Tuesday, October 31, 2006
The dead aren't quiet in Hill House
By Edward Copeland
It wouldn't seem appropriate to let Halloween pass by without a post about some classic horror film and, as luck would have it, I finally caught up with 1963's The Haunting this weekend on Turner Classic Movies. It takes some skill to make a film this creepy when very little concrete happens, but director Robert Wise accomplished it, even with an overuse of strange camera angles and an overblown musical score by Humphrey Seale.
Two factors though make The Haunting more than worthwhile: the exquisite black and white cinematography by Davis Boulton and a great performance from the legendary Julie Harris.
Most of the explicit horror occurs before the main plot of the film even gets rolling, as the narrator recounts the sordid history of Hill House with its many deaths that are associated with it, ranging from a young girl's mother to her own death as an old woman thanks to a distracted caretaker.
There's also the case of another ill-fated woman who took a mysterious plunge down the old house's lengthy staircase — and all this happens before Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) announces his intentions to study the supernatural rumors associated with Hill House.
For his study, Markway seeks assistant/witnesses, which he assembles in semi-hipster chick Theodora (Claire Bloom), boozy playboy Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), who believes he's in line to inherit the place and troubled spinster Eleanor Lance (Harris), who may or may not have paranormal abilities of her own that Markway would like to capitalize on.
That is the plot essentially — four people spending time in a reputedly haunted house, but the true horror stems from psychological scars, most of which have been borne by Eleanor and Harris' performance almost single-handedly provides most of the chills. Her hysterics never seem overblown and she keeps the audience guessing — is she nuts? Is she a killer? Is the house really haunted?
To the film's credit, it doesn't answer the question explicitly, leaving it up to the audience to decide. I never bothered to see Jan de Bont's panned 1999 remake of the movie, but I can't imagine how state-of-the art special effects would add to the suspense and creepiness the 1963 version engenders. Who needs CGI when you have Julie Harris, gorgeous black-and-white imagery and a palpable feeling of dread?
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Monday, October 30, 2006
The Wire No. 44: Unto Others
By Edward Copeland
The primary is over and Kima asks Sgt. Landsman if they now have permission to solve the Braddock case now that everyone is done voting — and solve it she does. First, she's encouraged to give a polygraph to the defendant Braddock was scheduled to testify against, learning that the jailed defendant wouldn't make the hit because the witness was a relative — and learning the games that a polygraph is used for by investigators. "No wonder this shit is inadmissible," Kima says. Later, she decides to return to the scene of the crime, tracing bullet trajectories and determining that though the state witness' slaying helped Carcetti win the election, the death actually was accidental, with Braddock catching a stray bullet from someone taking target practice nearby.
Lester on the other hand has reverted to old habits — hauling out his models as he waits for a body to fall having given up for now his pursuit of the missing Lex. Bunk, however, has been enlisted to help in a case that isn't his own. Omar pulls out the get-out-of-jail-free card the prosecutor gave him way back in Season 2 in return for his testimony. Languishing in jail among many men he'd previously robbed, Omar has a five-figure price on his head and barely escapes a hit — so he seeks a favor from Bunk. Bunk resists at first, suggesting Omar make his case in court to which Omar replies, "I'll be seeing God before I swear to him in court." Bunk even broaches the subject of whether Omar was involved in Stringer Bell's murder, but finally relents because of Omar's help retrieving his lost weapon long ago. Bunk's backseat detecting doesn't sit well with the detectives actually assigned to the case, but Bunk does think the case smells funny and does succeed in getting the prosecutor to use her influence to transfer Omar to a county facility following an attempted hit on him in jail and the news he has a five-figure price on his head.
With Omar locked behind bars, Prop Joe finally grabs Marlo's attention, but not because of the poker game stickup — Marlo wants advice about who might be watching him on camera. Prop Joe suggests Marlo steal the camera — if he never hears anything, it's feds. If cops come knocking, it's local — because they are the only ones cheap enough to go ballistic over a missing camera. Sure enough, it works as Herc goes crazy and seeks help from his former partner Carver, who tells Herc they have an enabling relationship. Carver also remembers that he's forgotten to call Bunk and tell him about young Randy's possible help with Lex's murder. However, the detective who takes the message is the same one pissed over Bunk's interference in his investigation of the convenience store slaying and promptly trashes the message. However, Carver offers Herc the suggestion that if Randy can help him and he brings back a murder to the menacing and malicious Lt Marimow, Marimow won't get upset about a stolen camera.
On the school front, thanks to his mother's insistence, Namond begins commanding his own corner for dealing while still going to Bunny's pilot class where he's angered that he can no longer figure out ways to get suspended from school. Bubbles, growing more concerned about the missing Sherrod, shows up at Tilghman Middle School, hoping that perhaps Sherrod has shown up there, which of course he hasn't. He again spots Prez and not realizing he's now a teacher, assumes he's working undercover, gives him a wink and insists that he won't blow his cover. Prez discovers a new way to hold his students' attention when some of the pupils who choose to have lunch in his classroom bide their time playing poker, which Prez takes as an opportunity to teach them about odds and probability, getting Michael to ask if the same skills can help in craps. Prez journeys down to the school's supply room to see if he can find dice in old board games and is shocked to discover that newer editions of math books are gathering dust unused and computers remain boxed and unopened. He takes one back to his room as a teaching tool.
The fallout from the primary continues, with Royce and Carcetti making peace and Royce admitting that he's "halfway glad to get out." Also exiting — Theresa D'Agostino (Brandy Burre), who has left Carcetti's campaign following his spurning of her advances. Carcetti's surprising win has already attracted attention from national Democrats, even though Carcetti still has a general election to win against a Republican named Crawford, though Royce observes that with a 9 to 1 Democratic advantage in voter registration, if Carcetti loses the general, he doesn't deserve the job. Assuming the mantle of ersatz mayor-elect, Carcetti begins examining the police department closely. He's ready to dump Burrell, as was Royce, but he's told by Norman and Odell that a white mayor can't fire an African-American police commissioner, especially since there is no African American close to his rank to succeed him. Norman suggests an outside search but Tommy observes, "If you are talented and black, why would you be in Baltimore?" During his beginning tour of the department though, Daniels catches Carcetti's eyes, even though he's just a major.
Daniels' significant other — Assistant State's Attorney Pearlman — gets to meet her new boss since her old one lost in the election. Ready to hear the worse, she's stunned and elated to learn that her new boss admires her courage in letting MCU release the subpoenas and asks her to be the new head of the violent crimes unit, being in charge of homicide prosecutions. I do have one question that hasn't been answered though: Did Daniels' estranged wife Marla win her election? The show hasn't mentioned the result of her race.
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Thursday, October 26, 2006
Where there's smoke, there's satire
By Edward Copeland
While it admittedly is quite funny in parts, I found myself slightly disappointed once I finally got around to seeing Jason Reitman's writing-directing debut in Thank You for Smoking. It certainly has its moments and some really good performances, but it seems as if the film has been truncated in some way and some of its targets are so easy that it needed to raise the bar higher.
For the uninitiated, Thank You for Smoking adapts Christopher Buckley's satirical novel about a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, portrayed very well in the film by Aaron Eckhart, who may have landed his best role since he first popped up on the national film consciousness back in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. He's aided by a solid ensemble that includes Maria Bello and David Koechner as his fellow "merchants of death," their own term for their roles as lobbyists for the alcohol and gun industries, respectively; Sam Elliott in a small role as a dying Marlboro man; J.K. Simmons as Eckhart's boss; William H. Macy as an anti-tobacco senator; and Robert Duvall as the ornery head of the cigarette company. Somehow though, the film seems to lack a point of view and it isn't quite funny enough to make up for it.
Still, at barely more than an hour and a half long, it certainly proves watchable enough and most of the credit for that has to go to Eckhart who almost single-handedly provides the film with most of its momentum. He's a man who makes his living talking and his conviction as he espouses the cigarette industry's defense is great and makes up for a lot of what the film otherwise lacks.
Thankfully, the film doesn't feel the need to redeem his character by the end but at the same time, it seems more like a collection of skits than a fully developed story, especially with the added subplot of Eckhart's relationship with his son, played by Cameron Bright, the creepy kid from that mess of a movie Birth.
I didn't think Thank You for Smoking was a misfire, but perhaps my expectations for it were too high. The movie needed its own form of a cinematic nicotine kick.
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Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Deaths of some salesmen
By Edward Copeland
For me, to truly appreciate great plays, you usually need to see them performed and, ideally, performed well. This is definitely the case with Arthur Miller's landmark Death of a Salesman, his Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1949 that immortalized the character of Willy Loman. My first exposure to a production of Death of a Salesman was CBS' telefilm version of Dustin Hoffman's 1984 Broadway take on the tale. Since this was my first experience of the play, his was the image of Willy Loman, a small, mousy man who it almost seemed inconceivable could have had a mistress on the side.
As a result, when it was announced that Brian Dennehy would play Loman in a 1999 Broadway revival, the casting seemed odd to me: With Hoffman firmly in my mind, how could I imagine a bear of a man such as Dennehy playing the suicidal salesman. Recently, I had the chance to see the 1951 film version starring Fredric March and a 1966 CBS TV version that starred the original Broadway Willy Loman, Lee J. Cobb, and saw that Hoffman was more the exception than the rule since neither March nor Cobb could be called mousy or small. Comparing the four Lomans and the various Biffs, Happys and Lindas proved quite fascinating for me, illustrating what a difference performers and mediums can make to such a seminal work. I wish I could have seen Cobb on Broadway to see what his performance was like, but alas I had to settle for his 1966 TV reprisal of the role. When the 1951 film version came about, only Mildred Dunnock as Linda and Cameron Mitchell as Happy got to repeat their Broadway roles with Cobb replaced by March and Tony winner Arthur Kennedy replaced by Kevin McCarthy. March and McCarthy both snagged Oscar nominations for their work.
While Fredric March certainly was a good actor, his Willy Loman fell flat for me, as did the film itself, directed by Laszlo Benedek. It's stiff and lifeless and if you weren't aware that Death of a Salesman were a classic or hadn't seen other, better versions, you'd probably wonder what all the fuss was about. For me, Cameron Mitchell as Happy came off best but the film, which really seemed to be a filmed version of the stage production, complete with scenery that fades into other sets in flashbacks, left a lot to be desired. What's most fascinating about comparing the 1951 film version and the 1966 TV version is that Mildred Dunnock repeated her Broadway role as Linda in both productions. As with most everything about the 1951 version, Dunnock left me cold, even when delivering the play's signature line of "Attention must be paid." It made me wonder how Dunnock, certainly no big Hollywood name, especially in 1951, managed to snag the role in the film version when Cobb and Kennedy did not.
Then, I saw the 1966 TV production, not only a better presentation of the play but the opportunity to watch Dunnock play Linda well. I don't know if it could have been attributed to being reunited with Cobb, her original on-stage husband from 1949, but what Dunnock's performance lacked in 1951 she more than made up for in 1966, injecting Linda with a sadness and a strength that was nowhere to be found in the previous movie incarnation. In fact, this time out, Dunnock seemed to me to be the standout of the cast, which included George Segal as Biff and James Farentino as Happy. (It also had Gene Wilder playing nebbishy neighbor Bernard whose line readings at time seem eerily reminiscent of Leo Bloom's hysterics in The Producers two years later.) As a longtime fan of Cobb from many films, most notably On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men, his Willy Loman disappointed me. Granted, he's much better than March, but he seemed to me to yell the role far too much — almost as if he'd time-traveled and channeled some Al Pacino performances. There's very little that is quiet about his Willy Loman, though he does portray the broken side of the man much better that March. What was interesting again is that of the two sons, I thought Farentino's Happy came off best, surprising since Biff is considered the more important role, but Segal just doesn't quite cut it.
Re-visiting Hoffman's 1985 version, after seeing the 1951 and 1966 versions, it seemed the most film-like of any of the filmed versions, but Hoffman himself proved even more mannered and over-the-top than I remembered. However, finally there was a Biff that earned his reputation in John Malkovich and Kate Reid's Linda may well be my favorite of the three interpretations of the roles I've seen. Reid's Linda always is self-assured and stands in stark contrast to even the good Dunnock version. She's protective of her unbalanced husband and ready to take her sons to task when they are mistreating Willy in her eyes. However, as Shakespeare wrote, "The play's the thing" and there is something to be said about seeing Death of a Salesman as it was intended — live on stage. Watching Brian Dennehy in the 1999 Broadway revival remains one of my best theatergoing experiences. Someday, perhaps I'll see another Willy Loman who captivates me the way Dennehy did, but for now, he is my Willy Loman — a large man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders, which Dennehy exemplified both physically and through his performance. He also was aided by another great Linda in Elizabeth Franz. Dennehy and Franz both won deserved Tonys though, as great as Franz was and even with the differences in mediums, I still think I might have liked Kate Reid's Linda best. I wish I could have seen her on stage.
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Monday, October 23, 2006
Mum's the Word
By Josh R
Of all cinematic prototypes, few may inspire as much nostalgia and affection as the classic British domestic. Victorian fictions portray them as colorful cockneys with round faces, comical features and preternaturally cheery natures — as endearing as household pets, and with the same kind of puppyish devotion to their masters. Of course, these pets have a practical utility, and their presence in the home is the ultimate stamp of a life of luxury. Who hasn’t fantasized about being waited upon hand and foot by a hyper-efficient collection of butlers, maids and cooks who execute their duties in crisp, self-effacing fashion and keep the household running like clockwork?
Envy then the Rev. Walter Goodfellow and his wife Gloria, as played by Rowan Atkinson and Kristin Scott Thomas, in the new film Keeping Mum, which is currently playing in select cities. A timid village vicar and his sexually frustrated wife, they inhabit a postcard-pretty cottage in the English countryside, juggling the duties of parenthood, the tedious obligations of parish life, and their own barely acknowledged frustrations with the dullness of it all. The family situation is far from perfect — the vicar is haplessly put-upon by his parishioners and too unassertive to do much about it, his wife is contemplating an affair with her caddish golf instructor, their teenage daughter has begun exploring the mysteries of sex with just about anyone she can get her hands on, and their sensitive young son is the kind of walking target school bullies fantasize about.
All seem resigned to a life of quiet, if genteel, desperation — that is, until Grace Hawkins, their new housekeeper, arrives magically on the scene like an angel from the blue. Lovably eccentric and devoted to a fault, Grace is the kind of servant that would make even Queen Elizabeth II grin with giddy satisfaction. She can cook like a dream (“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she chirpily declares), is equally adept as a confidante as she is at performing household chores, knows all the racy passages from the Bible by heart, and has a solution for seemingly every problem. Dispensing cozy comfort at every turn, she makes Mary Poppins look like a slatternly slacker by comparison. Of course, she occasionally has to kill someone, but if it’s all for the betterment of the family in her care, then where’s the harm? Equal parts sensibility and sentiment, she’s the kind of old-fashioned thinker who believes that all of life’s problems can be solved with a nice cup of tea — and if that won’t suffice, a shovel to the head will do just as nicely.
As if this isn’t recommendation enough, the lovable old sociopath happens to be played by the divine Dame Maggie Smith, an actress of peerless comic ingenuity who knows how to wring laughs from even the flimsiest of set-ups. If the film is the kind of featherweight confection with only slightly less substance than a plate of shortbread and a pot of Earl Grey, the redoubtable Ms. Smith comes miraculously close to making it seem like a five-course dinner. It’s been a long time — far too long — since she had a comic lead to call her own, and her fans will be gratified to know that her sense of timing and gift for priceless inflection haven’t diminished a fraction of an inch. A vision in tweed and sensible shoes, her presence here brings to mind Margaret Rutherford, the plummy-voiced, doughy-faced clown who graced many British comedies of the postwar era; the film itself, a pleasant little trifle that’s not nearly as clever as it would like us to believe, feels like something from that period. If you enjoy the sort of gently risqué, mildly droll Ealing comedies of the 1950s — the kind that usually starred Alec Guinness or Alastair Sim — Keeping Mum may provide a warm rush of nostalgia. If this sort of thing isn’t to your liking (and I know plenty of people who gagged at the similarly twee charms of modern-day Ealings like Waking Ned Devine and Saving Grace), you’ll probably still get a kick out of Smith. Whether brewing up endless pots of tea, helping the vicar to write his sermons, or cutting the brake lines on the bicycle of an 11-year-old bully, she radiates charm, warmth, and a blissfully happy sense of true-blue lunacy.
If Keeping Mum doesn’t give Smith the opportunity to show what dizzying heights she can truly be capable of, it is nonetheless a welcome showcase for her distinctive talents and persona. This isn’t Dame Maggie in full comic flight — you’ll have to look to 1985’s A Private Function for the most recent example of that — but she nevertheless transcends the limitations of the material quite effortlessly, as does Kristin Scott Thomas, who mines her character’s tense exasperation for deliciously sly humor. Rowan Atkinson is reliably funny in nebbish mode, and as for Patrick Swayze, as the libidinous American golf pro — well, if you’re not a fan of the actor, rest assured that Nanny Grace will see to it that his presence in the film, which she judges to be disruptive to the family’s happiness, will be mercifully short-lived.
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Jane Wyatt (1910-2006)
Best known as Robert Young's sensible wife Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best, Wyatt also appeared in numerous films such as Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, Clifford Odets' None But the Lonely Heart and both Boomerang! and Gentleman's Agreement for Elia Kazan.
After the 1940s, she worked almost exclusively in television, including playing Spock's human mother on Star Trek and the wife of Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) on St. Elsewhere.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006; B04
Jane Wyatt, 96, a onetime socialite who specialized in playing well-bred ingenues on stage and film and is best known as the understanding mother in the television sitcom Father Knows Best, died Oct. 20 at her home in Bel Air, Calif. The family said she died in her sleep but did not give further details.
Ms. Wyatt was dropped from the New York Social Register after becoming an actress, but she later reacquired her standing through marriage. Meanwhile, she enjoyed an active career on the Broadway stage and then in Hollywood.
She appeared in about 30 films, including Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), based on James Hilton's novel about a Himalayan nirvana called Shangri-La, and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), in which she was a gentle musician who cared for Cary Grant's cockney ne'er-do-well.
Her name is probably familiar to a generation of television watchers because of Father Knows Best, which aired from 1954 to 1960, in reruns for three more years and in endless syndication after that.
To read the rest of The Washington Post obit, click here.
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Thursday, October 19, 2006
Every show is your last show
By Edward Copeland
The Angel of Death (in the form of Virginia Madsen) hovers literally over The Fitzgerald Theatre as it begins its final broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" in Robert Altman's film of the same name. In many ways, the film plays as if it's marking a summation and an end for Altman as well. We know that's not necessarily true — he's already announced plans to make a fictionalized film based on the documentary Hands on a Hard Body, but though A Prairie Home Companion ends up being merely a pleasant trifle in the Altman canon, you can't help but see allusions to the more glorious films of his past. When one of the performers of the radio show dies unexpectedly backstage, characters are stunned that their leader, Garrison Keillor, doesn't plan to make note of it on the air. Radio doesn't look back, he tells them. When they ask him if he'd want them to remember him if he died, he responds, "I don't want people to be told to remember me."
Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but A Prairie Home Companion plays as if this were Altman composing his own eulogy, making certain to reference his many career highlights. The wonderful cinematography by Edward Lachman creates an atmosphere that seems to take the film outside of any specific time period (As Kevin Kline in a great turn as would-be hardboiled detective Guy Noir comments at one point about the radio show: "It's been on since Jesus was in the third grade), almost seeming as if it's set in the same era as Thieves Like Us or Kansas City.
The many musical numbers recall his great Nashville, of course, but they seemed more in tune to me with his frequent musical outbursts in A Perfect Couple that often occurred while offstage events spun on simultaneously and which Altman himself admitted began as an idea for a filmed concert before a narrative interrupted his plans. Some intricately composed camera moves early in the film recall the unbroken take that opened The Player. However, the Nashville resemblance resonates most strongly when an untested performer (this time Lindsay Lohan instead of Barbara Harris) takes to the stage to save the show, though not because of an assassination, but merely to fill extra air time that remains in the broadcast.
The bare-bones plot concerns a corporation (embodied by Tommy Lee Jones) who buys the radio station and theater that are home to "A Prairie Home Companion" and plans to bring it to an end, even though the real-life version continues. Altman's film really doesn't allow much in the way of characterization, so the person who comes off best is Kline, who plays a caricature as Guy Noir (a role Keillor plays in the radio version). He gets the best lines, written in the P.I. mode of noirs past ("She gave me a smile so sweet that you could have poured it on pancakes"). Kline's verbal and physical skills are a joy to behold and really help what is essentially a very slight film.
In fact, in the somewhat amusing DVD commentary by Altman and Kline, even Altman starts yawning at times and expressing the hope the audience isn't getting bored as well. I never was bored and A Prairie Home Companion certainly made me grin a lot, but it's most interesting if you watch it as if this was Altman's intention for a last film, even though, thankfully, it's not going to be his final one.
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Tuesday, October 17, 2006
"I didn't know one man could bleed that much"
BLOGGER'S NOTE: We're a little late to the fest here, but Wagstaff has produced a great piece on Attack for the Robert Aldrich blog-a-thon being coordinated over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
THIS IS A STORY OF MEN AT WAR… THE STORY EVERY SOLDIER KNEW, BUT NONE WOULD DARE TELL… THIS IS
THIS IS THE RAW, NAKED FACE OF
THIS IS WAR STRIPPED OF EVERYTHING BUT THE TRUTH! THE WAR STORY SO HOT NO ONE DARED FILM IT TILL NOW!
All caps aside, the preceding sales pitch that runs over the trailer for Attack! (1956) is remarkably accurate. Producer-director Robert Aldrich took Norman Brooks’ play Fragile Fox about men functioning (and not functioning) under the stress of war, and ventilated the drama with mortar shells and machine gun fire. In doing so, Aldrich turned this surprisingly frank and straight-forward war story into one of the best combat films of the 1950s.
The setting is the battle-torn Europe of 1944. Fox Company is having serious morale problems due to the incompetent leadership of Capt. Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert). The captain’s fecklessness and ostrich-like dereliction of duty got several of his men killed during their last action, and has cost him the respect of his company.
It also has made him the target of the everlasting mistrust and vengeful wrath of one Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance). Lt. Costa’s pal, Lt. Woodruff, played by William Smithers, hatches a plan to convince the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin), to kick the captain upstairs with a promotion in order to get him out of the way. Lt. Costa, however, doesn’t see the efficacy of any of this; the political maneuvering of the officer class has increased his cynicism to the point where he only cares about the safety of his own men. Lt. Woodruff tries to convince the colonel anyway, over poker and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, but fails. Lt. Col. Bartlett is a battle-hardened and competent soldier that harbors no illusions about Capt. Cooney’s character, but they both hail from the same small town; and Bartlett plans to use Cooney’s father’s political connections to run for office once the war is over. He tells the disappointed Woodruff not to worry, though; the scuttlebutt from on high says it’s a hundred-to-one that the company will see any more action. They’re out of the shooting for the rest of the war.
Lt. Costa doesn’t find any comfort in the hundred-to-one odds, and of course he’s right; that very day the company is ordered to take a town as part of a broader offensive. Capt. Cooney’s piss-poor plan is for Costa’s platoon to traverse 400 yards of open, vulnerable ground to test the enemy’s strength, and then to take refuge in an old farm house if things get hairy. If the operation does get ugly, he promises on his word to come in with reinforcements. Lt. Costa isn’t fooled by any of this, and promises to come back and kill Cooney if he goes back on his word. “I’ll shove this grenade down your throat and pull the pin.”
Things do go wrong and get plenty ugly. The town is heavily occupied by Germans, with mechanized support and Panzer tanks. Only five men from Costa’s platoon make it to the farmhouse. Lt. Costa’s desperate radio calls for reinforcements are ignored by Capt. Cooney, as he drowns his despicable inaction in a bottle of bourbon with deadly consequences. Lt. Costa’s men are surrounded — trapped; and I will stop here to keep from spoiling the rest of the movie.
Jack Palance’s performance in Attack! is a revelation. What kid scared out of his wits by Palance’s portrait of an evil killer in Shane would ever guess that the actor could show the kind of tenderness and anguished vulnerability that he does here. Outside, Jack Palance looks like the perfect dogface grunt — his face and large presence look like they were carved from a block of granite by blasting it with dynamite — but inside, a sensitive soul that the heart aches for shines through. When Jack Palance hobbles down a stairway, his arm badly mangled after being partially run over by a tank, and seeks his revenge on Capt. Cooney; his demeanor is positively ghostlike. The scene reminded me of a Creepshow-style tale of morality, comeuppance, and revenge. His acting is great even after his character’s demise; if they ever gave out Academy Awards for the best performance as a corpse, then Jack Palance would have won hands down in 1956.
Eddie Albert also is good in a way we’ve seldom seen him. His Capt. Cooney is a man eaten away by the consciousness of his own inadequacies and cowardice. He’s crippled by the fact that he never became the man his father wanted him to be. Imagine Maj. Frank Burns from the TV show M*A*S*H, subtract the humor and put him in a situation that makes him 20 times more dangerous to those around him, and you’ll get the idea of his characterization.
Lee Marvin is great as always. What couldn’t this actor do with the utmost naturalness? The movie’s trailer describes Lt. Col. Bartlett as “a cigar-chomping brass hat, who played war like he played poker: hard and dirty” and I can’t improve upon that description.
Robert Aldrich directs the combat scenes in a ways that are easy to follow. The soldier’s objectives are easy to grasp so that we can keep our bearings after the chaos of battle begins. Between the action scenes, he never soft-pedals the philosophical implications of the dramatic situations. During the climactic final act, there is a bewildering array of ethical conundrums, and nothing is black or white; yet the moral and philosophical conflicts remain clear. We witness how the agreed upon reality of what happens in combat goes through three or four drafts and revisions before it even leaves the principle players involved, and after that, once it leaves and goes out into the broader world… who knows? Attack ends on a righteous note of idealism and defiance, when Lt. Woodruff decides to tell the truth about what happened, against his own best interests, but I doubt the viewer carries this note away. After all we’ve seen preceding it — the twisting and turning of the officially sanctioned narrative of what transpired as reality, and the many conflicting agendas that are served by it — the whole riddle of perceived reality feels like it could go on ad infinitum.
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X misses the spot
By Edward Copeland
I've never picked up an "X-Men" comic in my life, but the first two film installments directed by Bryan Singer made me a fan of the film franchise at least. I loved the original and thought its sequel, X2: X-Men United, was even better. The films went beyond the usual heroics and added layers of metaphor I found unusual for comic-based films ranging from explicit allusions to the Holocaust and more implicit ones to people who think homosexuality can be "cured." Of course, quality control in Hollywood never proves to be an easy accomplishment and the third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, wore out its welcome, with me at least.
The series that made Hugh Jackman a star as Wolverine finally had reached its limit — with the prevalent humor of the first two installments hardly present and the metaphors to other issues wearing thin.
Not familiar at all with the comic versions, I've often asked people who were whether I was wrong based on the first two films not to see Magneto (the great Ian McKellen) as the villain he's supposed to be. Honestly, his point of view that mutants need to fight attempts to annihilate them seemed to make a lot more sense than Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his rosy dream of peaceful coexistence with humans who can't move things with their minds, control the weather or shoot fire or ice from their hands. The third installment does try to paint Magneto in a bit more villainous terms, but I'm still more on his side, even when I'm not on the side of the movie itself. The premise this time concerns a scientist (Michael Murphy), the father of a mutant (Ben Foster) who discovers a "cure" to mutants' special abilities.
While the film tries to posit the case that the mutants don't need to be cured, they need to be accepted, there doesn't seem to be much maliciousness on the part of Murphy and other characters. In fact, Rogue (Anna Paquin) embraces the idea, which makes sense since I never quite saw the advantage of a mutant power that caused anyone you touched to die, because she wants to be able to make out with her boyfriend.
One thing that this installment improves upon though is the character of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who apparently died in the second installment. We learn that not only did she survive but that she's always had a split personality, the other being Phoenix, the most powerful mutant of them all and one with a nasty streak. The change gives Janssen a chance to sink her teeth into the role in a way the first two films didn't allow.
It also presents a problem as to the arguments of Xavier. He's suspicious of the idea of "curing" mutants, but we learned he constructed some kind of mental block on Jean when she was a child to keep her Phoenix side at bay. Is there really that big a difference between his actions and the desires of the government? Again, I think Magneto has the moral high ground on this one.
It's tempting to attribute this film's weaknesses to Singer's exit to make Superman Returns and the placement of Brett Ratner in the director's chair, but really, the screenplay takes the blame here. There are some interesting action sequences and many top-notch CGI effects, but those elements are not the ones that made me such a fan of the first two X-Men movies.
On top of that, Wolverine's would-be laugh lines, which usually worked in the first two films, mostly play like watered-down Schwarzenegger one-liners from his 1980s action films. Oh well. I guess it was too much to hope that the series could maintain its high standard of excellence, but one thing is for certain: X-Men: The Last Stand definitely plays as if it's the end of a trilogy and based on this movie, I think that's probably a wise decision they should stand behind.
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Monday, October 16, 2006
The Wire No. 43: Margin of Error
BLOGGER'S NOTE: As always, know that spoilers lie below, so don't venture further unless you've seen the episode or don't care if you know what happens.
By Edward Copeland
Primary day has arrived (a lot earlier in the season than I expected it would) as Carcetti, Mayor Royce and Tony Gray prepare to face off for the final battle before the voters — but not before Royce plans a few more dirty tricks as the election draws near. As the show opens, all three candidates are hitting the church circuit the Sunday before the vote: Gray at a small congregation where one presumes he might actually attend, Royce at a larger one and Carcetti at a boisterous African-American church where the candidate has never looked whiter as he tries to get into the rhythm of the spirit. When Carcetti thanks the minister for his sermon afterward but blanches at its obvious references to Moses, he slips and says, "Jesus — Moses is a pretty hard act to follow" or words to that effect to which the minister replies, "Moses will do for now. We'll save Jesus for your second term."
Royce still hasn't exhausted his slime — distributing a faked photo on a flyer claiming that Carcetti defended a despised slum lord as a lawyer. Carcetti understandably goes ballistic as his team rushes to put out the fire when a call comes from the ever-sleazy Clay Davis seeking a sit-down (and presumably a payoff) for stabbing Royce in the back. Reg E. Cathey as Norman does a hilarious imitation of Davis' trademark multisyllabic "shit" line as well.
Working damage control for Royce, Rawls shows up in homicide and suggests that Norris and Greggs be assigned to poll-watching duties for the day so they can't investigate the case of the dead state's witness, telling Landsman, "American democracy — let's show those third world fucks how it's done."
Carcetti even gets young Randy on his team as the teen's entrepreneurial spirit gets him to pass out flyers in exchange for money, a job he picks up while his foster mom votes and which he drags his disinterested friends along for the work.
Back at Tilghman Middle School, Prez reaches out to Dukie, setting it up so that he can come into the locker rooms early to take a shower and Prez can take home his odorous clothes for washing every night. The corner kids begin to be selected for Bunny's class as Namond is among their numbers. The students predictably complain, comparing their assignment to being placed in solitary confinement which Bunny suggests is not to far from the truth. Bunny will have his work cut out for him saving Namond though, given the persistence of his mother (Sandi McCree) to get her son earning for her on the streets. She even pays a visit to Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt), mother of the late D'Angelo and sister of the incarcerated Avon, begging her for cash which Brianna claims she doesn't have and she's not getting, adding that she could care less about Avon now. Dissatisfied, Namond's mom pressures Bodie to put Namond on his payroll.
Randy is facing his own problems at school as Mrs. Donnelly calls him in for his role as lookout for the previous week's incident in the bathroom, which the eighth-grade girl is now saying was rape, though a brief scene of the boys who went in with her ignoring her suggest that perhaps she's just seeking revenge. Randy folds like a cheap suit and not only gives up the boys involved but tells Donnelly that he knows about a murder after Dukie showed him the bodies of the hidden Marlo victims.
While Omar's takedown of the poker game didn't lead Marlo to take up Prop Joe's offer (if that was Prop Joe's intention), the discovery of the surveillance cameras do encourage Marlo to seek the advice of "the fat man" about how to play it and he proceeds to set up the MCU on a wild-goose chase involving an oblivious woman getting off a train at a station that Herc and Amtrak police descend on, only to come up empty. Marlo's other plot against Omar comes to fruition as Omar is arrested for the murder of the delivery woman at the convenience store and the beating of the owner. The police issue a warrant for Omar, drawing cheers from some officers but immediate skepticism from McNulty, who has never known Omar to take out a civilian. Sure enough, McNulty is there for Omar's apprehension, even letting him borrow his cell phone to call home before taking him in for booking.
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Sunday, October 15, 2006
State of Denial by Bob Woodward
"I've never thought Bush was dumb at all. But I think he's intellectually lazy and I think he wants people around him who will not challenge him but will give him the ammunition which he needs or wants in order to achieve some more general goal."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
By Edward Copeland
When the shock-and-awe publicity barrage began for Bob Woodward's State of Denial, I admittedly was skeptical. Was it news that Dubyaland encased itself in a bubble to avoid the realities of the mess they'd created in Iraq? Was Woodward trying to return a polish to his reputation after his first two glowing books on Bush and the revelation of his role in the investigation of the leak of CIA agent's Valerie Plame's covert identity? Still, I felt compelled to read the book and while the overarching theme of an administration with blinders on is not surprising, Woodward makes up for it with the amount of specifics he's managed to ferret out.
As it's been said many times before, the devil is in the details and the details are what make State of Denial such a fascinating read.
By now, most of the tidbits from the book have been revealed through countless television discussions both with and without Woodward but, needless to say, though Dubya comes off looking clueless, it's nothing to the portrait painted of Donald Rumsfeld.
One of the funniest things is that Rummy didn't want to cooperate with Woodward on his first two Bush administration books, but was ordered to. This time, the administration's overall ineptness didn't get the word to him that they didn't want to help Woodward this time and Rummy gave him more interviews — and lots of ammunition.
Yes, Rummy is arrogant, a power-mad control freak and incompetent, but when you read some of the quotes attributed to him in State of Denial, I have to ask — and not in jest — if anyone has ever asked the question whether Rummy could be showing signs of Alzheimer's disease. The defense secretary's insistence on having everything go through him at the same time he does his best to present himself as out of the loop is simply astounding.
Other revelations from the book that I found most interesting is its assessment of Jay Garner, the first U.S. administrator for post-invasion Iraq. The news reports all portrayed him as a bumbler who had to be removed from the job, but his extensive talks with Woodward — and his decision not to cash in by writing his own book (Who does that anymore?) — make it clear that Garner had much more on the ball than the people who hired him who repeatedly ignored his advice, replacing him with the completely in-over-his-head Paul Bremer.
Woodward also provides more insight from sources such as former Sen. David Boren and Brent Scowcroft of how concerned Dubya's mom and dad were (and presumably still are) about how their son has bungled Iraq.
The other thing about the book that surprised me, especially since it deals with a subject as bleak as Iraq, is how much humor can be found in it — or at least that I found in it. In addition to a colonel's haikus, many players including Richard Armitage and others give plenty of laugh lines. I also found it supremely ironic that when former Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar discussed Arafat with Dubya he described him as "a schmuck." A Saudi using Yiddish to describe the late Palestinian leader actually made me laugh out loud.
If I found one major criticism, other than Woodward glossing over his role in the CIA leak investigation and not identifying Armitage as his source, it's that as the book goes along, Afghanistan disappears much as it has in the media over the years. The deterioration of the situation over there because of being bogged down in the wholly unnecessary mission in Iraq seemed deserving of further mention.
The book is long, but it can be a fairly quick read thanks to mostly short chapters. It's not as compelling as Frank Rich's recent The Greatest Story Ever Sold, but it's well worth the effort.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Saturday, October 14, 2006
A musical with more cats than CATS
By Josh R
You may or may not know that Broadway is, in fact, the longest residential street in the world. It extends from the southern tip of Manhattan 150 miles north to Albany, N.Y., where it comes to quiet halt, incongruously flanked by modestly apportioned tract houses with neatly groomed lawns…a far cry from the glittering, gaudy majesty of Times Square. In truth, Broadway's reach extends much further than that — all the way to the soundstages of Hollywood, California. For much of the 20th century, The Dream Factory took its cues from The Great White Way, often plundering some of its greatest successes for film adaptation. Many of the most beloved movie musicals ever made — including best picture winners West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music — began their lives on Broadway.
In recent years, however, a curious phenomenon has begun to take shape, as the two entities have enjoyed an increasingly reciprocal relationship. Just as Hollywood continues to turn stage hits into films — Chicago, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, and the upcoming Dreamgirls, to cite a few recent examples — so has Broadway begun adapting successful films into stage musicals. Four of the last nine Tony Award winners for best musical are based on feature films — The Lion King, The Producers, Hairspray and Spamalot, the last of an adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Grey Gardens, which began previews at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Oct. 3 in anticipation of a Nov. 2 opening, is the latest example of this growing trend, albeit one with a curious twist. This musical draws its inspiration not from a scripted fiction-based film, but from a documentary. It is the first (and is likely to stand as the only) instance of a documentary being used as the basis of a Broadway musical.
The film, which has acquired a cult standing since its premiere in 1975, examines the fallen fortunes of two women, both named Edith Bouvier Beale — an eccentric mother and daughter who inhabit the titular estate. Since they share a name, they distinguish themselves as Big and Little Edie, respectively. Their celebrity standing, as far as the outside world is concerned, owes itself to family connections — Big Edie is the aunt of Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy Onassis. Once well-regarded members of the social elite, by the early '70s the two women were discovered living an impoverished, isolated existence in Grey Gardens, a dilapidated 28-room Easthampton mansion overrun by more than 50 stray cats and an assortment of raccoons; judging by the looks of things, the term "squalor" only barely scratches the surface. The New York Board of Health had authorized a survey of the house, once considered a showplace, and subsequently declared it to be "unfit for human habitation" as a result of their findings. The media coverage surrounding these events prompted an eventual, if somewhat shamefaced, intervention by an embarrassed Mrs. Onassis. Although long-estranged from her black-sheep relations, she dispatched a task force of construction workers and pest-control experts to Long Island to get the mansion (barely) back up to code to forestall condemnation of the property and the eviction of its tenants. Even more significantly, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles were motivated to track down the reclusive pair, and film them over a period of months.
The film is an oddity, alternately shocking, touching, and mordantly humorous in its consideration of two larger-than-life eccentrics living on the margins of society. The musical, which I saw in its off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons last spring, attempts to provide some context for the women's behavior, giving a glimpse of what their lifestyle was before it all came apart at the seams. The first act takes place in the summer of 1941, when Grey Gardens is at the peak of its splendor and WWII is still just a rumble on the horizon. Prominent socialite Edith Bouvier Beale, played by Christine Ebersole, is preparing an elaborate party at her Long Island estate to celebrate her daughter's engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (the younger incarnation of the daughter was played by Sara Gettelfinger at Playwrights Horizons, and has been replaced by Erin Davie for the Broadway production). Mother and daughter have a complicated and often contentious relationship, exacerbated by the fact that both are natural "performers" competing for the spotlight and the attentions of a physically (and emotionally) absent husband/father. Subconsciously afraid of being abandoned, Big Edie eventually sabotages the relationship between her daughter and her fiance, and the engagement is dissolved. Little Edie resolves to leave Grey Gardens, but her attempts to extricate herself from the role of her mother's keeper are ultimately doomed to failure.
The second act picks up where the documentary begins — with Ebersole switching gears to take on the role of the daughter, while Mary Louise Wilson assumes the role of the mother — and follows the action of the film very closely. Big Edie, now a bedridden, 80-year-old harridan munching on cat food, fondly recalls her days as a prominent socialite and would-be opera singer while singing along in a shrill voice to ancient gramophone recordings. 56-year-old Little Edie, a one-time debutante who counted Howard Hughes, Nelson Rockefeller and John Paul Getty among her suitors, now drifts through the abandoned rooms in a variety of outlandishly bizarre garments (fashioned out of materials as unlikely as duvet covers and old curtains) recounting her triumphs and disappointments to the odd visitor in breathless, stream of-consciousness fashion. Nursing old wounds that never fully healed, the two women seem suspended in a sort of existential limbo where time has little meaning — their sanity eroded by years of neglect and thwarted ambitions, they squabble over decades-old slights and conflicting versions of their shared history. Their relationship is contentious, but not without love — forged in co-dependency, it makes them protective of one another even when airing their resentments.
If this all sounds rather strange, it is, really. But truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction, and the musical successfully captures the essence of the film, highlighting the absurdity of its outrageous subjects without reducing them to caricatures — which would have been the obvious temptation given how easily the material might lend itself to Grand Guignol (or worse, full-on camp). If the show falls short in certain respects — it does feel like two very different musicals awkwardly shoehorned into one — it is a beautifully mounted production, masterfully directed by Michael Greif (Rent), with an excellent score by newcomers Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. Doug Wright's libretto feels oddly stilted in the first act, but flows more naturally in the second when adhering directly to the dialogue from the film. What really distinguishes the production is the performance of Christine Ebersole, giving twin tour-de-forces in two very different roles which collectively give full expression to the broad spectrum of her talents.
Through far from a household name, the actress has worked regularly since the late 1970s, achieving a moderate degree of recognition as a character actress in television and film. For the first 20 years or so, she seemed like a talent in search of a home — her career seemed to consist mainly of false starts, enticing if fleeting indicators of an untapped potential. A classically trained soprano, she succeeded Madeleine Kahn and Judy Kaye as leading lady in the Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century, more than holding her own against Tony winners John Cullum and Kevin Kline. Two more high-profile Broadway assignments followed — as Ado Annie in the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma!, and Guinevere to Richard Burton's King Arthur in the actor's well-publicized return to the role he'd originated some 20 years earlier, in Camelot. She scored an Emmy nomination for her work on the soap opera One Live to Live, and had featured roles in Tootsie and Amadeus — performing her own singing in the latter as a tempestuous soprano who becomes the composer's mistress. After a disappointing season on Saturday Night Live, in which she was criminally underutilized, she made an ill-advised return to Broadway in the legendary flop Harrigan 'n Hart — better known to history as the Mark Hamill musical. She owned her few minutes as grind-house stripper Tessie Tura in Bette Midler's televised version of Gypsy, and found continued film work in projects as diverse as Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again, Clint Eastwood's True Crime and the Chris Farley/David Spade starrer Black Sheep.
The turning point in a long career of seemingly unfulfilled potential came with the 2001 revival of 42nd Street. Her pristine vocals and well-honed comic delivery helped her to rise above the mediocrity of a production, and earned her a Tony Award for her efforts. Other stage work soon followed, including acclaimed performances in Lincoln Center's production of Dinner at Eight, scoring another Tony nomination as a stand-in for Billie Burke, and off-B'way in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. In Grey Gardens, she has found not one, but two roles of a lifetime, in a performance that has already netted her Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards, as well as a special citations from the New York Drama Critics Circle and The Drama League. Ben Brantley of The New York Times has hailed her performance as "one of the most gorgeous ever to grace a musical," which is not an overstatement.
The genius of Ebersole's work lies in her ability to navigate the extremes of both characters — she can be side-splittingly funny in one moment and heartbreaking in the next, without missing a beat. As Big Edie, a preening peacock who regards the world as her own personal stage, she is a delightful contraction in terms — the lofty, cultured imperiousness of a born grande dame coupled with the giddy enthusiasm of an attention-starved child basking in the glow of the spotlight. Blissfully unaware of her own ridiculousness, she treats everyone in her presence as an audience, with the breathtaking conviction of one who has never doubted that applause is her natural due; she literally comes equipped with her own accompanist. In the first act, Big Edie rehearses songs from her repertoire, which she intends to inflict upon the unsuspecting guests at her daughter's engagement party. Ebersole executes these pastiches with hammy relish -- including a hilarious minstrel number that would probably be considered in bad taste even by the standards of 1941. The brittle frivolity of this self-styled diva might brand her as a kind of outrageous, flaky cut-up in the Auntie Mame mold, if it weren't for the subtle flashes of panic and desperation that inform her neediness. The world that Big Edie has created for herself teeters on the brink of extinction — her husband, children and lover are all on the verge of leaving her — and the possibility of being left alone looms large on the horizon. A star cannot exist without satellites to orbit around it, and Big Edie fights desperately to keep her universe intact.
However, it is in the second act that the star of Ms. Ebersole shines the brightest. As the fretful child-woman only intermittently able to distinguish the line between fantasy and reality, her Little Edie is a mass of silly pretensions, wistful yearnings and seething resentments held on a slow boil over a period of decades. She inhabits the role with an eerie exactitude — in addition to capturing the unique look and posture of her real life counterpart, she recreates Little Edie's distinctive voice and cadence with uncanny precision (the accent is too strange to describe — imagine if John F. Kennedy and Katharine Hepburn had a daughter who grew up on Long Island). Rattling around the decaying house in grounds in a series of increasingly bizarre outfits with matching headdresses, she holds forth on a variety of topics in a style that might best be described as incontinent babbling — most of what she says is totally irrational ("They can get you in Easthampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday, and all that sort of thing"), but the intensity and conviction of the speaker commands a peculiar kind of respect. She's at her happiest when left to revel in delusions of fame and romance waiting just around the corner — it's those piercing moments of clarity, when forced to confront the bleak realities of her present and future, that reveal how lost she truly is.
If there's a style of song that Christine Ebersole can't sing, the creators of this show haven't found it. The act opens with a rib-tickling, Sondheim-esque patter number in which Edie describes, in fastidious detail, her ideas about fashion, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." It ends with a bittersweet ballad, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," that in the actress's hands becomes a haunting, harrowing anthem of despair and loneliness. Emotionally as well as vocally, she runs the gamut, and it's spectacular to behold. Special praise must also be reserved for the delightful Mary Louise Wilson, who scores a triumph in her own right as the elderly Big Edie. Needling her hapless daughter with vicious little digs (all delivered with an innocuous smile) and deflecting all rebukes with brisk denials, her sunny air of self-satisfaction makes a marvelous foil for Ebersole's prickliness.
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Friday, October 13, 2006
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown
By Edward Copeland
When newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepares to meet Queen Elizabeth for the first time, he's informed by one of the royal servants about how to behave in her majesty's "presence." The presence that dominates Stephen Frears' The Queen belongs to Helen Mirren who, in a career already filled with great performances, may have topped them all as England's current monarch dealing with the fallout of Princess Diana's death. Her upbringing taught her to be reserved and her belief that Di's funeral and mourning should be a private matter and not "a fairground attraction" provides for a sharp, witty and surprisingly touching look at the friction between centuries of tradition and the forward march of time and change.
Michael Sheen plays Blair and he bears a startling resemblance to the real prime minister who, as the first British prime minister from the Labor Party in Britain in 18 years, finds one of his first tasks unexpectedly being to coax the queen into the modern age and get her to recognize how Diana's death affected her subjects, who only knew the public Diana and not the real woman whom the royals had more than mixed feelings about. (An offscreen Princess Margaret remarks that Diana is proving more annoying in death than she did in life).
As the days drag on after Di's death and the royals stay out of the public eye on their Scottish estate in Balmoral, Blair asks if anyone can "save these people from themselves." It's a difficult task as his wife Cherie (a great turn by Helen McCrory) notes that the monarchy is populated by emotionally retarded freeloaders and perhaps it's time to let the institution fade away.
Peter Morgan's excellent screenplay finds many more layers than you'd expect to find. The film begins as if it's going to be a sharp satirical poke in the eye of the monarchy, but as it moves on, it manages to plumb unexpected depths, digging beneath both Elizabeth's stoic reserve and chronicling Blair's evolution of thought toward the royals from one of exasperation to one of surprising sympathy and understanding for the queen's inability to emote to the satisfaction of a grieving public.
While Sheen and Mirren certainly stand out among the solid cast, fine performances also come from James Cromwell as the stiff Prince Philip, unable to understand all the fuss, the aforementioned McCrory and a hysterical Sylvia Syms as the doddering Queen Mum, who can't believe it when they decide to use the plans she's made for her own funeral as the template for Diana's.
The Queen, for me at least, also turns out to be Frears' best movie ever. While I've liked much of his work (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons), his movies always seemed to be lacking something for me, usually an emotional component, but The Queen delivers it in droves. When Di died, the media overkill eventually became like nails on a chalkboard to me so I was surprised by how much the film managed to move me with its recounting of Di's death. Frears manages to effortlessly slide the film between its cynical and sentimental sides and directs with a scope and fluidity I've not seen from him before.
Still, The Queen belongs to Mirren, who won an Emmy earlier this year for playing the first Queen Elizabeth and should prove to be a strong contender to take the Oscar for playing the second. Mirren doesn't try to do a straight impression of a well-known figure like Elizabeth II, but she does resemble her.
Even when the film appears to be mocking the foibles of the royal family, Mirren never does. The strength of her performance equals the stoicism of the royals themselves and while there may come a day when the monarchy fades away, this performance should prove to be one for the ages.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Holds that aren't easy to escape
By Edward Copeland
Dan Dunne tells his Brooklyn junior high history class that history is the study of change, of turning points, of the clash of opposing forces, much like the ones that make him a good educator while he secretly nurses a drug habit. Ryan Gosling's performance as Dan provides the bulk of the energy for Half Nelson, but neither the film nor his performance would be as strong if it weren't for young Shareeka Epps as Drey, one of Dan's students who discovers his secret and develops an odd friendship with the educator. Their relationship, both as characters and actors, provide the best selling point for this small indie, which would seem slight and incomplete without them.
Directed by Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote the film with Anna Boden, Half Nelson in many ways reminded me of HBO's great series The Wire this season. Imagine Prez (Jim True-Frost) as a drug addict and the similarities are apparent. In fact, two of the young actors on The Wire this year, Tristan Wilds and Nathan Corbett (Michael and Donut to Wire fans), play students in Half Nelson as well.
Unfortunately, as a film, Half Nelson isn't nearly as strong as its acting or its ideas. While Gosling is great as Dan, the film doesn't give you a sense of what personal demons drove him to his addiction and a brief sequence involving a visit with his family does little to fill in the blanks.
Drey, on the other hand, does get the development that Dan lacks. The adolescent girl is a tough customer, with an older brother in jail and the drug dealer who helped put him there (played well by Anthony Mackie) offering her friendship, hoping to use her as a drug runner.
One of the best scenes in Half Nelson comes when the two men confront each other, the drug-addicted teacher and the drug dealer trading accusations of "inappropriate" relationships with Drey.
While the solid acting holds your attention, the film doesn't offer any sense that it has a destination in mind and, for me, the film just seems to stop.
The movie, in a way, resembles the wrestling hold it lifts for its title: It grabs part of the viewer but fails to get both hands firmly around the moviegoer's neck.
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Monday, October 09, 2006
The Wire No. 42: Alliances
BLOGGER'S NOTE: As always, know that spoilers lie below, so don't venture further unless you've seen the episode or don't care if you know what happens.
By Edward Copeland
Few episodes titles on The Wire have proved as apt as this week's simple one, "Alliances." The double-dealing, marriages of convenience and playing of all sides against each other to win could make the viewer dizzy trying to keep up — and you're never quite sure who is on the up-and-up about where they stand.
Before we dive into the alliances, it's worth noting that this week's episode begins like a ghost story told around a campfire as Namond, Randy, Michael and Dukie are gathered on the dark, depressing streets where Namond tries to convince his friends that Marlo's chief henchman Chris is a "zombie master" who transforms the many missing Marlo victims into zombies to do his bidding, suggesting that the late Lex, who Randy unwittingly set up for his demise, could be the latest example of the living dead stalking around Baltimore — a concept that frightens Randy who fears he's next on the list, especially when Chris and Snoop show up later in the show — not to make zombies, but to try to recruit Michael as a soldier.
Two characters who aren't making an alliance are Namond and Prez, who butt heads in his class. In fact, Prez ends up in conflict with nearly the entire class — putting nearly all of them on his detention list. Randy, ever the entrepreneur, accepts $5 to serve as lookout as some male students take a female student in the bathroom for some undefined sexual shenanigans. As Randy stands watch, Bunny Colvin passes and Randy makes sure to tell him that he has a hall pass to which Bunny replies, "Good for you" and keeps on walking. Colvin is at the middle school to iron out details for his special class identifying "corner kids" from "stoop kids." The faculty welcomes the idea of getting rid of some of their troublemakers, but worry that they could be accused of stigmatizing the students by assigning them to Bunny's class. Bunny asks them which stigmatizes them more — getting tossed from class every other day or being placed in his special one. Prez does make one alliance of convenience at the school when he locks his keys in his car and junior car thief Donut (Nathan Corbett) is nearby to lend the cop turned teacher a hand.
As the mayoral primary draws closer, every is taking sides. Herc, newly minted sergeant and member of the Major Crimes Unit, takes time out of his schedule to work the phones for Mayor Royce. Major Valchek tips Carcetti off to Kima being put in charge of the investigation of the murder of a state's witness, ostensibly to slow the probe down before primary day. The Carcetti campaign team debates how to use the information with Carcetti's staff commenting what a piece of work Valchek is to which Tommy sighs that he "comes with the territory." Afraid that it will look as if Carcetti is piling on after the debate, Norman (Reg. E. Cathey) suggests giving the tip to Councilman Tony Gray (Christopher Mann) so Carcetti isn't the bearer of the news and Gray can steal more African-American votes from Royce's base. "I'm a devious motherfucker when I get going," Norman says. When the news breaks, despite the fact that Royce basically encouraged such a move, the mayor berates Burrell and then, once he sends him out of the office, confides to Rawls that if he wins re-election, Burrell's days as commissioner are over. Royce's actions finally prove too much for Odell Watkins who bolts from Royce's camp — news that Rawls hears and delivers to Carcetti on the QT.
Not everything is revolving around the campaign however as Lt. Marimow leads a pointless drug raid that gets nowhere and then seeks advice from Herc on how to go after Marlo. Eventually, the MCU settles on hiding a camera near the park where Marlo likes to hold court in hopes of getting information — only Marlo's people uncover the camera moments after it's put in place. Marlo, meanwhile, still steams over Omar's heist of his poker game but Chris talks him down, suggesting that they shouldn't follow the fruitless path of the Barksdale crew in trying to kill Omar but should pursue a different strategy, one that sets him up for robbery and murder. Lester and Bunk continue their hunt for Lex and other possible Marlo victims. Too bad they didn't think to ask Dukie, who not only sets Randy straight about the myth of zombies but shows him that he knows where the bodies are hidden, leading him to a few of Marlo's victims.
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Sunday, October 08, 2006
Nobody gives it to you, you have to take it
By Edward Copeland
In the case of The Departed, Martin Scorsese not only takes it, he runs with it all the way down the field and past the goal line. Admittedly, I've liked far more Scorsese pictures than I've disliked, including his recent somewhat maligned efforts such as The Aviator and Gangs of New York, but neither compares to The Departed which marks Scorsese's best film since 1993's The Age of Innocence.
It would seem as if Scorsese has retreated to somewhat familiar turf by telling this story of Boston gangsters and the cops out to take them down, but Scorsese infuses the film with such kinetic energy and vitality, that the movie never feels as if it's a retread (unlike 1995's Casino). William Monahan adapted the screenplay from the great 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs about two undercover agents, one infiltrating the police for the gangster, the other infiltrating the gangster for the police. In the Americanized version, the mobsters are Irish with the police mole played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turning in his strongest performance for Scorsese yet, and the gangster plant played by Matt Damon, who uses his all-American good looks and blue eyes to hide the crook lying beneath. Of course, the greatest difference between Infernal Affairs and The Departed is the beefing up of the role of gangster kingpin, this time called Frank Costello and played with unmitigated glee by Jack Nicholson as a character loosely based on the real-life Irish mobster Whitey Bulger.
Announcing that Nicholson soars in a role such as Costello seems redundant. Yes, there is much scenery devoured, but Nicholson has earned that right long ago and it seems perfectly suited for Costello, with the necessary edge that arises from the long-overdue teaming of Nicholson with Scorsese. This may be the best ensemble Scorsese has ever assembled. In addition to DiCaprio, Damon and Nicholson, there are solid turns by Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, Kevin Corrigan and Vera Farmiga as the police shrink who somehow gets herself involved with both moles, even though DiCaprio warns her that there is no one more full of shit than cops other than cops on TV, and Damon, who knows the answer to her question about what Freud said about the Irish: that they are the only group impervious to psychoanalysis.
The British actor Ray Winstone delivers another great turn as Mr. French, Costello's right-hand man, who may well be the most quietly menacing character in a film exploding with quietly menacing characters. His interplay with Nicholson and DiCaprio grounds both actors to a certain extent. What's most amazing about the film is that even if you've seen Infernal Affairs, whose outline it follows fairly closely, some of the twists you should know are coming still pack a punch thanks to Scorsese's taut direction. The Departed at 2½ hours is much longer than the film it's remaking, but you never really feel the padding. It's not news that Scorsese is a great director, but it's been so long since you've seen him produce something where he obviously feels so confident, that a fan leaves the theater practically giddy with excitement for both him and the medium again.
Of all aspects of The Departed that seemed most revelatory to me, it has to be Mark Wahlberg's role as Dignam, one of DiCaprio's police supervisors. Wahlberg truly has grown over the years into a fine actor, starting in films that were better than he was (such as Boogie Nights and Three Kings) until he gave performances better than the films he was in (as in I ♥ Huckabees). With The Departed, Wahlberg finally plays a role at the same quality level as the film he's in. Wahlberg has never been better as the decidedly profane and fast-talking cop here.
Over the past few years, a new Scorsese picture always has produced as much nervousness as anticipation as each film seemed more like a platform to discuss his long-overdue Oscar than a great film itself. I still had that feeling going into The Departed, but it was soon swept away as Scorsese grabs the viewer by the lapel and never lets go, whether it's in a noisy gunbattle with echoes of Peckinpah, a tense scene of silence between parties on opposite ends of a phone call or a foot chase through Boston. Marty, it's great to have you back in the fine form for which we feared may have been lost but which The Departed confirms was merely in remission.
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Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Cinema is king
By Edward Copeland
"What is a director?" Ferrand (François Truffaut) asks himself at one point in Day for Night. He settles on the definition of someone who solves problems but I think a better definition is someone, such as Truffaut, who really loved movies. Re-visiting Day for Night, it still plays for me as one of Truffaut's lighter confections — good but not up to his greats such as The 400 Blows or Jules and Jim.
One thing that can't be disputed about Day for Night though is that it may well be the loveliest valentine to filmmaking itself ever put on film. Sure, there are the backstage affairs and doings circling the production, but the film's true romance is with the process of moviemaking and to the directors Truffaut admired from Welles to Hitchcock to Hawks to Bresson to Rossellini and others.
The performers all turn in fine performances, but it's easy to see how Valentina Cortese stood out as the aging actress Severine and snagged an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress as a result. She truly is great, despite her limited screen time.
Really, I can't think of another film about filmmaking that's really as sweet as Day for Night is. It's not an overheated melodrama such as The Bad and the Beautiful or one of the many satirical takes from the great (The Player) to the mediocre (Living in Oblivion).
In a way, even though Robert Altman made The Player, Day for Night plays more like one of his 1970s efforts: Plot isn't a priority, just observation of characters and moments among a large cast. Day for Night truly is Truffaut's mash note to cinema itself and it certainly passes the time enjoyably, even if it doesn't reach the heights of his greatest films.
Racking my brain to try to remember films that concerned themselves as much with the actual process of filmmaking, the film which I kept coming back to was Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, certainly a more satirical take but one that does concentrate on the details of filming itself. I'm sure I'm blanking on others, but perhaps you silent commenters out there can step up to the plate and remind me of the ones I'm forgetting.
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