Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Sometimes you need some mind candy

By Edward Copeland
Though I saw it during one of the blog's hiatuses and didn't review it, I really enjoyed the first Iron Man. Based on the reviews, I expected a little less from its sequel, but damn if I didn't enjoy Iron Man 2 just as much as the original. This is my kind of mindless, comic-book inspired entertainment: sleek, funny, well-acted and just the right length, resisting the urge of so many action films to pad their running times.

As in the first film, the key to its success is Robert Downey Jr. as weapons magnate turned peacenik/Iron Man. He's charming, witty and really has more personality than any other superhero in the history of superhero screen incarnations. He's rich and fun loving, still loves to knock back some drinks or to race in the Monaco Grand Prix and he gives very entertaining witness testimony at a Senate hearing. (If Downey weren't enough to make the scene a blast, they cast Garry Shandling as the jackass senator to ensure that the sequence is a hoot.) Stark may save the world, but he doesn't mope like Batman, he's not perfect like Superman and you know he's having a good time saving the world and probably getting laid as well.

When it was announced that Jon Favreau was directing the first Iron Man, it was viewed as an odd choice, but really Favreau, who repeats those duties here as well as playing Stark's driver, makes perfect sense. He's the man who wrote Swingers and the Tony Stark character as portrayed by Downey is so money and he knows it, only he's not a pretender as Favreau and Vince Vaughn's characters were in the film that begat that phrase, Stark's the real deal.

Ironically, in another funny performance, the would-be "swinger" of Iron Man 2 is Sam Rockwell playing rival weapons magnate Justin Hammer who dreams of living the Stark lifestyle, both businesswise and otherwise. He's the corporate villain of the movie, but he's just as funny. In fact, the action scenes when they happen, though they deliver, mostly are by the numbers. It's the comic tone that makes this series so much more fun than the brooding or goody-goodness of the others in this genre.

Terrence Howard has been replaced in the role of Lt. Col. James Rhodes by Don Cheadle and while Howard is a fine actor, Cheadle actually is an improvement because he has an innate levity that Howard doesn't so he meshes better with Downey and the rest of the cast.

Of course, the real villain of Iron Man 2 is Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, a Russian physicist whose family feels ruined by Stark's father (the great John Slattery, who only appears in old film footage — and with brown hair!) and vows to seek revenge on Tony Stark, a task Hammer unwittingly helps him to carry out while he thinks he's using Vanko to gain an edge in the arms business.

There also is a story strand involving Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, which I guess has something to do with a league of comic-book heroes called The S.H.I.E.L.D. that Stark's father helped to form and The Avengers Institute (though I don't think it involves Emma Peel), but I'm not up on my Marvel history to know that backstory, though it hardly matters. However, Jackson does deliver Fury with the same vocal cadence he used as Jules in Pulp Fiction.

Still, there isn't a weak link in the cast which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, who I tend not to like outside of The Royal Tenenbaums. If this weren't a sequel to a comic-book adaptation, saying it deserved consideration for ensemble acting awards would be taken seriously.

Justin Theroux wrote the screenplay and also came up with the story for Tropic Thunder, but many may know him best as an actor, especially for his roles in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and as Brenda's neighbor on HBO's Six Feet Under.

I tend to frown upon endless sequels in series. I liked the first two X-Men movies, but the third one stunk and I didn't even bother to see Wolverine. Still, I had so much fun turning off my brain and enjoying both installments of Iron Man, I wouldn't object to another even though I know the odds are against a third time being a charm.

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Monday, November 29, 2010


“I'm very fond of children…girl children, around 18 and 20…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
William Claude Dukenfield — aka comedian W.C. Fields — reached the ripe old age of 60 in January of 1940…and though The Great Man had been ravaged somewhat by his tendency to drink to excess (his period of cinematic activity between Poppy in 1936 and The Big Broadcast of 1938 in 1938 was explained by his “drying out” in a sanitarium) he was still at the peak of his comedic powers. Universal had signed him to a film contract ($125,000 a picture, with an extra $15,000 for his “screenplays”) based on his renewed popularity on radio, feuding with comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour; in fact, his first film project at the studio featured him verbally sparring with his aural nemeses in You Can’t Cheat a Honest Man (1939).

Fields’ second Universal film was My Little Chickadee (1940), in which he was teamed with comedienne Mae West…and the legend has it that W.C. met his match in West, which is why so many of his scenes were written separately. His third Universal picture, however, would dispel any notions that he’d lost his touch; considered a masterpiece of surrealistic Fieldsian nonsense, The Bank Dick (1940), which was released 70 years ago on this date, remains one of the master comedian’s funniest and finest films.

It’s a bit difficult to describe the plot of Dick — probably because there really isn’t one. What we do have onscreen is the trials and tribulations of one Egbert Sousé (“Accent grave upon the e”), another in a long line of Fields’ small-town (Lompoc) ne’er-do-wells, and this time saddled with the most obnoxious family ever (even his teenage daughter, usually a source of support for his character in other vehicles, is a bit of flake — delightfully played by character actress Una Merkel). Sousé, who starts his day by taking over directing a picture originally helmed by the incapacitated A. Pismo Clam (beloved cinematic inebriate Jack Norton), manages to foil a bank robbery and for his efforts is rewarded with a position at the financial institution (along with a “hearty handclasp” from the president, played by Pierre Watkin).

The chief bank clerk is a creampuff of a man named Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton) — his moniker “sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” according to Sousé — who has intentions of marrying Sousé’s daughter Myrtle once he’s able to support her, and his future father-in-law hurries that along by convincing him to embezzle funds from the bank in order to purchase worthless shares in a Nevada beefsteak mine, purchased from a sharpie (Russell Hicks) Sousé encountered at his hangout, the Black Pussy Café (how Fields got that past the censors I’ll never know). Og isn’t really stealing the money; he’s “borrowing” it, fully intending to replace the missing funds once he receives a $500 bonus from his employer. But with the arrival of bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) on the scene, Sousé must put “Snoopy” out of commission before he discovers the discrepancy in the books. By arranging for bartender Joe Guelpe (Shemp Howard) to doctor a libation (Sousé asks if “Michael Finn” has been in the café), Snoopington is incapacitated with nausea, and his condition isn’t helped when Sousé mentions gastronomical delicacies like chili con carne and cocoanut custard pie.

With the sort of deux ex machina luck that befalls all of Fields’ film characters, the beefsteak stock turns out to be a financial windfall — and Sousé is also assisted by collecting $10,000 for a film script and a hefty reward for capturing one of the bank robbers who temporarily escaped but returned to the bank to make another huge withdrawal. His family now on Easy Street, we learn that even though Sousé is now a member of the Fortune 500 old habits — his smoking and drinking — are still hard to break.

There’s never been any film star with a more fascinating screen persona than W.C. Fields. At a time in the industry when self-righteous film censors were determined to moralize and sugarcoat life in the movies, Fields’ character — an individual who drank, smoke, lied, cheated and gambled…and more often than not ended up rewarded for that very same behavior — was a man to both behold and admire. He said and did the things polite society frowned upon, and many of his films spotlighted a warped view of small-town life with obnoxious busybodies clucking their tongues at his outrageous behavior. He had also developed a reputation for despising children (though this has been exaggerated throughout the years), though in Dick you certainly can’t fault him for the negative energy he focuses on his youngest brat who, when she asks her mother if she can bounce a rock off her father’s head is told: “Respect your father, darling…what kind of a rock?”

The Bank Dick, like most Fields vehicles, features the thinnest of plots; mere pegs on which he hangs his physical slapstick and absurdist humor (he delighted in offbeat wordplay; Dick is crammed with words like “assegai,” “paternoster” and “catalpa trees”). Dick was directed by Edward F. Cline, an old Mack Sennett veteran who had also worked alongside Buster Keaton as co-director and gag man, who first met up with Fields on one of my favorites in the comedian’s oeuvre, Million Dollar Legs (1932). Cline also directed a portion of W.C.’s aforementioned Honest Man (the classic Ping Pong match scene) and the entirety of My Little Chickadee, but with most individuals chosen to ride herd on a film starring Fields he was content to just sit back and let The Great Man do his thing. It has been said that Cline (who would also helm Fields’ last starring film, 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was a favorite of the comedian because he was the only person in Hollywood who “knew less about making movies” than William Claude.

The screenplay credit on Dick went to “Mahatma Kane Jeeves,” a Fieldsian play on dialogue often heard betwixt a society swell and his butler (“My hat…my cane, Jeeves”). It’s crammed with some of W.C.’s most memorable and funniest dialogue:
ELSIE MAE ADELE BRUNCH SOUSÉ: What's the matter, Pop? Don't you love me?
EGBERT SOUSÉ (raising his hand in anger): Certainly I love you!
AGATHA SOUSÉ: Don't you dare strike that child!
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Well, she's not gonna tell me I don't love her…

EGBERT SOUSÉ: Was I in here last night and did I spend a twenty dollar bill?
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind! (Chuckling) I thought I'd lost it…

EGBERT SOUSÉ: My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Hoofnagle, took a chance…he was three miles and a half up in the air…he jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of alighting on a load of hay…
OG OGGILBY: Golly! Did he make it?
EGBERT SOUSÉ: Uh... no…he didn't…had he been a younger man, he probably would have made it…that's the point…don't wait too long in life…

OG OGGILBY (after learning he’s been sold a bill of goods): Oh... I knew this would happen! I was a perfect idiot to ever listen to you!
EGBERT SOUSÉ: You listen to me, Og! There's nothing in this world that is perfect

And of course, there’s Sousé’s immortal admonition to his future son-in-law when Og gets cold feet about stealing from the bank and investing: “Don't be a luddy-duddy! Don't be a mooncalf! Don't be a jabbernowl! You're not those, are you?” (Fields claimed he found those words in a dictionary — further evidence of the man’s lifelong love affair with words and turns of preposterous phrases.)

The Bank Dick was blessed with a dream lineup of supporting players; Sutton and Pangborn had, of course, worked with Fields on earlier occasions but the cast was rounded out with old pros like Merkel, Hicks, Watkin, Norton, Cora Witherspoon and Jessie Ralph. Second banana Shemp Howard, who was no stranger to supporting comedians as well as taking a turn in the spotlight himself, was cast as bartender Joe Guelpe, the Black Pussy proprietor who administers Sousé’s “poultices” and “depth bombs.” Shemp, however, committed the cardinal sin of being funnier than the star — during filming, he livened up the proceedings with the wild ad-libbing he would later become known for once he replaced his brother Jerome “Curly” Howard in the Three Stooges troupe…something that did not endear him to W.C., whose jealousy of other comics was legendary. Sadly, much of Shemp’s improvisations ended up on the cutting room floor — but I sometimes can’t help but grin when I watch Dick and notice that Shemp’s entrances are accompanied by his whistling of “Listen to the Mockingbird”…a tune that used to signal the start of a Stooges two-reeler (before being replaced by the better-known “Three Blind Mice").

After the release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, W.C. Fields was relegated to guest star appearances and featured bits in outings such as Follow the Boys (1944) and Song of the Open Road (1944). His many years of “partying hard” ultimately took its toll and he left this world for a better on (not too ironically) Dec. 25, 1946. But he left behind a rich cinematic legacy that continues to draw admirers and fans into the big tent with each passing year; even though film critic Roger Ebert rightly points out that The Great Man may not be as popular as he was at one time he also declares: “No doubt the wheel of memory will revolve to bring him back into fashion, because his appeal is timeless: It is the appeal of the man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene contentment with his own flaws. He is self-contained.” The Bank Dick is the culmination of that cogent observation, and an essential starting point to become acquainted with a true cinematic original.

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Boardwalk Empire No. 11: Paris Green

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The recap for next week's season finale will be later than usual as I will have to await delivery of a video copy to watch after it airs before I can write one. This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.

By Edward Copeland
The penultimate episode of the first season of Boardwalk Empire opens with a closeup on Hardeen (Remy Auberjonois), Houdini's brother, doing one of his escapes. Many of the characters weaving throughout the series plots will be attempting escapes in the "Paris Green" episode, some who didn't even realize there was a need for one. Some will succeed, some won't. It's another excellent outing for the series, though its temps slows compared to the past couple of installments. Still, it resolves some more lingering issues and includes a helluva verbal fight that could have far-reaching repercussions.

Attending Hardeen's show are Nucky, Margaret, Annabelle and Harry Price. Hardeen is in the midst of his escape from being chained and strait-jacketed while hanging upside down. An announcer bellows that six minutes and 30 seconds have elapsed. Margaret asks Nucky if the trick is meant to take that long. "Not as far as I'm concerned," replies a thoroughly bored Nucky. Harry Price seems preoccupied with some other matter. Annabelle inquires as to what's wrong, but Harry just smiles weakly and says he's nervous, that's all. "You're not the one tied up, baby," Annabelle reminds him as Hardeen finally frees himself to thunderous applause and triumphant music from the band.

As Jimmy and Angela are eating, Jimmy notice Angela's mind's wandering again. He asks her what she's thinking about. Before she can answer, the phone rings and Jimmy rises and answers it. He asks whoever is on the other end what they want him to do about it. He relents and says he'll go tomorrow and hangs up. He returns to the table and tells Angela that it was his mother. His father is dying.

Agents Van Alden and Sebso take a break to eat, choosing a Chinese restaurant as the site for their midday sustenance. The always skeptical and suspicious Van Alden inquires as to how Sebso acquired his skills with chopsticks. Sebso said he used to work as a clerk for an importer in Manhattan and there was a Chinese restaurant that was close and cheap. "And you craved more excitement so you joined the bureau and you found it in mortal combat with our witness," Van Alden sneers. Sebso says he doesn't like to talk about it, but he wishes it had turned out differently. With you dead and not him, Van Alden asks, adding that self-defense in the line of duty is no crime. Van Alden again grills him on the details of the Winslow shooting. He says Sebso shot him in the head but the other agent corrects him that it was in the chest. "And he hit you in the forehead with a rock," Van Alden continues, adding that it meant he was facing him, while Winslow was supposedly taking a leak. Sebso sort of stumbles around and says he can't be sure how he was able to get the rock. It all happened so fast. Winslow sort of scrambled. Van Alden keeps his eyebrows arched almost the entire time. Trying to change the subject, Sebso notices that Van Alden hasn't touched his food and asks if he's going to eat. "The thought of what ingredients might constitute this filth repulses me."

Hardeen arches an eyebrow as he takes Margaret's hands in his at an after-performance party. Their gazes remain locked until Hardeen breaks the grasp and Margaret realizes that her bracelet is gone. She's amazed. She didn't even notice him doing anything. "Deception requires complicity, however subconscious," Hardeen tells her. Annabelle shrieks in surprise as she discovers Margaret's bracelet now rests on her wrist. Annabelle asks if she can keep it, but Hardeen says no, he's a magician, not a thief. "There's an excuse that might come in handy someday," Nucky says. Hardeen tells stories of himself and his more famous brother, saying that doing the strait-jacket trick out in the open was his idea as was the milk can escape. It's no small feat to escape from a milk can, he tells the guests. Annabelle tells him to try a corset and heels. "I'm sure Mr. Hardeen has had occasion to help many women escape from those," Nucky jokes. "The most challenging trick of all," Hardeen admits. Suddenly, Harry Price explodes, asking if no one reads the newspaper. It seems the International Reply Coupon scheme that he tried to sell Nucky on at Chalky's nightclub turned out to be a scam and the man who got him involved, Charles Ponzi, has been arrested and Price is ruined and broke. Every shell game needs a mark, Hardeen comments. Annabelle turns hard, asking him if he's really completely broke. Price tries to calm her, assuring her that they'll pull through, she'll see. Annabelle calls Harry a fat worthless fool and storms out with Harry clumsily chasing after her. Nucky turns to Hardeen and asks if he knows any other tricks.

Rothstein is on the phone with his lawyer Bill Fallon (David Aaron Baker), who is in Chicago, telling him that he's never sought notoriety. Fallon tells him that notoriety is about to seek him. Half of the Chicago White Sox team has been indicted as well as some of the men who approached Rothstein about getting involved in the original fix. "A girl goes bed to with 10 men, who is going to believe her when she says the 11th is the father?" Rothstein asks. Fallon tells Arnold that his instincts told him to obtain his services and they have proved to be correct. Fallon advises him to come to Chicago. "Into the lion's den?" Rothstein says skeptically. Fallon tells him that before he does that though, he should think long and hard about whether he knows anyone in Chicago who would be willing to do him a favor.

We finally have the answer about Jimmy's parentage, a scene that explains how someone as young as Gretchen Mol's Gillian's could be Michael Pitt's Jimmy's mother and last, but certaintly not least, we get a scene to justify Dabney Coleman's character and purpose on the show. Yes, as it had been looking, the suspicions that Nucky was Jimmy's father were way off course and his father is indeed the Commodore. At Gillian's urging that the Commodore is dying, Jimmy shows up at the man's house to see him. When the Commodore lays eyes on Jimmy in his fine suit, he says he looks like a proper gentleman. Jimmy says his mother raised him well. The old man gives his son a drink and offers him a biscuit (actually a cookie), which Jimmy takes. When the Commodore said before that even his dog was sick, he wasn't exaggerating. The dog died the previous evening after whimpering, vomiting and not being able to settle. The Commodore weeps slightly when he says he couldn't do anything about it. Jimmy coldy comments that it's just a fucking dog, angering the Commodore who says Jimmy isn't like that. "I'm what time and circumstance have made me," Jimmy replies. He tells his father sarcastically that he hears that he and his mother have become close. The Commodore says Jimmy has no concept of the ways people can be close. Jimmy says he has a pretty good idea. He knows that the Commodore was 54 and his mom was only 13. The Commodore tells Jimmy that he'd have done the same thing, but Jimmy replies that he doesn't know him very well. "I know you backwards and forwards. You know what you want and nothing's gonna stop you from getting it," the Commodore tells him. "I'd expect nothing less from my son." The Commodore then goes on to give a lengthy speech about Atlantic City's history. When he came there, the city was "a fucking swamp." He drained the swamp, paved those streets, built those hotels. "I made this fucking city," he informs Jimmy, who responds "with your giant blue ox." The Commodore tells him not to sass him, he's trying to tell him something. Jimmy asks him what he's trying to tell him. The Commodore says the wrong man is running this town. Jimmy turns and starts to leave as his father asks where he is going. Jimmy says he doesn't feel well and he's being truthful. He promptly hits the closest bathroom and pukes in the sink.

At the Dittrich Studios, Mary tells Angela to pack lightly: just one suitcase for her and Tommy. They always can buy new things when they get to Paris. She also advises getting to the port an hour early. As the lovers whisper, cussing can be heard from the back of photography shop. For someone with the injuries Mary described to Angela in last week's episode, Robert doesn't look that bad (or else quite a bit of time has elasped). All that indicates Robert has been injured are the crutches he's stumbling around on and a slightly swollen right side of his face. As the women help him sit, Angela excuses herself. Robert asks his wife what the women were conspiring about since he heard hushed voices. Mary says it was only girl talk. Robert tells his wife that he does love her games. "As do you my love," Mary says as she gives Robert a gentle kiss on the forehead.

Nucky speaks into his office phone and asks the caller where he is phoning from and he tells him the lobby. "Are you a fucking idiot?" Nucky asks Sebso. Sebso says he couldn't call from the Post Office because it isn't safe there. Thompson tries to reassure him that he's safe since the bureau cleared him. Sebso tells him that Van Alden won't let up about the shooting though, questioning him incessantly about the details. During the conversation, Eddie starts to enter the office, but Nucky waves him off. Nucky suggests giving the agent something to restore his trust. Sebso asks him for a suggestion. Nucky reminds him that he's a Prohibition agent, go make a bust. Sebso asks for a tip and Nucky asks if he wants him to make the arrest for him too. He then gives him an address where he suspects he might find a distillery. Nucky leans back in his chair and tells Eddie he can hear him outside the door. Eddie comes in and says there is a woman in distress, but before Nucky can say anything Annabelle has stormed into his office. Nucky raises her hand as if to tell her to stop and tells her that he doesn't want any shouting or crying. Annabelle tells him about the money under her floorboard and that Harry has stolen it. Nucky says and you want me to have him arrested and she responds, "Damn right." Nucky points out that he'd be charging him with taking the money that she took from him. Annabelle starts to cry about what she had to do for that money. Nucky looks exasperated and tells her that he told her not to do this. He then hands her some cash and says that should last her the rest of the summer. They share some soothing talk and Nucky gently brushes her cheek. Unfortunately, Margaret has entered the office and witnesses this. "Nucky Thompson's gift is to never forget who owes him," Margaret says. "It's generally a good principle," Nucky responds. Margaret asks if Annabelle told Nucky that she already gave her $50 and Nucky says he guesses that makes both of them soft touches. Annabelle excuses herself as quickly as she can. Margaret tells Nucky she came by to tell him that the League of Women Voters will make a formal endorsement of Edward Bader for mayor. Nucky welcomes the news. "Glad I could be of use to you," Margaret says before storming out.

Jimmy pays a visit to his mom who asks him how his father looked. Jimmy says he looks like he's dying and he smells like garlic. He's surprised that the Commodore and Gillian see each other. Gillian says they began to keep in touch. After all, they have Jimmy in common. When Jimmy enlisted, the Commodore got very nervous because he lost his brother in the Battle of Vicksburg. Gillian says she told him Jimmy would come back because Lady Jean, the fortune teller, told her he would. Jimmy still can't get over his disgust at their initial relationship. "You were 13 years old. You were by yourself when you had me," Jimmy says. Gillian says she wasn't completely alone because Nucky was there to help. This makes Jimmy even more curious, because he's never been clear why Nucky would do that. Gillian tells him that Nucky was the sheriff and he worked for the Commodore and then she starts to trail off. She brings an old photo out of a drawer, when she was dressed for a stage show, and then she unloads the ugly truth: Nucky brought Gillian to the Commodore. One of his duties was procuring women, or in this case, a girl, for the Commodore. So he was a pimp, Jimmy says. Gillian asks Jimmy if he remembers Mabel, Nucky's late wife and says how lovely she was. She tells her son that Nucky's been kind to both of them in his way and the whole affair always has bothered him. She then tells her son she needs to get going. She told the doctor she'd meet him at the Commodore's. No one should die alone, she tells him.

Agents Van Alden and Sebso are driving through a wooded area searching for the booze-making operation that Nucky gave Sebso the tip about. Though they've passed the marker he noted, they've yet to see anything. Van Alden asks if the person who gave him the tip was reliable and Sebso says he thought so. They stop the car and start looking around on foot when Van Alden hears something. The agents find an African-American church congregation singing at the riverside. Van Alden identifies himself as an agent of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The preacher says he is Deacon Cuffy (Franklin Ojeda Smith) of a Baptist church in Atlantic City. "You think Christ hears you in this forsaken place?" Van Alden asks. The deacon responds, "Jesus is a wonder worker, sir. He hears everybody everywhere from the hollow to the hills." The two agents continue to observe the service. Van Alden turns to Sebso and says his people don't believe in heaven, do they? "My people?" Sebso replies. "Don't be glib. The Jews." Sebso says no, not exactly. As the sermon continues, Sebso can see the effect on Van Alden and tells him that he knows he's under a lot of strain. Van Alden then asks if Sebso doesn't believe in heaven how can he conceive of hell? Instead of waiting for a response, his attention returns to the deacon's words and they bring tears to Van Alden's cheeks. Sebso asks if he is OK. "The question is," Van Alden inquires as he turns a sharp gaze on Sebso,"are you?"

The camera closes in on a very unhealthy looking foot. Dr. Surran (Kevin Henderson) says the Commodore is quite jaundiced. He asks if he's been urinating, but Louanne tells the doctor the chamberpot has been empty for days. The doctor says it's as if there is something wrong with every organ in his body and he needs to run some tests. Gillian continues to try to feed the Commodore some soup as Jimmy appears. The doctor says he really just needs some samples of his hair for the tests, but as he approaches the old man with scissors, the Commodore panics, convinced he's trying to kill him. Jimmy steps in and holds his father down, telling him that the doctor is trying to help him. The doctor snips some hair. "You're a good son," the Commodore tells Jimmy. Jimmy informs his mother that he'll sit with the Commodore tonight.

In Nucky Thompson, Steve Buscemi has created a role unlike any other in his career and he's been great in it, though for the most part he hasn't been given any truly lengthy scene of explosive range. Regular readers know I've singled Kelly Macdonald often for praise for inventing in Margaret the most surprising and complex character in the Boardwalk Empire universe, always capable of surprise. Despite their characters' romantic involvement, Buscemi and Macdonald have never really had a meaty moment together that truly tested both their characters and their skills as performers. In fact, their romance has almost been elliptical in nature. Aside from that first assignation in the entryway of her old house, it's been more a story of Margaret finding her way in a new world while Nucky dealt with other problems. That all changes in the following scene in "Paris Green," where Margaret's growing suspicions finally come to the surface and for a change Thompson can't blow them off or make excuses and instead decides to take them head on.

Margaret sits at her dressing table, silently but unhappily preparing to accompany Nucky to an evening's event. Nucky tells her she needn't go if she doesn't want to. Most of the DAR women were against suffrage and aren't that keen on immigrants anyway. She asks Nucky how the women's ancestors got there. He jokes that they are the Daughters of the American Revolution: They sprouted from the ground like pumpkins and followed Washington to Valley Forge. "I'll do what's required of me," Margaret tells Thompson, who replies that's not really the right answer. She asks what answer he'd prefer and he senses for the first time that the tension that was present in his office earlier in the day still remains. He tries to reassure her that what she saw wasn't what she thought it was. Margaret tosses him a skeptical look and Nucky confesses that he and Annabelle did have a relationship years ago, but it didn't mean anything. Besides, he thought Annabele was Margaret's friend. "So you wouldn't fuck her?" Margaret fires at him like another bullet. He tells her that that sort of language does not become her. She says she's sure he'd rather she be demure, but he responds that he'd rather her be rational. "You'd rather I say nothing about what I see, what I've heard," she tells him. Nucky asks her what exactly has she heard. She tells him that he is a man capable of anything. Thompson wants to know who told her that and Margaret names Agent Van Alden. Nucky tells her that if she hadn't bothered to bring it up until now, it couldn't have been that upsetting. Margaret tells him that it made her sick to her stomach and it still does, this whole arrangement does. Thompson asks her what arrangement would that be. "That I'm to aid you in the business you conduct and then pretend I don't know what that business is," she tells him. Nucky has reached the limit on trying to play peacemaker in this scene. "You've never said no to anything I put in front of you. You make a little noise now and then to remind me what a good person you are but a good person wouldn't be here right now," he snarls. Then, he marches into the bathroom and removes the Lysol from its hiding spot and returns, pointing out that after she lies down with him, she washes her body with this poison like any whore would. Nucky's out to hurt her now. "I won't have another child," she declares defiantly. "By me?" Nucky asks. "By any man." Thompson tells her that's not her right to decide. Then Margaret dives into the dangerous waters and asks Thompson what purpose did it serve to make her a widow. Nucky explodes and warns her that she needs to be careful now. She tells him that she knows that Eli wasn't bringing her money to help but to keep her quiet. "Well you have been, haven't you?" Nucky answers her angrily. "Not a word about this man who beat you and murdered the baby you were carrying. I have not lost one second of sleep over what was done and neither have you." Margaret hauls off and slaps Nucky across the face. He's slightly shocked, but not for long as he hurls the Lysol bottle against the mirror, shattering it into tiny pieces. He tells her he guesses she won't need that anymore and storms out. Even though no one was killed or physically injured, in many ways it's the most violent scene Boardwalk Empire has depicted yet.

Louanne tells Jimmy that he has a visitor so he comes down from the Commodore's bedside and greets Richard. Richard tells him that they've received word from Chalky's contact in Philadelphia. The only D'Alessios to be found there are the mother, their sisters and another brother who is a dentist. Richard suggests that he go to Philadelphia, but Jimmy says the bad brothers are so far underground he doesn't see the point, but Harrow suggests that if he goes there and wipes out the family, perhaps that will force the D'Alessios out of hiding. Before Jimmy can give an answer to the proposal, Dr. Surran returns so he tells Richard they will talk later. Jimmy stops Surran and asks if he has the test results. The doctor asks if Jimmy is the next of kin and Jimmy replies that he doubts he's in the will, if that's what he's getting at. Surran asks if there is anyone who would gain from the Commodore's death. Jimmy says that he doesn't know of anyone and asks what the doctor is getting at. Surran informs Jimmy that it's because the tests show the Commodore's body is full of enough arsenic to take down a hippo.

As Angela packs the single suitcase for her and Tommy, she tells the little boy that they are going to go sailing across the ocean to Paris with Aunt Mary. When he asks if daddy will come, she says he's been to Paris and didn't like it. The little boy, already suspicious and unhappy about the situation, asks if Gillian, who he still isn't allow to call grandma, can go with them but Angela lies and says she's been there and didn't like Paris either but that it will be fun for the three of them. As she closes the suitcase and gives the apartment one last glance, Angela places a letter for Jimmy in the middle of the bed as she and Tommy depart the apartment for a new life abroad.

Eli's recovery seems to be going better as he is up and around as Nucky comes to see him, spotting their father sitting wordlessly on the porch. Nucky asks what Ethan does all day and Eli says that is it. He just sits there and broods about his house being gone. Nucky says he's surprised the house didn't go sooner: The place was a firetrap. Eli asks what happened in the fight with Margaret. Nucky says it was a bad one. Eli tells him not to worry. He and June fight, but they take it out by the shed so the kids can't here. Nucky tells his little brother that she knows about Hans. "You mean she suspects," Eli says. Nucky doesn't respond. Eli worries that Nucky told her, but his brother admits that he didn't deny it. "What were you thinking?" Nucky said he wanted to hurt her. Eli raises his fists and asks Nucky what he thinks these are for. Nucky says he isn't like that. His brother finds skepticism in that remark, asking him who it was that asked him to get rid of Hans in the first place. "He deserved it," Nucky declares. "Deserved?" Eli says, his indignation beginning to rise. "Leave that shit to God and look after business." Eli lets loose at this point, reminding his brother that he has a bullet in his gut from what he doesn't know, his election's at risk and he has eight kids to support while he's made Margaret a liability when he didn't need to make her one. "Nobody cares about you," Eli tells his brother. "They just care about what you can give them." After the abuse he took from Margaret, he wasn't going to stay and take it from his brother as well. Nucky tells Eli it's too bad he didn't get to see Hardeen the other night. The reference puzzles his younger brother. "Entertaining act," Nucky tells him, "but if he wasn't Houdini's brother, nobody'd give a fuck." Shea Whigham's performance as Eli is one that I've never really praised in these recaps and that's a deficiency on my part because he gives such a solid, workmanlike performance without many showy scenes that it slips my mind to point out just how good he is at portraying Eli's jealousy and lack of self-esteem. This scene probably gave him the most emoting of the entire series, but I should have pointed out how good he is long before now. Too often subtle acting gets overshadowed by the showier stuff and I'm usually better at singling that out but Boardwalk Empire provides such an embarrassment of acting riches, Whigham has been lost in the shuffle of my recaps and my correcting that oversight has been long overdue.

Jimmy shows up at his mother's and tells her, much to her surprise, that the Commodore made it through another night. He asks her if she knows how much money the Commodore has, but she says she doesn't know. It's enough to live comfortably though, right, Jimmy says. Gillian says it sure doesn't seem as if he's wanted for anything. Jimmy asks her if they've had discussions about what happens when he dies. Gillian expresses ignorance as to what her son is getting at. Jimmy says he doesn't care what she's doing or if she keeps doing it, but he ate a cookie there the other day and it made him throw up. Then, buried deep in the kitchen rubbish pail, he found a can of Paris Green. Paris Green, according to Wikipedia is "a common name for copper(II) acetoarsenite, or C.I. Pigment Green 21, an extremely toxic blue green chemical with four main uses: pigment, animal poison (mostly rodenticide), insecticide, and blue colorant for fireworks...Paris Green may be prepared from copper(II) acetate and arsenic trioxide." The expression on Gillian's face neither confirms nor denies that she may be poisoning the Commodore.

Buscemi is a one-man continuity person on the set as he keeps Nucky's boiling anger consistent from scene to scene. Nucky shows up at a gathering where Bader is telling a joke to Halloran and his ward bosses, only Thompson explodes because Bader gets an essential fact of the joke wrong. He yells at them that while they are all lounging around laughing they are facing the toughest election they've ever faced. Fletcher and the Democrats aren't sitting around joking, they are out there stealing the election out from under them. He tells them the people want reform, especially women, and because of that he has accepted Eli's resignation and Halloran will now be sheriff. Eddie whispers in his ear that Mr. Harrow is on the phone.

Angela and Tommy arrive at the Dittrich Studios to find a For Rent sign and a vacant store with a man sweeping up the shop. She asks the man what happened and he said they sneaked out in the middle of the night, even though the lease agreement called for them to sweep up first. She asked if the wife said anything. The man said the wife, "if that's what she was," was always talking about Paris.

Sebso enters the makeshift office at the Post Office with a letter in his hand and informs Van Alden that he plans to put in for a transfer to Detroit. He says they need agents because of booze coming over the border and he has family near there. Van Alden makes a crack about them needing the best men as well. Sebso asks if they can speak freely and Van Alden asks him to. Sebso says he's pretty sure that Van Alden doesn't trust him. Van Alden asks him what gives him that idea and Sebso points to the endless questioning about the Winslow shooting, the dirty looks, the insinuations about his religious beliefs. "We've been over the Winslow shooting 50 times," Sebso pleads. "Why would I want him dead?" "Temptation knows no rank," Van Alden replies as he spins in his chair to glance at Sebso's shoes. He notes they are new wingtips. An exasperated Sebso tells him they were on sale and asks how he can convince him. Before he knows it, the two agents are back at the riverside with Deacon Cuffy's congregation. The minister asks Van Alden if he's come to be saved. Van Alden tells him that he already has been, but Sebso hasn't as he grabs him. "There's a veil over his eyes and a darkness in his soul," Van Alden tells the deacon, who urges him to bring Sebso forward. Van Alden gets into the river first and, reluctantly, after removing his gun and wingtips, so does Sebso. Van Alden asks the deacon if any believer has the ability to baptize. The deacon says that is a matter of some dispute, but when Van Alden asks if he will allow it, the deacon assents. Van Alden takes Sebso and asks if he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior and he says no, but Van Alden dunks him anyway. He brings him back up and asks again as Sebso tries to struggle to get through that he's not going to renounce his Judaism, but Van Alden just keeps repeatedly dunking him. Deacon Cuffy sees what's going on and tries to speak out, but his horror at the scene almost renders him mute. Some of his congregation actually is wailing. Van Alden continues until he's finally just holding Sebso under to the point that he has drowned. "Though has fulfilled the judgment of the wicked," Van Alden shouts as Sebso's body floats in the river. Van Alden exits the river and the scene, arms outstretched, gun in one hand, badge in the other. It's almost a redundancy to praise Michael Shannon's performance at this point, but the past two episodes that have shown Van Alden truly losing it have been remarkable television. It's one thing for a Prohibition agent to slip and drink (consuming alcohol wasn't actually against the law after all), but committing adultery was a big deal for this serious Christian. However, I have no idea how they expect to let him get away with drowning a man to death in front of so many witnesses.

Nucky shows up at Margaret's home after receiving Richard's call. Harrow tells him that she sent him away the night before. When he showed up today, she had suitcases out. She asked him to return some things to a neighbor, when he returned, Margaret and the children were gone. Nucky notices that Margaret has left the emerald bracelet he gave her on the dining room table.

Angela wasn't fast enough to beat Jimmy back to the apartment. When she and Tommy return, she sees that her letter is no longer on the bed. Jimmy appears and takes the suitcase and says his father is going to live. He then returns and starts getting Tommy ready for bed. When he's done, he steps into the other room and closes the door behind him and Angela bursts into tears.

Nucky walks absent-mindedly down the Boardwalk at night (though Eddie is near, should he need protection). He stops and ventures into Lady Jean's and sits down. He's in need of some fortune telling. Maybe he's asking about what's going to happen in next week's season finale. I know I can't wait, but as I mentioned in the note at the top of the recap, it will be later than usual since I will have to wait for the deliver of a videotape copy after it airs before I can see it and write about it. Until then...

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Sunday, November 28, 2010


Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

It will be hard to believe for many who read this appreciation of the career of Leslie Nielsen that for the better part of it, the actor was known as someone who tended to play the most dead serious of parts. "Surely, you can't be serious," they will inevitably say to me, but I am serious, that was the case of Nielsen's career until 1980 and a certain film called Airplane! turned him almost exclusively into a comic actor. And don't call me Shirley. Nielsen died of pneumonia Sunday afternoon at the age of 84.

Nielsen's early work consisted mostly of television and the many live theatrical programs. He only appeared on Broadway once in a play called Seagulls Over Sorrento that ran for a total of 12 performances in 1952. He also did guest shots on various series.

He made his film debut in 1956's Ransom as a newspaper reporter who convinces the father of a kidnapped son (Glenn Ford) not to pay the ransom but to try to rescue the boy instead. That same year saw him on the big screen three more times, the most famous being Shakespeare's The Tempest transferred to outer space in Forbidden Planet. He also appeared in Michael Curtiz's musical romance The Vagabond King and the musical comedy The Opposite Sex which featured June Allyson, Joan Collins and Ann Miller, among others.

The following year, Nielsen stayed in the musical romance genre as the title love interest opposite Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor. In 1958, he worked with Ford again (and Shirley MacLaine) in his first Western, The Sheepman, also known as Stranger With a Gun. Following that came a lot more television work, including two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and as the star of his own series, The New Breed from 1961-62.

In 1965, he was featured in the big screen biopic of Jean Harlow called Harlow starring Carroll Baker. The same year, he had a regular role on TV's Peyton Place. The next year, he got to play Custer in the feature film The Plainsman, the same year he appeared with Guy Stockwell as Beau Geste.

While he wasn't the main clown on deck, he did co-star with Don Knotts in 1967's The Reluctant Astronaut. The same year, he appeared with Charlton Heston in Counterpoint, about a famous orchestra conductor kidnapped during World War II and forced to put on concerts for Nazi generals.

He got his feet wet in comedy again in 1969's How to Commit Marriage, though stars Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason were the ones getting the main laughs. In 1971, he starred in the thriller The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler about a reporter investigating how a senator is brought back to life after a fatal car wreck.

In 1972, before he ever starred in the greatest spoof of disaster films ever, he played the captain in one of the best, The Poseidon Adventure. The next year, he played straight man on one of TV's M*A*S*H's funniest episodes about a colonel eager to get back to the fighting but who ends up being delayed thanks to Hawkeye and Trapper's shenanigans.

In 1977, he starred in a horror film that I actually saw in the theater called Day of the Animals where he played a bad guy, so bad that you didn't mind when he got mauled by a bear. The same year, he had an uncredited part that put him together with David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams for the first time in Kentucky Fried Movie.

In 1980, he did appear in another film, the slasher film Prom Night, but it was Airplane! that changed his career trajectory.

First, by giving him the short-lived TV series Police Squad! where he created Lt. Frank Drebin and earned an Emmy nomination, a part he'd later repeat in the three Naked Gun movies.

From then on out, he pretty much was spoof master du jour, though none of the other films had the same magic touch that the ZAZ efforts did. The most notable probably was Mel Brooks' attempt to recapture his old magic with Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Still, he did have some non-spoof roles in the gaps between Airplane! and Police Squad! and Police Squad! and Naked Gun such as 1982's Creepshow and 1986's Nuts starring Barbra Streisand. He even played Santa in All I Want for Christmas and married Bea Arthur's Dorothy in The Golden Girls finale.

Still, for the last 30 years, Nielsen mainly lived to make us all laugh, on screen and off. I never did hear when he started carrying that fabled whoopee cushion around with him at all times.

Until we meet again, Leslie. I don't know where we'll be then, but it won't smell too good, that's for sure.

RIP Mr. Nielsen.

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From the Vault: Crimes and Misdemeanors

"Comedy is tragedy plus time," a character says in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors which perfectly illustrates both dramatic subjects.

Crimes takes time to get into its rhythm, but the longer it goes on, the better it gets.

It has become almost a cliche to hear people complain about Woody's recent ventures into drama (September, Another Woman). They say, "We like his earlier, funny ones." They have missed the boat. Allen is as assured a writer-director of drama as he is of comedy, and this is just one of the many levels in which this film works.

Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two loosely connected stories. The dramatic one concerns an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) who is being blackmailed by his jealous mistress (Anjelica Huston) who wants him to leave his wife (Claire Bloom). The comic one concerns a documentary filmmaker (Allen) who is forced into making a movie about his obnoxious, successful brother-in-law, a TV producer played by Alan Alda.

Allen is unhappily married and begins to fall for the documentary's producer (Mia Farrow). The twists of the stories are part of its enjoyment, so I won't delve any further. However, whereas Hannah and Her Sisters took his typical neurotic, God-doubting Jewish New Yorker and added a dash of optimism, Crimes goes the other direction.

This is a film of and about the 1980s. It is cynical and has a lot to say on all the topics Allen has specialized in for years — religion, relationships and success.

Religion is what binds the two otherwise unrelated stories together. Landau is treating Allen's other brother-in-law, an optimistic rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is slowly going blind. Waterston's character is, in a way, the most important character in the film, in keeping with the eyes motif established early on.

Landau and Allen both view the world as harsh and devoid of values while Waterston insists that there is a real moral structure out there involving forgiveness and a higher power. Waterston's blindness helps to show the film's message that in these times, a sin seems to be a sin only if you get caught.

Another strand of this philosophical approach is a professor that Woody's character wants to make a documentary about. The professor speaks of religious optimism and how a loving God is beyond man's capacity for reason. He talks about how love is a contradiction and life is painful but we need the pain. His words, and his later off-screen action, help lend the somewhat nihilistic view the film ultimately presents: that morality only exists for those who have it.

The film is full of great lines and great performances, something one expects from a Woody Allen film, but it also is the perfect fusion of Allen's filmic styles. There is Landau, discussing his problems with Waterston (in what may or may not be an imagined conversation) where he tells the rabbi that God is a luxury he can't afford. There is a virtual cascade of classic Woody lines such as "The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty." It also contains some perfect casting choices: There's enough of a resemblance to believe that Landau and Jerry Orbach are indeed brothers.

There are the stylistic and story elements that stem from Allen's love of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, he even uses Bergman's frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and Nykvist contributes a golden, almost mildewy look to the proceedings. Technically, this is among Woody's best.

His direction has evolved over the years and fully complements his screenplay. Woody's character spends a lot of time taking his niece (Jenny Nichols) to old movies playing in revival houses: musicals, classic gangster flicks, the works. This contributes to the idea that, as much as Woody loves these films, he can't make them in this day and age. If you want happy endings, go to Hollywood. If you want reality, go to New York, especially if Woody Allen is your chauffeur.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010


From the Vault: Casualties of War

Some of the most compelling moments in recent film history have come from the work of Brian De Palma, even though his films were more often than not a mixed bag. Casualties of War is the latest example of this part of DePalma's nature.

De Palma comes to Casualties of War fresh from The Untouchables, his most successful film, artistically and financially, to date. While that film was a near masterpiece of pacing, characterization and storytelling, the new film is lacking in all of these areas.

Casualties of War takes us on another trip into one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history — Vietnam. However, the war is really just the setting for the story, which aspires to be a metaphor for people who use sex as a weapon. The plot, based on a true incident, details a platoon which, under the pressure of a revoked leave, abducts a Vietnamese girl and takes her out on a mission where the soldiers, led by the sergeant (Sean Penn), rape and murder her with the exception of one private (Michael J. Fox).

The casting keeps the film from becoming truly interesting since both Fox and Penn play their roles in rather one-note ways. Fox is all that is good. He knows what his squad is doing is wrong, though the conflict of turning his buddies in is hinted at. Penn begins his role as a normal, hard-working soldier but once the kidnapping begins he turns into Instant Psycho — just add sweat and you have a jerk only Robert De Niro could love, since he seems to be the inspiration for Penn's character.

This problem could have been alleviated if Fox and Penn switched roles. Penn would have been better at portraying the conflict over turning in his fellow soldiers that Fox never shows. If Fox had been the bad guy, the audience probably would have been riveted to the screen watching this boy-next-door type commit this atrocity.

The pacing and the story just don't mesh. The set-up before the kidnapping and the incident itself seems to drag on forever while the aftermath involving Fox's attempts to bring the squad to justice seems rushed and abbreviated. It's a shame because the composition and a handful of sequences showcase De Palma at his very best. Screenwriter David Rabe, who wrote hit plays such as Hurlyburly and Streamers, needed to give the director tighter material.

As it stands, the film seems aimless and meandering, made all the worse by the inclusion of a completely unnecessary stateside epilogue that makes you leave the theater chuckling instead of shaking.

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Friday, November 26, 2010


Poker Face

By VenetianBlond
It sounds crazy from the start. The charge that a 12-year-old girl’s imprisonment in a mental hospital was part of a government conspiracy to protect a Soviet defector spy already sounds preposterous. When that charge comes from Lisbeth Salander, violent goth queen and hacker, it seems even more ludicrous. Audiences already know that it’s true — it’s just a matter of whether or not Lisbeth, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and attorney Annika Giannini can prove it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up immediately after The Girl Who Played with Fire left off, in the helicopter taking Lisbeth to the nearest trauma center from the farmhouse where her father and half-brother shot her and buried her alive. The first act chronicles Lisbeth’s arduous recovery while a gentle but principled doctor keeps the police away. She’s been charged with attempted murder because the police discovered her father with a wound in his head and an axe embedded in his leg. However, he’s not the villain of this movie, because early on he is silenced by a conspiracy member. They’re in “circle the wagons” mode, bound and determined to protect their unit, even if there’s not really a good reason to exist anymore.

Meanwhile, dogged Micke is trying to identify the circle of government officials who would take away the legal rights of an individual in order to protect their organization. If it’s shown that what they dub "The Section" operated with the blessing of the larger Swedish government, they have a constitutional crisis on their hands. He knows he’s getting close when bad things start to happen: threatening e-mails, bricks through windows, and Serbs with machine guns in cafes. But he has the truth, some trustworthy local cops, and hacker resources on his side, so he’s able to put together a magazine issue unearthing the whole shebang.

The middle section of the film is the courtroom drama as Lisbeth is tried. The prosecutor blatantly tries the case in the media by making statements about her instability. The Section already has maneuvered him into being their lackey for having Lisbeth committed again so that nothing that she says is ever taken seriously. Lisbeth has vowed to herself never to talk to psychiatrists or police, so that hinders her attorney’s defense. However, that creates the opportunity for a winning strategy. Duking it out expert against expert would never win, given the way Lisbeth had already captured the public imagination as a murderous lunatic in Fire. However, if Giannini, a women’s rights’ lawyer, can show that Lisbeth was systematically, illegally handled throughout her life, she’s got a chance. The key evidence is the DVD she made with the hidden camera in the first movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The prosecution’s psychiatrist (and co-conspirator) argues that her description in graphic detail of the rape by a trusted advocate is proof of her mental illness and separation from reality. As awful as it was to watch in Tattoo, the audience knows what the court officials are seeing, and it has great impact. Finally someone in power can understand what Lisbeth has been up against, not only with the assaults, but also in the determination of her mental capabilities.

After the court adjourns, there is a brief coda where Lisbeth confronts her brother in an old property of her father’s. This is where trimming the novels proves problematic, because the location is significant only in a sex trafficking plot line that was cut from the films. In addition, Lisbeth has only a tiny connection to the people she calls after she deals with her brother, and no reason to expect that they would act the way they do.

The purpose of the Millennium Trilogy’s grand finale is to outline what happens to Lisbeth Salander. The nefarious octogenarians of The Section don’t prove to be particularly sinister bad guys in terms of the threat to the sanctity of Sweden’s constitution. Sure, governmental oversight of intelligence agencies is a good thing, but it’s hard to wrap a thriller around that concept. The trial works much better given the knowledge that based on her own code, Lisbeth will do very little to help herself. What’s the point in talking if nobody believes you anyway? She comes to court in full goth mode, with a Mohawk, huge piercings, and platform shoes 6 inches high. What’s the point in looking normal if the other side will argue it’s a manipulation or an attempt to garner sympathy?

Small cathartic moments occur when Noomi Rapace allows just a little delight to show when Lisbeth hears what happens to her father, and when she trusts the doctor enough to show him her tattoo. He’s one of the few men, like Micke, who has not tried to exploit her. She can’t quite muster the words to thank her attorney, but she manages to accomplish that with Micke — even if it sounds like a recording. In the last pages of the book, Lisbeth opens her apartment door and lets Micke re-enter her life. In the film, they say an awkward “see ya around,” and she closes the door as Micke leaves. That small change implies a less integrated and less hopeful future for Lisbeth than perhaps Larsson intended.

When is a person just too toxic to be allowed back into society? Britney Spears has her dad’s conservatorship; Lindsay Lohan has rehab. They are not part of a government conspiracy that we know of, but how do they prove that they’re capable of returning to society? On a larger scale, given this country’s record-breaking incarceration rates and constant demand for more imprisonment, can we trust society to know whom to re-integrate and whom to lock away?

Lisbeth’s associates — it’s hard to say that she has friends — have to decide how far to go for a woman who will not return their affection. Lisbeth is exonerated, but she will never be healed.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010


Making a film to understand your father

By Edward Copeland
With his shock of out-of-control, graying hair and his love for the spotlight, the late attorney William Kunstler achieved quite a degree of fame in the final three decade of his life. First, from his fabled defense of the Chicago 7 following the 1968 Democratic National Convention and later for his willingness to take the most unpopular of clients making former supporters turns on him and his two young daughters from a late-in-life second marriage question their father's choices. Sarah and Emily Kunstler's wrestling with their dueling views of their dad took the form of the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, one of the 15 finalists for the 2010 Oscar for documentary feature and a deserved one.

Many documentaries have shown adult children trying to reconcile their feelings about their parents, but Disturbing the Universe proves to be exceptionally well done, giving the uninformed a primer on who Kunstler was at the same time that the daughters interview their father's contemporaries to learn more about what he was really like and to search for answers as to what to them seemed to be a mysterious change in him from a respected civil rights attorney to a lawyer who just took the most controversial clients he could, no matter what the impact would be on his family.

Kunstler's beginnings were quite conventional. A veteran of World War II, he went to law school on the G.I. Bill and opened a small practice with his brother in the 1950s, taking ordinary cases of the sort you might expect from a small-time suburban lawyer. (The only truly interesting thing he did was draw up Joe McCarthy's will and that was only because he was a classmate of Roy Cohn's and hope to get some notice.) All that changed when he became involved in a case of housing discrimination of a black couple in his home town. The racism disgusted him and it turned him onto a different path, the path that led to his infamous defense of the Chicago 7 where the judge held him in contempt and sentenced him to four years in jail, a sentence eventually overturned.

It earned him a reputation on the left as a civil liberties hero. He'd go on to defend the Native Americans during the standoff at Wounded Knee and tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis at Attica prison. He argued before the Supreme Court, defending the man who burned the American flag outside the 1988 Republican National Convention in Dallas on the grounds of the First Amendment. As part of his arguments to the high court, Kunstler said:
"To hear things or see things that we hate tests the First Amendment more than seeing or hearing things that we like. It wasn't designed for things we like. They never needed a First Amendment. This amendment was designed so that the things we hate can have a place in the marketplace of ideas and can have an area where protest can find itself."

Actions such as these made his daughters, products of his second marriage in 1976, very proud of their father, but as he aged, he started to take cases they couldn't defend. The first such case was when he defended the young black men accused in the brutal Central Park attack and rape on a woman that became a tabloid sensation. The young daughters didn't understand how he could defend these people being characterized in the press as "monsters" because of the brutality of the crime.

He lost more of his liberal friends when he defended the Palestinian accused of assassinating the controversial ultra-Israeli nationalist Rabbi Martin David Kahane. Protesters would routinely stand outside Kunstler's home accusing him of being a self-hating Jew. Sarah and Emily, when they saw protesters, often would pretend that they didn't live there. Threats became routine, so much so that Kunstler would only open packages alone in the basement just in case there were explosives inside. Later, he would defend those accused in the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Sarah and Emily admit that at some point they began to suspect that their father had simply lost his mind, doing odd things such as writing sonnets about O.J. Simpson and representing a cat accused of crimes against humanity in a mock trial. Toward the end of his life, he even took to performing at the comedy club Caroline's, one such appearance scheduled the same week after he had a pacemaker installed. He predicted to his daughters that when he died, it would be over Labor Day weekend when all the first-string reporters would be off and that's exactly what happened.

Still, so many people who knew him had so many warm things to say about him. One tells the anecdote about how people would yell at him in the street about how much they hate him and he would stop and ask to discuss things with them and by the time they parted, they'd be friends.

Years later, after the men he'd defended in the Central Park attack had been convicted and served seven years in prison, new evidence surfaced that showed others were responsible and the convictions were tossed and the men Kunstler defended were freed. The men that Sarah and Emily couldn't believe their father would defend turned out to be innocent after all. It's a nice coda to a wonderful documentary that's not a love letter to a father, but a filmed exploration to understand a man.

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Deciding a child's future on a game of chance

By Edward Copeland
The documentary about the sorry state of American education this year gaining the bulk of attention is Waiting for Superman, which I've yet to see. However, there is another nonfiction film that focuses on the lives of four families and educators in Harlem, New York, and the well-rated charter school Harvard Success Academy. The problem is that so many parents want to get their children out of the decaying public school system and into Harvard Success Academy that it all comes down to the film's title, The Lottery. However, both films have made the short list of 15 films from which the Oscar nominees for documentary feature will come.

Directed by Madeleine Sackler, The Lottery covers several months in the lives of those families who have applied for the rare slots in the coveted Harvard Success Academy. Along the way, there is the possibility that the school could have opened a second location when it applied to take possession of a closed public school building but they are defeated by the powerful teachers union who even brings in outside protesters, including the now-defunct ACORN, to demonstrate against their plan and lobby the New York City government who puts the kibosh on the plan because they view even a building filled with children learning as a threat to the union's warped sense of its own power. To hell with what's best for the children, protecting the jobs of mediocre educators and an empty building proves far more important to the skewed priorities of the teachers' union.

Now if readers of this blog have not figured out by now, my politics definitely lean to the left but that does not mean that I believe all unions are good and having seen enough of their dealings first-hand and read about even more, it's really high time people on all sides of the political spectrum agree that educating the nation's children ranks very low on the list of priorities of teacher unions.

Teachers have the second most important role in a child's life after their parents and people who pursue that career usually are selfless, wonderful people who still are terribly underpaid while the unions seem to care more about extraneous issues such as preventing the firing of the few incompetent ones and power grabs than the quality of the education the children actually receive. They are a disgrace and do a disservice to all labor unions that actually represent their members properly with high-minded issues as their motivations. They haven't helped much as the plethora of states facing budget woes have fired teachers left and right and closed schools to try to makeup money shortfalls, so it's not as if they are serving the teachers any more than they are the students.

As a result, you get the ridiculous system as is portrayed in The Lottery. Families who just want their children to have a shot at a better education than they are going to get in the mess of the public system have to pin their hopes on a game of chance. If they luck out, they get in. If they don't, they can try again the next year but they are stuck in the failing system that surrounds them. It's a disgrace.

Everyone would agree with the cliche that the children are the future but without a proper education system, with this country already based entirely on divisive politics, long ago having lost the ability to practice responsible governance, the nation may very well be doomed. One issue not mentioned in the movie, and this is not a criticism, is the overabundance of overpaid administrators you run into in some places. For example, in my home state of Oklahoma there are 77 counties and 537 public school districts, but they always resist any efforts at consolidation because no one wants to move toward efficiency at the expense of cushy jobs at the top.

The Lottery personalizes the problem in a heartbreaking way as we wait with an older, pious African immigrant father whose wife still resides in Africa and believes God will get his son in, a daughter with a deaf mother and several others. We also hear from various politicians such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, outgoing NYC schools superintendent Joel Klein (who has had success at closing failing schools, boosting charter ones and putting the union in its place) and officials with the Harvard Success Academy.

The tragedy of The Lottery and the U.S. public school system itself is that statistics show that 58% of African-American fourth-graders are functionally illiterate and countless parents try to flee that failing system each year. Of course, children of all races are getting a bad education and it's a national tragedy.

It only grows worse as they age. I have a 33-year-old caregiver and I was shocked the other day when the subject of World War II came up and he asked if that was the war in Korea — and he's not a dumb man, just a victim of a bad education. It seems that more and more children are either being educated by their parents or spurred on by their own intellectual curiosity since the schools aren't doing the job.

Every parent who reads this review owes it to themselves to see this movie and then call their idiotic senators and House members (I'm playing the odds here that you are represented by an idiot on both the state and national level) and demand real education reform. The citizens must really take this country back, regardless of party, by scaring the shit out of these coddled jerks in Congress and state legislatures to govern again for the good, not for their cronies, or incumbency will become a thing of the past.

The Lottery will push many emotional buttons as you watch it: sadness, anger, frustration. Still, you must watch it and it's up to all of us to push for the reforms that are needed, no matter how hard we have to fight the entrenched and mind-boggling unions and the legislating sloth. The future depends on it.

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Reality bests fiction again

By Edward Copeland
In 1996, artist Julian Schnabel made his directing debut with a film about his late fellow artist and friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in Basquiat. I wasn't impressed, though Schnabel's third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, ended up being my favorite film of the last decade. Now, another friend of Basquiat, Tamra Davis, using interviews and footage of Basquiat himself she'd filmed in 1985, has made a documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child that brings the artist to life for me in a way the fictional feature didn't come close to doing.

Davis combines the footage of the informal interview with Basquiat she says she put in a drawer in 1985 and never looked at again with many of the people who knew him and footage of the artist taken at the time. Granted, it's been nearly 15 years since I've seen Schnabel's feature take on Basquiat's life, but Davis' documentary left me feeling as if it were my first introduction to the artist because it paints such a clearer portrait of who he was and of his meteoric rise in the '80s art world.

You actually witness the change in the man from a somewhat bashful person who knew he'd be famous to someone who did change once that fame proved so overwhelming. If there lies a fault in the documentary, I just find it hard to believe that he was able to hide his heroin problems from his friends so successfully that no one saw a problem developing to try to help him before his overdose death at the young age of 27 in 1988.

While I'm personally not into some types of modern art, Basquiat's journey from mystery graffiti artist to phenomenon still proves quite interesting. He also does have some interesting ideas such as mixing words with his paints and crossing out some of the words, saying that if you cross out a word it draws more attention to it and makes you consider it more closely. It's an interesting notion and not one I would associate with art.

Then again, Basquiat wasn't just a painter. His mixture of words with the art made him more interesting, as did his work process itself, which often required plenty of distractions such as televisions and music going on simultaneously while he worked.

Some questions go unanswered. It doesn't really address how a young man from a middle-class family chose to leave home and basically live on the streets before he basically stumbled into his art via his graffiti and the postcards he made and sold just to get by that he happened to give to Andy Warhol one day. Still, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child proves to be a far more enlightening look at the art star who burned bright before he flamed out than the fictional look at his life did.

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