Friday, March 31, 2006

PAGE TURNER: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

It gives me great joy to announce that my latest book review, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, has gone live at BookADay. The site has undergone some renovation, so you can enjoy that, too.

This marks my second encounter with Alan Moore this month. He, of course, wrote the story that eventually was adapted for the screen as V for Vendetta. Both stories deal with vigilantism, and the way mankind idolizes and cries out for all-powerful superheroes even as it resents the need for them. There's probably a metaphor for the immaturity or adolescence of man in there, although that's not Moore's concern in either of these tales.

I'd like to say that Moore's compelling take on deeper questions of freedom and morality makes me want to read more. Unfortunately, the man writes comic books. You can call them graphic novels if you like. They're still stories told in pictogram form. They occupy this strange space between novels (which are only words, forcing you to create the images in your mind) and movies (which takes the words and gives them picture and movement, meaning you do no work at all). And I can't quite wrap my head around that kind of reading. I don't have the training for it, I guess. I suppose I could learn. I'm not sure I want to.

It's this kind of open-mindedness that's really going to endear me to my kids.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Off BASE

The one drawback to sharing your Netflix list with friends is that they're likely to call out anything that doesn't meet the highest cinematic standards. Sure, you may have Kiezlowski's Decalogue in your queue, but put The Village on there, and it's time to release the hounds. So I can't really be surprised that I got criticized. That someone would actually question my sanity was to be expected. You have to be ready for a fair amount of abuse when you move BASEketball to the top of the list.

There's an art to a really good stupid movie. A least one element of that art is getting people with a strong sense of the kind of stupid that works. BASEketball would seem to have hit a gold mine in that department: director David Zucker, part of the triumvirate that concocted Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie, and stars Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the twisted minds behind South Park and Team America: World Police. Now these guys know stupid.

So it's a little shocking how far short of the mark they fall. Parker and Stone play buddies who invent a strange variation on the classic driveway hoops game of Horse, with elements of baseball thrown in for maximum weirdness. The game inexplicably becomes a national sensation, but Parker finds himself fighting to keep the game from being taken over by commercial elements.

Does this sound like a really thin plot? Trust me, it's thinner. What little story there is has clearly been slapped together as an excuse to showcase the game, and that's a mistake, because nobody cares about the game. So you've got a premise that's not interesting, and a story that's irrelevant. What's left? Gross-out jokes. Part of the game is founded upon the idea that you're allowed to do anything to distract your opponent. Hence, we get an awful lot of time devoted to Parker and Stone doing offensive and repellent things. So there's not even any surprise to it. Someone comes on the screen for the express purpose of grossing us out. That's a lot of pressure to put on your movie. And a man shooting milk out of his nipples does not live up to the hype.

The real shame is that Parker and Stone are fairly charming leads, and BASEketball's failure means that they'll probably stick to South Park. It's easy to see them as Terrance and Philip come to life, and they certainly throw themselves into even the lamest of gags with aplomb. Supposedly, they ad-libbed a good portion of the script. Someone still must have been holding the reins, though, because other than a marvelous exchange revolving around the use of a word you would describe a person who has sex with pigs, the jokes rarely reach the shocking laughs of the best South Park episodes.

In fact, that may sum up the film's problems in a nutshell. It's willing to be gross, but it's almost like they're not willing to far enough. Consider their use of guest stars. Remember how silly Zucker was able to make Leslie Nielsen look? Or Priscilla Presley? Here, you've got Jenny McCarthy as a wicked widow. The woman's definitely from the anything-for-a-laugh school of comedy. But they're not willing to exploit that. Robert Vaughn is fully prepared to ooze evil from every pore. But the most he ever does is farm out some clothing contracts to Asian sweatshops. That's it? Yeah, it's unfair. But it's penny-ante. All along, the film holds back from getting really shocking, really angry, really absurd. Every punch is pulled. Every bit is played safe. It's the gross-out comedy that doesn't want to offend you.

I have to single out the terrible casting and awful performance of Yasmine Bleeth as the film's love interest. It's almost unfair to pick on her, now that the world remembers her less for Baywatch and more for being a cocaine-addled skank. But taking a glorified swimsuit model and casting her as a demure caretaker of sick children (and costuming her in a series of chaste coats and turtlenecks) is just dumb. And her flat, lifeless performance does nothing to dispel the notion that she should only play a hot chicks. One bad decision can tell you a lot about how the other bad decisions get made. So remember: the filmmakers cast Yasmine Bleeth entirely for her acting skills. This helps to explain a lot about how BASEketball came to be.

Strangely enough, my favorite performances were the stunning, career-damaging, utterly unexpected cameos by sportscasters Bob Costas and Al Michaels. This is just astounding. How did they get them? Didn't they read the script? Were they just disappointed to be left out of The Naked Gun and would agree to anything? There is a perverse thrill in watching familiar faces getting vulgar. (Were you hoping to watch Tim McCarver drop the S-word? Your day has arrived.) But Costas and Michaels really sell it, fully investing in the crude, guttural jokes they've been handed. An early scene in which Michaels makes an inappropriate comment about the sideline entertainment, and Costas recoils in horror, is possibly the funniest in the entire film.

In fact, most of the film's successful jokes come at the expense of the world of sports. One of my favorites riffs on the familiar scene of victorious athletes celebrating in their locker room, spraying champagne onto their new Champion hats and t-shirts. In BASEketball, the losers also get t-shirts proclaiming their failure, complete with tags still attached. It's little details like that the movie gets right. But a little of that only goes so far, and since BASEketball really has nothing else to offer, the movie ends up being exactly the dud everyone thinks it is.

So BASEketball isn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but it sure ain't good. Do I regret having it on my list? Well, I wish it had been better. But I was always going to wonder. Besides, you've got to have a stupid movie on your list. BASEketball won't be my last.

In fact the comments are already starting to come in. "Shane. Really? Mr. 3000...?"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: The Ballad of Barry Lamar

The 2006 season of Major League Baseball gets underway Sunday night with the glorious unfurling of the first Chicago White Sox World Championship banner since 1917. It promises to be nothing short of astonishing, and quite frankly, now that we only have the one hapless baseball team, I'm really not sure what we're going to do with ourselves.

It has been a busy pre-season, with most of the attention focused on two big stories in the game: the World Baseball Classic, which I didn't watch but am told was surprisingly entertaining, and the continuing saga of Barry Bonds, which I have watched and just makes me incredibly sad.

The latest revelations about Bonds -- which suggest that he put substances in (or on) his body which were not, strictly speaking, Wheaties -- haven't exactly come as a complete surprise. For years, people have been joking about his grotesquely swollen head, or lamenting that his gargantuan feats (73 homers in one season, over 700 home runs lifetime, dramatically increased production after the age of 34, record-setting seven MVP awards) could not possibly have come unaided. And last year came the news that Bonds had admitted to a grand jury that he used substances called "the cream" and "the clear" which may have turned out to be steroids (with really stupid names, I might add) but which he thought were "flaxseed oil". (For the record, flaxseed oil is linseed oil that hasn't had the solvent extracted. And linseed oil is used to preserve wood and leather. So, furniture polish, nutritional supplement. Gotcha.) But all along, Bonds' ongoing retort has been that he is unfairly pilloried by just about everyone on the planet Earth, and he's ever actually done anything wrong, good luck finding it. So two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle took the challenge, and their new book claims to have found exactly the dirt that Bonds said was never there. Oops.

From the moment he moved to California, my good friend Ted Price became a self-professed Barry Bonds apologist. He wondered why fans hated him so much. He wondered why other players were considered the best in the game. Ted has long taken the position that, in Barry Bonds, we are watching the greatest player the game has ever produced. And most importantly, he's never given the steroid thing a second thought.

I mention Ted because he recently penned a defense of Barry Bonds for the Dils Musings website. (Note to self: next time I don't feel like posting a blog entry here, get Ted to write something.) It's a passionate defense, and I have to say that I agree with his points refuting some of the biggest arguments against Bonds, like his relationship with teammates, his failure to earn a World Series ring, and such. There's no question that Bonds is a polarizing figure, and Ted's right to point out that several of Barry's offenses really aren't so much worse than those of his colleagues. Has Bonds gotten a bum rap? A lot of the time, he probably has.

But let's throw all that aside. Even Ted admits that, right now, it all comes down to the issue of cheating. And in the final analysis, Ted's take is: I don't care if he cheated or not. Essentially, he's taking the same position that President Warren G. Harding adopted upon being informed that there really was no midnight ride to warn the citizens of Boston of the coming British seige: "I love Paul Revere, whether he rode or not." In other words, damn the truth, I like my story just the way it is.

Believe me, I can totally relate to Ted's position. Hey, here in Chicago, we had a great deal of fun charting the home run assault of Sammy Sosa back in 1998. (The new book suggests this home run chase spurred Bonds to get on the juice. If that's true, it's really pathetic.) Now, we weren't blind to steriods eight years ago. People noted how Sosa was a scrawny little fellow when he came up with the Texas Rangers, and reporters asked him what he was on that made his home run total suddenly skyrocket. And he reached into his locker and pulled out a bottle of Flintstones vitamins. A good laugh we had over that one. I treasure that joy of that 1998 season, and if the proof finally comes out that Sosa was bulking up illegally, I won't be pleased. But I will still cherish the memories of being at the ballpark when he launched a mammoth blast.

I'm also highly skilled at the art of denial. When I was in college, I had an internship with a radio station in Fort Worth, and that got me into Rangers games. When the job demanded it, I had the occasion to ask questions of one Rafael Palmeiro, who I came to believe was a stand-up guy and a credit to the game. So when he got dragged before a Congressional committee on steroids, I wondered what the heck he was doing there. And when he insisted, finger wagging at his inquisitors, that he had never taken a steroid in his life, I totally believed him. And then, a few months later, when he tested positive, I still thought that there had been some kind of mistake. The denial ran deep. But when he threw teammate Miguel Tejada under the wheels of an oncoming bus, claiming he must have accidentally gotten something illegal from him, then he didn't seem like such a stand-up guy anymore.

Look, I don't want Barry Bonds to be a cheater. If you give me a Hall of Fame ballot and Bonds' name is on it, I'm voting for him. I'm also voting for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. (I'm very torn on Palmeiro.) Because in the end, they did the job. They got the hits, they won the ballgames. Like Gaylord Perry and his spitball, or the New York Giants and their telescope in the center field wall. It's cheating, and it's not right, but unless they catch you and throw you out at that moment, the win goes in the books. It's life.

My big problem with Barry Bonds is that he's been lying to us, and that it's somehow our fault that we're not buying the lie anymore. He's the cheater, but we're the jerks. I resent that.

Here's my biggest confession. I was a Pete Rose fan. A big one. It's not cool to admit that anymore, but it's true. My Little League baseball card lists him as my favorite player. And though people have conveniently forgotten this fact, he was a lot of people's favorite player. He was fierce and determined; not the most athletically gifted man, but hellbent on victory. He was a little like a white Kirby Puckett. (Kirby's another player I really liked who had a dark side. Rest in peace, Puck.) And while his quest to pass Ty Cobb as the all-time hits leader was not exactly subtle, I was definitely rooting for him.

So when the accusations came that he bet on baseball, I was aghast. How could he have broken the game's cardinal rule? He's Pete Rose. And in fact, the report accusing him was filled with circumstantial evidence, unreliable witnesses, and a dash of vendetta. So when Pete claimed that he was being unfairly accused, and that he hadn't had a chance to tell his side of the story, I rose to his defense. Let the man speak. And as the years went by, I started to wonder why he wouldn't just speak up, because the whole wronged-man defense wasn't working.

Of course, the truth was that Pete Rose did bet on baseball. And for reasons that a psychologist could probably explain, that was the cannonball that finally sunk the ship for me. Because the charges of gambling, while offensive, didn't ruin Pete Rose for me. What ruined Pete Rose for me was that he played me. He asked for my support, he assured me that he was a good guy, he traded in on years of happy memories watching him play the game of baseball. And then he admitted, "Oh yeah, I was lying when I said I was innocent all those years. But thanks for buying into it." I felt used. Not a good feeling.

Pete Rose still has his acolytes. And to be honest, I'd vote Pete into the Hall of Fame, because he got the hits, won the championships. For what he did on the field, he belongs there. But because of what he did off the field, what I'd really like is for Pete Rose to go away. I don't want to be reminded of being duped, and I don't want to be reminded that my happy memories aren't as pure as I would like them to be. I don't want him actually banished. I just want him to have the common courtesy to go away of his own volition.

The fact that Ted says he hasn't read the Sports Illustrated article and doesn't plan to tells me that he's sticking with the straight-denial route. Having been there myself, I don't totally blame him. But if he ever moves out of the denial phase, I'll just warn him now that it's going to hurt. It's going to feel cheap, having been taken in by a man who asked the world to believe in his lie. Ted's right; if you watched Bonds in a game, you were seeing something special. But I think he traded on that goodwill to further his cheating, and I can't sanction that. Like Pete Rose, I salute Barry Bonds. I respect his achievements, and honor his career. And I want Barry Bonds to go away. He's souring my game.

Maybe someday, I'll be able to forgive him. After all, forgiveness finds us all in the end.

It only took 87 years to find the White Sox.

Monday, March 27, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Quarter For Your Thoughts


Last week, I got my first Nevada state quarter. There it is, over there on the right. Give it a looksee.

On the whole, I'm really enjoying the 50 State Quarters program. I'm not really a numismatist, save for a failed attempt in my youth to collect every single Bicentennial quarter in existence. (Being six at the time, I failed to appreciate the momumental task I had set for myself. Not long ago, I found a small container of Bicentennial quarters that I had evidently squirreled away from that time. I was a stupid child.) But the idea of each state having the chance to showcase themselves in a single image appeals to me. I'm pedantic, and this is a pedantic project. We're made for each other. I always check my change now to see if I got anything new. It took me nine months to finally get an Oregon quarter. Frankly, I'd like us to annex some more states just so we can keep this going. Come on. Five more will get us a whole year. Here's let me help: DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands, and...um...oh, Iraq, I guess.

Unfortunately, the states are really blowing it. Take a look at that Nevada quarter. I saw that and I thought one thing: the cover of some girl's Trapper Keeper.

I mean, seriously. Frolicking horses? I especially love the disconnect, seeing those horses and reading "The Silver State". Are they silver horses? Are they all the Lone Ranger's horse Silver? What the hell?

A quick glance at the U.S. Mint's entry on Nevada reveals that none of the finalists incorporated anything even remotely connected to what we really think of Nevada. Specifically, gambling and atomic testing. And that's fair. A state has the right to idealize itself. But this image is so generic, so devoid of context, that you wonder why they bothered. At least a little mushroom cloud in the background would havbe grounded the image. But these horses look like they're My Little Ponies all grown up. This is the quarter for the great state of Little-Girl-and-Her-Horseland.

It's shocking how many states are screwing this up. The worst is probably the one worked up for the great state of Texas. Consider: this is the second-largest state in the union. Once an independent country. Six flags have flown over its soil. The home of ranching, oil, and the space program. Remember the Alamo. Everything is bigger and bolder in Texas. Proud, even arrogant, and most of all, not to be messed with. And how do we represent all that Texas has to offer. Like this. Please allow me to slip into a little Texan parlance to express my feelings: Bullshit. What a crock. Thanks for phoning it in, Texas. Given the chance to promote the rich, proud history of a dramatic land, what do they give us? Clip art.

I realize that it's hard to summarize a state in a single image. There are many ways to handle this.

- Some states, like Delaware, California, and Illinois, have chosen a person to represent them, hoping that this one person's greatness will speak for the potential of every person to spring from their soil. (Special kudos to Illinois for representing the modern age with the Hancock, instead of the Sears Tower. The Hancock's way better.) Alabama intriguingly chose someone unexpected, neatly deflecting the stereotype for what a typical denizen of Alabama would be like.

- Some states look for a landmark to represent them. In many cases, like New York or the forthcoming South Dakota quarter, the choice is so obvious is to be inevitable. Others, like that of Maryland, may not mean anything to you at all. Which makes you look it up, I guess, so that's a plus. One of my favorites, the Old Man on the Mountain in New Hampshire, has since collapsed. So there's no accounting for permanence.

- Bridges are big. Don't believe me? Just visit Rhode Island. Or West Virginia. If only New Jersey had a bridge, they wouldn't have had to row.

- Some states turn to industry. You're not going to find a better example than Wisconsin, which hilariously arranges a cow, an ear of corn, and a wheel of delicious cheese in a still life over the state motto: "Forward." On, cow! And you're not going to find a worse example than Tennessee, which rounded up any instruments it could find and stuck them together. Is Tennessee renowned for its trumpet players? Hmm, Grand Ole Opry, Elvis...um, nope. And a tip of the hat to Indiana, for proudly putting a race car on their quarter. America loves cars, so someone ought to represent. Michigan sure blew it.

- Some states copy from each other. Sure, North Carolina is the place where the Wright Brothers flew the very first plane. So they should have the Flyer. But wait! The Wright Brothers are from Ohio! And you know who else was? John Glenn! And Neil Armstrong! Screw you, North Carolina! The Buckeye State gets the Flyer, and an astronaut, too! Which was probably a real bummer for Florida, the only state actually launching people into space. They had to settle for the Shuttle, which is evidently about to land on a Spanish galleon. Oops.

The best quarters seem to capture a way of life. The quarter for Kentucky has unusual depth, contrasting a historic mansion with a proud thoroughbred horse, neatly encapsulating the state's antebellum heritage, as well as the huge role of the horse breeding and racing industries. It looks like Kentucky.

The lighthouse on Maine's quarter is evidently a specific historic lighthouse, but that doesn't matter. Just think about where Maine is, and you imagine looking out to the sea. And the four-masted schooner gives a little historical context, too. Especially since it's about to get flattened by the space shuttle.

But my favorite probably remains Vermont. Even after only 13 other state quarters, Vermont's had the makings of a classic. There's a hint of industry (the big maple syrup concerns must have been thrilled). And there's the way of life thing, with the tree tapper clearly braving the elements. But truly? It's just a pretty picture. That one guy, amidst the towering trees, with the dramatic mountains in the background...it's just a great picture. And it makes you want to see Vermont. I can't think of another quarter that has had that effect. There are 14 quarters to go, but I don't think Vermont is going to be topped.

My home state of Arizona is almost certain to put the Grand Canyon on their quarter. It's a no-brainer. But I hope they at least try and make it interesting. Because it's gonna be a long time before we get the State Dollar Project to clean up this mess.

Friday, March 24, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: So Falls Wichita Falls

I mentioned watching an odd Netflix double feature, and while it doesn't quite reach the heights of my beloved pairing of Chicken Run and Shaft, I'm pretty proud of the bizarre combination that is An American in Paris and The Ice Harvest. That'll really give your brain the shakes.

If you saw previews for this movie, you probably assumed that it was going to be some sort of comedy. Maybe one of those dark comedies, with murder and death and stuff. But still a comedy. Almost like a Home Alone for adults. Let me disabuse you of that notion right now. While The Ice Harvest is not without laughs, they are rare, and about as sad and dark as they come.

A quick glance at the plot should give you all the warning you need. John Cusack is Charlie, a shady attorney in flat, cold Wichita, Kansas. Charlie, with the help of his friend, the local porn merchant Vic (the always-happy-to-play-an-unsavory-character Billy Bob Thornton), is stealing two million dollars from his boss, a ruthless gangster played by Randy Quaid. Along the way, he'd like to strike up a romance with the manager of one of Quaid's strip clubs (Connie Nielsen, the film's only casting misstep), but ends up spending far too much time with Oliver Platt, the drunk and unhappy husband who stole Charlie's wife. The hours spent waiting to escape from Wichita, with complications from a freezing storm and one of Quaid's hit men, are more than a little tense.

Now, I suppose you could make comedy out of this premise. The film is not without laughs, a tribute in great part to the cast. Thornton is incapable of being boring, and Platt manages to rise above playing a mere drunk, instead playing an unhappy, confused man who we're meeting at his most drunk. And holding it all together is sadsack Cusack, for whom even the prospect of two million dollars seems to hold no hope or promise. Even as you see Charlie lying to his children, you can't entirely hate him. Cusack makes him human. It's funny how far that goes in movies these days.

I mentioned Nielsen being miscast, and I should go into that a little. She's not an untalented actress (and if I can forgive Joaquin Phoenix for Gladiator, then I should probably extend her the same courtesy). And she's got the right neo-noir look for the part. I just never bought her as the conniving femme fatale she's supposed to be. Maybe part of that is the construction of the film, in which very small people are playing at very big games. But the discovery of her true motivations rings false, even as it makes sense in terms of the story. Maybe I was just distracted by her bizarre Kansan-Danish accent.

In what marks something of a first for me, I'm well acquainted with two of the actors featured in this film. One, Mick Napier in the role of an abusive guitarist, is practically a cameo. (Interesting to watch one of my former teachers getting the crap beaten out of him.) The other, however, is a nice sizable part for T. J. Jagodowski as an eager-to-please cop, and makes him the first person in history to have appeared in both (A) a major motion picture and (B) my living room. In the journalism business, they call this full disclosure, because I thought T. J. was wonderful. In only a few short scenes, he creates a rich character: sycophantic, but not immune to hurt. A brief scene where he tries to get Cusack to remember his name has more depth than many entire movies. Bravo, T. J. (And yes, you can send my check directly to me at home.)

In the end, you get what you pay for, and if you plop your money down for a small crime noir set in Kansas in the dead of winter, The Ice Harvest is really the only way that can turn out. The question, then, is why you would ever want to do that. Director Harold Ramis moves the film along at a brisk pace (it clocks in at 90 minutes), and the pieces fall into place smoothly and elegantly. But it's a story without joy, and even with everything it does right, that makes it hard to recommend. Even the nastiest, foulest horror flick has some fun to it, even if it's the perverse joy of a gory murder or a grotesque amputation or some such offal. (Not my kind of fun, but clearly someone's.) The Ice Harvest has no joy. Well, almost.

As the abuses and the miseries pile up, the film hurtles toward an ending that is bleak capstone on a pyramid of woe. So the actual denoument is kind of a pleasant surprise. It does have the stink of selling out to Hollywood convention and preview audience tyrrany. (The DVD includes the original, expected finish, so you're welcome to watch the film reach its more logical, expected conclusion.) But I actually kind of liked it. I don't know that anyone in The Ice Harvest has actually earned a happy ending. But I think I earned one. Even the bleakest life is not devoid of joy. After 90 minutes of this film, I was owed an ounce of satisfaction. Transaction completed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Who Could Ask For Anything More? Um...

There's still lingering outrage over the fact that Crash provided one of only two shocks at this year's Oscars (the other coming courtesy of our good friends in the Three 6 Mafia, for their trenchant analysis of the difficulties inherent in modern-day pimping) by toppling the favored Brokeback Mountain in the race for Best Picture. I haven't seen Brokeback, so I can't honestly weigh in on the relative merits of the two films (I liked Crash, although people who didn't like it seem to absolutely despise it). But I can say this: if you're one of those people who think it's simply unconscionable that the Oscar went to the wrong film, then you simply must get over yourself. After all, in 1952, they passed over A Streetcar Named Desire and gave Best Picture to An American in Paris.

I had high hopes for this movie, having just watched an episode of American Masters on the genius of Gene Kelly. Plus, the very next collaboration between Kelly and producer Arthur Freed was Singin' in the Rain, which is only the greatest musical in the history of the cinema. As the final cherry on the sundae, the film is a showcase for the music of George Gershwin. We ought to be able to get a decent film out of all this, right? Maybe not a Best Picture, but certainly a respectable entertainment.

So imagine my shock at the discovery that this winner of seven Academy Awards was not an especially good film. It's a beautiful confection, with charming sets, elaborate costumes, and outstanding choreography. And Gershwin's music is performed to the hilt, a real tribute to the composer and his lyricist, brother Ira Gershwin. But the story on which all this decoration is hung is a dud.

Not the least of the problems is with our hero, an aspiring painter (Kelly) selling his wares on the streets of Paris. Turns out he's a jerk, as he toys with the affections of a would-be patron (a terribly abused Nina Foch) while he really pines for a lovely gamine named Lise (Leslie Caron in her movie debut). Kelly takes Foch's money and support, yanking her chain while he pursues Caron with methods that today would probably get him slapped with a restraining order. (And that works!) At times, it's infuriating to watch him mooning over the girl who brushes him off and complaining about the woman who pesters him, while he isn't really deserving of either one. And it's while you're annoyed with him that Kelly lapses into a song-and-dance number, thereby working his way back into your good graces. Kudos for agreeing to play a near-heel. But hearty boos to the filmmakers (I'll single out screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner) for making that heel the guy we're supposed to be rooting for. The love-hate relationship the film creates with its protagonist is enough to give you whiplash.

At least Kelly is central to the film. But the film starts us off by assigning importance to characters who will not earn their billing. We spend a great deal of time being introduced to Adam (pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant), a fellow expatriate American, and Henri (French singer Georges Guétary), a French singer who is actually engaged to Lise. Let me be clear about this: these characters don't matter. Henri is interesting as a plot complication, but he's hardly deserving of the leading man status afforded him here. (In a movie like The Awful Truth, Henri would be the Ralph Bellamy character. You don't make Ralph Bellamy one of your leads.) And Adam has no real role to play at all, other than being the outside observer. (This is the Thelma Ritter part.) They're genuine, actual supporting characters, advancing the threadbare plot while meaning very little to us. So why does Guétary get to stop the show for his performance of "Stairway to Paradise"? Because he can sing, and we've got a Gershwin song to showcase. Why does Levant bring the film to a screeching halt with his one-man symphony in Gershwin's Concerto in F? Because he was quite the piano player, and we've got just the piece to demonstrate his talents. It's a whole melting pot of irrelevance, and it's hard to figure out why audiences sat still for it. (Levant does get off one of the funniest lines I've heard in quite some time. Trying to change a touchy subject, he comes up with this winner: "Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I played a command performance for Hitler?" That line alone almost earned his keep.)

Leslie Caron is what we call a fetching ingenue. She's got bold, Audrey Hepburn eyes (with strangely Vulcan eyebrows), she dances divinely...and she has staggeringly little personality. Other than being pretty, it's hard to see what has Kelly so enraptured. I'm not sure Caron was even 20 yet when this movie was made, and that immaturity shows. Lise hardly seems like a person ready to make a life decision. There's nothing weighing her down. When she is finally freed to pursue her heart, there's no release, no culmination. She looks like a girl who has just been released from being grounded.

I can't hate the film, because the songs are too good, and the dances are too outstanding. The standout is the title tune itself, adapted into a 15-minute ballet at the film's conclusion. Naturally, it has very little to do with the film itself, but it's a sterling set piece for Kelly's dancing. Curious, too, is the fact that a similar dance piece in Singin' in the Rain -- the "Broadway Melody" sequence -- is even more poorly integrated into the film, and yet it works better. I don't get that. I guess it's because Singin' in the Rain is a much better movie. I'm willing to cut it more slack.

The fact that An American in Paris was a triumph and Singin' in the Rain was a relative failure speaks poorly of the tastes of moviegoers in the early 1950s. The fact that their fortunes have reversed over time is entirely appropriate. And should be of some small comfort to those movie fans who feel that their gay cowboys didn't get their due. Don't worry, folks. Film justice is slow, but you can count on it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

FINAL CUT: Terrorism Saves the Day

It's funny. I don't feel like I've been watching that many movies lately. My Netflix list barely seems to have moved. And yet, while I found myself battling a very unpleasant cold all weekend long, I definitely devoted a good portion of my time to the movies. Among other things, I knocked off the odd DVD double feature of An American in Paris and The Ice Harvest, was treated to some unusually mediocre TV screenings of films I would never have watched had I not been incapacitated (like the ludicrous timebending, serial killer hunting, father-son bonding mishmash Frequency and the willfully, eagerly dumb The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, featuring a first-ever fight scene showcasing Bob Newhart), and scanned through the newest additions to my home library (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the MST3K version of The Wild World of Batwoman, which concludes memorably with Tom Servo's plaintive cry, "ENNNNNNND!!! ENNNNNNND!!!"). So now it looks like all I do is watch movies. Which I'm pretty sure isn't true. I swear.

This weekend's film frenzy got underway with an IMAX screening of the latest comic-to-cinema effort, V for Vendetta. Movies that adapt graphic novels are getting much better, as filmmakers who actually like the comic medium are given the reins, and Vendetta has just such a pedigree. The script is written by the Wachowski Brothers, the minds behind The Matrix and acknowledged fans of comic books and animé film. Of course, they're also the minds behind The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, so there is cause for concern. Also, they've handed the director's megaphone over to one of their assistant directors, James McTeigue. Almost sounds like they couldn't be bothered.

Someone who definitely refused to be bothered was the author of the original comic, Alan Moore, who insisted that his name not appear in the credits and refused to take a penny from the film's producers. His stance led me into a conversation about whether viewing the film would strike a blow to his rights as a writer, which is a subject I'm very sensitive to, since I would like to be a writer and thereby have rights. Moore has been most displeased with Hollywood's approach to his works, and from what I've heard of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that's understandable. My only exposure to Moore is through a recent reading of the genre landmark Watchmen (my review of which is coming soon to BookADay, I swear it). What it comes down to is, can you separate the book from the movie? I haven't read the book, so it's incumbent upon me to make the distinction, to say that what I'm seeing may have nothing to do with what Alan Moore initially set down on paper. I think we can all get behind that. V for Vendetta will have to stand or fall on its own merits.

In fact, Vendetta has a lot more going for it than against it. The production is visually rich, with striking images that show their origins in comics, but retain the movement and fluidity of film. And it features a stellar cast working hard to overcome pedestrian roles, including Stephen Rea as a hangdog cop tracking a terrorist despite his misgivings, Stephen Fry lending a wry ignorance to a TV star who pushes his luck a bit too far, and the always-entertaining John Hurt, making fun out of a dictator whose intentions are only the most obvious.

Of course, the real star of the film is Hugo Weaving, best known for his turns as Agent Smith in The Matrix and Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though engaging in those films, these are not roles of great nuance and variety. In a way, neither is the role of V here, in which the actor's face never emerges from behind a mask of the fabled English rebel Guy Fawkes. But Weaving is sensational. Roger Ebert has complained that anything that talks ought to have moving lips, which must mean he collapses into a fit of apoplexy every Halloween. But Weaving hearkens back to the glorious days of Greek theater, managing to convey a tremendous range of emotion and inner thought despite being obscured by a grinning mask from start to finish. There were so many moments that I watched this concealed man seething with a baroque rage or pleading for sympathy, and all I could think was, "This should not be working." In particular, a scene featuring this dashing man of violence dressed in a kitchen apron manages to overcome the inherent absurdity. But that's acting for you, and though Weaving won't get the credit he deserves, it's a tour de force performance.

Of course, he may just seem exceptional because he's cast alongside Natalie Portman. I don't care who I offend by saying this, but I think Natalie Portman is a terrifically overrated actress. Everything I see her in, she tries very hard to convey seriousness and gravity, but all you really get is the trying-really-hard part. (Exception: the deeply unsettling scene in Closer in the strip club when she taunts Clive Owen with no inflection whatsoever. The rule: every scene in which she appears in the Star Wars prequels.) So let it be said: she's not bad in this. I discovered that I actually like her better with a British accent. I just wish she had chosen a single British accent to use throughout the film. And she's not called upon to be an action heroine, so her she's not straining credulity. I would have liked to see a stronger actress in the film, someone with a definitive personality and not such a pushover. But she doesn't wreck the movie. Faint praise, I guess.

I've been going on about the actors, and I guess that's because I'm dodging the jist of the film's plot, which is quite simply a manifesto in favor of terrorism. That sounds extreme, but consider that the main character blows up a building at the start of the film, and promises to blow up another at the conclusion, while the intervening time is spent rallying the nation to his cause. To be fair, the film stacks the deck against the existing social order, a dictatorship with overtones of fascism so overt (screaming leader, marching troops, pervasive symbol on a red field in a white circle) that the only thing missing is a tiny mustache. So it's easy to root for the apathetic populace to rise up and initiate their own liberation. But the result, while appearing triumphant (complete with fireworks and uplifting music), is deeply unsettling. Maybe I'm just hard-wired to look for peaceful resolution. But even if this were not a world obsessed with terrorism, I still think I would be very uncomfortable about celebrating a hero whose only means of galvanizing the public and effecting change is through destruction. And then I realize that America is a country borne out of that very notion, and I blanche at the thought that I would have stood in the way of the American Revolution. Supposedly, Thomas Jefferson suggested that there should be a revolution every 50 years, so there's clearly a time and place to say to hell with social order. But that doesn't make the prospect any more palatable.

(I have to include my suspicion that this movie will play very differently in Britain, where Guy Fawkes is a sort of perverse cultural icon, and where the final act of terrorism will evoke a deep sense of history, rather than a harsh reminder of current events. But maybe not.)

Any film that generates that much internal debate has a lot going for it. But I don't know if anyone is putting that much thought into the picture. V for Vendetta is that rare creature in the cinema: a popcorn movie with something to say. Unfortunately, I think we're so used to movies with nothing to say, we may not even recognize the real deal when it comes along. So Vendetta sits there looking incredibly irresponsible, having fun with uncomfortable reminders of public buildings being destroyed.

It's enough to make you long for a Bob Newhart fight scene.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Dust Off the Gran Torino

It was Stupid Movie Time at the homestead, and Netflix obliged with a copy of Starsky & Hutch. Hmm. A movie version of a 70s cop show, starring two post-ironic comedians. Yeah, that oughta work.

We're quickly reaching the point where Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have their shtick down so pat, they really can't fail. They won't necessarily blow the roof off the dump, but they're going to be amusing by doing their thing. Stiller is over-the-top intense, a tightly-wound ball of emotion who thinke's he's keeping his cool. Wilson is relaxed to the point of catatonia, watching the world run while he strolls. They know what to do. Director Todd Phillips sets them loose, and off they go.

The temptation is to call them a new Crosby & Hope, plugging their personas into whatever plot the screenwriters choose to throw at them. But they're really part of some new comedic Rat Pack, since they could very easily be substituted with the same pool of actors who populate these films. You know, like their names got pulled out of a hat, and who ever didn't get picked was handed a supporting role. Vince Vaughn? You can play the smug villain. Will Ferrell? How about dropping by for a cameo as a key informant? It's Movie Lotto. Vaughn & Stiller: Dodgeball. Vaughn & Owen Wilson (with Ferrell): Wedding Crashers. Luke Wilson & Ferrell (with Vaughn): Old School. Stiller & Owen Wilson (with Ferrell) as models: Zoolander. Running a movie studio has never been so easy.

There's a supporting cast, but they main serve as cardboard figures for Stiller & Wilson to weave through on their way from situation to situation. Hey, there's Juliette Lewis! She was nominated for an Oscar. Hey, there's Jason Bateman! He sure looks silly in those glasses. Hey, there's Fred Williamson! What do I know him from? The only supporting character who stands out at all is Snoop Dogg, who is...well, Snoop is Snoop. Laid back, drawling because enunciating is too much of a hassle, and loving him some wacky tobacky. It's casting by Mad Libs. "And Huggy Bear, played by...and I need a celebrity." "Snoop Dogg!" "Alright! Huggy Bear, played by Snoop Dogg." It's a triumph of typecasting.

But what about the film? Well, it's cute. The film is essentially the imagined first meeting of the two titled heroes, so we've got the whole meet-cute angle. And there's the thread of a plot about Vaughn trying to move a shipment of undetectable cocaine. But none of this really matters. It's the Stiller & Wilson Show. If you like them, you'll probably like this.

This all has the air of backhanded compliment. But the fact is, there's little point in reviewing these movies like movies. They're really the product of the most expensive sketch troupe in history. So you roll with it. Even if they don't hit a homer this time, there's probably another one coming up.

The original Starsky & Hutch, Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, make a charming cameo appearance. Typically, Wilson is friendly but not fawning, while Stiller is ruthlessly apathetic. But the deleted scenes reveal that the cameo originally went longer, with Glaser & Soul getting a chance to do their thing one more time. It's no surprise that the scene got the axe. After all, the film isn't really about Starsky & Hutch. It's about Stiller & Wilson. So hop in the Torino, or get out of the way.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

FINAL CUT: Answered Prayers

With only days to go before the Oscars would shock everyone and crown Crash as their champion, Clair decided that we needed to tick off one more Best Picture nominee from our list. Which is how we ended up in a crowded theater to see Philip Seymour Hoffman go for the gold in Capote.

Our filmmakers do something very smart right off the bat: they shove Truman Capote in our face. There's Hoffman in all his glory, voice pitched as high as Henrietta Pussycat, mincing around with his pinky in the air, striving to outdo only himself in bitchiness. Here's the star of our show, the man whose name is the title. Capote is such on over-the-top figure, it's essential that we see him as over the top as he can get, so that he can't shock us later on. The movie innoculates us against him. And Hoffman must be grateful for that, because he's going to be keeping up this act for two hours, and if all we can focus on are the weird voice and the effete mannerisms, we're going to totally miss the acting.

The acting matters because the real story here is the way a man can destroy his own soul. Our tale gets going in earnest when Capote reads an article about the grisly murder of a family in rural Kansas. This leads him and his childhood friend Harper Lee (the same one who writes To Kill a Mockingbird, essayed quietly by Catherine Keener) to head out to Kansas, where Capote will ingratiate himself into the community and eventually get close to the two men who committed the heinous crime. Here's where Capote puts his soul up for bid, because the only way he can get the full story is to befriend one of the murderers.

I don't normally like to write a review that just recaps the action, but it's essential to understand that the film pivots on the relationship between Capote and killer Perry Smith (a mousy Clifton Collins, Jr.). Smith, lonely and suffering from an inferiority complex, looks to Capote for validation and friendship. Capote can barely form a healthy relationship (he consistently chooses his story over his lover, and bribes a train porter to impress his traveling companion), but he encourages Smith as long as he thinks it will help him tell his story, to the point of helping with appeals if only to keep the convicted men alive until he can get every last detail. And that's where the majesty of Hoffman's performance becomes clear. His guilt over controlling the fates of two men manifests itself in depression and alcoholism, which aren't necessarily ideal for film. But Hoffman crystallizes the decline of the gregarious fame hound we met at the beginning of the movie. More than any image, I remember the sight of Capote curled up on a bed, nearly catatonic at the thought of witnessing the execution. Death doen't frighten him, but the notion that he engineered it for his own ends is paralyzing.

But I'm not going to kid you. Capote is a slow film. It's a psychological portrait, and you're never going to see a psychological portrait directed by Michael Bay. At least once, I could feel myself drifting towards slumberland as the characters spoke in hushed tones. That is, until director Bennett Miller re-creates the crime scene in a sudden burst of shocking violence, brilliantly composed and edited. It's to Miller's credit that he manages to convey the horror of these murders so vividly, especially at a time when we frequently feel numbed to screen violence. It's to his debit, perhaps, that the story requires this jolt to reinforce the gravity of the story.

Capote was a much better film than I was prepared to see. If you have any knowledge of Truman Capote, your mind will inevitably focus on the prissy drunk who would show up on The Tonight Show. But the movie of his life is after something a lot more interesting. And while it takes it's time, it definitely gets there. In any good biography, you hope to learn things about the subject that you never knew. At this, Capote succeeds. It shows that Truman Capote was a human being after all.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE: An Open Letter to Kip Hawley, Director of the Transportation Security Administration

Dear Mr. Hawley,

So far in calendar year 2006, I have had four opportunities to board planes, at four of this nation's major airports. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that experience.

Like everyone these days, I spent plenty of time in a long line, weaving through stanchions and waiting expectantly for the moment when I get to take off my belt and shoes. I dutifully followed all instructions, removing the loose change that the metal detector would undoubtedly recognize as some sort of weaponry. I watched as an x-ray screener and his dim-bulb traineee stared for ages at the screen, laughing as they attempted to identify the mysterious object in my luggage (it was probably a phone charger). I played ball.

Mr. Hawley, I love my country. I believe in the proud history of America as a birthplace for freedom and democracy. And I believe that any nation has the right to protect its citizens, to guarantee them the life and liberty that is their birthright.

I also love life. I have absolutely no wish to die. Although my life is not perhaps the most ideal life I could envision for myself, I'm enjoying living it immensely, and have no desire to give it up. Especially not in an explosive conflagration thousands of feet off the ground.

I need you to understand where I'm coming from, because I have something very important to tell you about the heightened security measures that have been in effect for 4½ years now: I AM NOT SAFER.

There is conclusive evidence that terrorists don't try to repeat past triumphs. Their best weapon is imagination, and they catch us off guard by doing things we haven't thought of before. So I find it astonishing that we are spending so much time, money and effort into trying to prevent the kind of attacks that will never be repeated. We just can't seem to get that barn door closed, while the horses are long gone.

Perhaps that's what really frustrates me. I don't FEEL any safer. All I really feel is inconvenienced. If I thought that taking my belt off was actually going to save some lives, I might not be so cavalier. But from what I can tell, all I'm really doing is proving the ability of a metal detector to detect metal. As if the only damage a person could do is with metal.

On a side note, I have to tell you that your employees? With their red blazers and TSA badges? They're a little drunk with power. They aren't friendly. (Even regular policemen are expected to treat the citizenry with some respect.) They're unaccountably pushy. (Don't try and handle my bag before it's even on the conveyor belt. You're here to screen the bags, not temporarily own them.) They use their uniform and the importance of their position to intimidate the very people they're actually supposed to be serving. Another reason I don't feel safe is that I feel the people who are supposed to be protecting me hold me and my brainpower in utter contempt. I'm happy to return the favor.

Kip, you're probably thinking that the measures in place are peanuts compared to what you could be doing. Look at Israel. It's pretty impressive that El Al, the Israeli national airline, has never had a hijacking, never had a terrorist incident. That's a tribute to the incredibly strict security procedures in place. Every bag is carefully scanned. Planes are thoroughly searched. Every passenger is given a background check, and may be subjected to intensive questioning at the gate. No stone is left unturned. And they're incredibly safe.

But I'm not convinced that this is any way to live. Israel has to take these steps, because Israel is permanently under siege. Someday, maybe, every nation around Israel won't want to wipe it off the face of the map. Until that happy day, Israel considers itself under permanent attack. And they take prudent steps. But I wouldn't want to live there.

Officials in this administration have begun referring to their efforts to fight terrorism as "the long war". That sounds to me like a bunker mentality. It sounds to me like we've adopted the Israeli approach to security. Which means we plan to live in fear. Swell. It used to be that fear was the only thing we should be afraid of.

You've collected a lot of pocketknives and cigarette lighters. You've probably made some money in fines off the idiots who loudly joke that they're carrying pipe bombs. And you've opened up a whole new employment opportunity in the field of bag checking. But all you've really done is increase security presence, not security. And you've helped to make air travel, once the height of adventure and glamour, a thoroughly depressing experience.

Last December, my wife and I took Amtrak to Milwaukee to catch a flight out of that airport. The only line we waited in was the line to board the train. We weren't scanned or pushed around. We removed no clothing. We arrived safely and on time. It was bliss.

I don't know if train travel falls under your purview. Don't get any ideas.

Sincerely yours,
Shane Wilson

Monday, March 06, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Fame by the Boatload

The Baseball Hall of Fame has named the last of its honorees for 2006. Last week, they gave their Ford Frick Award for a lifetime's achievement in baseball broadcasting to Gene Elston, former voice man for the Houston Astros and not one of the three nominees chosen in a fan vote. And on Monday, a special committee selected 17 Negro League players and executives for enshrinement in July. Along with the choice of the writers, Bruce Sutter, it will be the largest induction class in the Hall's history.

Oy.

Most of the clamor about this election has concerned the fact that neither of the two living candidates on the ballot -- Minnie Minoso and (especially) Buck O'Neil -- was chosen. I'm not quite as worked up about this as, say Keith Olbermann. (For the record, there are very few subjects that Keith Olbermann doesn't get move worked up over than I do.) Minoso strikes me as a worthy candidate, although it seems like he ought to be chosen by the Veterans Committee, rather than a special election for the Negro Leagues. And Buck O'Neil is certainly a legendary figure in the game, and widely acclaimed as a tireless advocate for the forgotten heroes of baseball and an extremely nice man. (My mother said so. Got his autograph.) But these things do not inherently make for a Hall of Famer. So if you want to find fault with this class of 17, I don't think that's where you start.

Where should you start? Ah, the freedom of choice...

It's a class of 17, for crying out loud.
The biggest group ever inducted at one time was in 1946, when a special Old Timers' Committee, concerned about the inability of the writers to elect anyone, and catching heat over the dearth of players from the early days of the game, swooped in and named 11 new inductees, most of whom were at the top of the ballot the writers were trying to pick from. It cleared the logjam, to be sure. But the group includes some of the Hall's most controversial honorees, like everyone mentioned in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance poem. Tommy McCarthy and Jack Chesbro are among those considered to be the worst picks ever. Bulk is bad.

The reason for these picks is a big secret.Much has been made of the fact that Major League Baseball gave $250,000 to the Hall to compile more accurate statistics for the Negro Leagues. It's a worthy goal, and we'll just overlook the fact that $250,000 wouldn't get you a veteran third-string defensive replacement utility fielder. We're told that these newly-compiled statistics were a crucial component in the decisions made by this committee. They say Andy Cooper is one of the best pitchers in the history of black baseball, but Dick Redding isn't quite. And the proof? Who knows? We don't have the statistics. They won't share them. It's all a big secret. Presumably, they're holding out to publish the stats and make a little money on the side. That's fine. But in the meantime, their claim to expertise has no basis, no proof. It's all smoke and mirrors.

It's supposed to be about players.
Of 39 candidates considered by the Special Committee, five of them were being singled out for their merit as owners or executives. That's nice and all, but unless they have been spectacularly influential or groundbreaking, like Branch Rickey or Bill Veeck, there's not really a lot of clamor to recognize more owners. And how did the Committee respond? They elected all five. Because what the Hall of Fame needs is to give more awards to people who never set foot on the field. Again, if the achievement is huge, I'm all for it. But they already inducted Rube Foster, so I think the biggest achievements at the executive level have been covered.

Two of those executives are white.
This killed me. You know how movies are always criticized for making a hero of some white person who helps an entire race that is being oppressed? Think Kevin Kline in Cry Freedom or even Liam Neeson in Schindler's List. Well, that must mean there'll be some movies coming down the pike about J. L. Wilkinson and Effa Manley. Because these two white people helped give the black man a place to play. I'm being a smart ass, but there's just something exceedingly strange about it. It's like they've beed deemed worthy of enshrinement simply because it's so weird and wonderful that these white people were willing to own some black baseball teams. Wasn't this election supposed to honor the men who never got a fair shake?

You're lucky my chick's here.
Without anyone alive as a story hook, most every headline about this election focused on the fact that Effa Manley -- who you will recall was neither a baseball player nor a black person -- is the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And that's great the we've proven once and for all that the Baseball Hall of Fame does not, technically, hate women. Unlike, say, the Augusta National Golf Club. I'm all in favor of electing women to the Hall. Hell, I'll elect anyone or anything to the Hall -- if they've earned it. I need someone to prove to me that Effa Manley did anything other than pay the bills and demand compensation for lost players. She's an owner. She's a woman owner, which is different. She's a white woman who passed for black, which is interesting. But none of this adds up to a case for enshrinement. Frankly, it looks like tokenism, which is how we got into this whole mess in the first place.

We won't be doing this again.
So having realized that there were far too many players who had not been given their due, and having all these new statistics to work with, the Hall of Fame called for a special election. One election. There are no plans to consider any more Negro League candidates. There is no future election scheduled. These players don't move on to the Veterans Committee. It's over. Which is ridiculous. We've only got one shot? No wonder they elected 17 people. They probably figured, "We'll never get another shot at this. It's do or die for everyone." I'm amazed they didn't pick all 39.

So, Bruce Sutter, right?
Because there will be so many plaques, and because they're all dead, there won't be a speech for each new member of the Hall on Induction Day. A family member will read each inscription, and Buck O'Neil might say a few words about the glory days of the Negro Leagues. And then Bruce Sutter, the lone choice of the writers, will step forward and thank everyone for recognizing relief pitching. And the whole point of this rigamarole -- to recognize those greats of the game who time, bigotry, and circumstance tried to erase from our memories -- will be completely lost. They won't get their due. They'll be lost in the shuffle. History will remember 2006 as the year of Bruce Sutter and the Negro League 17.

Any of these would be a good place to start. And then you can proceed to the rest. It's just a shame, because this was an opportunity, and it got squandered. And you feel like these problems could have easily been avoided, and you wonder why men and women with so much intelligence allowed it to go so wrong.

And then you see Jack Chesbro, and it all becomes clear.

Friday, March 03, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Weisz Grip

I'll be getting back to "Shane's Unhealthy Obsession with Las Vegas" soon enough, but with the Oscars coming up on Sunday, I wanted to throw in a mention of our pathetic attempt to see as many nominees as we could. Vegas obviously wreaked havoc with that plan, but we did have over a year, and I'm not sure there's a single category where we saw more than two nominees. On reflection, though, I've decided this is not our fault. If the movies had been better, I think we would have managed it.

Anyway, it was right after we got back that we gave it one last stab, ticking off the big categories of Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay by taking a looksee at The Constant Gardener. Nice post-travel dessert. At the end of a long day, there's nothing better than to kick back with a movie about how a multinational corporation is collaborating with the governments of the world to kill people in the name of higher profits. Pass the popcorn!

When it came out last fall, The Constant Gardener was sold as a political thriller. Given that it's based on a book by John LeCarré, this is an easy connection to make. The machine of the film's plot, a seedy global pharmaceutical concern using Africa as a testing ground for a deadly drug with the complicity of more than one government, is highly charged. There are chases with guns, shadowy figures in dark corridors, and even the obligatory scene where a Deep Throat-ish character takes our hero to see something dark and sinister. But while all this is interesting, there's a more significant story being told. It's the tale of a man who realizes too late that he has completely disconnected himself from the world, and finds himself desperate to restore that connection.

Casting Ralph Fiennes as the hero was a savvy choice. I'm not convinced it was the best choice, but it was clever. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a bland, ineffectual civil servant in the proud British tradition. He's the kind of person you send to read a speech in your place, and not worry about him taking it personally. Fiennes is a very cool actor, visibly uncomfortable with broad performances. On those rare occasions when he tries to play big emotions, you don't buy it. So I can see why he might seem like an ideal choice to play such a repressed character. But that word points up the problem: repressed. It's not as though Fiennes is an actor just waiting to break through the walls of restraint. He's the very model of restraint.

That's probably what makes Rachel Weisz stand out so strongly as Justin's wife, Tessa. From the time you first meet her, she's bursting with life. It's easy to see how Justin would fall in love with her, and more importantly, it's easy to see how he would willingly abandon his comfort zone to follow her even after death. I've always liked Weisz, in films like About A Boy or the otherwise execrable Chain Reaction. (It was on HBO one day. Don't ask.) But I don't think she's ever been allowed to show so much personality, to have so much freedom in a part before. She makes the partnership with Fiennes work, because even if you don't get what she sees in him, you definitely understand how much she's enjoying dragging him out of the garden.

In many respects, director Fernando Meirelles stacks the deck in her favor. Scenes of a pregnant Tessa mingling with children in what appears to be a Kenyan shantytown showcase her natural charm. But I don't want to sell Weisz short. She only has half the film to make an impression, and she pulls it off. Long after her character has left the film, she's still present in everything Fiennes does.

There's that whole ports-managed-by-foreigners thing in the news, and I've been reading a book about how crime built America in the 20th Century, and then this movie, and it's very easy to feel pretty hopeless about the world, with lofty powers lording over us for their own gain. I probably couldn't take a whole lot of movies like The Constant Gardener without wanting to throw myself under a bus. But the final image of Justin and Tessa is a shot of deep love and understanding. If you can't believe in the world, it's nice to at least believe in that.

P.S. Turns out I have seen all the movies in the Visual Effects category. I'd go with King Kong, myself.