Wednesday, June 30, 2010
How many make up a literary marriage?
By Edward Copeland
More often than not, biopics of writers or artists turn out to be unbearable bores, mainly because trying to cinematically convey the creative process proves very hard. Thankfully, this doesn't hinder The Last Station which covers the final days in the life of Leo Tolstoy (marvelously played by Oscar nominee Christopher Plummer) because the film isn't concerned with his writing but rather the battle between his wife of 48 years (Oscar nominee Helen Mirren) and a disciple (Paul Giamatti) over whether the inheritance of his works and his late-in-life views should be given over to the Russian people and the world or to his heirs as his wife believes they are due.
As the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina grew into old age, he began to develop ideas that took on an almost cult-like following: no private property; looking down on sexual relationships; and passive resistance. They focused on the teachings of Jesus Christ, but more as a human and less as the son of God and were thought by many to be a form of Christian anarchists. The followers of this philosophy even adopted the name of Tolstoyans, the most prominent one being his longtime friend and promoter Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) who regularly installs secretaries in Tolstoy's estate to keep watch over the activities of Countess Sofya (Mirren), whom he views as a threat to the movement's future because of her desire to protect her family's legacy and she sees her husband's late-in-life philosophical turn as a lot of bunk.
When both Mirren and Plummer received deserved Oscar nominations, she as lead, he as supporting, many complained that he was as much a lead as she was, but now that I've seen the film, the truth is the both really are supporting to the true main character of The Last Station, Valentin (James McAvoy), the latest secretary whose eyes all activities are seen through. I haven't been impressed much with McAvoy in his career so far in films such as The Last King of Scotland or Atonement, but this is the first time I thought he actually turned in a good performance.
Though Valentin begins his job as Chertkov's latest plant, instructed to keep a diary of every move Countess Sofya makes and every word she utters in order to the protect the Tolstoyans, it doesn't take long for the virginal would-be writer to develop sympathy for the entire Tolstoy family (even to the point that Sofya gives him a diary to perform the same task for her). What really turns Valentin around are his dealings with the renowned writer himself and his crush and eventual surrender of his celibacy vow to Tolstoy's daughter Masha (Kerry Condon).
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini, The Last Station is a little gem of fine acting and interesting ideas. The entire cast plays at the top of their game. So often, material of this sort can be so obsessed with the details of the period that any drama gets lost, but The Last Station doesn't make this mistake, presenting flesh-and-blood characters instead of museum pieces and lively interplay instead of stolid exposition. When he's nervous, he sneezes and there's a great scene of shock when he meets Tolstoy and the master writer asks how the young man's own writing is going.
Plummer turns in an absolutely joyous performance as Tolstoy, funny, stubborn and indignant. Even though his new philosophy has cast a suspicious eye on sexual relations, he finds it surprising that his new secretary Valentin is truly such a celibate and recounts past sexual escapades, admitting that Tolstoy himself is far from the best Tolstoyan.
Mirren's great as always as the high-strung Sofya. It's easy to see how some could perceive her actions as meddling, but her exasperation at outsiders who meddle with her family and the love of her life make it clear who is in the right and she's brilliant.
Giamatti also adds to the film, though at times, even though Chertkov is merely a true believer, he does come off too much as a devilish villain, especially when he lies to prevent Sofya from seeing her husband as his health is on the decline.
The Last Station ended up being a pleasant surprise for me. I expected to find fine performances when I started watching, but the fact that the film was a compelling and held my interest as much as it did was an unexpected reward.
Labels: 00s, Giamatti, McAvoy, Mirren, Oscars, Plummer
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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Centennial Tributes: Frank Loesser
By Bill Russell
When I grow up, I want to be Frank Loesser. I love his songs and I love the shows many of them are from. They are just the kind I’d like to write — witty, accessible, fun, romantic, great for performers to sink their teeth into. I’m a lyricist. And a book-writer of musicals. Unlike Frank, I can’t imagine adding composer to those tasks. And for the sublime Most Happy Fella he wrote all three, as well as the Broadway musical Greenwillow (“Never Will I Marry” is from the latter).
Today is the 100th anniversary of his birth in NYC. Growing up in Spearfish in the Black Hills of South Dakota, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to see live musical theater, but Black Hills State, the college there, did a production of Guys and Dolls when I was in high school and I was transported. I’d heard some of the songs, probably on The Lawrence Welk Show which my parents forced me to watch — “Bushel and a Peck,” “If I Were a Bell.” But it wasn’t until I saw the production that I realized they were from a show. And “Adelaide’s Lament” absolutely killed me. It’s one of the great musical theater songs – hilarious and filled with character — and of course, catnip to performers.
Though I was familiar with and loved “Brotherhood of Man” and “I Believe in You,” I didn’t realize those songs were from a show until I saw the movie of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Radio City Music Hall in 1967. Though this is mainly a film site, my perspective comes from musical theater. And the movies of Frank’s shows are not their most satisfying representations. Though it was kind of kicky seeing Brando, Sinatra and Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls and fun to see Robert Morse re-create his Broadway triumph in How To Succeed.
I’m not sure when I realized that all of these songs I liked so much were penned by the same writer, but here’s an odd coincidence. In 1969, I took a semester off from college and worked in New York City. I went to an employment agency and I guess because I was a theater major, they sent me to Frank Music — Loesser’s publishing company. Unfortunately, he had died a few months before (in July from lung cancer). But they hired me for Music Theatre International, the licensing company he had started and which licensed his shows (and many others including The Fantasticks and Fiddler on the Roof). And one day at the office I met his second wife – Jo Sullivan, who starred in the original production of Most Happy Fella.
Apparently Mr. Loesser’s office Christmas parties were legendary. They were always at the Plaza Hotel (the ballroom, I think) and huge affairs — he invited many show biz friends, not just people who worked for the company. That year was the first Christmas party without Frank, so it was limited to those of us who worked in the office, but it was still at the Plaza (in a small private room) and oh so elegant — a tube of filet mignon sliced by a chef, beautiful flowers, copious drinks. I felt so lucky to have a little taste of that legacy.
I guess it wasn’t until the 1990s that my appreciation for Frank’s talents reached the full esteem in which I hold him today. That decade was rich in Broadway revivals of his work: Guys and Dolls (with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince) and The Most Happy Fella in 1992 and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1996 starring Matthew Broderick and featuring the then-unknown Megan Mullally. How To Succeed will return to Broadway in Spring 2011 with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of J. Pierrepont Finch.
The original productions of Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed were more or less showered with awards. Loesser won Tonys for the music and lyrics of both shows and was nominated for all three of his writing credits (book, music, lyrics) for Most Happy Fella. However, How to Succeed earned Loesser one honor unusual for authors or composers of musicals: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. How to Succeed was only the third musical ever to receive the honor and only four more have won it since, the most recent being Next to Normal just this year.
The 1992 revival of The Most Happy Fella was a revelation. I didn’t know the show at all and this wonderful production, directed by Gerald Gutierrez, revealed all its treasures. The superb cast was accompanied by two pianos. I’ve yet to see a production with a full orchestra. But the richness of his music definitely came through in this version. And such heart! That score includes fun numbers like “Standing On the Corner” and “Big D” but “My Heart Is So Full of You” and “Joey, Joey, Joey” are the loveliest of ballads.
The range of his writing revealed in those three shows is quite remarkable — the lovable low-lifes of Guys and Dolls, the biting corporate satire of How To Succeed and the heartfelt, heart-breaking romance of Most Happy Fella. If you didn’t know those scores were by the same writer, I doubt you would jump to make the connection. They’re so distinctly different in style. Yet knowing they came from the same pen makes a certain sense – they’re united by their craft, their accessibility, their wit and their heart. Or should I say by their “Heart and Soul” — another big Loesser hit written for the movie A Song is Born (he only penned the lyrics for that one). He had a very successful movie career – writing such standards as “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and receiving five Oscar nominations.
Has there ever been a better duet than “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?! Frank had written it in 1944 for a housewarming party with his first wife, Lynn. Apparently, they often performed it at parties. He later included it in the film Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and deservedly won the Oscar.
According to his daughter, Susan, Mr. Loesser didn’t care about what posterity might think of him, he wrote for his peers and the particular moment. But his work will undoubtedly endure because it brings audiences such joy. From what I’ve read and heard I gather Frank was a lot of fun to know. I only wish I had. But reveling in his music, his lyrics, his classic Broadway shows, I sort of feel like I do.
Bill Russell received 1998 Tony nominations for his book and lyrics for the Tony-nominated best musical Side Show about the famed conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. His latest musical, with composer Peter Melnick, is called The Last Smoker in America.
Labels: Awards, Brando, Frank Loesser, Jean Simmons, Matthew Broderick, Musicals, Oscars, Sinatra, Theater
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Monday, June 28, 2010
I'm always honored but...
By Edward Copeland
Leopard13 of Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer has chosen to bestow upon me the Versatile Blogger Award. As always, when I receive one of these honors, I'm most grateful, it just gets harder to complete the requirements that come with the reward. Here are the rules:
•Thank the person who gave you this award (That part is easy enough. Mission accomplished. Thanks again Leopard).
•Share 7 things about yourself (Well, I can come up with those.)
•Pass the award along to 15 who you have recently discovered and who you think fantastic for whatever reason (This is the tricky part for me. With my health the way it is, I don't surf the way I used to, so I'm not always discovering new sites and it always feel fake if I keep rewarding people I already know, but I'll give it a whirl, but 15 is an awfully high number.)
•Contact the blogs you picked and let them know about the award. (If I can get the 15, this is not a problem.)
1. While I'm always grateful for awards, I'd much rather be writing.
2. I still can't believe people liked Avatar.
3. I wish I could still see movies in theaters.
4. However, it sure as hell isn't for the 3D scam.
5. I miss seeing Broadway shows, but boy are they pricing themselves out of existence.
6. For the most part, anyone of either party who has served in either house of Congress for more than two terms needs to go home.
7. It sounds arrogant, but if I could run a lot of things right from my bedroom, I think this country would be much better off, but who listens to me?
So, here is my best shot. I hope I'm not giving people repeat awards, but I'll be lucky if I get to 15 who are new to me in the first place, so I can't take the time to avoid duplication.
The Fine Cut
Lilok Pelikula Sculpting Cinema
Mind of a Suspicious Kind
Minute A Day About Movies
My Life at 24 Frames Per Second
The Nomadic Chronicles
Not Just Movies
The One-Line Review
She Blogged By Night
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The Golden Age of TV drama?
By Edward Copeland
When The West Wing premiered, my mother expressed how glad she was that there finally was a show that wasn't about cops, lawyers or doctors. (She watched that show until the end, I gave up after the first two seasons once I started to realize you could put any character's lines into another's mouth and it wouldn't make a difference: They all sounded exactly the same.) Still, I understood her complaint and in the years since, it truly has been a bountiful time, thanks to the expansion of the cable universe, for TV dramas to explore new and different type of subjects. Most of the network fare still sticks to the docs and crime procedurals, but what glorious ideas have been springing forth elsewhere on the dial.
Even though I don't watch all the series that have driven the drama into new and exciting directions (or in some cases, I've started them and then gave up), it really is an exciting time for television. Though I've been a movie lover far and above anything else for all my life, I've had to acknowledge that in recent years, it's television that's been far more willing to take chances than the film industry, which seems obsessed with sequels and remakes of movies that aren't that old to begin with. While great movies still turn up, I really can't recall the last time a new film excited me the same way a series such as AMC's Breaking Bad does. There really isn't a television antecedent for the story of a man who is dying of cancer who becomes a meth-making master to leave a nest egg for his family. The story has the makings for a great movie, but it's even better on television because there's more room for layering and character development over time. Also, it builds anticipation week to week, season to season as to what happens next. It's difficult to remember back to when films could do that for me on a regular basis.
Now the interesting programs are spread across the dial but though it's their slogan (and by now a cliche), for a lengthy time it really did seem like it was true when an announcer would say, "It's not TV. It's HBO." The pay cable behemoth seems as if it single-handedly sparked this new take on what makes a quality drama series. Of course, the whiny commercial networks said they could be that good if they had the freedom of language, violence and nudity, but we all know the truth is that would just mean more lawyers would cuss, murders would be bloodier and doctors would take more clothes off when they have sex. Look at NYPD Blue, where the language was marginally more daring but the nudity was nothing but gimmicky shots of butts and the series itself was just an excuse to see how many friends and relatives of Andy Sipowicz they could kill off. It really never expanded to any other network programming and at its base, it was still a cop show with a gimmick. It wasn't the freedom of how things could be presented, but the ideas for series HBO was willing to pursue. Granted, not every drama HBO touched turned to gold (see Carnivale and John From Cincinnati) or were too short lived (like Rome), but they were willing to take chances others wouldn't including one little show you might have heard of that all the commercial networks took a pass on called The Sopranos. It was one of the worst moves in the history of the networks and the greatest for fans of quality television. That's what started the network bellyaching as they rushed to imitate it, but without David Chase and that brilliant cast, there hardly was a point. Not everyone remembers this but The Sopranos debuted in the season before The West Wing did. I can almost justify the first season of West Wing beating The Sopranos second season for the Emmy, but The Practice beating The Sopranos' first season and Nancy Marchand's loss still sticks in my craw. Then again, Emmy voters lack the same imagination that network executives do.
HBO just completed the run of its latest hard-to-describe drama, Treme, a type of series you would never find on a commercial network. Some of HBO's other successful dramas, past and present, might have had unusual settings such as Six Feet Under which revolved around a family that ran a funeral home and Big Love with its polygamists but at their base, both shows are really glorified soap operas. Other cable networks have joined the unusual drama game. In addition to AMC's Breaking Bad, the network scored first with Mad Men (ironically rejected by HBO) about ad men in the 1960s incorporating real products, events and characters almost like an E.L. Doctorow novel. What's really encouraging is that there are so many new and interesting dramas out there, you can't possibly watch them all. I've never seen Showtime's The Tudors or HBO's In Treatment, and have only seen the first two seasons of Showtime's Dexter. Would the commercial networks have dared try to make a continuing series with a sympathetic serial killer as its lead? I've also missed FX's Sons of Anarchy and Justified. While most of TNT's offerings fall into pretty predictable lines, they are marking new territory with Men of a Certain Age, but I'll follow Andre Braugher just about anywhere since his days on one of the rare network quality dramas, Homicide: Life on the Street, until that show got ruined by network meddling and pointless cast additions and subtractions that marred what was a marvelous show for three seasons or show. (Of course, Homicide was based on a book by the brilliant writer David Simon who created The Wire and co-created Treme.)
What's interesting is when networks put new spins on old genres. There have been plenty of Westerns on television, though you can never look at any the same way after the three marvelous seasons of HBO's Deadwood, though it was deprived of the two more seasons both it and its fans rightly deserved. The Wire might have been mistaken as just another cop show when it debuted, but it developed into so much more than that, presenting a portrait of a city and keeping more plates spinning in the air with each passing season while looking at the drug trade, port workers, the school system, politics and journalism as well as police work. With its approach that was more novel-like than TV-like, there is a reason that it is routinely hailed as the greatest TV drama ever. FX also shook up the deck of the police drama with The Shield by making its lead a corrupt cop who killed another officer to cover his tracks.
The networks have been sticking their toes in with shows like Lost, which I never watched, but it never could have shown up without the ground work laid by Twin Peaks back when ABC didn't have patience for that sort of adventure. Back when the networks did have their quality phase (and by networks I mean NBC) they gave life to Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere because their ratings were so awful, they could afford to take the chance and they stuck by them to let audiences develop. Of course, it's not as if the Emmys can save shows as they did with Hill Street. Look how they ignored the brilliant fusion of teen drama and horror on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. At least Fox (and WB) stood by it for seven seasons, but again they were still up-starts that could afford to ride out the ratings in return for buzz and demographics. The commercial networks need to realize the days of their monopoly is over and they might as well take chances. What do they have to lose?
Labels: Awards, Braugher, Breaking Bad, David Chase, David Simon, Deadwood, HBO, Homicide, Lost, Mad Men, Television, The Sopranos, The Wire, Treme, Twin Peaks
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Sunday, June 27, 2010
From the Vault: Pulp Fiction
As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino works like a crafty pickpocket, approaching strangers and diverting their attention with entertaining conversation. It's only later that the victim realizes something more serious has transpired. This is definitely the case with Tarantino's second film, Pulp Fiction. There is so much energy and joy overflowing in Pulp Fiction that the viewer has too much fun to realize there is a deeper film at work. It takes awhile for the film's full wallop to register.
Like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction is a true ensemble work with a brilliant cast. Pulp Fiction builds on the unique structural technique Tarantino utilized in Reservoir Dogs and takes it several steps further, telling disparate stories out of chronological order. To tell too much of the story would diminish the visceral and comic impact of the film, which Tarantino also wrote from stories he and Roger Avary conjured up.
From the tale of a prize fighter (Bruce Willis) paid to take a dive to the amazing speech that Christopher Walken gives that lurches from the reverent to the absurd, Tarantino's words are almost quicker than the ear's ability to catch them. The performances are all top notch, with special notice given to Walken, John Travolta, Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth. Samuel L. Jackson, who gives one great performance after another, paints perhaps his most vivid portrait as Jules, a verbose hit man considering a career change.
Harvey Keitel, one of the most intrinsically interesting actors around, pops up late in the film, steals his scenes and makes a hasty exit. In a vengeful mobster's drug-taking wife, Uma Thurman finally finds a role that capitalizes on the potential she's shown. The actors are able to perform well thanks to the script itself. No one writes dialogue like Tarantino. Every word sounds as if it came from the same mouth, yet every character has humanity and individuality.
Tarantino's direction has grown more polished. He's got a great eye. His gift isn't really an animalistic passion like Martin Scorsese, but a biting comic brilliance rarely seen. What's so fascinating about Tarantino is as much what he takes out as what he leaves in. He tells a boxing story without showing a fight, makes the contents of a briefcase important without revealing them.
In fact, Tarantino's method is reminiscent of a passage from U and I, novelist Nicholson Baker's autobiographical essay about his imagined relationship with John Updike. Baker talks about his fascination with the "narrative clogs" of fiction, the passages that give a work its flavor even though they might be extraneous. He writes: "... the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for-seepage points of passage."
In the end, that's where Pulp Fiction excels, showing the passage of time and of various criminal lowlifes in a sometimes disturbing but consistently comic way.
Labels: 90s, Keitel, Samuel L. Jackson, Scorsese, Tarantino, Travolta, Updike, Walken, Willis
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From the Vault: Quentin Tarantino
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCT. 14, 1994
NEW YORK (September 1994) — Quentin Tarantino moves at a pace even faster than his movies, if that's possible. The energy that drives his stories at warp speed comes straight from the joy he gets from talking about film. With the tone that discussions about or with Tarantino take, it would seem as if he were a veteran filmmaker, but Pulp Fiction is only his second directing effort. Two of his screenplays have been made by other hands, the fairly faithful True Romance and the Oliver Stone-ified Natural Born Killers, a film Tarantino has yet to see.
"I was kind of interested in seeing (Natural Born Killers) for awhile, with all the pre-release hype around it ... and kind of got caught up in that, but then I ended up leaving the country when it opened. I was doing press in Japan. Then I came back, and went and saw Color of Night instead."
Pulp Fiction, however, has been a much more satisfying experience. Following his impressive debut writing, directing and acting in 1992's Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has created a whirlwind movie ride with a great cast including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman and Harvey Keitel, among others. The reaction to Pulp Fiction has been almost universally positive. The movie won the coveted top prize, the Palme d'Or, at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Like Reservoir Dogs before it, Pulp Fiction will likely draw controversy over its violent content, though it's at a much lower level than in Tarantino's first work.
"The only thing I don't like about motion picture violence is talking about motion picture violence. The only danger is that you could die of boredom talking about it."
What bothers the 31-year-old filmmaker the most is how violence can be used to dismiss a film without seeing its context.
"It's a drag being rejected out of hand, pigeonholed or misunderstood just because of one element of my film. It gets to be a real drag when I think I've tried to put many elements in my movie, having one magnified. Just talking about it analytically gives a false impression that I'm thinking about it that way, but I'm not — I'm telling stories. I never think in terms of violence in my stories, it's just what happens, where the characters go."
He also dismisses the notion that violence in movies and television fiction desensitizes viewers to violence in real life.
"I've never bought that argument about desensitizing ... did the reign of the Borgias desensitize the peasants in Italy? It's one of those things that happens through the decades — 'There's crime in the streets, There's blood in the streets, murder — blame the playmakers.'"
As Pulp Fiction co-star Willis said during interviews for the film:
"I don't think anyone in Rwanda has seen my films, yet 500,000 people were macheted to death."
He might not like the violence tag, but that's the way the game is played.
"That's just the price you pay. If sex is part of your deal, or violence is part of what you do or things of a political nature are part of what you do. If you have one of those three elements in your movie, you know going in that everything else you are doing is going to be talked to secondarily compared to those three volatile things."
The political aspect certainly drives and affects Stone, who was the first person in Hollywood to buy a Tarantino script, but then made Natural Born Killers completely his own. Though Tarantino has been fairly candid about his dissatisfaction with Natural Born Killers, it wasn't the pain of seeing his script changed dramatically that kept him from seeing it.
"(It was) more just lack of interest. It's been quite painful for awhile and now it's not painful, it's just kind of there."
As for the writer-director-actor and his relationship with Stone now, Tarantino admits, "He's not inviting me over to his house for tea and crumpets. I think I've gotten my position very clear that I've distanced myself from the film."
"Actually, to give the devil his due, he was very cool when I said I wanted to take my name off the screenplay. He facilitated that to happen. He could have caused a big problem, but he didn't. When it comes to Natural Born Killers, more or less the final word on it is that it has nothing to do with me. One of the reasons I wanted just a story credit was I wanted that to get across. If you like the movie, it's Oliver. If you don't like the movie, it's Oliver."
Labels: Interview, Keitel, Oliver Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino, Travolta, Willis
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Saturday, June 26, 2010
From the Vault: Ready to Wear
Whenever a favorite artist stumbles, it's tempting to rationalize why the latest project is a misfire in order to cast the work in the best light possible. Unfortunately, that's difficult to do when one of the all-time great filmmakers Robert Altman produces a film as forgettable as Ready to Wear.
Formerly titled Pret-a-Porter (which is the French translation of the title), Ready to Wear is an aimless farce set amid the world of Paris fashion shows.
Though commercial viewers are being misled to think Ready to Wear is a murder mystery, it is actually neither.
There are many amusing moments in the film, co-written by Altman and Barbara Shulgasser, but what's most surprising is its occasionally leaden pace and its generic nature. Except for one brilliant scene near the end, Ready to Wear offers little in the way of characters or point-of-view. The crowning set piece is a good one, but nothing before it supports its statement.
Some of the many performers in the ensemble do provide nice moments, especially Stephen Rea as a star photographer and Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman and Tracey Ullman as three magazine editors competing for his services.
Marcello Mastroianni also manages some cute bits and his daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, shows real promise and presence with her role as assistant to a vacuous TV reporter (Kim Basinger).
The rest of the cast is set adrift in ill-defined caricatures and underdeveloped purposes, aside from Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins whose characters seem as if they are in a completely different movie, a potentially more interesting one.
With the recurring theme of people stepping in dog droppings and Basinger's final commentary, you might suspect that Altman has purposely set out to make an unsuccessful film, almost as a response to two years of comeback stories following his back-to-back home runs, The Player and Short Cuts.
Perhaps with its focus on the media, Ready to Wear is really a test for critics and entertainment journalists, to see if they'd follow Altman off any bridge. Unfortunately, this time it's better to stay on safe ground.
Labels: 90s, Altman, Julia Roberts, Mastroianni, Tim Robbins
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From the Vault: Robert Altman
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DEC. 23, 1994
NEW YORK (December 1994) — Loose structures and large casts are two things that immediately come to mind when director Robert Altman's name comes up. Both of those attributes are obvious in Altman's latest movie party, Ready to Wear, a light farce set during the Paris Pret-a-Porter fashion shows. The idea for Ready to Wear came to Altman when his wife dragged him unwillingly to one of the Paris showings about 10 years ago. It was originally titled Pret-a-Porter until it was decided that the English translation would come out of Americans mouths easier.
"I guess it's always when you dread something ... I was just surprised by it. It was like a circus. I just couldn't believe that nobody had used that, had made a film of that milieu. I found out why. It's very difficult. I spent 10 years trying to find out what kind (of film to make) and it ended up as you've seen it — a farce, essay material."
In fact, Altman is quite insistent that viewers realize the light nature of this work and not to expect something along the lines of his masterpieces Nashville or Short Cuts or even a brilliant satiric thriller such as The Player.
"A lot of attention is coming off of The Player. This thing was started in my mind eight years before I even thought of The Player. I wasn't trying to re-create The Player. It's not that type of a film. I think it's a very soft kind of farce."
The director, who co-wrote the script with Barbara Shulgasser, even told an audience prior to a recent screening of Ready to Wear that this wasn't a "serious" movie. In Ready to Wear the cast of main characters numbers about 31, a number that not only indicates Altman's love of ensembles but of his inability to turn down practically any performer who expresses interest in working with him.
"We did the script and at the same time, we cast people when I didn't have them in the script. I remember somebody told me, 'Tracey Ullman would sure love to play in a movie with you' and I said, 'Oh, great.' I had no idea what I was going to put her in."
Ullman ended up in the role of Nina Scant, the fictional editor of the British version of Vogue magazine, sparring with rival editors played by Linda Hunt and Sally Kellerman. Her casting was by no means a unique occurrence.
"Stephen Rea was kind of the same way. I didn't have that plot stuff worked out for him for a long time and I was quite worried that there wouldn't be enough for him to do. Sometimes you create the characters to fit the people you feel go into the ensemble and make it good, and some times you just fill the part."
That casting style contributed to a somewhat chaotic production, though Altman questions whether it was the most out-of-control set he's worked on.
"I'd say yes (that Ready to Wear was the film he felt least in control of while making), but if you could push me back in time to Nashville or some of the others I'd probably say no. Pain doesn't have any memory. You just remember that you didn't like it, but you don't experience the feeling of it."
However, Altman has no regrets and is quite proud of the finished product.
"I'm not prone to ulcers, thank God, but this was very tough. If we'd written this meticulously and tried to get everybody to stick to their lines, it would have been a stiff disaster. Ultimately, it always ends up in the hands of the performers."
Altman hardly suffered a shortage in talented actors in an ensemble that also features Lauren Bacall, Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee and Sophia Loren.
"We had some very set pieces. The structure of Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins — that was a little short story that was fairly concise. Somebody like Tracey Ullman I can kind of turn loose on her own and know that if I can use two out of every 10 gags she comes up with that I'll be all right. Stephen Rea ... really thinks out his part and is consistent with it, and that grew into a very terrific character."
Making his third consecutive appearance in an Altman film is singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, who plays a Texas boot mogul. Lovett does not appear on screen with Roberts, his real-life wife.
"I told Lyle, 'I want to waste you in this film. I want you to be like the leading man used to be in Flying Down to Rio and all those pictures.' There was always some guy who really was a nebbish. He was always the rich guy who was there, but really had nothing to do. I told him that I was looking for bad acting or nonacting. He was very courageous to tackle it and he did it well."
Altman believes one of the most desirable by-products of his ensemble technique is the soothing of actorly egos.
"Sophia, Marcello, Julia and Teri Garr are four of the easiest actors, the most creative actors I've ever worked with. That's not to say the others were difficult, but they do get concerned about themselves. Those four people I mentioned though, when I looked on the schedule and that's who I had that day, then I had a nice day ahead of me."
While Altman is well aware that Ready to Wear is unlikely to repeat the overwhelming critical kudos of The Player and Short Cuts, his last two films which heralded his umpteenth "comeback," the director still stands behind the work.
"I think it's a lot better film than anyone will discover until about a month after it's opened and played," Altman said. "I find that all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most, but they're finished and the cord's cut and it's out there and it ... doesn't belong to me anymore."
Labels: Altman, Bacall, Interview, Julia Roberts, Mastroianni, Tim Robbins
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Friday, June 25, 2010
Treme No. 10: I'll Fly Away
By Edward Copeland
There's a lot of the stages of mourning taking place in the first season finale of Treme, and the opening stage is Toni's denial to the police detectives investigating Creighton's disappearance that the story they've heard fits with her perception of the man she married. A man reported lending a cigarette to a large man on the ferry who was there one minute and gone the next, but Toni insists that Creighton gave up smokes years ago. Besides, his vehicle wasn't found on the ferry, so she's not buying that story, even though her face betrays her inner fears: It's the same look she got when LaDonna failed to find her brother in the photos of the incarcerated. There will be other types and stages of mourning and part of it will belong to the viewer, as one of the most promising new series in a while, sprung from the minds of The Wire creator David Simon and Eric Overmyer, has ended for now. Thankfully, season two will begin filming this summer.
Bursting with excitement over a glowing review for his four-song satirical CD, Davis goes to his mom to ask for some money to re-record it for a professional label. He even boasts of how much he's made so far, $4,000, and flashes $2,200. His mom says they'll match whatever he puts up but for the rest, he'll have to get a job. With his tail between his legs, the one-time political candidate returns to his disc jockey role and agrees to follow the radio station's edicts.
Troy Andrews dines with Antoine at a sushi place because he has a dilemma: He has conflicting gigs and can't be two places at once so he holds out his fists and asks Antoine to pick. Antoine's selection ends up being a chance to rehearse and perform with Allen Toussaint for $1,000. The rehearsals include the classic "Stagger Lee" and lots of poker playing during breaks. Unfortunately, Antoine is playing on IOUs for the money he hasn't yet earned so he keeps proposing more games to try to make up for his losses. When he does get his cash payment, most of it goes to his fellow musicians to cover his losses. At home, an unhappy Desiree can't believe he earned so little after so much rehearsing.
Still seething, the contractor Riley shows up at LaDonna's tavern wondering where in the hell she got a completed roof. LaDonna offers him a deal: She'll drop all charges provided that Arnie Reyes get the necessary licenses and crew to take over Riley's business, since Arnie is an honest man. Riley reluctantly shakes Arnie's hand on it.
With St. Joseph's fast approaching, Albert, his children and the rest of the tribe work furiously on their costumes. Albert says he always cuts it close. "If it were easy, everybody'd be Indians," he proclaims.
Davis reluctantly helps Janette pack up her place, though he does get her to agree to give him one day to convince her not to leave for New York.
In the darkness, in a scene that seems to have echoes of The Exorcist, the two detectives return to the Bernettes' residence and informs Toni that Creighton's body has been found in the river. After they leave, a shrieking Sofia can be heard.
The next morning, Creighton's death makes the front page of the newspaper, shocking Davis since he knew him as did Janette. Davis says this makes it necessary for him to take a day to plan "the day of convincing."
Toni tries to hold herself together by making sure her caseload is being handled, bringing a colleague up to speed, giving the woman the task to again try to convince LaDonna to get an independent autopsy on Daymo. Her colleague tells Toni she'll take care of everything and she has more important things to worry about. She agrees to watch Sofia as Toni leaves to inspect Creighton's truck which was found in an impound lot. In the glove compartment, she finds his wallet which contains a note that says, "I love you, Cray." Toni loses it. Melissa Leo always is good but this is her episode. When the unfortunate and probably inevitable Emmy snubs are discussed about Treme, they really will all concern the women because Melissa Leo, Khandi Alexander and Kim Dickens gave three of the best performances by actresses in television dramas this year and all deserve recognition. That's not to say the men are slackers, but the women have simply blown them away in this show's first season.
I should probably be vigilant and recount in detail more of what transpired in the season finale, but somehow I feel more like summing up the season. The last episode does finally let us glimpse Albert in his full Indian regalia and David Brooks gets laid to rest followed by a traditional second line that Toni joins, even though earlier she said she wouldn't honor Creighton's will request for one because quitters don't deserve one. Davis doesn't keep Janette from boarding that plane, but he does find Annie sitting on his step looking for a place to stay, giving hope that her character can be salvaged from the show's worst storyline. There is a brilliant sequence that flashes back to show what all the characters were doing or did when Katrina, including the then-living David Brooks. We also get another classic moment with Creighton, assuring his family that the hurricane will swerve at the last minute just as it always does and they can all go back to pretending that the levees aren't constructed from Spanish moss and Krazy Glue.
As I mentioned when the show began, fans of The Wire expecting something in the same vein were sure to be disappointed, but those open to quality television would find something completely different and unique, but still remarkable viewing. I haven't watched Glee, but I have to imagine Treme makes music an even more integral part of its story. It's not a plot heavy show. Where it resembles The Wire most closely is that it's painting a portrait of a city, only instead of doing it through its institutions as The Wire did, it does it through culture, texture, detail and, above all, character. I often said (and I was far from the only one to make this comparison) that The Wire was more like a novel than a TV show. In its own way, Treme is shaping up to be a musicians' jam session, riffing across all sorts of cultural lines. Since it concentrates on one particular neighborhood in New Orleans and one point in time, I can't help but wonder if David Simon wishes now (or is thinking ahead) of how he can work in characters who work as fishermen or oil rig workers. Whatever they plan for season 2 and forever long the series last, I'll be curious to see how it goes. I will miss John Goodman. I hope Kim Dickens isn't really gone for good. Most of all, I hope Sonny overdoses soon so we can dump his dull, trite character quickly and spend more time with the people we've come to care for in a short 10 episodes. I do hope it follows one path that The Wire took and Treme keeps getting better with each subsequent season.
Labels: David Simon, HBO, John Goodman, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, Overmyer, The Wire, Treme, TV Recap
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Treme No. 9: Wish Someone Would Care
By Edward Copeland
I must be getting charitable, not only writing some in this recap about Sonny and Annie but leading with them and using them as the lead photo, but this episode opens with them, and I hope it heralds good things. Annie tells Sonny that as long as he keeps using drugs, she doesn't want to play with him anymore. For some odd reason, she doesn't think this means they should break up, just stop collaborating as musicians. See: this storyline is dull, predictable and nonsensical. A wounded Sonny takes it to the next step and tells her to get her stuff out of the apartment. He's ending it. Let's all hope it's for good. Annie might be an interesting character without him.
On the university campus, a student finds Creighton sitting on a bench and asks his professor if he's going to be late for their class, then hides his cigarette. Creighton assures the youth that not only will he be in attendance that he doesn't care about people smoking if he doesn't, noting that looking at his own physical makeup, "Tobacco would be one more bullet in the chamber." Once both teacher and pupil are in the classroom, one of the other students complains that the book Creighton has assigned them, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, is "so old." The professor tells them despite its 19th century origin, the novel still has relevance today. Another student expresses relief that at least the book is short, but Bernette says that's no reason not to read it with care to appreciate the novel's protagonist's search for truth or some kind of peace. Creighton's also queried as to whether the class discussions will be on the test as well as the book itself and he answers in the affirmative. "Everyone will be tested in life," he responds, "and in the end, everyone will be found to be wanting." When he returns home to again work on the book, his struggles continue as he stares at the blinking cursor. He manages to type, "But the rain still came." He continues, then erases what he's written. Sofia peeks in and says dinner is ready and Creighton says he just wants to finish this paragraph. He types some gobbledygook after she leaves and it's back to the blinking cursor. At his next class session, he's back to a theme he mentioned the previous session that there is no closure in life. One student says she found the novel depressing. Another asks if it could be considered the first women's lib novel, but Creighton says it's too multifaceted to be ghettoized. The book's ending is not an ending, he says, it's a transition. "A rejection of disappointment and failure. She's embracing spiritual freedom," he tells them before deciding to let them leave early for the day.
Even though the mystery of David "Daymo" Brooks' fate has been solved, Toni Bernette remains determined to fill in the blanks as to how such a monumental bureaucratic screwup could have occurred and to answer her own suspicions about Daymo's supposed cause of death. She meets with the family of Daymo's cousin, whose name had been on the list of inmates who died in custody though he is very much alive. Jerome's mother told her about receiving a call telling her that her son was dead and informing the caller that they were mistaken because he was in her house right at the moment. Jerome adds that he's never been jailed ever for any reason, but they never mentioned the odd occurrence to anyone else and, of course, the Department of Corrections didn't follow up on it or correct their records. When Toni meets with LaDonna later, she theorizes that Corrections wanted the body to remain "Jerome Cherry" because something happened to Daymo in custody that they would prefer stay secret. She suggests that Ladonna delay the funeral a couple of days so they can perform an independent autopsy because a fall from a top bunk doesn't really jibe with the injury to the back of his head, which could have come from a blunt instrument. LaDonna turns quite indignant in refusing the request. What different does it make now, she asks, if another inmate or a guard killed him? Should she cause her mother more grief that will take her longer to get over and give her someone to hate? "It's a matter of right and wrong," Toni replies. "It stays wrong us for us no matter what happens." It's a short but pivotal scene performed by two of the series finest actresses, Melissa Leo and Khandi Alexander, at the top of their game. The sparks almost fly off the screen to the point you forget they've been on the same side all season.
Janette shows her folks what's left at the restaurant to be auctioned and promises that she's going to give them any proceeds. They object, asking if she doesn't need the money, but she says she's moved on to her next project as "guerrilla chef" and they should come out tonight and check it out. She won't ever be moving back to Huntsville, Ala., like they'd like and marry some man and start popping out grandkids. She'd rather deepfry her own head. It's not for her. Besides, her new gig has already cleared $1,500 without having to pump up liquor sales. Later, she meets with Jon Cleary and his band to firm up plans to cook at their Bacchanal gig. She expected to make plans to serve 1,000, but Cleary tells her that she better plan for 1,200. The night is turning into a roaring success with the help of some of her old staff until a downpour which wasn't even forecast puts a literal damper on the festivities and Janette's food. She tries to salvage what she can, but when she slips with a tray of food, her vocal frustration indicates that she can't take much more abuse, but there is more to come at home: No electricity and a leaking ceiling.
Annie shows up at a musician friend's place and asks to stay for a couple of days and the scene provides probably the only worthwhile line that storyline has had and one of the best in the series. As she explains the situation (that she just wanted to stop playing with Sonny, not end the romance), the friend tells her, "Fucking is fucking, but music is serious."
At Poke's both of Albert's children seem to have had change of hearts as Delmond and Davina help with the sewing of the tribe's suits, though the members express regrets that so much of what they will be wearing for St. Joseph's will be a repeat from last year because of Katrina. Young Darius complains that he doesn't even have one to work on, but Delmond sympathizes with the lad, telling him that he felt the same way at his age, eager to join in the festivities while Albert told him he wasn't ready to mask yet. Later, Albert gets a visit from the community relations cop he met in the projects and the shift lieutenant we met a few episodes back played by David Morse. Apparently, there has been long-running conflicts between the tribe and the police and the lieutenant doesn't want to see a repeat of last year's violence, especially in light of the recent incident at the projects where he says Albert punched a cop. Albert insists he did no such thing that they beat on him and asks if he's warning them that the cops are looking for a chance for free shots. He also asks if he's giving his officers the same warning, to which the lieutenant replies he is. Later, Darius, still looking to score points, is invited by Albert to help them gather some building supplies for money. They take them to the projects, which are guarded now by soldiers as well as the police. "Sometimes the most important battles are the ones you know you are going to lose," Albert tells the boy.
Davis' CD has sold so well that he decides that it's time for a party to celebrate: only musicians and hot women welcome. So he makes the rounds, handing out fliers to anyone and everyone, from Antoine whom he catches at a gig caring for his baby girl because Desiree is late picking her up, to Annie, to three buxom strippers he sees leaning over a balcony in his neighborhood, prompting him to declare that it must be heaven. When the party begins, someone requests Irma Phillips' "Wish Someone Would Care" and one of the stripper obliges with a vocals-only rendition of the song. His gay neighbors also are in attendance and one admits that he was the one who once called the police on his loud music but Davis is prepared to let bygones be bygones, but the man's partner is shocked because he knew nothing about it and finds it outrageous that he'd call the police about loud music in the Treme. Much later, as the party has wound down and most of the guests have departed, Janette arrives, slightly hurt that Davis didn't invite her. He feels like a clod for having forgotten. She spends the night anyway and sighs to McAlary that the city has beaten her and she can't take anymore and she's thinking of trying her luck in New York with the big boys. Davis can't believe she'd want to swap second lines for Macy's floats, but Janette seems as if her mind has been made up.
LaDonna and her mother pay a visit to the family crypt to find it in a state of horrible damage stemming from the flood. The cemetery manager claims he sent several letters to Mrs. Brooks, but LaDonna tells him that their mail service still isn't being delivered correctly. When she suggests that she was under the impression that their perpetual care package would cover such things, the man begins to sound like an insurance agent and says it does not include acts of God and it would require money and time to have it repaired in time for her brother to be laid to rest. Antoine visits LaDonna at Gigi's and learns she's short of what she needs for the repairs and asks why she doesn't just ask her husband for help, but she fears that Larry will use it as an excuse to force her to close the saloon and move to Baton Rouge permanently. Then a surprise walks in Gigi's. Arnie, the bouncer Sonny dragged back from Texas, tells LaDonna that he has the materials and can fix her roof in two days. She suspects a scam, but Arnie wants no money She tells him that it's not his responsibility, but he says he knows it, but he feels bad about the way the contractor treated her. He's from Texas, he tells her, they need to learn about the work ethic.
Sofia asks her dad to drive her to school since he says he's taking a sick day, but he says he can't. Creighton spends an odd but busy day though. He gets some lunch and a snack, sees Annie playing with a pianist who isn't Sonny and drops $20 in he violin case to her shock and he parks his truck on the ferry. Despite his early indication that he's not a smoker, he bums a cigarette off a ferry passenger and goes to the edge to the smoke. The other smoker turns around. Creighton watches as another man nearby walks away as well. When the smoker turns back, Creighton is gone. Later, Toni tries to get Creighton on his cell, but there's no response. Night has fallen and his truck sits alone and silently on the ferry. I hope this isn't why John Goodman was never in the main credits of the show. I'd hate to lose his character, but it's certainly been leaning that way of late.
Labels: Books, D. Morse, Fiction, HBO, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Treme, TV Recap
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Thursday, June 24, 2010
Treme No. 8: All on a Mardi Gras Day
By Edward Copeland
The opening of this episode has the same quick-cut rhythm of the previous one, but this time it serves an obvious and definite purpose: showing what all the characters are up to because it is setting up New Orleans' most important time of the year: Mardi Gras. The pre-credit sequence even includes a Sonny and Annie sequence that I liked for a change. As the trite and melodramatic buskers finish their performance for a crowd, an obviously emotional man thanks them. He explains that he's been living in St. Louis and lost his home in the flood. Three of his neighbors drowned during Katrina, but nothing would keep him keep from coming back for Mardi Gras.
Sadly, one of the people who had worked hardest to gather people back to New Orleans in preparation for Fat Tuesday, Albert Lambeaux, is languishing in jail following his arrest at the projects. His son Delmond has returned to town to help his father, who complains that he hasn't been allowed to make any phone calls for two days and asks Delmond to tell his tribe to keep working for the big day. Later, Delmond receives a call from his father's lawyer with the news that they've moved his father's hearing to Wednesday: They want to send a message and really punish the chief by keeping him locked up for Mardi Gras. It also means that Delmond will have to stay in town longer than he intended. He goes to Poke's and tells the Indians the bad news. Lula offers her place for Delmond to stay, but he says he has a place and mentions that he doesn't know why people are wasting so much time and money on Mardi Gras when the city still needs to be rebuilt. Lula looks at him disapprovingly.
Sofia Bernette expresses concern to her mom Toni about her dad as he continues to hole himself up in the guest house, wondering if he's depressed, but her mom assures the girl that Mardi Gras always cheers Creighton up. Eventually, Creighton emerges, declaring that there's a "light at the end of the tunnel" and he's going for a drive. An excited Sofia asks to join him and her father relents. The price is a history lesson of all the landmarks long gone by previous New Orleans tragedies and how it's almost six months to the day since Katrina. He realizes his talk is bringing his daughter down a bit, but the girl had correctly diagnosed her father's mood. There's nothing festive going on.
Antoine sets up a gig but informs one of his fellow musicians that he has no intention of working on Mardi Gras this year. It just wouldn't seem right. At the gig, he is reunited with his Japanese benefactor Koichi Toyoma, who has returned to experience Mardi Gras. He explains why he's playing his old trombone instead of the new one Toyoma bought him, but Toyoma says the handing down to the next generation is very Japanese. He also says he heard of Danny's death. Antoine wishes his passing had garnered as much notice locally.
After spending their day together, Janette and Davis part ways and Davis tries to make Mardi Gras plans but Janette plans to work, which Davis insists may be a sin.
Following a day that included watching her mother light candles at a church for David Brooks, LaDonna keeps mum about her knowledge of his death. Later, she welcomes the arrival of her husband Larry and the boys for the city's big day.
The next day, Mardi Gras arrives. The Bernettes leave their homestead in full costume. Ladonna's family heads out for the parade, though her mom decides to stay behind, promising she might go next year "when everyone is there." Davis' pirate costume would not be complete without keeping that judge's get-out-of-jail card in his pocket. Albert lies on a jail bunk, straining to look out a window to see if he can see anything at all. Delmond's Mardi Gras skepticism begins to ease as he watches the parade and gets flashed by some pretty marchers. He tosses beads in return. Davis makes a stop at his family's garden party where his mother enjoys poking him with the fact that the pirate he's emulating was a slave trader. It also allows us another all-too-brief appearance by Elizabeth Ashley as his aunt. On the street, LaDonna runs into the assistant district attorney who apologizes, saying she had to represent the city but she's glad the LaDonna won and wishes her luck finding her brother. The Creightons bump into Janette and express sympathy over her restaurant's closing and buy three orders of her gumbo. Later, LaDonna encounters a furious Riley, the roof contractor who ripped her off and ended up getting arrested and handcuffed in front of his kids. Thankfully, Antoine is near and comes to the aid of his ex-wife. Davis hooks up with a solo Annie, also bedecked as a pirate, making her presence more tolerable since she's paired with a character we care about. Sonny has a separate story, but does it matter? Davis spots a favorite sign: FEMA SAYS THE BEADS WILL BE HERE BY APRIL. Creighton's malaise continues and he tells Toni and Sofia to stay and have fun, he's just not feeling it this year.
Once she's exhausted her food supply, it's time for Janette to join the party and she re-emerges on the street dressed as a fairy godmother wielding her wand wherever it will lead, trying to change cars into cabs and forming a small sidewalk sing-a-long line of "Iko."
Following Antoine's rescue of LaDonna, the ex-spouses end up at her tavern where a massage leads to kissing and LaDonna ignoring a cell phone call. When she returns home, she learns that the ignored call was from Larry saying that he and the kids were returning to Baton Rouge.
After picking up a girl at a party, Delmond takes her for a drive and what at first seems like a hallucination turns out to be Mardi Gras Indians. Later, he admits the sight gave him goosebumps and makes him think the city just might make it.
As the clock strikes midnight, Davis tells Annie that the New Orleans Police Department are doing what they do best: crowd control.
A still depressed Creighton records yet another YouTube video, similar to his mood, declaring that everything seems like it's the same yet not the same.
The following day when he gets his dad out of jail, Delmond tells Albert what a great Mardi Gras he had but that come St. Joseph's, his father's Indians will be the best.
Many of the various characters take part in the ritual of Ash Wednesday, including Davis and Annie, though Annie refuses Davis' offer of a joint. She tells him that she's thinking of going back to New York for awhile. "Giving up New Orleans for Lent? Now that's radical," McAlary replies.
Toni finds a passed-out and still-costumed Creighton on the porch next to an empty bottle of bourbon and orders him to get his shit together before their daughter sees him.
Now that Mardi Gras has officially passed, LaDonna takes the action she's been delaying and steps into a funeral director's office. The episode, despite some down moments has a mostly jaunty and joyous feel, particularly after the rare misstep of "Smoke My Peace Pipe." Only two episodes left to go in season one.
Labels: E. Ashley, HBO, Treme, TV Recap
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Treme No. 7: Smoke My Peace Pipe
By Edward Copeland
It's been awhile since I've been able to recap Treme episodes, but I have my hands on the first season's final four episodes, so the wrapup should be imminent this week or next, beginning with the seventh episode, "Smoke My Peace Pipe." If you want to refresh yourself over previous recaps, the index is here. "Smoke My Peace Pipe" really is a change of pace for the leisurely paced series. There are many important developments to be sure, but for the most part each scene is very brief, some barely lasting a minute in length.
That is not the case with the opening scene which sees Tim Reid return in his role as a judge, hearing the new evidence Toni (Melissa Leo) has found in her tireless search for the LaDonna's missing brother, an innocent man lost in the penal system ever since Katrina hit. The judge declares that in his 22 years as a New Orleans official, he's always tried to defend the city against charges of overwhelming and incompetence but he has never seen a case as egregious as the one of Daymo Brooks. He even stops the assistant district attorney before she can stand and make the parish's usual excuses. He calls the incident an embarrassment and apologizes to Ladonna and her mother (Khandi Alexander, Venida Evans) and orders the city, state and penal system to produce David within 72 hours or face contempt.
Following the credits, that's when the editing pattern of lightning-quick scenes begin to take place in "Smoke My Peace Pipe," an episode whose story and script were co-written by the late David Mills. This attention-deficit-disorder rhythm sort of keeps you at arm's length from much of the episode, which hasn't been the case with Treme so far. The performances still are top notch and the episode features some fine moments, but it weakens the overall effort. On the plus side, whenever Sonny or Annie show up, it's for a mercifully brief period of time each time and you are soon back with characters you actually care about.
Albert (Clarke Peters) with the help of some members of his tribe breaks into the sealed off projects and enters one of the residences that belonged to the mother of another tribe member's mother. As he expected, aside from dust and a little mold, there's little damage to be found. He tells his compatriots to call the TV stations and reporters first and then the police. Later that night, a TV crew finally arrives, followed quickly by police who attempt to arrest Albert and his friends for trespassing. Albert insists that they aren't trespassing because they have the permission of the residence's owner to be there. The police say it doesn't belong to her anymore, it's the property of the Housing Authority of New Orleans. Still, the police relent. Later, they take note of another squatter who has returned to the projects and flown a banner that reads, "My home." As Albert's standoff continues, an officer from the community relations division visits and tells him that there has been no outcry from voters to reopen the projects and if he doesn't leave by tomorrow, the police are down indulging him and will charge him with criminal trespass. The following day, Albert tells his friends that it's time for him to go. The police enter to arrest him and order him to kneel. He puts out his hands and says they can cuff him, but he will not kneel. The cops draw the blinds and proceed to beat Albert.
Creighton's unfinished book keeps giving him (John Goodman) nothing but frustration. He reads to his classroom from a book about a different New Orleans flood and how the author preferred a decimated New Orleans to his native Ohio in the best shape. Back at home, he lugs his large box of pages and notes for his book to the guest house in hopes of finishing it once and for all, but he finds himself mostly staring at a blank computer screen. Toni comes in every now and then to try to convince him to take a break for dinner or brings him a morning cup of coffee only to be rebuffed and told that all he's putting out is shit. Later, frustrated, Creighton returns to what has satisfied him the most of late, his YouTube rants, turning this time to one on the impending city elections. There is "no way a shared sense of purpose is going to survive a New Orleans election," he tells his world wide audience, adding that New Orleans is its own worst enemy.
Antoine (Wendell Pierce) gathers several of his fellow jobless musician friends to play in the arrival terminal of the New Orleans airport. One woman asks if they are there to greet someone special and Antoine asks if she's from New Orleans. "All my life," she answers. "Then we're playing for you." After Antoine divides the money they collected, some of the players are upset that he saved a cut for his mentor, Danny Nelson, who wasn't even with them, but he tells them it was his idea. He doesn't tell them that currently Danny is in the hospital barely hanging on to life, where Antoine later visits him even though Nelson doesn't know he's there. Antoine pulls out an iPod, places one earpiece in Nelson's ear, the other in his own, and listens to music with his friend. The next time Antoine's makeshift group plays the airport, he's embarrassed to run into the arriving musician Troy Andrews who joins them in a jam and tells Antoine he needs to be heard. When Antoine returns to the hospital again, he finds the Danny's bed is empty and that his friend has died. At his funeral, Danny's daughter tries to return the expensive trombone to Antoine, but he insists she keep it, looking at her young son and suggesting there could be other musicians in the family.
With the restaurant now closed, Janette (Kim Dickens) is selling off the trappings of Desautel's down to the tablecloths. Ironically, her loan from the Small Business Administration finally has come through, albeit too late, so she has purchased a trailer with a grill and a smoker with plans to be a "guerrilla chef." While Janette hopes she'll find some cashflow this way, Davis (Steve Zahn) gets some unexpected money when he delivers more of his CDs to a music store and gets a check for the ones that have sold so far totaling $2,500. The local pol Morial visits Davis later at home and urges him to move to the next step by focusing on local and federal issues, particularly how they want to keep the African-American population driven out by the storm from coming home so that a purple state can go true red, i.e. swing state to solid Republican, but Davis seems obsessed with the idea of how to write a song around the word infrastructure. Not everyone wants Davis to continue his unorthodox campaign. A judge buys him lunch and shows him polling numbers that shows he's cutting into the votes of the people his people want to win and, if he's prepared to drop out, he'll have a get-out-of-jail-free card the next time he finds himself in legal trouble. Later, Davis discovers for the first time that Janette had to shut down her restaurant and arrives at her place with food and wine and asks why she didn't tell him and assures her he's not there just to get laid. At Bacchanal, the two team up, with Janette manning the grill and Davis running the register and selling more of his CDs.
Toni and LaDonna sift through a new photo file of prisoners in search of Daymo but he's nowhere to be found. Toni gets a bad feeling and asks if they have a list of inmates who died in custody and they find his cousin's name, awaiting family identification, and wonder if Daymo assumed his identity. The cousin, however, is alive and Toni suggests that perhaps David took another name entirely and that they were going to have to go to the morgue. The so-called morgue is a series of refrigerated trucks. It's one of the longer scenes, and the best, in the episode. As the official opens the back of the rig, the stiffening of Khandi Alexander's shoulders at the sounds is a wonder of using your body for acting. The news is not good as LaDonna positively identifies the man as Daymo. According to the death certificate, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling off a top bunk. LaDonna refuses to deal with any details right now. She won't ruin her family's Carnival. She does drop by her mom's and lies that they have no news yet, but pours herself a stiff drink.
Labels: Books, Clarke Peters, HBO, John Goodman, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, Treme, TV Recap, Wendell Pierce, Zahn
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010
One Chance Out Between Two Worlds
The 1990s have become known as the age of irony for the horror genre. Self-reflexive humor, as epitomized by the Scream trilogy, replaced the outrageous splatstick of The Evil Dead movies during the 1980s. One of the few films that went against this trend was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). David Lynch’s film is not usually regarded as a horror film per se, but if looked at closely, does contain many conventions of the genre (i.e. the final girl against the malevolent monster). However, the veteran filmmaker pushes these rules as far as they can possibly be stretched. Kim Newman observed in his review for Sight and Sound magazine that Lynch’s movie “demonstrates just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become.”
Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to Lynch’s critically lauded cult television show, Twin Peaks. Instead of resolving several storylines left hanging at the end of its brief run, the film immerses the viewer in a highly stylized, surreal world of backward-talking dwarfs and FBI agents trapped in otherworldly dimensions with its initial focus being the murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) followed by an emphasis on the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) life.
Right from the opening credits, Lynch establishes the film’s horror genre credentials. A television is set to an abstract, white noise image with ominous sounding music provided by Angelo Badalamenti playing over the soundtrack. An axe comes crashing through the TV followed immediately by a woman’s piercing scream. This opening sequence establishes the dark, foreboding mood that will permeate the entire movie.
Like the beginning of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971), the events of Fire Walk With Me are set in motion by the murder of a woman. Lynch also presents an inhospitable world: FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate and encounter resistance every step of the way. They are given a cryptic briefing by their superior; they are forced to deal with a belligerent local sheriff and his deputy (when they ask for the dead girl’s ring, the sheriff replies, “We’ve got a phone. It has a little ring.”), and the locals offer little help (“I don’t know shit from shinola!”). By and large, the detectives are unable to figure out the identity of the killer.
The settings for both murders are in small towns. Twin Peaks, especially, is a particularly atmospheric setting with indications that something ominous lurks out in the woods. Laura Palmer not only meets her demise in the woods but an entry point into an otherworldly dimension for the killer resides in a grove of trees. Another jarring location is the Canadian road house that Laura and Donna visit with two men. This sequence is an intense audio-visual assault on the senses. The entire frame is saturated by a hellish red color scheme, punctuated by a pulsating white strobe light. Over the soundtrack is a deafening bass-heavy song with a rockabilly guitar twang cranked up so loud that the characters have to yell over top of it.
Laura Palmer is the final girl archetype but deeply flawed. It is an unflinching depiction of a woman consumed by drugs, sex and, most harrowingly and disturbingly of all, a victim of incest by her father (Ray Wise) under the guise of being possessed by a malevolent supernatural force known only as BOB (Frank Silva). Laura Palmer is arguably one of Lynch’s most complex and fully realized characterizations. She immerses herself in all of these vices, which distracts from the painful incestuous relationship with her father and BOB’s desire to possess her. The push and pull of these opposing forces are too much for her and this only increases her self-destructive impulses.
Sheryl Lee does an incredible job conveying Laura’s overwhelming sadness at the realization that the sweet girl she once was is rapidly disappearing and try as she might there is nothing she can do to stop it. Lee is able to show the different sides of her character. There is the confident, aggressive side that picks up strangers and has sex with them. There is the scared little girl that is dominated by her father. And there is the sweet high school girl whose reserves of inner strength — that she uses to fight off BOB — are gradually being depleted. It is an intricate portrayal that requires Lee to display a staggering range of emotion.
BOB is ostensibly the monster of the film. With his disheveled, unshaven look of a dirty drifter, he is the evil side of Leland and a frightening metaphor for the incestuous relationship between father and daughter. BOB is a demon of some sort, a serial killer who delights in taking on hosts, such as Leland, and using them as instruments of evil and to indulge in his appetites. Kim Newman observes that, “In the monster father figure of Leland/BOB, Lynch has a bogeyman who puts Craven’s Freddy Krueger to shame by bringing into the open incest, abuse and brutality which the Elm Street movies conceal behind MTV surrealism and flip wisecracks.”
There are some truly frightening and unsettling set pieces in Fire Walk With Me. Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to one of unsettling horror when he starts questioning her about a necklace with an intensity that is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the TV series. It is an uncomfortable scene that is beautifully played by Ray Wise who never goes over the top with his performance. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face — he is clearly under the thrall of BOB. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. BOB has left him temporarily and Leland is back in control again but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. It is a touching moment, one of love and compassion, in an otherwise bleak and cruel film. Wise does an incredible job at conveying the subtle shifts of personalities, from the menacing BOB to the sweet Leland and the inner turmoil that exists in his character.
There are little touches, such as the twisted wife (Grace Zabriskie) who is driven crazy by her evil husband a la Cry of the Banshee (1970) where an equally evil husband (played by Vincent Price) also drove his wife insane. There is the truly frightening moment where Laura goes to visit Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen), a kindly shut-in to whom Laura delivers Meals on Wheels. She also confides in him and tries to convey the divided nature of herself and for a brief, startling moment, her evil nature makes itself visible to Harold, shocking both of them.
To this day, Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch’s most maligned and underappreciated film. Fans of the show missed the folksy humor but that is not what the film is about — it is Laura’s last dark days. By paring down many of these elements that made the show endearing to its fanbase, Lynch may have upset them but for fans of his feature film work, Fire Walk With Me is more consistent with their much darker tone. Once the film shifts focus to Laura’s descent into darkness, Lynch is relentless in his depiction of her downward spiral — one of the most harrowing depictions of a person coming apart at the seams. As a result, Fire Walk With Me is one of the best and truly terrifying horror films ever to come out of the 1990s.
Labels: 90s, K. Sutherland, Lynch, Ray Wise, Television, Twin Peaks
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