Archive for December, 2010

True Grit

December 28, 2010

True Grit is the Coen Brothers’ remake of the Henry Hathaway film that starred John Wayne. I haven’t seen the earlier film, but I have read the Charles Portis novel that it is based on. Although I liked the novel’s narrative voice, I ultimately found it disappointing. I thought Portis could have done a lot more with the characters and the situation than he did. It ends up being a very conventional Western novel.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Arkansas during the 1870’s. When her father is shot to death by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she swears to get revenge. With some difficulty, she persuades Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. marshal with a sinister past, to pursue Chaney with her. They are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for a separate murder. They follow Cheney into Choctaw Territory, where he has joined an outlaw band led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The Coen Brothers have boasted that their film is faithful to Portis’s novel. In fact, they have taken enormous liberties with it. In the film, both Mattie and LaBoeuf speak a heavily stilted English. This is not how these characters talk in the book. I suppose the Coen Brothers thought this was funny; I just found it annoying. Also, we are expected to believe that contractions weren’t yet invented in the 1870’s. I lost count of how many times I heard someone begin a sentence with “Let us…”

Some of the changes are more troubling. In the novel, there is a Native American sheriff who helps Cogburn, LaBouef and Mattie at one point. This character has been completely written out of the movie. (The novel also has a Mexican character who is completely written out of the script.) In the film, Cogburn kicks two Native American boys who are tormenting a mule. If I remember correctly, in the novel the boys are white. Also, there is a scene in the novel of a public hanging. A Native American man is allowed to make a short speech before he is hanged. In the movie, he is dropped through the trap as he starts to speak. (There was some nervous laughter from the audience at this.) Considering that there are so few Westerns that present Native Americans in a positive light, one can only wonder why the Coens made these changes.

I found the movie moderately entertaining, in spite of the cutesy fake Shakespearean English and the problematic politics. Jeff Bridges is appropriately gruff as Cogburn, though at this point in his career he could probably play a gruff character in his sleep. Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon do the best they can with their awful lines. It could have been a much better film.

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Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

December 26, 2010

I’m not fond of Christmas movies, just as I am not fond of most Christmas music. I find It’s a Wonderful Life a bit too cute. And I’ve always wondered what the big deal is about Miracle on 34th Street. (This film pretends to be a parody of the commercialization of Christmas, while subtly endorsing it.) The only Christmas movie I can say that I really enjoyed was A Christmas Story, based on stories by Jean Shepherd, because of its realness and lack of sentimentality.

Leave it to the Finns to come up with a Christmas movie that will put a grin on every Grinch’s face. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a film by Jalmari Helander, begins with a rich industrialist leading an expedition to drill in the Korvatunturi mountain on the Russo-Finnish border. The industrialist is convinced that the historical Santa Claus is buried here. (If there’s an historical Jesus, why not a historical Santa Claus?) He turns out to be right, but the historical Santa Claus turns out to be different from the one in modern myth. Instead of bringing gifts to good children, he would punish bad ones. The drilling awakens Santa and his army of elves, just as atom bombs awakened Godzilla. Santa’s helpers kill the drillers and proceed to terrorize a local village, until some of the villagers figure out a way to fight back.

Rare Exports starts out as a seemingly serious horror film, but gradually turns into a comedy. I was still laughing when I left the theatre. This film is a good cure for the Chirstmas blues.

Black Swan

December 24, 2010

Black Swan, a psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky, tells the story of an aspiring ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who lives with her obsessive, domineering mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), in New York. Nina dances in a troupe directed by the demanding Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Thomas is planning a production of Swan Lake, and he needs someone to replace the troupe’s (unwillingly) retiring star dancer, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), in the starring dual roles of the white swan and the black swan. When Nina auditions for the roles, Cassel tells her that she is fine as the white swan, but that she lacks the passion to play the black swan (who is supposed to be evil). When Nina goes to Thomas’s office to plead for the roles, he makes a pass at her, and she bites him and runs away. After this, he changes his mind and gives the roles to Nina. However, she begins to feel threatened by a new and promising young dancer with the troupe, Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina begins to believe that Lily is actively plotting to steal her roles from her.

Black Swan starts out as an interesting study in the psychological stress that can be engendered in an art form as physically demanding and as intensely competitive as ballet. When Nina begins having hallucinations, these seem like the natural result of the stress she is under. However, the film becomes increasingly melodramatic, so much so that it starts to seem like a bad horror film, with bloody apparitions and people stabbing themselves in the face. At times I almost expected Freddy Krueger to emerge from the shadows. It was so overdone that there were moments when I laughed out loud. Other people in the audience reacted the same way.

I don’t know if I can recommend Black Swan. The film seemed silly to me, but I can’t say that I didn’t find it entertaining. I enjoyed it sort of the way that I enjoyed Starship Troopers, though I think Black Swan was actually meant to be serious.

I’m told that Black Swan has gotten mostly favorable reviews. I suppose if you’re the sort of person who thinks that I Am Love is a great film, you will probably think that Black Swan is a masterpiece.

Is Hawaii Really a Part of the United States?

December 22, 2010


Queen Liliuokalani

Paul D’Amato directed my attention to this article in Truthout.org. The article is about David Keanu Sai, a historian who argues that Hawaii is not now, and never has been, a part of the U.S. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but his argument boils down to this: during the nineteenth century, many countries, including the U.S., recognized Hawaii as a sovereign nation. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland signed an agreement with Queen Liliuokalani in which the U.S. recognized her government as the legitimate government of Hawaii. However, in 1898 Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the annexation of Hawaii. Sai points out that a joint resolution is confined to the boundaries of the United States. Since the U.S. had recognized the independence of Hawaii, the resolution could not apply to it. Therefore, Hawaii is a sovereign nation and not a part of the U.S.

One of the many ironies here is that the Birthers are right in claiming that Obama was not born in the U.S., but not for the reasons they claim. However, since the Birthers will never admit that Hawaii is not part of the U.S., they can only base their arguments on nonsense.

I think it worth noting that Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, John McCain, was born in the Panama Canal Zone, so he was not really born in the U.S. either. I’ve always thought that the rule that president has to have been born in the U.S. is silly. It’s absurd to argue that the result of an election should be overturned simply because the winner was born outside the country. If lawmakers had any sense, they would pass an amendment to overturn this part of the Constitution. However, I don’t expect this to happen, especially since they still haven’t gotten rid of the Electoral College.

Frank Zappa

December 21, 2010

Frank Zappa would be seventy years old if he were alive today. I guess that’s a good excuse to listen to some Zappa. It seems strange that he’s been gone from us for so long.

Steve Landesberg (1945-2010)

December 21, 2010

Steve Landesberg has died. He was best known for playing Arthur Dietrich on Barney Miller, which was a funny TV show, even though it did whitewash the New York City police department. (Isn’t that always the way? You’re never going to see a TV series about a corrupt cop or a racist cop, but I digress.) I remember before that he was in a short-lived series called The Paul Sand Show. Landesberg was the only reason for watching that program. He had a dry, understated delivery that could make material seem better than it was.

As is often the case with an actor who appears in a successful TV series, his subsequent career was disappointing. Mainly he just did bit parts here and there. When I lived in Hollywood, on more than one occasion I heard someone ask, “Whatever happened to Steve Landesberg?” It’s a shame the entertainment industry didn’t use him more.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

December 19, 2010

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Beats. This is the second time in a week that I’ve seen a film about a Beat writer.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a documentary by Yony Leyser. It features interviews with many people who knew the writer. The film is well-made and provides many details, including film footage of the author himself, yet, when it was over, Burroughs was still something of a mystery to me. It’s still not clear to me what made the man tick. For example, the film discusses at length Burroughs’s obsession with firearms. We learn that he always carried a loaded gun and that he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. Yet the movie never succeeds in explaining this behavior. Did Burroughs have an experience that caused him to feel threatened? The film never indicates that he did.

Burrough’s fondness for weapons was bound up with a propensity for reckless behavior. He shot his wife, Joyce Vollmer, to death. (Not surprisingly, their son grew up to be a basketcase who drank himself to death at the age of thirty-three.) He nearly killed himself while doing target practice in his backyard. He shared needles with other addicts. He got himself bit while playing with a venomous snake. One of Burroughs’s friends expresses amazement that he lived as long as he did. The film discusses all these things dispassionately, though I think some moral judgement would have been appropriate here. Just because you’re a genius doesn’t give you the right to be an irresponsible asshole.

Critics have accused Burroughs of romanticizing drug use, but the film makes it clear that he hated being an addict. He quit several times, but he always eventually went back to his habit. As someone who has seen some of his friends develop addictions, I could relate to this part of the movie.

The film devotes a great deal of attention to Burroughs’s influence on the punk rock movement. There are interviews with several musicians, including Patti Smith. Since I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, I can’t say that I found this terribly impressive. I would have liked it if the movie had talked more about Burroughs’s influence on other writers, especially Beats such as Kerouac and Ginsberg.

The film does provide some human moments. We learn, for example, that Burroughs liked cats and that he shared recipes with his friends. Still, for the most part the film confirmed my previous impression of Burroughs as a cold and aloof person.

Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)

December 18, 2010

The Controversy Over TSA’s Body Searches Continues to Grow

December 18, 2010

Howl

December 16, 2010

Howl, a film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem and the critical reaction to it. The film has been described by some as a cinematic form of literary criticism.

Much of the film is devoted to the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), who published Howl. Equal attention is given to an interview that Ginsberg (James Franco) gave at the time of the trial. There is a re-enactment of the famous reading of the poem that Ginsberg gave in 1955 in San Francisco, and there are also scenes from Ginsberg’s early life. There are animated sequences that accompany the reading of the poem.

I found Franco convincing as Ginsberg. Overall, I thought the film was intelligently done, but, except for the some of the animation, I did not find it emotionally engaging. I think that this was due to the device of telling the story of Ginsberg’s life mostly through his interview. People who had a strong influence on Ginsberg (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Carl Soloman) appear only in flashbacks, and we never hear them speak. (We never even hear Ferlinghetti speak during his trial). Ginsberg refers to his parents repeatedly (he feared his his father’s disapproval), but we don’t really learn much about them. Defenders of the film argue that it is meant as literary criticism, not as an attempt to fictionally portray Ginsberg’s life. Maybe so, but I prefer films that affect me on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

One thing I can say for the film is that it did make me want to read more of Ginsberg’s writing.