children. "You look like the kitchen help," Lucy spits. "A quickie bent over the table." "He doesn't seem to mind," Margaret shoots back. Lucy finally gets around directly to Nucky, telling her that the thing you have to realize about him is that he was raised a good Catholic boy and every once in a while, he becomes convinced that he is going to go to Hell. However, Lucy continues, all I have to do is this — as Lucy spreads her legs and shows her private parts — and he's "not so Catholic anymore." Margaret proceeds to tell her a tale about when she was a girl in Ireland as she puts her dress back on. "When I was a girl in Ireland, a raggedy man would come around every spring with a little Bantam rooster. He'd trained it to peck out 'The Mountains of Mourne' on a toy piano hung off his chest. Well, the first year he came, we, all of us, the girls in that place, we thought it magical. The second year, we laughed behind our hands at the odd man and his tatters, and the third year we didn't even go, because 'The Mountains of Mourne' was all that little rooster could ever do," Margaret tells an increasingly bored Lucy who asks if her story has a point. Margaret says it does: "Maybe your cunny isn't quite the draw you think it is." Margaret then storms out of the dressing room, curtly telling a confused Madame Jeunet that she quits as she leaves the store. The next thing we see, Margaret and her children are being helped out of Nucky's Rolls by Eddie as they move into their new three-bedroom home, where each child has their own room, there is a master bedroom, a fully-stocked kitchen and a telephone so Nucky can call. Margaret asks Eddie if Nucky treats him well. He answers in the affirmative, that Mr. Thompson is a very nice man.
Eli hauls Luciano into Nucky's office and gets grilled about stealing in Nucky's city. Luciano denies any knowledge of what he's talking about. He tries to get cute and Nucky purposely provokes him but before Luciano can leap over the desk and strangle Thompson, Eli has his nightstick around Lucky's throat. After a few brief moments of struggle, Luciano relaxes. He again stands by his story that he had nothing to do with the mugging. He's been too busy with a woman, he grins. Nucky says that if he's referring to Gillian Darmody, that is her business, but that Luciano should be warned that in his relations with her, he should treat her with the utmost regard. The meeting gets loudly interrupted by the sound of vigorous hammering on the door. Eddie comes in and Nucky asks what the hell he was doing. Eddie says that he told him he need to knock more manly. "You don't have to take the door off its hinges," an impatient Nucky says, wanting to know why Eddie is there. Eddie relays the news that Mrs. Schroeder is quite pleased with her new accommodations. Nucky dismisses him and then returns his attention to Luciano to make sure he understands how things work in Atlantic City. Luciano says he does, straightens his jacket and leaves.
Aside from his dinner out, Jimmy has been keeping to himself mostly since Pearl's suicide. He's sitting at a desk sending some cash back to Angela when one of the other girls drops by, trying to get him to join the party. Jimmy says maybe later. The girl does say Pearl left something in her room and returns his copy of Sinclair Lewis' Free Air.
Supervisor Elliott's talk about Van Alden's obsession with the Schroeders must have fallen on deaf ears because Van Alden returns to Margaret's old house but gets no answer when he knocks on the door. The agent can't see anything either when he tries peering in the windows. Margaret's former neighbor and baby sitter Edith, even bitchier than we've ever seen her before, steps out on her porch with a cigarette and tells the agent that she's gone. He asks if she knows where. She says she's probably off somewhere drinking champagne, given the hours she keeps and as much as Edith had to look after her brats. Edith also adds that the late Hans was a "saint" who always brought day-old baked goods to her. She asks if Margaret has done something wrong. Van Alden stays mostly quiet, just listening and asking. Edith tells him that all she knows is that a little while ago a blue limousine came and picked up her, her kids and all their stuff and drove them away. The agent inquires as to whether the limo happened to be a Rolls-Royce and Edith confirms that it was. He asks if there is anything else she can add. "Yes. She's a whore."
Torrio, accompanied by Capone and Jimmy, venture into Sheridan's territory to discuss the Greektown situation. As soon as the three walk in the door, Sheridan's men search them. Al gets his feather ruffled, complaining that that wasn't part of the deal. Sheridan says he wasn't the one who asked for the meeting and if he wanted to kill them, they would have been dead before they walked in the door and in case they are concerned, Sheridan is packing. Torrio succeeds in keeping Capone on his leash and the three men go to leave their coats with the pretty blonde hatcheck girl. Sheridan says to tip her good. Jimmy leaves a gratuity and thanks her politely. She genuinely smiles and the men adjourn to an adjoining room with tables and a bar. In the room, Sheridan makes a wisecrack about the violence, but then agrees to give Torrio a three-block section of Greektown. He also apologizes about Pearl. Jimmy, who seems to be in a world of his own, says that she was only 18. "What we gonna get sentimental now?" Sheridan says. Torrio tries to keep everything on an even keel and Sheridan apologizes for Pearl, though Jimmy thinks Liam, the man who sliced her, should apologize as well. Sheridan says he just told Liam to pick out a whore to make a point. It wasn't personal. Torrio says that everyone should agree that things got out of hand on both sides and they should just have a drink to settle things. Then one of Sheridan's men spots Jimmy's knife sticking out of his boot and the guns come out. "I thought you searched him!" Sheridan shouts. Jimmy apologizes, claiming he forgot he had it on him. Sheridan puts it to his throat. "Maybe I'll leave a mark and next time you won't forget." The handle intrigues him and he asks what it's for. Jimmy explains it's called a bonecrusher and it's for cracking walnuts. Everything settles down again and the meeting ends. As the men descend the stairs, Torrio mentions that he has to go to the head. Sheridan goes to get his coat. He asks what happened to the hatcheck girl, who has been replaced by a brunette. She says she's on a coffee break. Capone gets his coat, then Jimmy. Jimmy winks at the girl, pulls out his piece and opens fire. Al whisks out a shotgun and joins in the bloodbath. Torrio reappears and tells them to finish up. Jimmy goes up to a wounded Sheridan and tells him, "I guess you agree Greektown is ours now" before blowing his head off at point blank range and retrieving his knife. The three men hop into Torrio's car and get away.
Nucky and Margaret have their first tete-a-tete in her new house. The ringing of the phone startles her. She says she doesn't know if she'll ever get used to that. Nucky asks Margaret if she'd like to go see Hardeen with him. He's Houdini's brother, but he's just as good, Nucky insists, and show people can be fun. Margaret asks if he does tricks like his brother. Nucky says watch how he escapes from the dinner check.
In Chicago, Torrio's gang throw a private party celebrating their victory and Johnny compliments Jimmy's strategy saying that this "mick may be worth keeping around." Capone obviously doesn't enjoy someone else being Torrio's golden boy, even for a day, so he starts ribbing him about the morning wakeup call the other day as well as his service and injury in the war. It doesn't seem to bother Jimmy, but Al certainly is someone who can dish it out but can't take it. Jimmy teases him about his "hand-to-hand combat with the Kaiser" and being part of the Lost Squadron. "They were so lost, they thought Brooklyn was in France." The room laughs. Al does not. Still, Jimmy wonders if Capone should be someone to fear so it's not unreasonable when he's in his room later and hears two knocks on the door with no reply when he asks who it is to answer the door slowly with gun drawn. When it is indeed Al, Jimmy demands that he show what he has in both hands. Capone resists, asking if they aren't friends. Jimmy responds that they are accomplices. Finally, Al shows that his hands are bearing steaks wrapped in salt. Jimmy lowers the gun and lets Capone in. Capone, after explaining the best way to care for and cook the meat, tells Jimmy that it wasn't right the way he treated him in front of the guys. It made him look bad. As he's preparing to leave, he softens a bit and admits his son's deafness, telling about how he plays the mandolin and sings, but the boy can't hear. He'll place his little fingers on his throat and he can feel it, but he doesn't understand. Jimmy tells Al to take him to a doctor but Capone says it is in the blood and there's nothing that can be done. Jimmy says new things get discovered every day and he just has to keep hoping and trying. The entire episode really gives Stephen Graham his best showcase yet and presents the most well-rounded portrait of Al Capone.
Mayor Hague finally gets his dinner with Nucky, who asks him how much of a headache the Democrat is going to give him over the road money. Hague just smiles and continues to enjoy the meal. He asks what they are doing later. Nucky, knowing he's planning to take Margaret to Hardeen, asks if Hague wants to see Hardeen with him and his lady. Hague doesn't want to be a third wheel. "I can find you a girl," Nucky promises. "Only one?" Hague asks. At Margaret's, where a woman already has arrived to watch the children, Margaret receives a phone call from Eddie. She asks if she had the time wrong but learns that business came up and Nucky has to cancel. Apparently, Hague wasn't joking about just one woman. We later see him, sandwiched between two women. There's also a naked woman singing and playing the ukelele. Another woman kneels at Nucky's feet, about to please the Atlantic City powerbroker. As if he'd been eavesdropping on what Lucy told Margaret earlier at the shop, Nucky tells the girl, "I try to be good." When the sexplay has subsided and Hague and Nucky sit alone drinking, Hague tells Nucky he'd be wise not to put all his money on Senator Edge because he's a secret partner in a bathing company based in Jersey City. Thompson asks why Hague is telling him this. Hague says it's because guys like Edge come and go, bosses like him and Nucky, they are here to stay. Margaret, depressed that her evening has been called off, gets a surprise visit from a neighbor named Annabelle (Megan Reinking) and her daughter. She saw she had a sitter and her man had a last-minute opening, so she was wondering if she could leave her kid as well. All the "concubines," as she refers to the mistresses, stick together and help each other out. She asks if this is the three bedroom. Margaret confirms it. "Some fella must be sweet on you." Margaret isn't very talkative. The last time we see her. She's sitting in a mostly dark living room, just staring.
As Boardwalk Empire has developed, it's become clearer and clearer that Agent Nelson Van Alden does not fit the mold of your standard, straight-arrow lawman. He's no Eliot Ness and Michael Shannon's performance has been layered wonderfully, only letting the viewer see a little more of the inner Van Alden a little at a time. In the pilot, he appeared to be merely a pious Prohibition officer, telling Jimmy Darmody that it's "a godly pursuit" when he tries to recruit him as a federal officer. In the second episode, "The Ivory Tower," when he meets with Nucky, he echoes the Atlantic City powerbroker when he says that he supposes he marches "to the beat of a different drummer himself." After that, we saw him kidnap a dying man and when the man insulted him in Yiddish, shove his hand into his gutshot belly to get the answers he want. With the past two episodes, through his actions and his boss's own words, we're starting to see he might have as an unidentifiable an obsession with Margaret Schroeder as Nucky did before Nucky actually started sleeping with her. At the end of this episode, we see the equivalent of a married, tortured Catholic masturbating to his image of the once virgin(?) Margaret. At his apartment, Van Alden examines Margaret's immigration file, the one Supervisor Elliott wanted to know why he even needed. As he does it, he cracks his knuckles even louder than Eddie hammered on Nucky's office door the last time. The agent becomes fascinated with a photo of Margaret when she was 16. Van Alden turns the photo of his own wife face down, takes off his shirt and moves over to his bed where he methodicaly lays down a towel, removes a belt from a suitcase and turns it into a lash, places the photo of young Margaret where he can see it and proceeds to self-flagellate. Given the look of the marks on his back, this is not a new procedure for Van Alden. The guttural sounds Shannon emits almost echo like gunfire.
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Sunday, October 24, 2010
From the Vault: Higher Learning
In big red letters, the word "unlearn" appears at the end of Higher Learning. It's ironic given that a movie whose message in thinking for one's self has spent more than two hours making broad, predictable opinions. Despite its lack of subtlety, writer-director John Singleton's third feature is an ambitious film with engaging performances that still manages to hold the viewer's interest in spite of its shortcomings.
The speechifying, the main drawback to Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, infects this film at an even higher rate as it attempts to portray the disparate elements of college life in the age of political correctness.
Higher Learning builds its American microcosm on campus through three freshmen at Columbus University: Malik (Omar Epps), an up-and-coming track star; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a naive girl from Orange County; and Remy (Michael Rapaport, a lonely son-of-a-survivalist who falls in with the local hatemongers.
The elements firmly in place for a provocative look at college life, Singleton instead becomes so intent on making each character a symbol that he neglects to make them human beings. Swanson provides sweet, likable charm as Kristen, even when her story gets lost in the film's third act, and Epps does fine as the easily influenced Malik.
The film's best performance belongs to the great Laurence Fishburne, who plays a West Indian professor who believes in the antiquated notion that a person should be judged on his or her merits. Even though Fishburne's character, much like his one in Boyz, serves more as a philosophical platform than a flesh-and-blood person, his character here seems more well-rounded and rises above the messages he has to deliver.
The underwritten script ill-serves Rapaport, presenting Remy as over the top from the get-go and leaving him nowhere to go except over the edge. Similarly, one of his idiot skinhead mentors (Cole Hauser), with his bald pate and mannered style, seems as if he's parodying Brando in Apocalypse Now. It proves an inappropriate laugh-inducer in what should be terrifying scenes.
As a director, Singleton, unfortunately, grows less interesting with each new film. He does best here ratcheting up tensions, even predictable ones. His biggest problem stems from the need to underline every point, preventing him from being a more economical filmmaker. In one early scene, the white Kristen unconsciously grabs her purse tighter while riding in an elevator with Malik. Singleton undermines what could be a memorable scene with a clumsy setup and extended moments that steal it of its power. He compounds the error later, when he makes a point of emphasizing the earlier scene's importance as if the viewer already had forgotten.
Stanley Clarke's intrusive score, which sounds like Bernard Herrmann having a really bad day, smothers much of the film and overemphasizes almost every point. Singleton does score with one well-done vignette following the aftermath of a rape that plays on the audience's hope and expectations about what will happen. It shows a brilliance and promise missing from the rest of the film.
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Saturday, October 23, 2010
From the Vault: Jefferson in Paris
All great artists slip from time to time and the Merchant Ivory team proves to be no exception with Jefferson in Paris, a plodding and structureless mess about the U.S. founding father's ambassadorship to pre-revolutionary France.
Though meticulously researched, Jefferson in Paris operates under the assumption that the widely told tale of the widowed Jefferson's affair with a young slave he owned is true and that the union with Sally Hemings produced several children.
A typical and ultimately fruitless framing device sets up this assertion, opening in the late 1800s with a man claiming to be a descendant of Jefferson and Hemings (James Earl Jones) telling his story to a reporter. The film never makes it clear how Jones' character should know about the lengthy first section of the film which details Jefferson's flirtatious attraction with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the Italian-English wife of noted painter Richard Cosway.
The film itself is so cold and dry that it hardly makes anything clear. It's amazing that the talented cast, including Jones, Scacchi and Nick Nolte as Jefferson, escape unscathed, let alone do impressive work.
The film's most welcome presence comes from Thandie Newton, star of the 1991 Australian sleeper Flirting. She infuses Sally with an energy and style that keeps her from becoming a caricature of a slave. Once she arrives late in the film, its as if the entire production has been given a jolt with a defibrillator.
The debate over the assumptions Jefferson in Paris makes are best left to the historians. Besides, facts didn't stop Oliver Stone from making JFK entertaining.
In the case of Jefferson in Paris, the story doesn't tantalize, it wanders and bores. Aside from occasional bursts of solid acting or nice sights, this lethargic film even manages to make the French Revolution seem rather routine.
As with previous Merchant Ivory efforts, the film offers immaculate technical credits and exquisite costumes. Unfortunately, the excellent work behind the camera hardly makes Jefferson in Paris more a movie or less a postcard.
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From the Vault: Thandie Newton
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 16, 1995
It's been a short trip for Thandie Newton from the small Australian film Flirting to the Hollywood mainstream in films such as Interview With the Vampire and, now, to a major role in the Merchant Ivory production Jefferson in Paris. However, her budding career still won't help with the college finals she faces in June at Cambridge University in England.
Newton, 22, the daughter of a Zimbabwean nurse and an English medical technician, lived in Zambia until she was 5 and now lives in England, where she is set to graduate from Cambridge with a degree in anthropology in June.
Newton found the dialect necessary for her role rather easy to slip into. She plays Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, the subject of great dispute among historians who debate whether or not she had an affair with the future president that resulted in several children. The film takes the point of view that it definitely happened.
"For some reason, I found (the accent) very easy to slip into a Southern American accent. Of course, the Southern American accent is slightly different from the black Southern American accent, so for me it was more of a question of me getting the African element more richly incorporated into the accent."
Newton managed to capture Sally's voice, thanks to what she was reading at the time she won the role.
"At the time, I was reading a lot of Toni Morrison novels and her characters' dialogue tends to be in dialect. Finally, just reading those pieces aloud, I found I was able to inhabit the physicality of the character."
Newton was educated at an all-girls boarding school in England and had no American history, so her knowledge of the times and people presented in Jefferson in Paris was limited.
"In terms of the origins of black America, that's really out of reach in English textbooks."
However, in working toward her major at Cambridge, she confronted some of the issues the movie addresses.
"As an anthropology student ... the whole issue of slavery, colonialism, the imperialist exploration of the New World, has been something we've dealt with quite significantly."
Following graduation, Newton said she is eager to leave school behind to concentrate on her burgeoning career.
"I really do want to leave academia behind for awhile. I need to remember how I felt about things because I've been looking at everything from a clinical, academic point of view and just playing devil's advocate ... and I really want to wipe the slate clean and get back in touch with how I instinctively feel about things. With anthropology, I've become quite disillusioned with the human race. ... You look at people as masses and gross generalizations ... I don't want to save the world anymore. It's too big a project."
Newton calls working with the Merchant Ivory team "an exceptional experience."
"With all due respect to people I've worked with since, after (Jefferson in Paris), I really felt that if I never worked in another film again, ... it would be OK because I'd done this film. It was that important to me and I respected it that much. I enjoyed the experience that much."
Newton's praise extends to her co-star, Nick Nolte, as well.
"He's the best actor I've ever worked with. I have worked with a few, very fine actors and Nick's incredibly receptive and very malleable; if you change your performance or want to do something new or different, he'll change with you."
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Friday, October 22, 2010
Questioning Technology's Worth in a Kids' Film
“So we have to deal with our technological sophistication versus our spiritual sophistication — and technology always seems to be ahead of where we are spiritually. The machine in the movie ends up representing our own inventive side of ourselves and begs the question: Is it a good thing or is it a dangerous thing?” — Brad Bird
When The Iron Giant was released in 1999, it flew in the face of the current trend popularized by Disney animated musicals. Based on the 1968 children’s book, The Giant: A Story in Five Nights, by late British poet, Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant refuses to rely on musical numbers and simplify its message to appeal to kids. It is one of those rare animated films that both adults and kids can appreciate. It also is a nostalgic ode to the 1950s that is thought-provoking and entertaining.
Set in the small town of Rockwell, Maine in 1957, a 9-year old boy named Hogarth (the voice of Eli Marienthal) befriends a mysterious 50-foot robot (the voice of Vin Diesel) that has crash-landed near the town from outer space. Raised on steady diet of alien invasion B-movies, Hogarth tries his best to hide the presence of his large, metallic friend from his mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston). He also keeps his new friend a secret from a snooping government agent (voiced by Christopher McDonald), but ends up sharing his secret with Dean, a jazz-loving beatnik sculptor (the voice of Harry Connick Jr.), who runs the local scrapyard.
The film originated with Pete Townsend (guitarist for the legendary rock band, The Who) who had produced a musical version of Hughes’ book in 1993, called The Iron Man. He brought the project to Warner Bros., with Des McAnuff, director of the Broadway version of Tommy, with the idea of transforming it into an animated musical. Animator Brad Bird heard of the project and met with Townsend and the film’s screenwriter, Tim McCanlies. Bird remembers, “I read the book and I liked the book, but I had a whole lot of ideas of my own about what this film could be about. Once it sort of went that direction, I didn’t envision it as a musical.” Bird pitched his take on the material to the studio as follows: “What if a gun had a soul?” Warner Bros. liked the idea and gave the project the go-ahead.
Bird drew his inspirations for the look and feel of the film from two unlikely sources. He was inspired by the cliched and dated educational films depicted in the documentary, The Atomic Café (1982) about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war in the 1950’s. He also liked the radio broadcast about Sputnik that opens Robert Redford’s film, Quiz Show (1994). Bird said in an interview that “the bomb had changed our perspective and the future was no longer this perfect thing. Every upside had a dark underbelly.”
In many respects, The Iron Giant has a lot in common with another excellent film that came out around the same time, October Sky (1999). Both films are set in the same year (1957) with the beginnings of the space race and the dawn of the atomic age as their respective backdrops to the main action. The young protagonists of each film are dreamers and outsiders of their societies and present refreshingly peaceful resolutions to their respective conflicts.
To further reinforce the ‘50s vibe, Bird shot the film in Cinemascope, a widescreen form of cinema that was created to compete with the rising popularity of television. Bird said in an interview that, “There’s something immersive about the experience. Also, a lot of movies in the late ‘50s were shot in ‘Scope, so I thought it was appropriate for a movie set in 1957.”
The Iron Giant has a wonderfully nostalgic, small-town atmosphere that is brought to life by stunning animation that is on par with anything that Disney has produced in recent years. The attention to period detail, from the cheesy educational videos that Hogarth's class is forced to watch, to the way the townspeople talk, is faithfully recreated and goes a long way to drawing the viewer into this engaging world.
The animation style of this film recalls the early, groundbreaking Fleischer brothers' Superman cartoons of the 1940s with its depth of field, but without the German Expressionist influence. Bird and his team mixed computer animation (the robot) with traditional hand-drawn animation (the rest of the characters) in an exaggerated, cartoonish fashion that went against the current trend of realistically rendered characters (see Pixar). For Bird, “the reason to do animation is caricature. It’s the same reason that photography didn’t render portraiture obsolete. It’s because you can draw things in a way that is not trying to reproduce reality, but more the essence of reality.”
The real strength of The Iron Giant is the relationships between the characters — something that is often overlooked in animated films in favor of flashy visuals and epic musical numbers. This film has the feel of a very intimate, character-driven story with the relationship between Hogarth and his robot friend as the emotional center but with several other relationships (such as the ones between Hogarth and his mother and between him and Dean) featured prominently as well. This is no simple Saturday morning cartoon but a strong feature film that actually has something to say.
The Iron Giant did not do as well at the box office as Bird had hoped. Traditionally, animated films set promotional deals a year in advance so that the appropriate amount of hype and advanced word can be created. Warner Bros. delayed giving the film a release date and so every time Bird courted a potential sponsor, they would lose interest because no concrete date was set. Very few advanced posters and trailers were created and this hurt the film when it was finally released. It only grossed $23 million but has since found a new life on video and DVD.
The Iron Giant is one of those rare animated films that not only appeals to both children and adults; it does not contain one annoying musical number. It is also refuses to serve as one long, obvious advertisement for a toy. In fact, this film is an entertaining, even touching story about tolerance and compassion. It deals with real issues like death and bigotry — pretty heavy topics for a children's animated film — in an honest and heartfelt way. From all indications, The Iron Giant was clearly a labor of love for those involved and this translates into an enjoyable film for everyone to enjoy.
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