Saturday, March 26, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011, Jonathan Liebesman)

Living in the Phoenix area, I can understand why a lot of people might jump at the opportunity to see L.A. razed on the big screen.  I mean, this is a town of real tinsel-envy: the red-headed step-child of sprawl with no hub.  Always a bridesmaid, never a Kobe Bryant.  That said, I wasn't expecting a lot out of the Transformers-cum-Skyline action of Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles.  And not a lot is what I got.

Strangely, in a movie so rife with post-9/11 action cliché, there were a lot of missed opportunities within the genre.  Sure, we get a mostly unknown multi-ethnic cast of soldiers with 'tudes.  Yes, it makes the most of its PG-13 rating by having hero Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) drop the signature, lone F-bomb in a pump-up speech going into the final battle.  The cinematography and editing are the now typical Paul Greengrass sans substance; the cuts and constant camera movement are mostly disorienting, trying to be so kinetic it actually becomes anti-action, nigh incomprehensible.

If Battle: Los Angeles were a drinking game, try and guess which of the following 21st-century action tropes actually come into play, adding enough buzz to make viewing an adequate (or at least indifferent) experience as our heroes traipse up and back L.A. country in order to possibly rescue a small number of unidentifiable civilians:

1) After a successful stint versus a mini-boss as the half-way point, Aaron Eckhart gives a bland adage that is recycled by a bleeding team member, over a swelling score, in a deciding victory blow at the end.

2) A spunky female Marine (Michelle Rodriguez) mouths off to an alien, kicking it while its down and, flipping the scripts, calls it a bitch.

3) The aliens are here because of earth's most precious resource: Water.

4) A platoon member has a tense moment, trying to spot aliens through the sight of his rifle, but can't see because of the dust of destruction.  The screen becomes silent... and then... false alarm.  It was only a dog.  BUT OH NO, THEN THE ALIEN REALLY COMES!

5) The iconographic Hollywood sign makes an appearance, but after a blast from alien artillery, it appears to read only "HELL".  Our team is pinned down by the aliens and, in an attempt to prevent the Air Force from making its scheduled bombing of the valley, rearranges the letters to read "HELP".

6) And with time running out, our troops and civilians literally count down to their presumed demise while staring at a clock on the wall.  Only, they are counting much slower than actual seconds.  It's O.K., the clock catches up with them anyway.

O.K., so only four of those actually happen.  Sadly the film takes itself  way too seriously with no opportunity for the self-referential or tongue-in-cheek, and #5 isn't one of them (and, strangely, neither is the first, though bland banality seems it should be a staple in the movie like this).  Where Battle: Los Angeles fails as an action film is in the battle sequences.  The aliens appear mostly at a distance, and much of our platoon's victories come from blowing up aliens with proxy explosions on a Michael Bay scale (grenades blowing up gas tanks, booby-trapped radios) rather than up-close-and-personal combat.  Coupled with its bearing-less geography, we feel like there are no stakes.  Sure, it tries to pull heartstrings by killing off well-meaning spouses and parents, but it comes across as a cheap ploy to give a meaningless project weight.  The enemy feels like a flawed machine, the threat never feels global, and the people don't give us anything to care about.

The film plays race as you would expect:  it expects a pat on the back for bringing together a cohesive team from different backgrounds, but strangely skirts the relevant immigration issue (in a movie about aliens no less).  Not one, but two Latinos sacrifice their lives for the good of mankind, but it reads as helpless and neutered.  Worse, African-Americans are used for comic relief, the jokes usually hinging on over-active libidos.

While searching for images to place in the review, I stumbled upon some rendered explosions in the skyline that were actually well-framed and made clear who the enemy was.  It was something I thought the film mostly lacked and was surprised by how crisp they were.  Then I realized these were screen-captures from the video game, and that pretty much tells the tale.  Like last year's Predators, Battle: Los Angeles is strange film you want to excuse as a bad video game adaptation rather than admit the truth: it would serve better as a video game.  There, soundbytes are soundbytes and characters are inferred.  In Hollywood, you don't get that pass. -- */four stars

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baby Doll (1956, Elia Kazan)

Baby DollThe American 1950s were an interesting moral brier-patch.  Historically the most repressed decade of the 20th century, the motion picture industry was hampered by the vice grip of the Production Code and then double-checked by the Catholic National Legion of Decency.  White bread America must have slept in separate beds like Lucy and Ricky (thank goodness, as the Production Code only began to loosen, allowing Elia Kazan's earlier Pinky to address the topic of the frowned-upon miscegenation, in 1949).  It's a wonder the Baby Boom ever happened.

Meanwhile, degenerates like Tennessee Williams and Vladimir Nabokov dared address topics of desire in a mature, even humorous way.  Nabokov's Lolita was published in 1955 and, there must have been something in the water, for this is a subject Williams would touch on multiple times.  John Huston's 1964 adaptation of his The Night of the Iguana would feature a figurative and literal Lolita (Sue Lyon) while Kazan (a frequent Williams collaborator, directing A Streetcar Named Desire on stage and screen) adapted Williams's one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton into the controversial Baby Doll.

That's "baby doll" as in the nightgown, named so because of this film, worn by the virginal Carroll Baker on the seductive production poster.  There's no denying the racy nature of the film, loaded with double-entendre and being upfront about man's sexual desire (discussion over the "water pump" comes to mind), though always suggestive rather than explicit.  The Production Code let it fly, but it was the Legion of Decency, in its first ever instance, that got its panties in a bunch, condemning the film despite Code approval (Kazan and Williams were used to such treatment from the studios-- Streetcar was demanded changes to mask any reference to rape or homosexuality, but here, the film remains in tact).  That's right: it was declared a sin to see this film in 1956.  Such Catholic fanaticism was countered by Episcopal bishop James A. Pike who claimed there was more "sensuality" in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.  As big a fan I am of hyperbole, I still have to disagree with the comparison despite standing in the same corner.  De Mille never employed the same slinky saxophone and a fatale's coke-bottle sucking naïveté.

Baby Doll has the same Ten Commandments on her charm bracelet; the same bracelet from which her would-be seducer Silva (Eli Wallach) counts the charms.  One for each year, Baby Doll informs him, giggling as he approaches 19-- just days away from 20, her self-prescribed age of consent.  Archie Lee (Karl Malden) is the self-imposed impotent who married Baby Doll a year earlier with an "agreement" that all would be consummated upon this age.  Archie is a sweaty, comedic lecher from the first frame.  He plays voyeur on his own wife in a scene that makes Norman Bates seem collected.  He visits the doctor for weakness, lacks the energy to prime the pump and, even in the film's climax, is out of ammo.  Silva is a younger Sicilian with vitality in droves.  Not only defeated in pleasure, Archie is even defeated in business and resorts to burning Silva's rival cotton gin to provide Baby Doll with enough material possessions to win her favor on the upcoming birthday.

But Baby Doll is no seductress.  Silva corners her to simply get a signature to convict Archie of the arson.  Baby Doll fails to understand the true power of her allure and is used as a means to an end like each of the other legs of the triangle.  None of the three are void of a particular weakness and in the end, they have all lost a great deal.  Sex drives Archie's pathetic lack, but to accuse the film of being any saucier than a typical noir film is unfair.  Perhaps Kazan remains one of his own tragic characters: if the Legion of Decency wasn't after him, the House Un-American Activities Committee would soon be in 1950s America's fallout of moral fervor.  And the blacklist after that.

Kazan often said a screenplay is "not a piece of writing as much as it is a construction.  We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of words."  His adaptation of Tennessee Williams is no different.  Whereas films adapted from stage are often slaves to dialogue, Kazan's intuition for filmic composition is as effective as ever.  Together with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Kazan not only constructs thematic images of shadow and light, desire of flame and reflection, he goes one step farther; capturing the great ghost of malevolence, washing out the Southern White on white.  Just as Williams was progressive in subverting assumptions of racial inferiority, Kazan's history of empathy toward Black plight features local African Americans in bit roles, not only presenting them through a uniquely human lens for the era, but turning the ear on "White" from chastity to decrepitude.  This same decrepitude was felt by Williams, whose time at the filming in Benoit was shortened.  Williams departed after a only a few weeks because "he didn't like the way people looked at him on the streets."

Baby Doll is a gutsy film by two important American voices.  Where melodramas often fail for being emotionally over the top, Williams always had a knack for unparalleled depth of character.  Kazan could translate it in ways few could.  And of course nothing is hurt by the look in Carroll Baker's eye. -- ****/four stars

This was written in commemoration of the Tennessee Williams centennial.  Read more about the Tennessee 100 at The Film Experience.

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Predators (2010, Nimród Antal)

Predators ( + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]The fact that Robert Rodriguez's original draft of Predators has been floating around since 1994, only to be rewritten by Michael Finch and Alex Litvak (previously responsible for nothing), should have been the first red flag in a project that reads like a first-draft of a high-concept.  It's a reboot that venerates its monsters without understanding them: a meta film of smarmy dialogue that winks at its audience without saying anything.

Seeking to canonize itself in the Predator legacy, Predators ignores Predator 2, claiming to be the true sequel, but most closely resembles the inane Alien Vs. Predator franchise.  It's a film that fails to recognize that the anchoring themes of the original were solitude and the emptiness of war.  Now, we are given a team of eight mostly-indistinguishable characters (outside of race and nationality, though they all curiously speak English) and the violence is shallow gore-porn (the kind of cliché we've grown so accustomed to in these pictures it has no resonance or memory).

Spoiler alert.

Instead, the plot is driven by the whims of the fanboy architects behind the project.  Gaping holes in logic?  No problem because, wait, wouldn't it be cool if Predator had a dog and fought a samurai?  The army of humans are parachuted in from spacecraft to a foreign rainforest on a distant planet.  We learn that Predators are hand-selecting humans on earth to abduct and plant on this Most Dangerous Game training planet.  Our team stays together even though they are of no help to one another (undermining the message of the film) and any depth the film offers only suggests that we can all be monsters, but we have the choice to help our fellow (wo)man.

Splice EvLOLution
The ride involves inexplicable twists and betrayals that serve to give motion to a destinationless picture.  We're supposed to believe Arien Brody is a black ops lone wolf, but his action appeal toes the line much closer to Shia LaBeouf than Schwarzenegger.  I mean, this is the guy with the Auschwitz frame in The Pianist and the lab-geek in the witty t-shirts in Splice.  I love Brody and everything, but the idea that he and Topher Grace are earth's most insidious, mechanized killers is a little hard to swallow.

Predators suffers most from misunderstanding its source material in the worst possible way.  It's a hunt with no stakes, a labyrinth with no escape and an enemy with no dread.  The predators in the film are less menacing than Jason in the most humorous Friday the 13th Part VII - The New Blood (yet unlike this point in the Friday the 13th series, Predators's confused tone would have us root for wicked-cool Predator and humanity).  I mean, they have lasers that can blow you to bits from across the forest, so I'm not sure where the competitive spirit comes into play.  I understood Predators to value honor, but here they also pick off the easy targets over audience guffaws.  What a misread by the producers that the same minor demographic that would pick nits over Predators' compromised integrity is the same group they targeting.

Basically, Predators is dumb and unnecessary.  It is difficult to see what its makers loved about the franchise in the first place.  It whiffs at any attempt at social commentary, though it is obvious five minutes in that this was back-burner material to start with.  Predators has the feel of a bad video game movie in that there is no arc surrounding its cyclical premise.  Compare it to Machete (ties with both Rodriguez and Danny Trejo), a movie that is also dumb-- relishes in being dumb-- but manages to be highly enjoyable because it goes the short distance to thematic relevance.  I'm not begging for subtlety or nuance (Rodriguez is likely incapable of either), just some small ort to gnaw. -- *½ / four stars

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)

HudHud is not really a Western.  Sure, it takes place in Texas and Paul Newman pokes some cattle, but there is a change in the frontier.  We're not moving west to fulfill our manifest destiny; in fact, there is nothing to fulfill.  Hud takes place at the end of an age: one that looks upon the past with a deep, ephemeral nostalgia.  Classic Western trope shares the mindset of many of Bruce Springsteen's characters: while the good ol' boys may butt heads with impending mechanization, even the letter of the law-- however perverted in its minutia-- doesn't stray too far in its intent from their grounded values of honor and sacrifice.  At the end of the day, a torch still burns, fueled by a rear-view optimism.

In Hud, the torch is extinguished and all the world is ash.  Hud is a parable of manifest destiny imploding on itself: the vast expanses don't represent freedom and glory, but foreboding and treachery.  A worldview has shifted in Paul Newman's Hud Bannon:  man, in all his least-common-denominator path of achieving carnal desires through lack of discipline, has becomes the measure of all things and "the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner," so long as its his.  Even his father Homer (the brilliant Melvyn Douglas), a man of deep principle, approaches death's door on his hands and knees on a dirt road in the black of night.  Stuck in the middle is Hud's nephew Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde, once doe-eyedly seeking a savior in Shane), who concedes with a whimper that the old man is not in a better place, "not unless dirt is a better place than air."  If his resolve weren't bleak enough, it is all the more devastating that Hud's antagonist was embraced as counter-culture anti-hero and De Wilde's own life ended like James Dean's.

If Cormac McCarthy yens for this same nostalgia with a postmodern bent anigh to nihilism in No Country For Old Men, Larry McMurtry (author of Horseman, Pass By, upon which Hud was based, as well as the similarly-themed The Last Picture Show) won't succumb without a fighting chance.  And as such, can be unabashedly preachy in a film full of memorable monologues.  One of Homer's cows dies of foot-and-mouth disease and, like Job, his entire fold and livelihood must be exterminated.  Hud suggests he quickly pawn the herd off up north, out of sight, out of mind, washing his hands of any epidemic that might ensue.  As Homer defies such irresponsibility, Hud becomes increasingly reproachable, going so far as to try to declare Homer legally incompetent in order to secure his own inheritance.

For Hud, looking out for number one has become a bondage he can't shake.  "If you don't look out for yourself," he informs us early on, "the only helping hand you'll ever get is when they lower the box."  The alienated anti-hero accepts death as the outcome, but fails to see that his reaction to it informs his emptiness.  The film's central metaphor relates the emptiness of Hud's existence to the infected cattle.  Hud is a parasite who takes what he wants ("The only question I ever ask any woman is 'What time does your husband come home?'"), by force if necessary.  Homer's housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal, in an Oscar-winning performance) falls victim to Hud's drunken demands-- a man to whom his family has become but a stumbling block.  There is no relationship for Hud, and he wouldn't have it any other way.  In a world where "you don't value nothing," everything is worthless.  Hud is the answer to everything in Hud, and everything is morally gray and sparse.  The striking cinematography and minimalist score brilliantly follow suit.

No, Hud is no Western.  Even where revisionist additions to the genre question the tropes of honor and manhood, there is not revision without "vision".  Newman's Hud, in fragile moments, waxes nostalgic about his dead mother and brother before drinking away the memory.  It tragically reminds of Patricia Neal's series of strokes that hit her in 1965, rendering memory problems when she returned to the screen.  The Western is a genre of memory, Hud is a story of forced forgetfulness; a cautionary if unashamed tale of the price one pays in refusing the cost of love.  Paul Newman's rebellious on-screen persona makes it look effortless, but its a Greek tragedy whose antagonist abides alone in a self-made prison and, conversely, whose good men are helpless against entropy.  Not, however, without submitting to a higher standard.  -- ****/four stars

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Paul (2011, Greg Mottola)

There are two things on this earth that really pump me up--that's a lie. There is an endless amount of stuff on this humble planet we call Earth to give me that set of goosebumps, that tingle in the spine, that massive adrenaline bon--forget it, let's just cut to the chase.

Two things that instantly put my ass in the seat for a movie are nerdy, science fiction fare, and maybe more importantly, humor. Cinematically speaking, if you can't laugh at it, chances are it could be cooler... unless it has a giant scale alien war or a monster destroying everything it sees.

So, imagine my joy a little while back (7-8 months we'll say) when I was exposed to a leaked script of Paul, the next film from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead alums Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Being an OUTRAGEOUS fan of the previous two films (Hot Fuzz is in my top ten of all time, but that post is for another day), I was immediately on board. Then, much to my COMPLETE EUPHORIA, Seth Rogen was added to the project. Anybody who knows me knows that I have an unwavering love of anything and everything that man touches, making Paul a serious candidate for best movie of all time (another title which, upon knowing me is immediately considered worthless).

After waiting and waiting and waiting, the day finally came. I caught a screening of the movie on the 2nd of March and, let me tell you, Paul is OUT OF THIS WORLD GOOD.

Let me start by asking you this--what is cooler than movies where people fart, talk about masturbation and penises, cuss their eyeballs out and in the end win at everything? Nothing, or so I thought. it turns out this entire genre of film (whatever the "winning at cussing masturbation farts" genre is officially titled) can in fact be improved upon. How do you ask? By including an ALIEN who smokes stupid amounts of pot and is generally an asshole to everyone he meets.

The film itself is fairly generic; it's just a road trip movie about two nerds trying to find themselves as well as celebrate their friendship. Where the filmmakers got smart was when they introduced our new friend, Paul (voiced by Rogen... rad) almost immediately. Approximately ten minutes into the film he was already part of the "plot." This is where, compositionally-speaking, the film runs into some problems. it seems like there is never any real clear path. The characters are literally just told that they need to go north. In typical road trip comedy fashion, nobody really questions it (they protest occasionally, but it is quickly shot down). It's not very well thought out. It seems like most of the stops on the trip merely serve as way to get in good jokes. But really who cares?

As the movie progresses, we see a lot of funny, nerd-related pop culture jokes, car chases, gun battles, people getting their faith stolen away from the by alien powers (then restored), alien contact and an awesome explosion. None of that stuff is groundbreaking or special in any way. It just seems to be there serving the bigger piece of the puzzle. That bigger piece is Paul. Pegg and Frost take a very large double backseat to Rogen who expertly voices Paul, turning him from any sort alien threat you've been exposed to in your movie going life to a pot head who likes to make fun of people. Now, before you protest the stupidity of not only that character, but the film, think about this. If aliens do land here someday, do you want them to be super intelligent and either lay waste to the earth or take all of mankind as test subjects? Both of those options sound like they suck. Now, what if they showed up, made fun of your penis and rolled a fatty with you? The choice seems easy to me.

Long story short, while the film is pretty generic, and the plot doesn't hold up all that well, it is FUNNY. Any flaws the film has aesthetically are completely forgiven when Paul discusses the difficulties of a bon-- you get the idea. -- ***½ / 4 stars

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Two & a Half Men: Season 9 in Our Hands

POP QUIZ. You’re a TV writer who has been lucky enough to land yourself a job on a sitcom that doesn’t involve a lot of writing. Just a lot of the same jokes and situations over and over again. It’s a great paycheck. Then, suddenly, out of “nowhere” the star of your show gets fired for whatever reason and your paycheck is no longer going to come so easily. You need to write him out of the show. What do you do? What. Do you. Do?

I’m not here to judge the ridiculousness that’s going on with Two and a Half Men right now. I don’t want to comment on which side I take; who is crazy, who is sick, and who is an entitled a-hole (though it is possible all three of those is the same guy). I’m here to ask the hard question. How would you re-write this show? Cards on the table, I’m not a fan of this particular CBS sitcom. In fact, I’m really only a fan of one CBS sitcom, so I’m not going to try to understand what draws people to love this show. But I am going to let you know how I would do it. And I really, really want to know how you would bring Two and a Half Men into the next season. And for the purpose of this game, let’s pretend that killing the entire cast is not a possibility.

There are several ideas floating around out there. The easiest path is to simply kill off Charlie Sheen’s Charlie, he is after all an alcoholic man-whore. Personally, I think that’s too easy.

Here is my proposal: Charlie never existed.

Yep. Let’s go Dallas/St. Elsewhere on this bitch.

After his marriage died, Alan Harper had a serious mental breakdown. He’s spent the last eight years in a mental hospital with the delusion that he had an older brother who let him move into his Malibu home with him. We find each of the people in the show have been in Alan’s life, just with slightly different roles. Jake is still his son, who visits every weekend and in an attempt to soothe his father plays along and gets to know his “Uncle Charlie,” who the doctor, played by Ryan Stiles, believes is just a part of Alan’s personality that has been dormant for many years. Rose, Charlie’s crazy neighbor, is another patient of course, who is obsessed with figuring out who Charlie is. And Berta is a nurse, one that needs to work on bedside manner, but is hilarious and lovable. Even the TV jingles he hears on the rec room television make their way into his fantasies. Season nine opens with Alan finally coming out of his stupor (more or less) and then moving into a half-way house with another former patient (insert 80’s movie-star here - fingers crossed it's someone awesome like James Spader), and Alan’s mother hires Berta to moonlight as his personal caretaker.

And hypothetical hilarity ensues.

New sets, new characters, new issues, and more importantly, new jokes. Now, I'm not going to do all the work here, this new character is a clean slate, do with him what you will Mr. Lorre. I'd like to see some real depth and raw emotion from this guy, but I know he'll probably be just like the Charlie in Alan's head, which might make for some interesting jokes and confusion here and there. So take it and run! It's a freebie*.

Your turn! What route would you take the Harpers down? Would Charlie die hilariously or perhaps just become a vegetable after a horrible sex swing accident? Would a jilted ex slip Drano in his scotch? How can we save a show from itself?

*Freebie is used generously here of course. If by some odd stroke of sick fate, this show takes my advice, I expect generous compensation. I mean, they paid some dude two million an episode to play himself.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sitcom Girls I Had A Crush On In My Formative Years

I vividly remember being three years old and devastated one afternoon to find I had fallen asleep (naps were an extreme rarity in my childhood) and missed "Scooby Doo".  I don't know what is more rare: missing my daily Daphne fix, or the fact that I have many vivid memories of being three years old.

Looking back, television makes a chronology much easier.  I remember a couple of things from the age of two, and they are both T.V. related.  I watched a lot of PBS as a child.  Forget all the accusations that Disney was a masochist teaching children hard life lessons in Bambi; when I was four, Mr. Rogers gave me a crystal clear portrait of death when his goldfish died, and I'm a better person for it.  ALF taught me, at age six, you don't always get the one you love.  No exaggeration, both of these episodes resonated deeply with me.  And I honestly don't know which lesson was harder to swallow.  For me, crushes were always deeply internalized.  It was easy for me to buy into the nerd-pining-after-unattainable-girl-for-complete-series-arc trope.  Hell, I followed "Dawson's Creek" into my twenties (even through the abysmal season five).

My mind was fertile soil for imagined relationships and television kept it watered.  Not merely escapism-- sitcoms often informed my life and female characters became real-life fascinations.  The characters were never constant, but different stereotypes returned enough to form ideals.  The following is a (sometimes creepy) investigation of the types and specifics of my television crushes in my formative years.

I specifically remember, at age six, trying to determine the difference in age between myself and Cindy Brady.  I knew this show was syndicated and the gap was likely significant (though I probably didn't guess 18 years), which may have led to the end of this crush.  However two things can be determined:

1) My vision of cuteness couldn't be overcome by built-in, annoying character qualities (Cindy's annoying traits are reminiscent of a later crush I had on Stephanie Tanner).

2) Though it was probably age relativity, I'm pretty sure I was attracted to a diminutive essence.  How much of this is due to (a truth the Disney Channel has be exponentially exploiting over the last decade) young me wanting to relate with characters my age in a public forum, I don't know.

Both of these qualities come into play in my 1987 crush on Mickey Foley (Heidi Zeigler) from NBC's short-lived "Rags To Riches", again the youngest in a large family of girls (though I may have started to outgrow this-- I never followed her to "Just the Ten of Us").  Speaking of all-girl casts, I was also very allured by "The Facts of Life" around this time, as it offered insight into females behind closed doors.

Quick aside:  my favorite program in second grade was easily "The Cosby Show".  As trite as it sounds, I'd like to offer up what was, to me at a young age, indisputable evidence that racial discrimination and "otherness" is a learned, environmental behavior.  Growing up in the cultural mecca of Mesa, Arizona, I had very little contact with African American culture.  In fact, I thought the Bangladeshi kid in my class was Black.  As much as Cosby has been blamed for being too vanilla, I will counter-argue that, while perhaps not always indicative of African American culture, the ability for me to relate to "The Cosby Show" made color (sometimes literally) invisible.

So imagine my astonishment when after months, if not years, I finally realized Tootie was Black.  I'm not sure if this made me the most progressive or the densest kid in town, but even as a dumb kid in the middle of White America, the level of transparency these programs gave me in the name of entertainment was integral to a healthy worldview, as unbelievably contrived as it sounds.

By 1989, "Charles In Charge" was becoming a force to be reckoned with in syndication (something that strangely eluded it in prime time).  That meant every evening I could watch Nicole Eggert as Jamie Powell (presuming it was at least season three).  This was an interesting character for me to fall for, establishing a third tenet in my sitcom crushes:

3) I could forgive-- and maybe even be attracted to-- a certain amount of snobbery and privilege.

Jamie Powell might have been my biggest sitcom crush to date, and her blond may have influenced my taste for some time.  Other crushes in this category include Larke Tanner from "Beverly Hills Teens" (a cartoon I honestly don't remember for anything else), her apparent neighbor, Kelly Taylor in "Beverly Hills, 90210" and Heidi Lucas's Dina Alexander a few years later in Nickelodeon's "Salute Your Shorts" (also a fairly sizable crush).

Strangely, despite how I felt in real life, many girl-next-door types weren't up my alley in television.  Popular heart-throbs Winnie Cooper, Wanda Plenn and Topanga Lawrence just never did it for me.  Sure, I had a thing for Christine Taylor's Melody Hanson in "Hey Dude", but perhaps she was a little too everyday.  I cannot even begin to tell you the hours I had invested in "Saved By The Bell" circa-1992 (there was a time when you could catch back-to-back-to-back episodes between WGN and TBS), but I was always more into "California Dreams"'s Tiffani Smith (Kelly Packard, another prominent-foreheaded blond) than Kelly Kapowski.  The older I got, the more it became obvious that Joey Potter and Felicity Porter were, as Sean put it in an episode of "Felicity", "the kind of girl[s] you marry, not the kind of girl[s] you date."  But as a child, the "unknown" allure of the female was attractive and:

4) Mystique goes a long way.

Let me put all the cards on the table here:  I would not be the person I am today if it were not for "Clarissa Explains It All".  I mean, Melissa Joan Hart was cool and all, but more notably for me, there was a single episode in which a family friend, Piper (Sheeri Rappaport) comes to visit.  To 13-year-old me, this girl was the unattainable, cultured, collected, ineffable cool.  This girl wanted to watch Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and now the cat is out of the bag.  This girl was a confident Angela Chase; an un-nerdy Daria.  In a lot of ways, this character is responsible for how I envisioned cool, and the fact that it was one episode and she was out of my life fed this.

Sometimes, this "mystique" is magnified to a point of alien.  Maureen Flannigan's Evie Garland in the Saturday morning syndicated "Out of This World" (often coupled with "Charles In Charge") was a half-alien who had the sweet gimmick of stopping time by connecting her index fingers.  The sci-fi twist added a Pandora's box element to an already attractive lead.  The dark side of the moral quandary regarding the extent to which these powers could be abused were never explicitly present, but I couldn't shake them.

Similarly, Alex Mack (Larisa Oleynik) was given sci-fi powers as a tom-boy with access you would never entrust to a human being.  The boundary-hopping between public and private space was only a few degrees of separation from Hollow Man, yet passed as a kid's show in which imaginations could run wild.  The show always tagged her with backwards caps and baggy overalls, working overtime to defeminize her.  It didn't work.  How Oleynik isn't a superstar is beyond me.

And sometimes, the mystique needs little more than a foreign accent.  I also had a thing for Moira Quirk on Nickelodeon's "GUTS".  Speaking of quirk, though the annoying-neighbor trope was almost always annoyingly fruitless (sorry Gibbler), I was also strangely drawn to Six (Jenna von Oÿ) on "Blossom".  The reasons for this have always eluded me (though the fact that the lead was so unlikeable couldn't have hurt), even though a 1998 version of will go down in history as one of my favorite websites.  At this point, I'm O.K. with not being able to explain that one.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ship of Fools (1965, Stanley Kramer)

Ship of FoolsMy problem with Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools is twofold: the source material and the adaptation.  Based on Katherine Anne Porter's best-selling (and only) novel, Jewish screenwriter Abby Mann was given the unfortunate assignment analogous to writing an animated short of Anna Karenina.  Only, in the hands of Kramer, the piece must also both heavy-handedly condemn the Nazi party (not a problem as Porter's text hates not only Nazis, but equates the German bloodline with it) but create a sympathetic (if naïve) Jewish character to deliver the message with very broad stokes (very much a problem as Porter's text is often, strangely enough, anti-Semitic and never given bullet-points).

Porter's novel is best as a series of vignettes that allows different faces of humanity to react to larger issues.  Hollywood narrative disallows any such storytelling and instead tries to introduce just as many characters (the ensemble cast pictures 27 in the opening credits) in a medium with a sweeping arc.  Passengers board a German ocean liner headed to Europe from Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1933.  Even the film's tagline presents the characters as stereotype ("Explorer, mistress, vagrant, loafer, artist, tramp...") and it is easier (though unfair) to talk of them in only this way.  The passengers dine, flirt, regret and wax philosophic in a way true to a one-dimensional theme (frivolity) if unfair to much of the tone.  Springboards for insight into the characters are often fumbled in the picture as minor happenstance.  A keystone in the novel involving a minority dying while jumping overboard to rescue a pampered, German bulldog is present here, but only for a lone bastion of humanity to give a grand, Elephant Man nudge to the audience that he was a human being.  The novel's personification of philosophies is traded for soap opera.

Ship of Fools is a tale of disease rotting from the core.  The film has the disease metaphorized on the historic horizon.  Compare Kramer's Ship of Fools to Luchino Visconti's take on Thomas Mann's Death In Venice a mere six years later to expose how highfalutin, broad and misappropriated the former is to a similar tone.  Whereas Death In Venice bathes us in sickly yellows, Ship of Fools gives us an inordinate amount of ill characters who we largely don't remember as ill.  Strangely, Ship of Fools won the Academy Award for best cinematography for a job that mainly skirts the issue--as if a novel of sometimes schizophrenic double-consciousness can be fairly summed up as "black and white."

At its worst, Ship of Fools feels weighty for the sake of weightiness.  The passengers disembark upon arrival in Germany, but the intended cynicism in which our diseased characters search for utopia in a land beginning to reap the hatred that would lead to World War II is lessened as it feels like a period piece-- as if the modern audience has grown beyond it.  This is still a film in which 600 Mexican deportees are one-dimensionally violent and, though the film tries to convince itself they are equals, lest we forget Porter's own source material often equates poverty with racial, genetic inferiority.  Conversely, where Porter's Holocaust terrorized invalids alongside Jews, elderly alongside minority, Kramer's Holocaust is very much a Jewish Holocaust (strange as the lone Jew is still very minor and very doe-eyed).  Worse, it vilifies Germany in a way that edifies America-- a sentiment counter-intuitive to the text.  Kramer and Mann dole blame with much too broad strokes in a way that was much more successful in their Judgment at Nuremberg.  This film wants to feel as important, but often chokes us, guilty of the same weighty frivolity of its characters. -- *½ / four stars

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Gilda (1946, Charles Vidor)

At first glance, at least on a narrative level, there is something almost dismissive about Charles Vidor's noir staple Gilda.  Blame it on the gusto with which everyman Glenn Ford treads too close to White Heat, or the nonchalance (which turns out to be vulnerability) with which Rita Hayworth delivers her femme fatale.  The writing isn't lazy, just expected of the noir trope (at one point Hayworth opines of our antihero "he's an attractive man, if you like the type"), and the visual language (outside of the musical pieces) isn't nearly as stark as you'd expect.

But first glances are deceiving.  Gilda sticks in your craw long after it ends, ringing uncomfortable truths with a sustained resonance.  And as anyone who has seen Rita Hayworth in this picture knows, a mere glance can't to its subject justice.

Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, our unreliable narrator, rescued like a damsel by Ballin Mundson (George Macready).  The two enter a completely non-comical bromance in which Johnny becomes second-in-command of Ballin’s casino and is told at the onset of the pick-up, “you must lead a gay life.”  It’s easy to call this an unfair, 21st-century misappropriation of the term if the two didn’t soon toast “to the three of us”:  Johnny, Ballin and Ballin’s cane sword.
Johnny is thrown into the noir labyrinth when his rise to success catches a hitch as he learns Ballin has taken a wife in Gilda.  Ford’s performance reads part jilted lover (his past with Gilda), part jealous lover (his present with Ballin) in his interaction with Hayworth’s Gilda.  We’re never given concrete details to their former, sour love affair, but when a peripheral character observes “you love each other terribly,” Johnny responds “I hate her!”, echoing Gilda’s earlier sentiment “I hate him.”
But their relationship is more than a cinematic exercise in the idiom “you only hurt the ones you love”:  these characters really mean it.  The cruelty doled out by these two legs of the triangle make the tacked-on, heterosexual conclusion seem nothing short of disingenuous.  Hayworth’s femme fatale throws herself at other men not because she is over-sexualized but to beg for the attention neither of her men are giving her.  Conversely, Johnny keeps tabs on Gilda as a chore--an assignment.  Any Hollywood stolen kiss is trampled in Johnny’s hellacious treatment of Gilda after Ballin’s presumed death.
Johnny marries Gilda to keep her under lock and key; Gilda is aware of her power over men and uses it, only here Johnny is more interested in forcing loyalty to his lost.   An implicit mutual loyalty, as the marriage is explicitly never consummated.  Gilda (strangely becoming the film's victim) enters the noir labyrinth as any attempt at escape brings her back to the feet she abhors. 
What is most interesting about our hero is his mental derangement (his narration regarding Gilda becomes increasingly skewed as his frustration mounts) comes as an overcompensation for his impotence.  While the classic noir trope enforces implicit relations for our heroes, Johnny effortlessly resists Gilda at every turn.  The mystery of their prior affair confirms this inadequacy.  Johnny grapples in his male skin in which every sexual outlet is diseased (his relationship with Ballin, taboo; his relationship with Gilda, monumentally cruel; Gilda's relationship with Ballin, sadomasochistic).

Gilda is a rarity for 1946 any year in that writing credits for both the story (E.A. Ellington) and screenplay (Marion Parsonnet), as well as production credit (Virginia Van Upp) are all women.  The curveball thrown to audiences with such a fresh voice is staggering.  Hayworth's signature number "Put the Blame on Mame" sums up the anti-Bogart swag: men are afraid of the alien nature of a woman's allure.  Some women take advantage of this, some men blame every misfortune on this.  But it calls a spade a spade: Gilda's prominent female voice steers it from the misogyny of many noir pieces and, if anything, paints the male as the object.  Not that I'm complaining. -- ***½ / four stars

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