Thursday, April 28, 2011
“What’s the Spanish word for straitjacket?”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s hypochrondriacal Mickey spends much of the movie’s running time obsessed with death (after a momentary medical checkup scare that subsequently results in a clean bill of health) and even considers committing suicide before he chances onto a movie theater that’s showing the 1933 comedy classic Duck Soup starring Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — the Marx Brothers. Coming in during the film’s “The Country’s Going to War” musical number, he is so entertained by what’s onscreen that he gradually realizes that although life is too short it’s long enough to enjoy simple pleasures such as good music, New York’s architecture, funny films and, ultimately, the love of his girlfriend Holly (Dianne Wiest).
I was fortunate enough to see Hannah on the big screen when it came out in 1986 and remember that I, too, experienced joy out of seeing the Marx Brothers’ “cameo” in the film — though it probably shouldn’t have been too surprising as Allen himself has admitted on countless occasions in the past that he’s quite the “Marxist” (particularly a fan of Groucho). But what I found amusing about the Duck Soup homage in Hannah is that it reminded me of one of Allen’s “earlier, funny films” in which the Woodman also genuflects at the altar of his comedic idols. The Marxes had their Cocoanuts and Woody Allen had his Bananas (1971) — released 40 years ago to theaters on this day.
Allen explained at the time of Bananas’ release that he titled the movie in such a fashion “because there are no bananas in it.” (However, in the novel that inspired the movie, Don Quixote, U.S.A., the protagonist is an agronomist whose field of specialty is the titular fruit.) But it’s almost impossible not to see the Marx Brothers connection in a film that, like Duck Soup, also satirizes the stupidity of war and conflict while lampooning political and social conventions. Woody plays Fielding Mellish, a product tester, who makes the acquaintance of student and political activist Nancy (Louise Lasser) when she knocks on the door of his apartment to ask if he’ll consider signing a petition condemning the dictatorship in the Latin American country of San Marcos. Because the apolitical Fielding has romantic designs on Nancy, he volunteers to participate in many of her personal causes but when, after dating a short while, she dumps him, he despondently decides to travel to San Marcos in the hopes of sorting his life out.
San Marcos’ most undemocratically elected leader (he deposed the previous president in a riotous sequence that starts the film, in which the assassination is broadcast by sportscaster Howard Cosell) General Emilio Vargas (Carlos Montalban, the older brother of Ricardo) has learned of Fielding’s visit to his country and invites him to dinner for good food and stimulating intellectual conversation. Vargas’ ulterior motive is to have Mellish killed by his own men disguised as the general’s opposition in order to put the rebel movement in bad odor with the U.S.A. Rescued by the rebels before he is murdered by Vargas’ men, Fielding joins up with the opposition (even though his home country has been told he’s dead) and helps them overthrow Vargas. However, the new leader, Esposito (Jacobo Morales), turns out to be just as bad as Vargas (“…all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour…underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”) and so Esposito’s men tab Fielding as the new “el Presidente.”
Fielding takes power but because San Marcos is financially strapped he decides to make a diplomatic visit to the United States in an effort to do a little fund-raising and score some federal aid — and because everyone believes him to be dead, Fielding disguises himself (in one of the most unconvincing beards in the history of film). Back in his own country, he meets up again with Nancy and, because she doesn’t recognize him, she declares her crush on him — the couple winds up in the sack and Fielding reveals his identity, much to her disillusionment. Meanwhile, the FBI has pieced together the puzzle that is San Marcos’ leader and because of Fielding’s past “subversive activities” the U.S. government puts Mellish on trial. The verdict returned finds Fielding guilty of 12 counts of treason but when the judge suspends the sentence (in return for Mellish’s promise not to move into his neighborhood) our hero is free to marry the girl he loves — and the consummation of their marriage on their honeymoon night also gets the Wide World of Sports treatment with Cosell once again doing play-by-play.
Someone much savvier than I once posited that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan were the two “litmus tests” in the actor-writer-director’s oeuvre: fans of the first film preferred his earlier movies while devotees of the latter appreciate the maturity of Woody’s later works. Which sort of makes me the odd man out: Manhattan is my favorite film of Allen’s but I find I gravitate to those movies he made earlier in his career when I’m in the mood to watch him. By his own admission, Bananas “was still a film where I only cared about being funny. I wanted to make sure that everything was funny and fast-paced.” And that’s precisely what Bananas is, nothing more, nothing less: a slapdash, formless film that concentrates on one-liners, sight gags and slapstick at the expense of sophisticated character comedy.
The influence of the Marx Brothers permeates Bananas from stem to stern: Woody’s Mellish hears harp music in his hotel room and opens a closet door to find a harpist practicing; later a semi-nude woman runs through the rebels’ camp shrieking that her exposed breast has been snake-bit…which prompts Fielding and the rest to chase after her, Harpo-style. The courtroom scene in Bananas was, according to Allen, staged because he didn’t have the money to film a chase sequence — but again, you can’t discount that the proceedings have a distinct Marxian flavor, including Woody’s classic observation: “I object, your honor! This trial is a travesty! It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham…”
The Marx Brothers aren’t the only influence on Allen in Bananas — you can detect Woody’s love of silent comedy (the subway sequence is accompanied by a silent film piano) with homages to Chaplin (the “Excusizor” could be a cousin of the self-feeding apparatus in Modern Times), Keaton (Fielding is tying a blindfold around a man to be executed and gets his finger caught in the knot) and Harold Lloyd (Lloyd also made a movie about a naïf loose in a Latin American country, 1923’s Why Worry). Allen would tithe further to Lloyd and silent comedies in his science-fiction spoof Sleeper, and if you listen closely while watching Bananas you’ll hear the same anthem that Diane Keaton’s character warbles in that film: “Rebels are we/Born to be free/Just like the fish in the sea…” Woody also has acknowledged a debt in the past to Bob Hope and his cinematic persona: Mellish, a man who brags about his lovemaking prowess and cowers at the first hint of danger (what Leslie Halliwell once called Hope’s “cowardly custard” shtick), nevertheless is as quick with the quips as Bob
FIELDING: You busy tonight?
SECRETARY: Some old friends are coming over...we're gonna show some pornographic movies...
FIELDING: You need an usher?
FIELDING: I love you, I love you...
NANCY: Oh, say it in French! Oh, please, say it in French!
FIELDING: I don't know French...
NANCY: Oh, please... please!
FIELDING: What about Hebrew?
NANCY: You're immature, Fielding...
FIELDING: How am I immature?
NANCY: Well, emotionally, sexually, and intellectually...
FIELDING: Yeah, but what other ways?
FIELDING: When is the revolution?
ESPOSITO: Six months...
FIELDING: Six months? I have a rented car!
Bananas has a loose, improvisational feel to it and indeed, many of the bits were off the cuff (Allen has remarked that he’d set up the camera, do the scene and move quickly to the next one), notably Cosell’s dialogue as he describes the events of the assassination and Fielding and Nancy’s coupling (in the manner of a boxing match). (Allen jokingly calls Howard in the trailer for Bananas “one of the great, great dramatic actors who comes from the Elizabethan stage.”) The inspired gag of the chamber music being mimed during the dinner at Vargas’ was born out of necessity when the rental company supplying the instruments arrived too late to film the scene.
Allen co-wrote the screenplay with his childhood pal Mickey Rose in just two weeks, and composer Marvin Hamlisch is guilty of the catchy theme music that permeates the film (the Spanish tune is called “Quiero la Noche” and the English version “Cause I Believe in Loving”). Fans of classic television and character actors (that’s me) will delight at seeing such familiar faces as Dan Frazier (Capt. Frank McNeil of Kojak fame; he’s the priest in one of my favorite gags in the film, the New Testament Cigarettes ad [“I smoke ‘em…He smokes ‘em’]), René Enríquez (Lt. Ray Calletano on Hill Street Blues) and the Diff’rent Strokes triumvirate of Conrad Bain (as one of the executives in the “Excusizor” scene), Charlotte Rae (as Fielding’s mom, under the surgical mask) and Mary Jo Catlett (as one of the spectators in the hotel lobby toward the film’s end). Joining Cosell are real-life (at the time) media personalities Don Dunphy and Roger Grimsby — but perhaps the biggest unknown in the film is Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone, who plays one of the thugs in the subway sequence.
Despite its scattershot nature, Bananas remains one of Woody Allen’s best outings — mixing slapstick and one-liners among his traditional humorous observations on politics, sexuality, literature and philosophy. Watching it again the other night I was struck by how in many ways it’s like the Airplane! of Woody films, what with its wild visual humor and non sequiturs (a lot of funny business going on in the background — I love the bit with the food taster). It’s a film from a time when the Woodman wasn’t interested in having upper-class academics banter pretentiously (yes, I haven’t forgot that I still love Manhattan) but instead wanted to make people laugh themselves silly. It’s one of my favorite Allen films and it’s taught me many things about life — none more important than when you are invited to dinner with a dictator it’s necessary to bring a cake.
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Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Have to be cautious mixing some medicines
By Edward Copeland
While Love & Other Drugs ultimately peters out, it starts out fairly well and accomplishes something no other film I've seen ever has: It displays Jake Gyllenhaal in a role that for the first time made me think he might actually have some charisma and more than just very limited acting abilities.
Set in 1996, Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, the oldest son of a well-to-do doctor and his wife (George Segal and Jill Clayburgh, who appears in a single scene in her second-to-last film role) whose only success seems to be wooing women into bed. His younger brother Josh (Josh Gad, whose character seems to have been dropped in from another movie), is a schlumpy nerd who has managed to accumulate wealth of his own through development of some sort of technology and even landed a wife (though the two quickly separate) and outshines Jamie as a result.
After Jamie loses yet another job, dad hooks him up with Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt), one of the main pharmaceutical reps for Pfizer and soon Jamie's out pitching Zoloft to physicians in a battle with the rep for antidepressant competitor Prozac, Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht). Jamie turns out to be a natural, transferring his seduction skills from romance to prescription pills. The trouble comes when one of the doctors he's courting (Hank Azaria) treats a patient named Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) and the two begin a funny and torrid fling, even though she's also seeing Trey. Jamie's Pfizer career really takes off when they release Viagra to the market and who would be better to hawk that product?
Director Edward Zwick, setting aside for at least one film staging the exact same battle in different costumes and different eras, does pretty well in the early portions of Love & Other Drugs when it works on a frenetic, comic level. However, Maggie also suffers from early onset Parkinson's, so when the movie takes its more serious turn in the later stages, that's when it starts getting bumpier.
Thank heavens for Hathaway, who is able to bridge both sides of the story well. She's really developing into a talented actress. She's great in her early scenes as the sex-obsessed woman who's more of a commitmentphobe even than Jamie. When the film takes its turn, while the movie doesn't handle the tonal shift that well, she's rather good at not overplaying her increased Parkinson's symptoms or becoming overly dramatic. She's still the character she created when she first entered the film.
Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, doesn't make that transition so easily. As I said, Love & Other Drugs marks the first time he's impressed me when he's playing Jamie, the charming rogue. It's a different side of Gyllenhaal than I've seen before and when he's in that mode, he's good. Gyllenhaal always has seemed like a colorless void to me, even when he's in a great film such as David Fincher's Zodiac, a fine but overrated movie such as Brokeback Mountain, where Heath Ledger blows him off the screen, or the nightmare memories brought on by the words Bubble Boy.
That side of the actor kicks in again when Love & Other Drugs takes its more maudlin turn and Jamie becomes a lovesick man discovering ethics and concern for a woman he loves. When the movie shifts in that direction, the empty, bland Gyllenhaal rises again. The last portion of the movie would be unbearable without Hathaway there to bail parts of it out.
Based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman
by Jamie Reidy, it feels as if there could have been two separate films made from this material successfully. Exploring the world of the pharmaceutical industry and the lengths they go to to make doctors push their products alone would make a helluva movie and a love story about a horndog torn over giving up his womanizing ways for someone he knows is only to get sicker could make a touching tale as well. Even if this whole package mostly is true though, it just doesn't mesh very well.
We do learn one thing: Jake Gyllenhaal can play a certain type of part well without being a gaping bore. Now if he can find a part he can do that in that lasts the length of the entire film.
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Monday, April 25, 2011
Treme No. 11: Accentuate the Positive
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
It's All Saints Day 2006 and it's brought many out to the cemetery to visit their lost loved ones, some with flowers, some by touch and others — since they most hail from the Treme section of New Orleans — in music. It's been 14 months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged their city, though only seven months have passed since the end of the first season and the start of the second season of Treme, which premiered last night. The episode begins as a young boy named Robert (Jaron Williams) sits on the steps to his house, practicing his trumpet, when his mother opens the door and yells at him to take it down the street because he's "working her last nerve." Robert's musical journey begins as does the episode's, which suddenly switches its view to that of the cemetery. We first see some women, dressed in white, lighting candles and burning incense around a tombstone before we spot the hand of Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) placing flowers on the grave of his late musical mentor Daniel Moses Nelson with one hand while holding his trombone with the other. Nelson's tombstone inscription reads, "Straight Ahead and Strive For Tone" and Antoine follows the adage by playing for his lost teacher. Treme the series aims for the same mission.
The season premiere, written by co-creator Eric Overmyer from a story by Overmyer and Anthony Bourdain (Yes, that Anthony Bourdain) and directed by Anthony Hemingway, a producer on Treme and director of two of last season's episodes, including one of the best, "All on a Mardi Gras Day." Hemingway includes an interesting shot immediately following Antoine's trombone playing for his friend. The camera slowly moves through some kind of tunnel-like structure — I'm not sure what — which leads back to the cemetery where we find Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) placing a single rose on a tombstone. Briefly, we cut away from the cemetery to see Toni and Sofia Bernette (Melissa Leo, India Ennenga) purchasing some desserts at a recently reopened Italian ice cream parlor. Toni compliments the owner, Angelo Brocato III, and welcomes him back to New Orleans. After this short interlude, we return to the cemetery where the notes from Antoine's trombone can still be heard. The late David "Daymo" Brooks' mother (Venida Evans) runs her fingers across her son's name on the family crypt and crosses herself. She then receives a reassuring pat on her shoulder from her daughter LaDonna Baptiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander). We see Albert again, leaning down at the grave where he placed the rose and see it belongs to Lorraine Carter Lambreaux "BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER." Back at the ice cream parlor, Sofia tells her mother that she wishes her dad was there. At the cemetery, Antoine finally finishes his playing while young Robert's trumpet-playing walk leads him past the cemetery where Albert is busily touching up tombstones with paint until Robert's music catches his attention. He peeks around the corner of one of the tombstones and spots the boy and gives a knowing nod.
Sonny (Michiel Huisman), without Annie as either a musical or romantic partner, continues to try to exist as a street musician, singing and playing on keyboards until he's drowned out by a louder band playing across the street. "Poseurs," he shouts to no one in particular. Viewers suddenly get greeted by an unusual street scene — lots of traffic on crowded roadways, including classic yellow cabs, and skyscrapers. Yes, we're in a different city that begins with New, but it ends in York, not Orleans, and that's where we find Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), working as one of many chefs in the kitchen of the upscale Manhattan restaurant Brulard. I bet that this is where Bourdain's part of the story credit comes from. The eatery takes its name from the master chef who runs the place, Enrico Brulard (Victor Slezak, in a hysterical performance) who is part dictator and part lunatic. Brulard grabs one of the men in the kitchen and tells him to get him some lobster. Never mind that Janette cusses that it's near closing time and the poissonnier (Paul Fitzgerald) tells her that they don't have any lobster, so this poor lackey will have to hunt late at night for fresh lobster. "Make sure they're happy," Brulard tells the man as he sends him out. "I want peppy lobsters." Janette and her fellow worker continue to grumble about their barking mad boss and her associate offers Janette a bit of advice: Never look in his eyes. "That's how he gets you. He crawls into your brain and takes a big dump on it."
Sonny may be continuing to show off his musical skills to anyone who will listen on the streets of New Orleans, but his ex has definitely moved on careerwise. Annie (Lucia Micarelli) plays indoors now, having hooked up with the band the subdudes (cq) for a tour. The band's leader even singles out her fine fiddle playing and then tells the audience that they might not know the next number, but if you're familiar with New Orleans as Annie is, you definitely will. Back in New Orleans, 16-year-old Sofia Bernette, sits in front of her bedroom mirror with her laptop open, picking up where her late father left off on YouTube: Using the name Sofia B Real from New Orleans, she rails against the incompetence of the recovery effort. "You may have forgotten about us, but we're still here. You may talk about the so-called recovery. It sucks — the big one. Fourteen months, it ought to be getting better here. Fourteen months, it ought to be getting easier. It ought to be getting fixed. You feel me? Well, it isn't. It gets harder every day. There are still a hundred thousand empty houses in New Orleans, at least. A hundred thousand families that can't get home. Everyone in this frickin' city is on pain killers or booze. No kidding — 85 percent of this city is doped just to cope. And you need an AK-47 just to go out at night. And the frickin' National Guard is patrolling our city like we're in Fallujah or something. You know what? Drop and gimme me 50, you fucking fuck." As her rant ends, Sofia cranks up the radio.
What Sofia was listening to at home happened to have been "Drop and Gimme 50," a tune 10th Ward Buck, that was being spun by Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who amazingly has retained his employment as a disc jockey at the radio station for the past seven months. However, from the look on his face and the determined march of his boss Darnell Nichols (Darien Sills-Evans) as he springs into the booth, Davis' job may be on thin ice. Davis says he thought he went home hours ago, but Nichols said he came back when he heard what he was playing. Nichols tells him to mix up the music a bit and Davis says he will, but he has gin in his system. Nichols says that if McAlary spills anything on the control board, he will pay for this one. "Empty threat," Davis responds. "Then you'd have me around for the next 20 years working it off." His boss tells him to add some brass band, jazz, rock and roll, etc. "I don't even mind you playing a little bounce," Nichols says. "Just not nonstop." Davis returns to the air and urges listeners to go take in some live music — and bring a gun. He dedicates his next record to someone very much on his mind and we cut to Annie performing another number. Sonny isn't playing at the moment. He's at a live venue, just drinking and talking with a friend about life in Holland. If he'd been listening to Davis' show, he should have taken his advice, because two gunmen burst in and open fire.
Police Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse, now a series regular) finds himself fielding a call from a New York Times reporter. He tells the person on the phone that they expect the four wounded to recover. "Sorry to disappoint you. I know that five dead would make a better story," Colson says. Colson does end up admitting to the reporter that they have no leads as Sgt. Percillina "Percy" Bechet (Deneen Tyler) drops a folder on his desk. Unable to shake the reporter's call, it continues. "No, things were worse last spring than this summer. I'm sure it is having an impact on tourism. That piece of mayhem didn't have anything to with Katrina," Colson says, raising his voice. "He was a vet. Iraq. Listen. Listen. I read the notes, I went to the scene. Stuff like that can happen anywhere. The stove and the refrigerator, but he didn't either, not like that guy in the East Village years ago. Did you mention that in your article? You're welcome." Colson finally brings the call to a close. He tells Bechet that he thinks the Times lives for the latest tragedy from New Orleans and asks her what she has. Bechet tells him that two "knuckleheads" see another couple of "knuckleheads" in a club, go to their car, bring out their guns. Colson complains that his phone is ringing off the hook. "A shooting in the Quarter gets everybody's attention," she tells him. "It got mine," Colson replies.
Arnie (Jeffrey Carisalez), the Houston bar bouncer turned New Orleans roofing contractor, picks up his cousin by marriage Nelson Hidalgo (new regular Jon Seda) at the airport. Hidalgo asks how business is going and Arnie says it's booming, impressing Hidalgo.
In New York, Janette bids adieu to a one-night stand and awaits critical comments from her two male roommates, tattoo-covered Nick and Chas, who currently are getting stoned for breakfast. At first, they wonder if it's a good idea to have a fling with someone she works with, but Janette sets them straight. "First of all, he's not from my restaurant. I got take out on the way home," she tells them. They offer her some of their weed, but she declines, asking if they work stoned, but they say they don't have to be in until 2, though they imagine she needs her brain where she works. Coughing, Nick (James Ransone, whom you might recognize as Ziggy from Season 2 of co-creator David Simon's previous series The Wire) says, "I would not want to be fucked up at all at Brulard." Chas (Derek Cecil) concurs. "Yeah. The dude senses fear." Nick adds, "Then he fucks with you just to prove that he can fuck with you." "Good cook though, right?" Chas asks. "Oh, he's a great cook," Nick replies, adding "right?" and looking to Janette for confirmation. She takes another sip of coffee, finishes putting on her coat and cold weather wear and heads outdoors.
Sonny wakes up less than pleased to find that the two men he now shares his apartment with since he kicked Annie out are using it as a place to conduct drug deals, though they insist "it's cool" and it's how they come up with their part of the rent each month. Arnie takes his cousin Nelson to one of his work sites and introduces him to one of the workers, Riley (Tim Bellow), the man whose business he took over thanks to LaDonna forcing him to or face criminal charges for trying to rip her off on Gigi's roof repairs. Albert washes some dishes at Poke's when the past comes walking through the former bar's door — Poke (George Wilson) himself. Albert smiles at the sight of the man but the first words out of Poke's mouth are, "Where's my sign?" Antoine and Desiree visit Desiree's mother's abandoned house and actually find a photo album untouched by water after more than a year sitting on top of a cabinet. Her mother has decided to unload the property to the Road Home project*, a federally funded, state-run homeowner aid program where the property gets bought back at its pre-hurricane value, minus insurance. Antoine asks how long it would take to get the money. Desiree says it is supposed to take four-six weeks to find out the amount after you file the paperwork. Her family can't afford to fix it, so they'll take whatever they give them. The big problem is the company requires the deed for the house and it's been in her family dating back to her grandfather and she doesn't know how to get around that. Realizing they need a way home and Desiree refuses the walk to the nearest bus stop, Antoine whips out his trusty cell to call a cab and Desiree again tells him to get a "job job." He suggests moving to the Musicians' Village. She's skeptical of relocating to the Ninth Ward and qualifying for a mortgage. "We might have to get married," she warns him. The idea of matrimony puts a stricken look on Antoine's face.
Toni tries to bring Alison Myers (LeToya Luckett), her new assistant, a transplant from California who has only been in New Orleans since September, up to speed on her cases, including some shootings at a second line on MLK weekend. "If there's violence after a second line, NOPD always blinks with clubs," Toni informs her. She adds that after that, they bumped permit fees to justify police overtime for two hours before and after an event. "Next thing you know, they'll be trying to make the Indians have permits and then there will be blood in the streets," Toni says, waving one of her high heels. Alison asks then if she's suing the city to roll back the fees. "It's a huge thing. It's about sustaining the culture. The city's always at war with the Indians, musicians, the second liners about noise, curfew, permits...They just don't get it. We came so close to losing everything, you'd think they'd appreciate what we have," Toni tells her. She adds that she's representing one of the families in the Danziger Bridge case. Alison promises she'll get up to speed. Toni tells her that she'll spare her the details of what's going on at home with Sofia and school, but she's not taking any new cases and then she dashes off to court.
Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) plays a New York gig promoting his new CD. At the after party, while chatting with some attendees, the subject of New Orleans comes up and one of the concertgoers admits that she wouldn't know he's from New Orleans just by listening to his music. The conversation grows heated when one man asks how the recovery is going and compares it to 9/11 and Ground Zero still being a hole in the ground five years later. It gets worse when the subject turns to New Orleans music itself. One of the men says Delmond "transcends" New Orleans just like Wynton (as in Marsalis) but Delmond argues that Marsalis embodies that city. Another man joins in, calling New Orleans jazz "Dixieland jazz" and a "tourist economy minstrel show," finally getting Delmond steamed enough to say, "Fuck you all. You don't know what you're fuckin' talking about" and walking off.
Antoine has wrangled an energetic gig with Bonerama at Tipitina's with a group of trombonists when one of the other musicians summons Batiste to the microphone and he actually sings for a change instead of just playing his bone. Back in New York, Delmond and his date Jill Hudson (Danai Gurira) have gone to a rooftop where Delmond still seethes about the party conversation with the Empire State Building standing in the background. "Fuckin' know-it-all New Yorkers," Delmond groans as Jill claims they were trying to be sympathetic. She also points out that she's heard Delmond say many of the same sort of things such as New Orleans music belongs in a wax museum. He says he's never used the word minstrel. "You are always talking about how it's never going to be the same," Jill says. "I get to say that," Delmond insists. "They don't." As the real-life owner of Tipitina's, sousaphonist Matt Perrine, pays Antoine for his night's work, he tells him that he should do more vocals. The crowd enjoyed it. Batiste starts asking Matt, who also has his own group, Sunflower City, what's it like. He tells him it's a rush, satisfying. Antoine tells him he's been contemplating the crossroads in his life such as when he picked up the trombone instead of the trumpet. "You ever wish you were out front playing a trumpet or harmonica or something?" Antoine asks since Perrine's sousaphone also is a sizable instrument, and Matt admits he does and asks if Antoine is thinking of switching instruments. "I'm playing with you about picking up the trumpet," Batiste says. "I'm thinking about pussy." Antoine says it's too late for him to switch instruments, but he does seriously think about all the women he could have had if he'd chosen the trumpet. Delmond shows strong evidence for that.
Albert and his fellow tribe members load up cars with their equipment as Poke tells them, a bit sorrowfully, that Albert had to know he'd be coming back sooner or later. Poke tells them he appreciates them clearing out so quickly and anytime they want him to open up for Indian practice, just let him know. While the other men speak, Albert stays noticeably silent throughout the loading except for the loud slamming of car doors and he shoots Poke an icy glare as he gets into the car and drives away. At Davis' apartment, McAlary takes care of his version of cleaning. He tosses the dust off a throw rug and douses it with a spray, hides a bunch of dirty clothes in a closet and then he faces the kitchen. He starts by systematically knocking empty beer bottles one by one off the counter's edge into the trash can. Then he stares at the overflowing sink full of dirty dishes. He picks up the first one, looks at it a moment and decides discarding it in the trash makes for an easier solution than cleaning it. He moves to the next plate, uses his thumb to scrape at whatever food remnants remain and trashes it as well. Finally, he grabs the whole stack of dirty dishes and dumps all of them into the garbage. He does a half-hearted job at making the bed, sprays the apartment some more and straightens the kitchen table, blowing dust off it, wiping it briefly and tossing the dustcloth as far as he can.
Arnie drives Nelson downtown for a meeting with powerful banker C.J. Liguori. The name means nothing to Arnie, but Nelson describes him as "one of the powers behind the throne, a kingmaker." Understandably, Arnie asks how Nelson would know such a person, but Hidalgo says he's "a friend of my friends." Arnie inquires if this C.J. "whatever" is really going to make Nelson a king, but Nelson just winks. At the banker's office, the large assortment of plaques, photos and awards adorning C.J.'s wall enthralls Nelson until he addresses Liguori (Dan Ziskie) about his family, which is very large. Nelson admits he has no kids yet, but that he comes from a large family himself — Hidalgo resides as the exact middle child of 13 kids, with six older and six younger siblings. Hidalgo brings greetings from Texas Gov. Rick Perry as well as other Texas GOP leaders. "We've been through a lot here," C.J. says. "We still have a long way to go. Nobody's been through what we've been through in this country, not since the San Francisco earthquake but it's an ill wind that blows no good, you understand what I'm saying?" "Never let a disaster go to waste," Hidalgo responds. Liguori explains that New Orleans had been on a downward slide for a long time in terms of crime, schools and infrastructure and this presents a second chance for the city. "At one time, we were the biggest city in the South, then Houston, Atlanta, Dallas — they all left us in the dust," C.J. continues, before asking if Nelson has heard the talk in Dallas that he's heard everywhere of people asking why New Orleans should even be rebuilt. "The mouth of the Mississippi? There has to be a port here. The nation needs New Orleans," Liguori declares, "and there's no reason why New Orleans can't be a great city again." He adds that there is a lot of money to be made there and Nelson tells him that's why he's there. As both stand for Nelson to leave, Hidalgo admires the view of the great river and C.J. points out that it's the west bank of the Mississippi. "But we're looking east?" Nelson says, puzzled. "I know. It's confusing."
Davis tinkers on his piano at composing a new song when Annie walks in and he greets her with a "Hey" and gets a "Hey you" back. Davis tells Annie how glad he is to see her and she concurs before they share a long embrace. Not only has Davis been able to hold on to his D.J. job for seven months, it appears what looked like the start of a tenuous relationship at the end of season one has held up as well, only it looks in much better shape than the job. He asks how the tour went and Annie says it was awesome — they even let her jam with them during their set every Saturday night. Davis asks if any of the guys hit on her, but Annie insists they were "perfect gentlemen" though Davis is skeptical since he knows most of them and their horndog ways, but he does have faith in Annie to resist if they tried. Despite Davis's haphazard effort at the job, Annie turns, quite seriously, and says, "Davis, you cleaned for me." He points out that it sort of smells like a free meadow.
Now homeless again, Albert and his friends arrive at his home. Lambreaux unchains the gate and steps inside the darkened structure which remains much like the last time he laid eyes on it. The unmoving ceiling fan hangs motionless above them. LaDonna comes home and Larry (Lance E. Nichols) turns on the bedside lamp and reaches for the remote control until he hears her say from the other room, "You're not going to turn on the TV, are you?" He quickly puts the remote back down with the expression of a kid caught doing something he shouldn't and says, "No." Larry says to remember to thank her mother for taking the boys. LaDonna tells him her mom didn't want to stay over. She just wanted to check out Daymo's grave and visit a bit before heading back to Baton Rouge. LaDonna brings them both glasses of water and tells her husband she likes it when he shouts when they're making love. Larry didn't realize he had been, but LaDonna says he was at the end and mimics his "Oh, baby. OH, BABY!" He says he figures he's safe as long as he sticks to baby and she give him a playful tap, "As long as you thinkin' bout me." "Who else?" LaDonna tells him that now that her mother lives with them in Baton Rouge, he can visit in New Orleans more since they don't have any privacy on the weekends up there. She asks how early he has to leave in the morning and he tells her his first patient is at 9, but his mood has changed and he wants to know when she is coming home. LaDonna says she is home. "No, this is your mama's home and she's not coming back. We need to sell this place. We need to sell the bar," Larry declares. "I ain't selling the bar, Larry," LaDonna tells him. He tells her she has no reason not to now that her mother has moved to Baton Rouge. LaDonna tries to change the subject by disappearing beneath the covers.
"You've got to spread joy up to the maximum/Bring gloom down to the minimum/Have faith or pandemonium's/Liable to walk upon the scene," is where we come in on the lyrics to the song that gives this episode its title, currently being sung by Annie, John Boutte and two other musicians sitting on stools at The Spotted Cat Music Club with Annie occasionally bringing out her violin while others strum a guitar and play a trombone right after the lyric "Don't mess around with Mister In-Between/No, don't mess around with Mister In-Between." Could Sonny be Mister In-Between? Because that's when we spy him watching from the bar. Back in the New York kitchen of Brulard, the usual chaos reigns. The restaurant's namesake has four entrees laid out in front of him and he's carefully arranging parsley and whatnot atop them until he suddenly explodes and sweeps all four plates off the table to the sound of shattering and shouts, "Fuck it!" Then, in a calmer voice, Brulard says, "Start again. Table 14. One cod. One salmon. One pigeon. Two ducks." Then his voice registers anger again. "And do you think this time we can get those ducks right Mr. fucking grill man. Do you think that might be in the realm of possibility that you cook two duck breasts properly and you dress them before you slice them and not fuck over your co-workers and my customers by doing miserable, half-assed, thoroughly unacceptable work?" Janette watches with both sympathy for the grill man (Alon Shaya) being chewed out and contempt for the son of a bitch she works for now when she once was her own boss.
At home, Toni looks disturbed to find that Sofia has followed her late father's path with an angry YouTube rant, complete with Creighton's expletives that Toni's uncertain she likes hearing her teenage daughter broadcasting to the world over the Internet. Back at The Spotted Cat, Annie, Boutte and the other musicians have moved off their stools to perform a standing set at the same club and Sonny somehow has horned into the performance on guitar. By this time though, Davis has arrived to wach his woman perform. Annie's violin solo brings a big grin to Davis' face. At the song's completion, Annie politely tells Sonny, "That was nice," shakes his hand and quickly says, "See ya" and heads to Davis. They hug and she says it must be rough on Sonny, so Davis goes to talk to him. He tells him about her coming off a tour with the subdudes and how great she's doing. "The sky's the limit," Sonny says. Davis says it was good to see him and heads back to Annie as Sonny takes a big swig of his beer.
Nelson shows up at his cousin's work site in a spiffy rental car and catches Arnie having trouble giving instructions to his crew. Hidalgo tells him they can't understand him because his Spanish sucks, but he wants to take him to lunch. Arnie suggests a dive, but Nelson remind him that he's in New Orleans with a reputation for great food. Besides, he's heard of a place. Already having lunch are Lt. Colson and Toni, disagreeing over the details of a shooting. Toni says the only people firing were cops and Terry wants to know how she could possibly know that and she just gives him a look that reads, "Come on now." Colson says he guesses it will all get sorted out. She asks him when the police plan to stop harassing the Jackson Square musicians. "Are we going to fight about that too?" he asks. Toni just smiles and Terry switches subjects to Sofia, asking how she's doing. "Depressed. Angry. Anxious. Aren't we all?" Toni replies. "Everybody is out of their mind," Colson concurs. Toni asks about the lieutenant's children. He says when he gets his son on the phone, it's always, "Sure dad. Uh-huh." Toni says it sounds familiar. Colson says it's been six months, referring to Creighton, but Toni corrects him that it's been seven. "Things getting any better?" he asks. "Worse I say," Toni admits. Terry asks if she wants to talk. "It was an accident, but you know," she says, indicating that they both know that isn't true, but that Sofia doesn't know the truth.
The lunch does not disappoint Nelson who asks Arnie why he didn't tell him about the city earlier, but Arnie insists he's been urging him to come down for six months. Hidalgo asks his cousin where's a good spot for them to hear some good music that night "because there's more to life than money." Yes, indeed. There's paperwork, lots of paperwork, which Albert is combing through under a desk lamp in his shell of a house and punchng numbers into an adding machine. He finds a check and stares at it. The distance between Sofia and Toni at dinner has as a physical measure as much as a psychological one as Toni asks how school was and gets a nonspecific "OK" in response. She tells her daughter she hasn't seen any tests or quizzes recently and Sofia tells her mom there haven't been any. Toni asks what she's reading in English and Sofia tells her Frederick Douglass' autobiography. "Parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon. I'm not in for any surprises, am I?" Toni inquires with concern, receiving only a shrug in response. The more boredom the girl exhibits, the more worry you can hear in Melissa Leo's voice and see in the face of her subtle performance as Toni, such a stark contrast to her wild, scenery-chewing turn that just got her the Oscar for The Fighter. "Sofia, are you making new friends?" The teen tells her mom she has the same ones she had last semester, before turning the sarcasm back on full throttle. "The school is gorgeous, state of the art. The teachers are just the best, so caring and committed. The student body is so perfectly Benettoned that it makes me want to puke," Sofia intones. "I just asked a simple question. I don't need your sarcasm," Toni replies, adding a slightly sterner tone. "Status quo. Everything's status quo," Sofia says as she takes her dinner out of the room. You hear a door slam once she's gone.
Annie, with Davis at her side, actually watches a performance for a change instead of giving one as the couple takes in a show at Tipitina's. "How do they put that all together?" she asks Davis as the varied styles of Galactic, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Juvenile merge together to play. "This is New Orleans, we put everything together," Davis tells her. "Do you know what gumbo ya-ya really means? Everyone talks at once." The jam they're listening to mixes rap with more traditional jazz instruments. Davis encourages Annie to play with the rapper, sometime, but she doesn't think so. In New York, Janette sits at a bar, drinking alone and looking around, almost as is if she might be looking for "take out" again.
On the street, Sonny stands behind a police line listening to Baby Boyz Brass Band really bring it on to the enjoyment of passing pedestrians, who drop donations their way. Also in the crowd is the boy Robert from the show's opening, still struggling with his trumpet. A man asks how long he's been playing and Robert says two months, but it's hard. The man reassures him it will get easier. The music begins to be drowned out by the wail of sirens and flashing lights can be seen in the distance. Lt. Colson arrives and asks the detective already on the scene what he knows. "Straight up robbery. Two kids on bikes, a little slow picking up her purse," the detective reports. Colson takes the slow walk to the victim lying dead in the street. He stares down for a moment before crouching for a closer look. He then hears the trumpet. He stands and spots Robert. "Kid, there's a curfew. What the fuck are you doing? Go home."
*Hat tip to Dave Walker's Treme explained column at the Times-Picayune for clearing that up for me.
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Saturday, April 23, 2011
“I ain’t so tough…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
There have been many variations of the tale but most of them are in agreement that the starring role in Warner Bros.’ production of The Public Enemy (1931) had originally been assigned to actor Edward Woods, a stage veteran recently signed to the studio. The picture, based on a novel entitled Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (and adapted for the screen by Harvey F. Thew), would chronicle the based-on-true-events story of a pair of Chicago pals who graduate from petty crime to the upper levels of the rackets only to both meet particularly grisly and violent ends by the movie’s conclusion. Woods would play Tom Powers, and a studio contract player who had also been quietly making a name for himself in a few Warner productions would play Powers’ sidekick, Matt Doyle.
This player — born James Francis Cagney, Jr. — had for many years been a stage comedian and hoofer when Warners hired him (and co-star Joan Blondell) to appear in the film adaptation of a Broadway play they had appeared in, Penny Arcade (which was re-titled Sinners’ Holiday for the screen). Director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, at the helm of Enemy, couldn’t help but notice the effectiveness of the charismatic Cagney and decided to switch the two actors in their parts. And that is the reason why Edward Woods remains a mere footnote in cinematic history, and the fortunate James Cagney became a silver screen icon for his breakthrough performance in The Public Enemy…released to theaters on this date 80 years ago today.
As the film begins, we get a glimpse at the early life of rambunctious scamps Tom Powers and Matt Doyle, two chums who engage in the usual sort of childhood mischief growing up on the back streets of the Windy City in 1909. The movie seems to argue the “nurture” not “nature” argument because Tom’s parents don’t take much of a hand in raising him right; his father (a policeman) is an uncommunicative authoritarian who regularly administers beatings to his progeny and his mother (Beryl Mercer) is a sainted Irish mother stereotype who forgives him for any and all transgressions. As such, Tom and Matt fall under the spell of the neighborhood Fagin, a two-bit hood nicknamed “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell) who encourages them to commit petty larceny (in one scene, he agrees to fence some watches the boys have rooked) and promises to let them in on the “next big thing” he’s got going. That turns out to be an ill-fated attempt to rob a furrier’s but when things turn sour (a friend of Tom and Matt’s is killed, and the duo shoot and kill the cop responsible) Putty Nose takes it on the lam, reneging on his promise to stand by his “boys.”
Older but no wiser, Tom and Matt gravitate to the employ of a jovial bootlegger named Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), who's raking in money hand over fist thanks to Prohibition…and because Tom displays a ruthlessness that outshines Ryan’s rivals he and Matt rise quickly through the ranks, enjoying the benefits that come from living the gangster life: sharp clothes, flashy cars and loose women (played by Blondell and Mae Clarke). Tom hasn’t forgotten his humble origins, however, and goes out of his way to financially assist his ma (now a widow) but runs into friction with his older, straight-laced brother Mike (Donald Cook), a World War I veteran (and a shell-shocked one at that) whose attempts to better himself by studying and going to night school haven’t quite reaped the same level of financial rewards his younger sibling now enjoys.
Another hood who works for Paddy, “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), is a pal of Tom and Matt’s but is killed in a freak accident while horseback riding (he fell off his steed and was trampled to death) — and that forebodes a bleak future for the Ryan mob, who find themselves embroiled in a gang war with Paddy’s rival, “Schemer” Burns. Burns’ men kill Matt and when Tom retaliates he ends up wounded and hospitalized, his family concerned as to whether he’ll pull through. Burns’ mob kidnaps Tom and when Paddy promises to quit the rackets if they return Tom to his family’s home the rival gang is only too happy to comply in one of the most unforgettable endings in movie history.
In the opening scenes of Public Enemy the young Tom and Matt are played by child actors Frank Coughlin, Jr. and Frankie Darro…and if it seems odd that Darro, who literally looks like Jimmy Cagney’s “kid bruddah,” essays the role that Edward Woods eventually plays as an adult that’s because the childhood scenes were filmed before director Wellman decided to make the famous switcheroo. Wellman not only took credit for bestowing Cagney with the showier part but also for coming up with the movie’s notorious and now iconic scene in which Jimmy’s character rewards girlfriend Mae Clarke with a grapefruit shoved in her mush. Wellman claims it was inspired by something he’d always wanted to do to his wife whenever the two of them got in a scrap; the film’s producer, a young Darryl F. Zanuck maintained the inspiration for the bit came in a script conference and a third variation from writers Glasmon and Bright argues that it was motivated by a real-life mobster who once shoved an omelet into his moll’s kisser. Whichever version you choose to go with, it laid the groundwork for Cagney’s reputation as a guy who could sometimes demonstrate a little cruelty towards his women — though when you put it in the big picture it’s rather tame compared to what he does to Clarke in 1933’s Lady Killer (he grabs her by her hair and drags her across a hotel room floor before booting her out into the corridor).
Public Enemy is arguably quite brutal (perhaps even more brutal than Little Caesar and Scarface, the other members of the 1930s gangster movie Holy Trinity) but Wellman cleverly allows much of the film’s violence to occur off-camera, particularly in the case of the revenge murders of Putty Face and Burns — and a bizarre sequence in which Tom and Matt avenge Nails’ demise by purchasing the horse responsible and shooting it in its stall. Oddly enough, most of the onscreen violence was sort of accidental — in a scene where Cook’s Mike Powers punches out his brother “Wild Bill” instructed the actor to really let Cagney have it…and Jimmy got one of his teeth broken in the process. Cagney’s dental mishap pales in comparison to what could have happened in the scene where the rival Burns gang unleashes machine gun fire on Tom and Matt; as was the custom of the time live ammunition had to be used and Jimmy narrowly missed being hit by the resulting barrage (which takes out a bit of the building where Cagney had been poking his head out earlier).
After the opening credits, there is a “foreword” that reads: “It is the ambition of the authors of ‘The Public Enemy’ to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” Well, that may have been the objective of the authors but I’ve always believed that Warners had other ideas. (It’s what kept Cecil B. DeMille going in the film business all those years — he could show the “sin” as long as he wrapped things up with the “salvation.”) Gangsters are bad, bad, bad but when a charming, energetic guy such as Cagney is essaying the part you can’t tell me people in the audience (both then and today) didn’t feel a sense of admiration for a hood who’s driving around in a nice ride, has money to burn and is courting the likes of the Platinum Blonde herownself, Jean Harlow (in one of her early and very effective showcases), to swanky nightclubs. Cagney is catnip to females in Enemy — the wife of his mentor even seduces him at one point in the film. If you doubt what I’m saying here, compare and contrast Jimmy’s character with that of his older brother — a dour sourpuss who’s been busting his hump trying to academically better himself and is still trapped in a nickel-and-dime job as a trolley car conductor. OK, Cagney does come to a particularly violent end as the movie calls it a wrap but he accomplishes what John Derek’s Nick Romano sets out to do in 1949’s Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” (Well, two out of three isn’t bad.)
James Cagney’s flirtation with gangster roles didn’t necessarily start with Public Enemy — he had played a hood in two earlier films, the aforementioned Holiday and Doorway to Hell — but the studio quickly realized that tough guy parts became him (even to the point of shooting Smart Money, a film he co-starred in with WB’s other resident mobster, Edward G. Robinson, at the same time) and Enemy proved to be the actor’s passport to silver screen immortality. Cagney never dismissed the importance that Enemy played in his career though he was disappointed that Warners begin to typecast him in those kinds of parts (not to mention the pittance they were paying him every week. He was later able to establish himself as one of moviedom’s most versatile thesps, winning an Academy Award for best actor in a film that let him show audiences what he was doing before the onslaught of gangster melodramas: singing and dancing as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The success of Public Enemy led to subsequent re-releases throughout the years, notably in 1941 and 1954…the latter year is when a young man named Martin Scorsese saw it on the big screen (paired with Little Caesar) and the future director has never been shy in admitting its influence on his directing career. When Enemy was re-released in 1941, though, the studio had to excise three scenes in order to comply with the Production Code; one of them was the aforementioned seduction scene between Cagney’s character and his boss’s moll and the other was a shot of Cook and Blondell having a roll in the hay (a sequence that was previously believed to be lost because the studio dumped the original footage in the 1950s). The third is a bit in which an effeminate tailor measures Cagney for a suit; he keeps rattling off Jimmy’s measurements ending with the phrase “and a half,” prompting his assistant to echo him (except he pronounces “half” as “hawf”). This scene will give you an idea that in addition to the action and drama in the film there are some fairly comedic moments (even the sequence where they croak the horse is amusing in a black humor sort of way).
Nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, The Public Enemy did very well at the box office and earned raves from the critics, and has since become one of the seminal films in the gangster genre…a classic that was acknowledged as such when it was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1998. The cast is marvelous, the direction tight and stylish and the script has a rat-a-tat-ness that is punctuated by Cagney’s signature fast-talking style. It was the film that made the actor a force to be reckoned with…and 80 years later since its debut it remains a staple in any serious filmgoer’s education.
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Friday, April 22, 2011
When that line started getting fuzzy
By Edward Copeland
As you idly flip past ads for TV shows with shrieking housewives, young Jerseyites, the home lives of aging rock stars and countless other forms of grotesqueries labeled "reality TV," it's hard to believe the genre began as a noble experiment aired on PBS nearly 40 years ago. The excellent new HBO film Cinéma Vérité, which debuts Saturday night, details the behind-the-scenes story that put the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., in U.S. living rooms on the landmark series An American Family, turned them into national pariahs and created a truly pivotal pop culture moment.
All my life, I've pretty much been an information vacuum, sucking up trivia and being able to spend it like currency, even if it was something I'd never seen. Since I was just 4 when An American Family aired in 1973, I never actually saw the series, yet I always knew what people were talking about when they brought up the Loud family (not to be confused with the skit from the original Saturday Night Live cast). With Cinéma Vérité, I feel even more secure in my knowledge of this media milestone.
With co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini at the helm, Cinéma Vérité has precisely the right filmmakers steering the ship since they are the team who made the great and unusual biopic of Harvey Pekar, American Splendor. It also doesn't hurt that they're filming a sharp script by David Seltzer whose unusual resume of writing credits includes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Omen, Lucas and many others I'll omit so as not to embarrass him. The directors' greatest assets though happen to be its talented cast led by Diane Lane, Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini.
Gandolfini plays Craig Gilbert, a documentary filmmaker whose most recent work had been on the anthropologist Margaret Mead. He gets the idea to really look inside an American family, to get beyond the TV depictions such as The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch. After talking to a friend (Kathleen Quinlan) who brings him some possible Santa Barbara families to try to talk into the project, Gilbert settles on the Louds, approaching Pat Loud (Lane) first. The two seem to have an immediate connection as Gilbert explains that he wants to observe an American family the way Margaret Mead did a primitive one by placing a camera crew within their home. Pat's marriage with her husband Bill (Robbins) isn't in the best shape, but she's game anyway and Gilbert tries to sell the idea to the whole family, who mostly seem willing, though Bill asks what they get out of it if they aren't being paid.
The married camera team Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins) become attached to the Loud family, since they see first-hand things that are ripping them apart, causing conflict with Gilbert who grows angry at times when the Raymonds refuse to film the most dramatic stuff, and the financial backers in New York are on his back over the lack of high drama, amount of film used and rising costs. Eventually, the secrets and tensions do spill out in front of the camera such as when Pat tires of ignoring Bill's adultery and asks him for a divorce on camera and when they film oldest son Lance (Thomas Dekker), who is openly gay (except with his in-denial, Nixon-backing father). When the camera crew follows Pat to New York to visit Lance, he tells her that a girl named Candy proposed to him and takes Pat to see Candy — at her drag show. "She's a man," Pat says to her son. "I haven't accepted anything," Lance reassures his mother. Since it was the first time a proud, openly gay man appeared on TV, Cinéma Vérité could have spent a bit more time on Lance's role in the impact the series had.
The real fallout happens once the 12-part series airs and the Louds see what a difference editing can make and cringe at the promotional ads asking what viewers would do if their son was gay or if Pat should leave Bill. The nation turns on them, wondering why they would allow their lives to be public like that, discounting the fact that the American viewers were the ones eating it up. Why is that "If you don't like it, turn it off" concept so hard to understand, particularly for Americans? Of course, nearly 20 years before An American Family aired Thelma Ritter's Stella nailed our country's problem in Hitchcock's Rear Window long before a reality TV show aired: "We've become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
As they did in American Splendor, the directors employ unique techniques to tell this story, techniques that prove even more appropriate to Cinéma Vérité, since this movie recounts the merging of real life with entertainment and frequently in the film, especially during the opening credits, Berman and Pulcini mix footage of the real Patricia and Bill Loud with re-creations of Diane Lane and Tim Robbins playing their roles. Throughout the movie, Berman and Pulcini keep their tale flowing efficiently and though they do use many great shots, aided by editing by Sarah Flack and Pulcini, but rarely ones overly showy to the point of drawing attention to the direction and away from the story. One exception comes late in the film and proves well worth it. After An American Family has hit the airwaves and become a national phenomenon, an image of Diane Lane on a TV set keeps multiplying into innumerable TVs which then become the lit windows of a building. It's a very nice shot, even if the beginning resembles Gus Van Sant's of Alison Folland's in To Die For when she describes her character's media fame.
The cast all perform well, but by far Diane Lane turns out to be the standout, giving some of the other players, especially Robbins, a bit of short shrift. Coming this soon after seeing Kate Winslet's brilliant work in Mildred Pierce, I didn't think there could be any serious contenders, but I've never seen Lane turn in a better performance than she does here. She's touching, frustrating, brutally honest and damn funny at times.
Those adjectives describe Cinéma Vérité as well. It's only 90 minutes long, but it's incredible how many levels it's successfully working on simultaneously: historical account, satire, commentary, entertainment. So many films wear out their welcome, it's rare to find one that leaves you wanting more, especially from what happens after American Family airs. I could have used more of when the Louds took the offensive to defend their honor (and set the stage for future reality TV stars by perpetuating their fame through books, music and other projects). That reservation aside, it shouldn't be missed. Cinéma Vérité debuts Saturday night on HBO at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT and 8 p.m. CDT.
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Thursday, April 21, 2011
14 months after Katrina (in Treme time)
By Edward Copeland
New Orleans Police Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse) told civil rights attorney Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) in the fifth episode of Treme that morale in his department had fallen precipitously and crime was getting ready to come back in a big way and the city wasn't prepared. Morse's character was only recurring in the first season, but he's been bumped up to a regular for season two, which premieres Sunday night on HBO, and it appears, based on the first three episodes of the second season, Colson's prediction about a steep rise in crime have come true. However, if you were a fan of the first season of Treme, have no fear that the series has undergone a sudden transformation in its second season into a police procedural: It remains one of the most unusual dramas on the air today with a rhythm wholly its own and music — lots and lots of music. Treme, at least from what I've seen of the second season so far, continues to follow the beat of its own very unique drummer.
Co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer set the first season of Treme three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. A title card informs viewers that we begin season two on Nov. 1, 2006, All Saints Day, 14 months after Katrina, though in terms of the characters' lifespans, only seven months have passed since the first season ended. In the three episodes I've seen so far, Overmyer wrote the premiere (and shares story credit with none other than Food Network star Anthony Bourdain), and Simon writes the second episode, which is directed by Tim Robbins. All the main characters remain pretty much where we last saw them.
Toni Bernette (Leo) perseveres with her legal practice devoted to the underdog while adapting to the new role of single mom to 16-year-old Sofia (India Ennenga, who has been promoted to the opening credits) following the suicide of husband Creighton (the much-missed John Goodman). If Toni has had difficulty adjusting to being a widow, she hides it well, though at vulnerable moments she'll break. Sofia, on the other hand, definitely has changed since her dad's death, even taking on his role as New Orleans' resident YouTube ranter. While Toni gets an assistant (LaToya Luckett) and attempts to lighten her caseload, her concerns about Sofia's moods and attitudes do seem to be weighing on her. Leo, whom I've loved since her work as Kay Howard on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, really has had a chance to show her range and shine in the past few months, winning an Oscar for The Fighter and providing fine support as Kate Winslet's best friend Lucy in the recent Mildred Pierce miniseries, also on HBO. To see her so soon after those roles back as Toni truly shows what a talent Leo is.
When I covered the first season of Treme, I said that I meant this as no slight to the male actors on the show and I still mean it as I write it again now when I say there were three MVPs among the cast of the first season and they were all women: Leo, Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams and Kim Dickens as Janette Desautel. In fact, the actresses were so good, as was the series, that none of them received Emmy nominations. Then again, now that Treme features an Oscar winner as a regular in Leo perhaps that will change next time (or that will mean they will only recognize her name). I digress. Back to LaDonna and Janette. In season two, both characters remain basically in the places we left them. LaDonna finally has convinced her aging mother (Venida Evans) to abandon New Orleans and live with the family in Baton Rouge, the ammunition LaDonna's husband Larry (Lance E. Nichols) believes he needs to get LaDonna to close Gigi's and stop her commute to run the New Orleans bar, but LaDonna finds herself resisting the idea. After having to finally close her well-received but money-losing restaurant, Janette has staked out a life for herself in New York "with the big boys" of the culinary world as she said she would, working as one of many chefs in the high-class Manhattan eatery of master chef Enrico Brulard (Victor Slezak) who is half tyrant/half lunatic.
Janette's on again/off again ex, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), the one-time political candidate and sometime musician has, against all odds, been able to hold on to the disc jockey job he got back at the radio station, though he still pisses management off with his record selection. Even more amazingly, a relationship has developed and continued between Davis and former street violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli). With the approach of Thanksgiving, Annie wants to know if Davis will take her home to meet the white sheep of his family, but he's hesitant, since the only time he took a woman home, she left the state (she being Janette). Annie's ex, Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who contributed to the weakest storyline of the first season, keeps struggling with his music on the sidewalks of the French Quarter while various druggies use his apartment as a place not only to shoot up and get high but to deal as well.
LaDonna's ex, trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), continues to float from irregular gig to irregular gig while his common-law wife Desiree (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc) basically supports them and their infant daughter on her meager schoolteacher's pay as the school system barely gets up and running again following years of infighting and corruption that occurred long before Katrina struck the city. During one jam session, Antoine actually puts down his horn and takes to the microphone for some vocals and finds he likes it and begins to get the idea that he should stop trying to find places to plug himself in but should form his own band. Desiree's preference continues to lean toward Antoine getting a regular paying job. One thing I learned since season one that I didn't realize is that Montana-LeBlanc, who always looked familiar to me, is a published author about the Katrina experience who appeared in both of Spike Lee's documentaries about the aftermath of the storm: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise.
Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) continues to work odd jobs but his friends and son Delmond (Rob Brown) and daughter Davinna (Edwina Findley) notice a distinct disinterest in the Indian chief in planning any tribal activities as he did when he first returned to New Orleans after the storm following a sudden, forced relocation and continued battles with insurance companies. He doesn't seem to be the same Albert Lambreaux who was willing to take on the city and the federal government over the closed housing projects which received next-to-no damage from Hurricane Katrina yet former occupants were barred from returning to the apartments. It's not that he's bowing down now, it just seems he isn't interested in standing up like he once was and his children are concerned. Meanwhile, Delmond finds himself dissatisfied with the promotion and sales of his latest jazz CD and, unbelievably, a defender of New Orleans to those elsewhere who put it down. Delmond also continues his practice of juggling different girlfriends in different cities.
Season two introduces one new regular who does raise concerns on my part, simply because of my general distaste for the actor. If you remember the character of Arnie (Jeffrey Carisalez), the bouncer who followed Sonny back from a gig in Houston, ended up as a roof contractor, fixed LaDonna's saloon's roof and took the crooked contractor who was ripping her off's business, he welcomes his cousin by marriage Nelson Hildago (played by Jon Seda, the actor who helped to ruin Homicide: Life on the Street). Hidalgo comes to the Big Easy hoping the easy refers to money, planning to set up big contracts through business and political contacts so he can get rich. At least he's playing an opportunistic character we aren't supposed to like, but his presence makes me nervous. It makes me feel bad for disliking Sonny so much last season.
Time will tell how this season will develop, but the first three episodes certainly seem up to the quality of season one. Treme premieres at 10 p.m. EDT/PDT and 9 p.m. CDT Sunday on HBO and will air at the same time each Sunday for its 11-episode season.
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Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Restoring a bit of faith in genuine goodness
By Edward Copeland
With the amount of mischief, malfeasance and worse that goes on in the world, such as that conducted by the companies, our government and regulatory agencies which led to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico one year ago today, it's hard not to be cynical. Then you watch the documentary short Saving Pelican 895, which debuts on HBO tonight, and see all the people devoted to cleaning, rehabilitating and saving the birds coated by oil by the spill, and your hardened heart reminds your brain that there still are good people in the world. As one of the workers at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Louisiana says in the film, "How can people question that we shouldn't care for these animals?"
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, who was nominated for the 2008 Oscar for documentary short subject for The Final Inch, Saving Pelican 895 focuses on the plight of the brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird, whose history in the state has been one hard struggle. What makes the brown pelican unique among pelicans is that it's the only pelican that dives from the air for its fish. When there began to be a massive use of pesticides along the Mississippi River, it began to kill off the birds, placing them on the endangered species list for 45 years until 1963, when there were none left in the state.
A massive immigration effort imported brown pelicans from Florida to Louisiana and the program proved so successful at repopulating the bird in the state that it was removed from the endangered list in November 2009. Five months later, BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded. Some species just can't catch a break, but this old bird proved sturdier than others. Conservationists, government agencies and activists joined forces to rescue the oil-soaked pelicans and take them to the Fort Jackson facility to be cleaned and rehabilitated before their release to a new pelican colony far removed from the spill site.
In the first three months after the spill, this effort rescued 894 brown pelicans. The film specifically focuses on the pelican given the moniker LA 895. As one of the staff veterinarians explains, an absolute rule they must follow is to never name any of the birds they are treating to prevent becoming too attached should a bad outcome happen.
One of the main interview subjects is the man who leads most of the rescue efforts along the coast itself, state biologist Michael Carloss, who admits that at the beginning of the operation his "dreams are almost nightly of oiled pelicans." LA 895 was thought to be about 10 weeks old, meaning he didn't even know how to fly yet. It was assumed his parents were rescued separately and wondered where he was since in the early weeks of a brown pelican's life, both sexes keep close watch over the fledglings, or that they may have died. The rig explosion happened right in the middle of the species' breeding season, so many of the rescued pelicans were much younger than the birds the rehabilitation center usually sees, meaning the workers and volunteers had to be much more involved than usual. They try to hand-feed the birds only when absolutely necessary because part of the program is to ensure that by the time the pelicans get released, they still fear humans and retain their wildness and won't approach people outside expecting to be fed.
Watching the entire process that these birds go through and how dedicated these people are to saving them truly is moving. The film also has nice original music by Joel Goodman. The documentary makes the point that the U.S. is the only country that requires oil companies to foot the bill for saving wildlife they've inadvertently harmed, a law passed after the Exxon Valdez wreck in Alaska. I do have to ask if that's accurate considering that with the record profits the oil companies make, they still get subsidies from our corrupt Congress, so doesn't that mean it's ultimately taxpayers who are paying? Not that I mind since it's more than a worthy cause, but seeing the reports of how BP has skirted much of its financial responsibilities for the environmental and economic disaster it created along the Gulf Coast, I hated hearing it sound as if they were being forced into good corporate citizenship. (Just this morning, there were more tales of how BP is STILL dragging its feet to avoid paying people's individual claims and, just to make you angrier, even though former BP CEO Tony "I want my life back" Hayward is no longer an active executive, he will retire next year at age 55 with an annual pension of nearly $1 million.)
The heroes in Saving Pelican 895 are the men and women who devote themselves to saving these creatures. It restores part of my faith in humanity. It also shows the strength of these birds, who had to be evacuated during part of the rehab process when a hurricane threatened. As Carloss says near the end, "With all they've been through, they really are survivors. These pelicans are tough."
Saving Pelican 895 airs tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT and 8 p.m. CDT.
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