Archive for March, 2011

Rabbit Hole

March 31, 2011

Rabbit Hole is a film directed by John Cameron Mitchell, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire. It tells the story of a married couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), whose very young son was killed in a car accident. The film depicts the differing ways in which they try to deal with their shared grief, and how the differences threaten to tear their marriage apart.

Rabbit Hole tells a story that could easily have become maudlin. Instead, it challenges the commonly accepted notion that tragedy brings people together. It shows how tragic events can bring feelings of guilt, suspicion and jealousy that actually drive people apart. It also points out that there is no easy answer to the question of how and when one should “let go” of the past.

There are some moments in which the story comes dangerously close to melodrama, but Lindsay-Abaire’s script manages to remain rooted in the real world. (This film may not appeal to the sort of sophomore who thinks that The Kids Are All Right is great drama.) The acting is all very good. Nicole Kidman’s performance is searing in its honesty. (I now think that she should have won the Best Actress Oscar instead of Natalie Portman.) Dianne Wiest is subtly touching as Becca’s mother. Eckhart is convincing as Howie.

Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire have a done a skillful job of bringing this play to the screen. It feels like a real movie, rather than a filmed play.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

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Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

March 29, 2011

I feel obligated to note the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor. Although I was never a huge fan of Miss Taylor’s, she appeared in a number of important films, some of which have become classics. I seem to recall Taylor as a ubiquitous presence in the mid-twentieth century American culture that I grew up in, yet when I recently looked at her filmography, I was dismayed to realize that I’ve actually only seen a few of her films. It perhaps says something about Taylor that she seemed such a presence to me despite the fact that I rarely actually saw her in anything.

When I was in high school, I had a 300-pound English teacher who had a twisted sense of humor. One day he had the class watch Suddenly, Last Summer, which was the closest that Tennessee Williams ever came to writing a Grade B horror movie. I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, although I vividly recall the scene in which she flounders around in the surf wearing a skin-tight bathing suit. As you can imagine, this made quite an impression on the hormonal teenager I was in those days. (I must say though, what made a greater impression on me was Katherine Hepburn’s profoundly creepy performance as Violet Venable. The moment in which she suddenly turns to Montgomery Clift and exultantly semi-shouts “We saw the face of God!” almost made me fall out of my chair.)

Taylor was never a favorite with critics, though she managed to win two Academy Awards. One of them was for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof? I saw this film several years ago, and I must say that I was not that impressed by it. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay pads out Edward Albee’s play, merely making obvious what Albee wisely only hinted at. Again, I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, except that she wore a not quite convincing wig, and she yelled a lot. I did, however, like the performance of Richard Burton, who inexplicably failed to win an Oscar. His portrayal of a cynical, jaded college professor was cruelly accurate. (I can say that having known many cynical, jaded college professors in the course of my life.)

Interestingly, Taylor unintentionally had a profound impact on Los Angeles, one of the great cities of the world. (Snicker all you want, you New York snobs.) Taylor starred in the 1963 film, Cleopatra, which, although a huge box office success, cost so much money that 20th Century Fox could only fend off bankruptcy by selling off part of its backlot. (Taylor was paid $7 million – which went a lot farther in those days compared to now – and had 65 costume changes.) Century City was then built in its place. I once had a job working in an office building there. I remember the area as a striking example of bad urban design. It mainly consists of non-descript buildings surrounded by vast, empty lawns. The latter are criss-crossed by cement sidewalks that lead to bleak, charmless concrete plazas. Even in the middle of the day, when there are hundreds of office workers going to lunch, the place seems empty and impersonal. What’s more, there’s no place to park your car, except for a few expensive parking garages. (The company I worked for refused to reimburse me for parking.) I’m told that this place was deliberately meant to be a “city within a city”. The result is that it has no connection to the surrounding urban landscape. You’re in the second largest city in the U.S., yet you might as well be in an office park in Lower Bumfuck, New Jersey.

But I digress.

As too often happens with hugely successful celebrities, Taylor became something of a joke in her later years. Her messy personal life increasingly overshadowed her career. The fact that she put on weight in middle age (something that most people tend to do) was, for some reason, considered hilarious. I remember a Saturday Night Live sketch about an ‘interview” with Taylor (actually John Belushi in a wig and a dress). The “joke” was that Belushi/Taylor was ravenously stuffing his/her face the whole time. The “satire” in this sketch struck me as hypocritical, considering that Belushi was no stranger to carbohydrates himself. Our society seems take a perverse pleasure in seeing the inevitable decline of its once popular idols.

Gasland

March 23, 2011

Gasland is a documentary about hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”, a process in which water and other chemicals are injected into the ground at very high pressure, in order create or broaden fractures in rock formations, thereby releasing natural gas. Documentary filmmaker, Josh Fox, receives a letter from a gas company offering him a large chunk of money if he agrees to let them do hydraulic fracturing on his property in Pennsylvania. Fox goes to the nearby town of Dimock, where hydraulic fracturing was already going on, to see what effect it might be having on the residents. There he finds people who have poisoned water coming out of their taps, who have health problems. He also meets a family who can set fire to the water coming out of their faucet. Fox then goes to different parts of the country where fracking is going on. He finds people who have the same problems. He observes a creek in Colorado that has been poisoned by dumping from gas wells. He observes man-made storage ponds containing poisoned water from the gas wells. He talks about the enormous amount of energy that is consumed in building and maintaining the wells. In the end, he discusses how the gas companies want to do hydraulic fracturing in a region of New York and Pennsylvania that provides drinking water to New York City.

Instead of developing renewable energy sources, corporations are willing to wreak the environment just to make a profit. Instead of wind farms we have things like the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, now spewing out radiation. So long as we have a system based on profit, we are going to have corporations pursuing their interests at the expense of people.

Somewhere

March 19, 2011

Several years ago, I saw Sofia Coppola’s critically acclaimed film, Lost in Translation. Although it had some funny moments, I nevertheless found it a bit dull. So I had some trepidations about seeing her latest film, Somewhere.

It portrays several weeks in the life of a film actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Like the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation, Johnny is a celebrity who lives in a state of ennui. (He is so jaded that he falls asleep while making love to a woman he just met.) His estranged wife suddenly leaves his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), with him, telling him he must take care of her until it is time for her to go to summer camp. The two of them spend time together. After he sends her off to camp, Johnny undergoes a crisis. The experiences he had with his daughter made him realize how emotionally empty his life is. Johnny decides to change his life, though the ambiguous ending doesn’t make clear how he will do that.

As in Lost in Translation, there are many scenes in which little or nothing happens. The danger in making a film about a bored character is that boredom is, well, boring. The Japanese setting of Lost in Translation provided that film with some exotic color. Since Somewhere mostly takes place in Los Angeles, it lacks that quality. However, the pacing is a little quicker, so it doesn’t drag the way the previous film sometimes did.

I’m told that Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette (which I didn’t see), also deals with ennui. I must admit that my empathy for bored rich people is limited. Coppola clearly possesses skill as a director. It would be nice if she were to make a film that deals with a more engaging and compelling topic.

The Fighter

March 16, 2011

The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, is based on the real-life story of “Irish” Micky Ward, who was a junior welterweight boxer in the 1990’s. The film is set in Lowell, Massachusetts; where Ward is from. I went to school in Lowell for a time. I remember it as a harsh place. It was once a center of the textile industry, but it is now economically depressed. It is one of a number of deindustrialised cities in Massachusetts. In such places that have almost nothing going for them, one of the few sources of local pride are residents who manage to be successful, or semi-successful, in sports. In the film, Micky’s older brother is known as “The Pride of Lowell”, because he once fought Sugar Ray Leonard. (I remember when I was young, Marvin Hagler, who was from Brockton – another faded city in the Bay State – was proudly touted by the local media as the “Brockton Bomber”.)

Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is a fighter who is being trained by his crack-addicted, older half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). His career is managed by his domineering mother (Melissa Leo). Dicky’s criminal exploits cause problems for Micky and for his girlfriend (Amy Adams). After an up and down career, however, Micky gets a chance to fight for the world welterweight title.

The Fighter mostly has a realistic feel to it. (There is a lot of hand-held camera work, a sure sign that a film is trying to be “realistic”.) It was mostly shot in Lowell, and the performances are believable. However, there were a few things I found far-fetched. (In one scene, for example, Micky slaps a man in a crowded bar and no one reacts.) And it inevitably runs up against the clichés of the boxing film genre, as the wayward brother redeems himself and the hero gets his shot at the title in the final scene. As boxing films go, however, it is better than Rocky and much better than Cinderella Man. I recommend seeing The Fighter.

Waste Land

March 13, 2011

Waste Land is a documentary by Lucy Walker, João Jardim and Karen Harley about the efforts of the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, to collaborate with trash pickers in Brazil. Muniz is known for making artworks using unusual materials (wire, chocolate, earthworks, etc.) and then photographing them. He went to one of the world’s largest landfills, Jardim Gramacho, outside of Rio de Janeiro. There he sought out people who make their living by picking out recyclable materials from the garbage and selling them. He made giant portraits of some of them out of trash, which he then photographed.

The film introduces us to several pickers, and we learn about their lives. Not surprisingly, they express mixed feelings about what they do. They defend the way they make a living, and they say it is better than becoming criminals or prostitutes, yet they would clearly rather be doing something else. Some of them were once middle class but have fallen on hard times. Muniz, who comes from a lower middle class family, reflects that with different luck he could have ended up as picker himself. One particularly engaging person is an old man who gives philosophical advice to the other pickers. One gets a sense of a feeling of community among the pickers, who often look out for one another. We meet a young man named Tias who is trying to organize the pickers. What is most remarkable about this film is that it conveys a sense that there is dignity in the way these people make a living.

The film ends on an upbeat note. Muniz donates the money he makes from selling his photographs to the group Tias has organized. Among other things, they use the money to create an educational center. There is even talk of Tias running for President of Brazil some day. I have to admit, I found this film deeply moving (despite the guy sitting behind me who kept laughing at inappropriate moments). With so much bad news, it’s nice to see a documentary that ends on a hopeful note. I especially like that the film suggests that there are ways that art can be used to better the world.

Barney’s Version

March 10, 2011

Barney’s Version, directed by Richard J. Lewis, with a screenplay by Michael Konyves, based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, is essentially the life story of Barney Ponofsky (Paul Giamatti). His first marriage, to an emotionally unstable actress, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) ends tragically. He then marries another woman (Minnie Driver). At the wedding reception, Barney gets drunk and sees Miriam (Rosamund Pike). He immediately falls in love with her and begins pursuing her aggressively. Eventually, he is able to get divorced and marry Miriam. They have children. When their children are grown, they drift apart. Miriam divorces Barney and marries another man. The film turns sentimental at the end when Barney develops Alzheimer’s disease.

I found Barney’s Version amusing, but there were things in it that I found unbelievable. First of all, I simply didn’t believe that an intelligent woman like Miriam would fall for a dorky character like Barney (who isn’t even good-looking), especially since he makes a complete ass out of himself at their first meeting. And he makes an ass out of himself at their second meeting as well. Yeah, this is another movie about a woman who falls for a guy who is a jerk. If all one had to go by were movies, one would think that the way to win a woman’s heart is annoy the hell out of her while humiliating oneself.

Also, when one of Barney’s friends disappears, a police detective becomes convinced that Barney murdered him. Now when the police want to pin a crime on someone, they can do so easily. Yet the murder accusation is never more than a passing inconvenience for Barney. Again, I just didn’t buy it.

I would have enjoyed this film more if it had been more plausible and less sentimental.

Robert Fitch

March 9, 2011

I just learned that Robert Fitch recently died. When I was young, I read his book, The Assassination of New York. It had a profound effect on my thinking. It was one of the books that pointed me in the direction of socialist politics.

When I moved to New York City in the early 1990’s, the place seemed unreal to me. Squalor existed alongside the most outrageous conspicuous consumption. Everyone I knew was poor, yet everything was ridiculously expensive. In college I had been taught classical economic theory: supply and demand reach an equilibrium. Yet this clearly wasn’t happening in New York. l became determined to try to understand what was actually going on in this city. While I was working in a second-hand bookstore, I came across a copy of The Assassination of New York. It explained how the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector of the city’s economy controlled the local government and manipulated the infrastructure to serve its own needs. Reading this book helped make me realize that private corporations control our world, and they do so to our detriment. And this was true not just in New York but in most places.

Fitch will be greatly missed.

Casino Jack

March 7, 2011

Casino Jack directed by George Hickenlooper (who died just before the film was released) with a screenplay by Norman Snider, is a fictionalized depiction of the Jack Abramoff scandals, with Kevin Spacey in the role of the unscrupulous lobbyist. (Spacey is very good, by the way, as are the other actors in this film.) I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, so I was surprised that Rotten Tomatoes only gave it a 40% fresh rating. The most common complaint in the comments section was that the film doesn’t really explain what makes Abramoff tick. That is true, but a similar criticism could made of many other films. Does The Social Network really explain what makes Mark Zuckerberg tick? I don’t think so. Another complaint that some made was that they found it confusing. I didn’t. Others complained about making a comedy about a man whose actions hurt other people. That argument seems strange to me, when I consider that one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comedies ever made, Dr. Strangelove, is about nuclear holocaust. It doesn’t get any darker than that.

I suspect that what really bothers people about this movie is its frank depiction of the pervasive corruption in our political system. Indeed, the film suggests that Abramoff’s real crimes in the eyes of the government were that he was reckless, indiscreet and actually not very bright. In one scene, a fellow lobbyist warns Abramoff that K Street (where many lobbying firms are located in Washington) is afraid that his relentless self-promotion will draw people’s attention to what they are doing. When Abramoff is called before a Senate committee, he notes that some of the Senators condemning him received money from groups that he represented.

I suspect what may also bother people about this movie is its depiction of religious hypocrisy. Abramoff considers himself to be a devout orthodox Jew. He uses some of his ill-gotten gains to fund the building of a religious school. Some of his partners in crime, such as Tom DeLay, consider themselves to be devout Christians. The film doesn’t explain this behavior, but that is not the point. The point is to show the human capacity for self-delusion. It is also to warn us that we shouldn’t be taken in by politicians who talk about their belief in religious values.

I highly recommend seeing Casino Jack.

Vandana Shiva

March 5, 2011

Vandana Shiva, environmentalist and feminist, recently spoke at the University of Oregon as part of a program celebrating International Women’s Day. She began by saying that the issue of women’s power is partly about recognizing the traditional wisdom of women in many societies. She cited the example of Indian women who fought against the cutting down of forests in the Himalayas during the 1970’s. The erosion from the mountains subjected to these cuttings was damaging the Ganges river. Their efforts ultimately resulted in a ban on such cutting enacted in 1981.

She then went on to say that the real patriarchs of today are corporations. She pointed out that 200,000 farmers in India have committed suicide because of the genetically modified cotton they are forced to grow, which does not allow them to save seeds, which they need to do to be economically self-sufficient. She talked about how genetically modified alfalfa is being brought to the Willamette valley in Oregon. The cross-pollination of this crop with the crops on other farms will make all the alfalfa farmers subject to Monsanto’s patent. It will also make organic farming (in the true sense of that term) impossible. Shiva calls this “eco-imperialism”. She pointed out that before the advent of genetic engineering, farmers developed thousand of different varieties of rice, that can be grown under all sorts of different conditions. Genetic engineering only serves to create corporate (mainly Monsanto) control of the food supply.

Shiva also talked about the idea of “eco-feminism”, which is the idea that environmental degradation and the oppression of women are related. This is certainly true in the sense that capitalism encourages both.