Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sherlock (Season 3)

Call me cold-hearted, but I am just not as interested in the relationship of Watson and Holmes as I am in the deductive reasoning abilities of the great sleuth.

I love a sloppy emotional story-- I really do, and buddy stories through the ages delight me. Think of Michael Caine and Sean Connery in Huston's movie version of Kiplings The Man Who Would be King . So charming. Two British lads adventuring. Getting in over their heads.

But Sherlock's nature is to puzzle things out as they are brought to him in terms of criminal behavior, mysterious disappearance, and the like.

I know that the modern version of Sherlock the TV show with Benedict Cubmerbatch and Martin Freeman brings Sherlock into our present age, with its electronic method of communicating, its more complex theories of how the brain works, etc. But by focusing so deeply on the relationship of the two men, at least in episode one, the joy of the chase, the puzzling nature of certain crimes, is lost, and without it, the timelessness of Sherlock himself.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Theo is about to be suspended from school when he and his mother, on their way to an appointment with the principal, stop in at the Metropolitan Museum. There is an exhibit of Dutch paintings. His mother knows quite a lot about them,waxes rhapsodic about some, especially the Goldfinch.

Just as the two have separated so that she can see The Anatomy Lesson again, and he can buy some postcards, when he is transfixed by a red headed girl and a man we later learn is her guardian and uncle, named Welty, the museum is bombed by a terrorist. In the chaos, Theo is knocked unconscious, and comes to, to discover carnage, and the red haired girls uncle near at hand, dying, talking nonsense, needing someone to help him through his last moments.

The Goldfinch was painted by Fabritius, who was killed, and most of his work destroyed, in an explosion of an arsenal. So that is one parallel to the boy Theo losing his mother in a violent explosion, yet Theo gains the painting, which at the direction of Welty, he packs in a nylon bag and takes with him.

His father had disappeared months before, and there is at first no way of contacting him. Theo is about to be snatched up in the foster care system when he claims friendship with a boy named Andy. Andy's family, the Barbours, are well to do and live on Park Ave, with their rigid sets of rules and passive kindness. After several months of this life, Theo's father turns up to claim him, but we aren't sure if he is really after any valuables his estranged wife, now dead, might have left lying around her apartment, which has remained sealed since the explosion.

Theo's move to Las Vegas and his lawless drunken teenhood centers around his friendship with Boris, a Ukrainian wastrel with an even more negligent father than Theo's. Boris is unwashed, uneducated, barely fed, and already alcoholic when Theo meets him (is he 13 or 14?). The two boys spend lots of time together. Boris teaches Theo how to steal, how to drink, eventually how to take all sorts of drugs. It is one of the most complex relationships in the book. Both boys are only children, so they bond like brothers. It is hard to believe in any of the subsequent opposite sex relationships with women. Theo's heart belongs to Boris.

The plot of the book is about what becomes of the painting that Theo spirits out of the Met when the bomb hit. He takes care of it, and it stands in for any kind of permanence in his life. After a few years in Las Vegas, he journeys back to New York to live with Hobie.

Hobie is the partner of Welty, the dying man who suggested to Theo that he preserve the Goldfinch painting when flames were licking at his heels. Hobie is the great good man Theo can look up to, learn from, rely on, a trusted adult, solid and respectable. Mrs. Barbour is also a steady secure grown up in his life, someone sensible and caring in an aloof way, someone who appreciates Theo's friendship with her son Andy, a geeky reject who had no friends until Theo turned up.

Back in New York again, Theo works as partner to Hobie, restoring antiques. Theo is the business side, and Hobie performs the carpentry miracles of restoration to old furnishings that bring in high prices. There are endless descriptions of furniture which wore me out a bit. Shady dealings with less than authentic work being sold for extravagant prices become part of Theo's modus. Hobie doesn't seem to notice.

And there is the Goldfinch, now stored in a temperature controlled storage unit. For years, Pippa, the girl he claims to truly love (like Charlie Brown he pines for the girl with red hair) stops by now and then. They share their survival of the bomb,their loss of their beloved guardians.

But the Barbours reclaim his loyalty when he becomes engaged to Kitsey, Andy's sister, and Mrs. Barbour is able to recover from her own deep loss when Theo is around. Boris resurfaces and all hell breaks loose. How to pay back all those people Theo has been selling fakes to. How to restore the painting to the museum world it belongs to. Lots of loose ends to tie up. It does take a while to pull it off.

I spent the extra time I had to spend on this book's excessive writing because I had to find out what happened. It is a remarkable feat to have a painting be a protagonist in a novel, and Tartt has created a fascinating story. The characters are complex. The settings are beautifully described, especially that woozy feeling of surviving a catastrophe, and the lost world pictures of Las Vegas' suburban failures. Tartt is trying to say something important about art and love and life. But at times she bogs down in detail, and can't seem to get to the point of what she's trying to say. Then when she does, she repeats it, or re-spins it in ways less interesting.

There is so much prose written about taking drugs -- so many characters addicted to alcohol and narcotics-- that I wonder how the author learned the ways people get lost in narcotic addiction, how she learned about the antiques business, Amsterdam's underworld, and many other things. It reminds me of some other modern novels I have read that included all of the research the author discovered in the writing of the book, even the bits that don't advance the story.

Part of my problem is that I was reading the book on my phone. I became obsessed with where I was in terms of finishing. It just took too damn long to get through all those pages. I don't know if restoring furniture is actually a convincing trope for the meaning of life. I grew tired of furniture. I didn't believe in Kitsey. Much as I admired the writing, when it was good it was very very good, but I also resented the length, because I am not sure it was necessary.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuaron)

The visceral experience of this movie is exhausting.  I found myself covering my eyes, crouching in my seat, holding my breath, hyperventilating.  When it was over, I walked slowly to the bathroom.  Another woman was wobbling on her way to the same place. When we both were at the sink, washing our hands, she said, "Did you just see Gravity?  I did, and I feel like I haven't got over it."  I could hardly speak.  I didn't want to break the spell.  It is a sign of a good movie when that happens.

Gravity is what humans need. The absence of it makes humans become something else, humanoids perhaps, dressed in protective layers of clothing that allow them to enter that zone of what I call pure science.  Instinct has little place here.  You need to know how to compensate not only for the lack of gravity but also other things, like no oxygen, and temperatures that are three times the ones you can live in.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are two astronauts tethered together on what seems a routine mission on a shuttle type space craft when a dangerous storm of debris hits.  What follows is a story that reminded me of Robinson Crusoe, with more emphasis on how Crusoe got to the island than on what he did after.  First he had to survive the shipwreck.

The agony of being isolated and alone is what Sandra Bullock must convey, also how intelligent, how well trained, how stalwart,how human she is. Watching her act the part of Ryan Stone is a pleasure.  Clooney brings his usual charm and offhanded line delivery to the part of Matt Kowalski. He has lots of experience walking around in space in contrast with Stone. His is the calm voice, coaxing her to keep going.

There is only one thing I had a problem with.  It has to do with the use of the word "angel" when identifying dead people we love.  It sentimentalizes them, and somehow takes away their unique power. It vulgarizes the mourning that people do, the way throwing a pile of teddy bears and balloons on a child's grave does.  When Bullock speaks of dead people she loves as if they will meet up in the great beyond, it feels false since she had just confessed that she had never prayed in her life.  So a bit of schmaltz creeps into the movie, keeping it from being practically perfect.

I was moved most by the view of earth from space.  It is tragic to think that we are destroying our beloved planet with our unreasonable demands for oil, energy, and land. The loss of humans pales in comparison to the destruction through greed of the only planet we know of that can support human life.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

In the House

It's almost too clever, this movie about storytelling. A cynical high school teacher discovers a talented writer in his 10th grade class, and takes him under his wing. The boy, named Claude, writes about his budding friendship with Rapha, and Claude's attraction to Rapha's mother.

As M. Germain, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini), reads more, he goads the student into writing more about the developing relationship, ostensibly for educational purposes.  Voyeurism, the hidden observer, seems to drive the teacher's needs.

M. Germain's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), with troubles of her own (an ominous but hilarious set of twins, who own the gallery she runs) is privy to Claude's writing.  This adds a dimension to the voyeurism as something second hand.  The cleverness of the point of view of the teacher becomes acute when he appears in scenes with Claude and Rapha's family, goading Claude on to write and take action in order to write about it after. The audience has to decide which is reality or primary story, and which is the story within the story, which is pure invention, which drives the narrative.  This is a story about storytelling.  

Even as I found the character of M. G. repugnant, he was also fascinating (and familiar) and had some very good lines. But what drives the film is a remarkable performance by Ernst Umhauer who plays Claude. His face, at turns angelic, lustful, grasping, and blank, is perfect for the part.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein 2012 USA | 88 minutes

Ricky Jay is a master magician. Like most magicians, he does not like to share his secrets. His grandfather raised him in the magic tradition, and introduced him to some mentors who are the real subject of the movie. Jay had no use for his parents. His friends became his family, but his teachers, the master sleight of hand artists like Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, and others with names that end like Houdini's--Slydini and Cardini, and the great comic Flosso who made Ed Sullivan laugh-- raised him not just as a performing artist but as a human being.

Jay says, "The real key to learning is almost like the sensei master relationship in the martial arts. The way you want to learn is by someone that you respect showing you something." The mentors shown in the movie are his senseis. Ricky Jay spent untold number of hours with them, watching, refining, developing his art, until they trusted each other enough to show each other an "effect."

There is enormous risk in what he does. Exposure would be fatal. The code of conduct among magicians is iron clad. You do not reveal anything. And at his grandfather's funeral, the wand was broken in the same ritual that takes place every year at Houdini's grave on October 31, to show that with the magician's death, the wand has lost its magic.

Visually, interviews with Jay take place in front of mirrors, seated at bars. Suzie Mackenzie of the Guardian relates an effect that was done just for her, an intimate demonstration of Jay's tending to the details of what makes magic so amazing. We forget ourselves for just a moment, and think that logic has been suspended.

Some people might be frustrated by the amount of magic actually demonstrated. The few scenes that do show Jay performing are quite wonderful, especially when he was on the Dinah Shore show with Steve Martin, and when he was very young and had long hair streaming down his back. There are many scenes of Jay shuffling cards almost as an act of meditation. He does this extraordinarily beautifully if you can call shuffling an act of beauty. He and the cards are one. But the movie is not a recording of one of Ricky Jay's shows. That would be another movie, and one I would love to see. Bernstein and Edelstein's movie is about how a master magician became great, through working with others who he considered greater than he was until he could meet them as peers and share their trade in friendship.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone lucky enough to have access to it.
Here is the link to the movie:
Ricky Jay

Here is the link to Film Forum

Monday, April 1, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill

I think that the world would be vastly improved with Hayao Miyazaki as its landscape architect.  Imagine your street, now a slab of concrete sidewalks, lined with trees and flowering shrubs.  There,  don't you feel better?  From Up On Poppy Hill is directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son, but the influence of the father is in every frame. Hayao's screenplay provides the story, and the lavishly painted backgrounds provide the beauty we have come to expect from a Miyazaki production.

Poppy Hill is a neighborhood in Yokohama where a girl named Umi lives in 1963.  She has taken on the responsibility of cooking for the boarding house owned by her grandmother.  Umi's mother is in America studying for what I am not certain.  Her brother and sister live in the boarding house along with a handful of sympathetic residents. Her father was killed in the Korean war when he was a captain on a supply boat. Umi's ministrations in the kitchen show her to be a competent cook, and conscientious worker.
However, she is still in school, attending classes every day.  Next to the school house is a clubhouse attended by boys interested in archeology, philosophy, chemistry, literature, and other things.  Their home base is a beloved wreck of a place, stuffed to the gills with years of accretions.  It makes Citizen Kane's basement look like a tidy pantry. It is part of the ethos of the movie to honor the past not just for nostalgia, but as a traditional Japanese value.

The Tokyo Olympics are to take place in 1964, and all of Japan is busy cleaning up, putting on its best face, trying to impress the world with its modernity and efficiency.  Taking down an old building would be part of this cleanup.  Umi joins forces with the boys in the clubhouse, and with her expert and conscientious cleanup efforts, they take their cause to the man who would be razing the building.

I loved the use of the song, "Sukiyaki," a song I remember well from my youth, shot through with longing and tenderness and the inevitability of a love affair cut off too soon.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Searching for Sugarman

A singer named Rodriguez, whose first album was called Cold Fact, is the subject of this documentary. Yet cold facts are in short supply in this movie, and once I stopped asking questions to myself like a probing journalist, and just went along with the living portrait that was laid out before me, my mind began to rest and accept the movie for what it is.

Rodriguez is a singer whose talent and songwriting were described in the early 1970s on a par with Dylan. However, he had a Latin name, and his records did not sell well. He stopped recording and vanished from the scene. Stories were told of his suicide. Years later, the albums resurfaced in South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. Rodriguez's lyrics about liberation and freedom became a rallying cry for whites fed up with the apartheid regime's repression. Many South Africans bought Rodriguez music which was described as the soundtrack to their lives. A generation of protesters loved Rodriguez. In the late 1990s, a record seller decided to explore whatever happened to him.

Here is where the movie begins to deepen the legend of the singer. A resurrection of sorts takes place in the movie during several crowded concerts in South Africa. At this point, we become acquainted with Rodriguez's three lovely daughters who have taken after their father in saintliness and humility and grace.

Rodriguez accepted his bad luck, and continued to work manual jobs (There is no shame in hard work he says humbly). He earned his degree in philosophy, while running for mayor of Detroit. All the while he has been living in the same rundown house in Detroit, his heat provided by a wood stove. The filmmaker is fond of shooting the musician as he walks on the cracked sidewalks of Detroit caked with unshoveled snow.

There are stylized cartoon images of the singer and his daughters as they arrived triumphantly in South Africa. The filmmaker's-- Malik Bendjelloul-- approach reminded me of the line from the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When fact becomes legend, print the legend." It doesn't mean that Malik has deliberately obscured a harder truth, but after a while the questions keep coming. Why didn't the artist get paid for his work? Who is managing his career now? Who were the mothers of his children? Why did he not pursue his career after the comeback concerts in 1998?

The movie provides a short focused account to satisfy the two South Africans who set out to discover what happened to Rodriguez. In the process of watching the movie, many more people, (I assume not just me) would like to know what happened after the concerts in South Africa.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The feeling we have as children, because we don't know any better, is that we have power over other people.  When I was in sixth grade, I hated my teacher and wished that she was dead.  Then she died.  I felt bad at first, then relieved.  Later, when I grew up and graduated from college, I realized that her double pneumonia had nothing to do with me, just her bad lungs in the drafty convent where she lived. In the meantime, though, I thought I might have been responsible.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower tells the story of a boy who thinks that he had power over an adult in his life and that as a result something bad happened.   But that is not really what the movie is about.  The boy named Charlie has a bit of baggage besides that, and has just started high school.  He is vulnerable.  He is alone.  Then he meets some older people who lead him to a better place.

Logan Lerman is very good as Charlie.  Paul Rudd looks great as the sympathetic teacher.  Why can't he play the responsible adult more often?  He is capable of subtlety and is so often used in throwaway buddy pictures.  Emma Watson speaks with not a trace of a British accent in this Pennsylvania based movie.  But the breakthrough part goes to Patrick played by Ezra Miller.  Homophobia is alive and well in this movie, and Patrick is a hero.

Besides the fact that I liked this movie because it reminded me of my guilty pleasure of killing my teacher, I liked this movie because my friend Peter Agliata did the camera work, and it is a well shot movie, especially the scenes in the tunnels, and the feeling we get of the Catholics in church -- all that guilt! There is also a scene where Charlie goes to the cafeteria and tries to sit down with an acquaintance of his who informs him that he can't sit with her. He is forced to get up and relocate to a different table like a leper. He is photographed awkwardly trying to balance his tray and his backpack, then sitting at a big table by himself. The camera moves away to show how isolated and alone he is. This is a classic sequence of high school life.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Kings Point (documentary)

Produced and directed by Sari Gilman
2012.  31 minutes.  HBO

Kings Point, a short documentary on HBO, introduces us to several residents of a retirement community in Florida.  We hear them describe their wishes for companionship, their reasons for leaving NYC in the 1970s for the better climate, the attractions of the location, the common desire for a better life.

Now thirty years later, those who were just beginning their retirement in the 1970s are in the last stage of life, and some wonder what they gave up by leaving their families behind up north.  By family, they mean their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren.  In this community it does not seem that there is a wing for those whose health declines and need nursing care.  There is little discussion of this among the old people, just a wish not to have to listen to bad news (which inevitably means the decline of someone's health).

There are so many more women than men here, a single man creates conflicts and bitchy behavior.  The one man we get to know who looks much younger is blunt.  "I already buried my wife.  I want someone to bury me."

The idea of survival is temporary as we witness the quick decline and death of most of the subjects of this sobering film.

There are so many stages that lead us to our final demise, it is hard to prepare for all of them.  The movie made me question what is the most dignified way to grow old.

I am still thinking of it days later.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On February 21, to celebrate the publication of the Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, a tribute reading took place in the Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue. Tonya Foster began the evening by describing Clifton as a writer of intellect and intuition. Sidney Glaser went on to say how there was no canon of Clifton. Alicia Hall Moran, a classical singer of beauty and dramatic effect, began and ended the reading with sung versions of the poems, beginning with "Blessing the Boats" and ending with "The Lesson of the Falling Leaves."

I always sketch during poetry readings. It focuses my mind. The readers were excellent, the selections fitting for each individual voice. The hall was full of fans of Clifton. It was a glorious occasion.

Alicia Hall Moran

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro, an 85 year old sushi master, has two sons. Each will manage his own restaurant one day. Until Jiro retires, which will take him either being too senile or too strange to look at (his idea of when it is time to stay home), he will continue to work in his ten-seat sushi bar in the Tokyo subway station.

This movie is memorable because it shows how passion for your profession transcends everything. The director, David Gelb, interviewed at length food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto. Yamamoto explains what it takes to achieve greatness as a chef. First is consistency in quality. Second is cleanliness. Third is constantly looking for ways to improve or perfect what you are doing. You also need to be a better leader than a collaborator, and finally you need to have passion for what you do.

I thought, (except for the cleanliness perhaps) how similar to teaching, to writing, to any great endeavor. So the movie starts out documenting the life and ways of a great sushi chef, and goes on to be about something more.

Side Effects (dir. Soderburgh)

It was only a matter of time before antidepressants and their side effects would be held responsible for a patient murdering someone. So many people take ssris (selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors) a common form of antidepressant, that we are familiar with the jargon associated with them. Side effects may include drowsiness, nausea, reduced sex drive, dizziness, etc. The name Ablixa is so close to some of the real names (Effexor, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft) that it is convincing when we see it in an ad. The actors, Mara Rooney, who plays a depressed young woman, and Jude Law, who plays her psychiatrist, are very good in their roles. There are lesser characters equally well played: lawyers, policemen, mother in law.

Soderberg is a knowing cynic. He tackles the economy, insider trading, overuse of drugs, complicit deals between psychiatrists and drug companies. I was willing to follow him when the plot took a sharp turn and then continued to twist itself into knots. I worry that Catherine Zeta Jones is a heavy for the wrong reason since we are still a puritanical country. But the movie is expertly cast, shot, and acted. If only the plot were a little bit less like a pretzel.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

Amour, the French language film directed by Michael Heneke, begins with the fire department entering an apartment that has been locked up with a corpse inside. So we know how the life of one of the two stars ends up. It is inevitable after her little episode that signals she has had a stroke.

What is most intriguing and gives suspense to the rest of the picture is what will happen to her caregiver, her conscientious, loving I suppose, husband. Haneke is a master of establishing relationships with a graceful series of scenes. The two old people have lived with each other for at least forty years. The way the apartment is decorated, the furniture arrangement, the kitchen table set round with two chairs, all these details speak to the regularity of their habits, the comforts of their cultured home. There are paintings of open landscapes and the freedom they imply sit on walls that seem to close in around the couple as they become trapped in their mortality.

The two are dependent on each other. As Anne loses the use of her limbs, Georges boosts her up to a standing position and the two move in lockstep like awkward dancers. Amour is a close study of two intimates who become strangers to each other. Decisions about the end of life come up. Anne has Georges promise her that he will never bring her back to the hospital. You can easily see why. The operation that was supposed to remove the obstruction of the carotid artery was a failure. According to Georges, only 5% of the operations of this type end in failure.

At one point Georges tells Anne about going to the movies when he was young, how the movie made him cry it was so overwhelmingly sad, how he could still remember how it made him cry, it was so sad, but he couldn't remember the name of the movie or what it was about exactly. Even though we witness scene after discouraging scene of a human body breaking down, and then the mind going away, leaving the survivor alone with a breathing shell of the beloved, there is something abstract or archetypal about Amour. It lacks the impact a truly emotionally warm filmmaker would bring to this material.

The film has much to admire. There is a brilliant tiny scene with a mean nurse whose cruelty is vivid and shocking (Haneke's home territory). The subtlety of the use of running water and what it might mean to Georges and Anne (life, dependability, cleanliness, the ability to do ordinary things) is very resonant. Images of things breaking in or trying to get out -- that sense of entrapment -- repeat and add depth and intelligence to what is potentially an emotional horror show.

I think Love is the wrong name for this movie. Haneke recognizes love when he sees it. He is such a chilly director he merely observes objectively what is happening as one person deteriorates and the stronger mate hangs on and keeps caring. I went in to the movie prepared to be moved by the emotional devastation of what happens when a couple devoted to each other through a long life die. But I left thinking, that was a very well presented case study, very artfully done. It did not really touch me.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper)

The movie takes place as if unfolding in five acts. Act one, the criminal serves time. Act two, the criminal is set free, and given stolen silver by the merciful and saintly bishop who puts him up for the night. Act three Valjean is a factory owner and mayor, well respected in a town far away from Paris. Here he meets Fantine who is unjustly cast out of his factory. Valjean (now known as monsieur le maire) tries to correct the wrong by offering protection for Fantine's daughter, Cosette.

Act four Valjean must again change identities to escape the clutches of Javert, a fanatical lawman who is determined to lock up Valjean again. He and Cosette live in a cloistered convent, safe and holy. Here is where Cosette falls in love with one of the revolutionaries (Valjean is not the only one suffering from injustice and hunger) and Valjean learns that the young man is worth saving.

Act five is the final escape through the sewers of the city of Paris as Javert continues to chase after the former convict. The movie like the book is a weeper. There are scenes of grave injustice hard to bear. Then there is the rallying cry of the group determined to cast down the oppressors, and a musical number that soars and sends goose bumps down my spine.

Every time I was moved to tears, it had to do with Hugh Jackman singing and acting his heart out.  The movie is largely Jackman's because he plays Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean served 19 years in prison doing very hard labor (shown in baffling close up by the filmmaker) for stealing a bit of bread to feed his family. Victor Hugo's novel describes the injustice of law enforcement in the person of Javert, the bloodhound on Valjean's trail once Valjean changes his identity to avoid having to go to probation hearings for the rest of his life.

Just when the action becomes too solemn, Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter show up as a couple of dishonest innkeepers singing "Master of the House." They provide welcome comic relief throughout the movie. Some of the lesser parts are beautifully played, especially Eponine who loves in vain and does a noble thing or two, and Marius whose singing about survivor guilt is very beautiful.

The other night Les Miserables was on TCM, the version with Charles Laughton as Javert and Frederic March as Valjean. I was amazed at how much more quickly the story was told without music, but how the power of the conflict was the same.

In the new movie, the music may be mostly schlocky, the story may tilt toward melodrama and thrust Christ imagery around, many characters may lack complexity, the director may not be able to resist pulling away from a shot in a helicopter, but still I wept when Hugh Jackman was singing in the carriage having whisked Cosette away from Javert and discovering the joys of being a father.

Bold heroism is in short supply lately. Jean Valjean is so noble and spiritually holy you think you can resist him. I for one could not.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, director)

Paul Thomas Anderson is an artist with a dark palette. There Will Be Blood the movie with Daniel Day Lewis portraying an oil baron was about not just one sinister businessman who manipulates unknowing people into selling their land cheap. It was about the menace of unbridled capitalism. Lewis embodied the rapacious nature of business without limits. Paul Dano played two men, complexly.

The Master centers on a relationship between a disturbed alcoholic veteran named Freddy and played by Joaquin Phoenix and a charismatic perhaps equally disturbed founder of a new spiritual movement played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The audience sees things from Freddy's point of view to the extent possible. It becomes a bit of a burden when he loses control and begins hitting people and things. However,the production is so brilliant, the photography so vivid, the acting so concentrated and consistent, that we go along. We think this is leading up to something besides the relationship between these two men. And then the movie ends, and you think what was it about really?

I think Anderson likes the subject of power. How it manifests itself in a million ways. Boogie Nights had the charismatic director (Burt Reynolds) and the clueless young man (Mark Wahlberg) with the big dick. Julianne Moore hovered nearby a safe motherly figure who tempered the beastly powerful male.

IN Magnolia, Jason Robards is dying but exerting his influence on his dickhead son played brilliantly by Tom Cruise. PS Hoffman is a kind gentle nurse attending to everyone's needs at his own expense.

There has to be a megalomaniac in his films.
There has to be great tension from beginning to end.
Laughing is all right, but rare.

But after you've left the theater, images and scenes of rare power (there it is again, that word) stay with you. The beauty of the sea foaming in trails behind a boat. The squirrelly way that Phoenix collects ingredients for his homemade toxic booze. From the middle distance, people on a boat moored dancing inside. Sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge. The way Phoenix holds his arms akimbo, his hands holding his back as if holding himself up. His hunched walk, all turned in on himself.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not realistic. It is most dreamlike, except when real things happen. One of these things is when the six year old girl named Hushpuppy sets the kitchen on fire. Until then, she had been careful enough to take out her flame proof helmet from her freezer in order to start the gas flame with a blow torch. But something bothered her enough to make her take a stand which involved burning her house down. Before that, she was just trying to cook herself some dinner.

This is just one of the scenes in the movie leaving the audience an emotional mess. You are torn between thinking logically when will an adult be a responsible parent to when will this brave little girl get to stop being seen as a child so that she can ditch the useless grown ups in her life. The logic is there, but it gets half way up your brain and then stops because logic is not operating in this movie.

Young children who are abandoned in one way or another must learn to take care of themselves. In this movie they learn not to feel sorry for themselves.

Among some of the questions I found myself asking were these. How can a boat made out of a pickup truck bed float? How did this girl of six learn to say her lines with such force and clarity that I went home reciting them in my own head?

If this is a reverie on children and people left behind to live in poverty, it has pretty brilliant visuals for the most part. For one thing it creates a place outside of the grid. The people here are independent, feral almost. They are the wild in the Southern wild. The beasts (that remind me a little of Maurice Sendak's in Where the Wild Things Are) come to claim the land that has been ruined by the hurricane. People can't live there anymore. As the actor who plays Wink, Hushpuppy's father, says:

"He's resilient," Henry said, explaining why audiences are so drawn to Wink. "He's a resilient person, and people love resilience -- and people love people that stand behind and stand for things that they love more than anything in the world. And this group of people (in 'Beasts'), they're standing behind the things they love, the people they love, their culture their beliefs that they won't leave under the worst circumstances in the world. These people won't abandon the things they love more than anything in life."

"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted."

Still, it was hard watching Hushpuppy who never does anything wrong get beaten and abandoned by her father, and also watching a bunch of adults get sloppy drunk over and over again as if that is the only way to celebrate.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lil Buck

Lil Buck: Aria on

I love the editing of this movie, how movement in one scene is picked up in a completely different location and continued.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

The stand up comedian has a pretty bad act. He tends bar, and fills in when he’s needed, but he gets bad feedback. People don’t like his act.

What the stand up comedian has is a pretty great girlfriend. She is helpful, cheerful, undemanding, understanding, all the things we want in a really great friend, let alone lover and longstanding live in girlfriend.

Everything starts to change when the comedian’s sister gets married after living with her boyfriend for a much shorter time than the comedian has been living with his exemplary girlfriend.

Lauren Ambrose, who plays Abby, the comedian's girlfriend

People start to ask questions. When are you getting married? What’s the plan? These questions are sort of rude but somehow not unexpected, and the comedian realizes that he does not want to get married.

This leads to a rather startling turn of events, most of which involve his sleep walking. He begins to imagine that wild animals are going to kill him, or that he is under the gun, or that he is at the heart of the end of the world. His sleepwalking is not just a benign and humorous disruption. It results in serious injury and drastic emergency treatment.

I have never seen a movie like this, but then, when has This American Life ever been like any other entertainment that has grabbed you by the lapels and said sit down and listen to this? Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia have created a unique type of movie, one that takes the audio of the stories told on This American Life and added brilliant actors like Lauren Ambrose.

I hope that many many people will see it. It is pretty great. In the process of the movie, the comedian learns what to write about in his act, and people end up really liking it. It is very funny.

Friday, August 31, 2012


This morning I decided to fix up my bike. It needed air in the tires, a mirror, and new lights. I thought of getting different handle bar wraps, but didn't. The book, Just Ride, a Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Petersen convinced me that my three speed was a good thing, nothing to be sneered at by the men in bicycle pants and streamlined helmets whizzing past me on the bike paths. There is an inspired passage in the book about things that are worn out. I quote it here at length.

Beausage (byoo-sidj)

In 1992 or so, at the Interbike Trade Show in Las Vegas,there was a 1952 Bianchi that had been ridden by Fausto Coppi, a famous racer from the 40s and 50s. The bar tape was tattered, 20 percent of the paint was worn away, and the leather saddle was well worn and looked like it had been ridden by a guy who didn't want a new saddle because he hadn't completely worn out the old one. It was the best-looking bike at the show, and the only one with beausage.

Beausage is kind of like patina, but not exactly. Patina is environmental degradation of metal, or something hard, at least. Nobody has to use the Statue of Liberty for it to acquire patina. Beausage, though, comes only through use. It's not the same as worn out, though. Willie Nelson's guitar, Trigger, straddles the fence between beausage and just worn out.

Willie Nelson's guitar

You probably own a hatchet, chair, knife, guitar, camera, baseball glove, typewriter, or pair of blue jeans that have been well worn and look better for it.

Beausage can't happen to just anything. The object has to be well made with good durable materials in the first place, so that use makes it beautiful without making it dysfunctional. A plastic storage box that gets sunburnt and brittle won't acquire beausage.

Bikes should have beausage.

--Grant Petersen

So that's what my bike has, beausage.

Just saw Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon Levitt.  He plays a free spirited messenger in Manhattan who must deliver a package quickly from Columbia University on the upper west side to Chinatown on the lower east side. The package has different meanings to three different people, a compulsive gambling cop, a worried mother, and a Chinese gambling house matron in Chinatown where the package is supposed to end up.   The movie is full of chase scenes that take place on bicycle.  There is joy in the riding.  Once you learn how to ride a bike as a kid, bicycling comes with a liberating spirit.   That feeling of childhood delight is what I came home with when the lights went down.

Some of the most amazing stunts were done by Danny Macaskill whose relationship with gravity is nebulous. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I have moved to Tumblr for the summer

The blog I keep here is getting sort of frustrating.  Perhaps I am not keeping up with how to do things, but the last few times I tried to post, it didn't work exactly.  Anyone who reads my blog thank you!
Please join me at

It is a much simpler experience there.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

George Stoney, a man who made a difference

George Stoney was 96 when he died this summer but he was still teaching at NYU in the spring. I think of his life as exemplary. New York Times

I audited his documentary film course at NYU. He said little during class, preferring to have visitors show what they were working on and take credit for their work directly in the viewing. Visitors included D. A. Pennebaker, director of Don't Look Back, the seminal Bob Dylan documentary, and many of his former students including Jim Brown, who had gone on to create important films.

Beginning in his twenties, Stoney worked on issues of social justice. He was with Gunnar Myrdal in the 1930s when Myrdal was conducting research on the "race" question which would grow into the civil rights movement. Stoney was on hand for the filming of the The Plow that Broke the Plains, a bit of propaganda to prevent further dust bowls in the 1930s. He studied the labor movement, midwives, and produced the movie about the Weavers, Wasn't that a Time.

One of my favorite movies he made is How the Myth Was Made, a probing, not irreverent look at Flaherty's Man of Aran. Flaherty is credited with beginning ethnographic documentaries (starting with Nanook of the North). Stoney went back to the places where the Man of Aran was made along the rugged coast of Ireland, and examined what was real and what was invented for the service of the story of these hardscrabble fishing farmers. This was a question Stoney brought up in class. What did the filmmaker owe to his subject? Here he is talking about the ethics of documentaries, and re-enactments, just three years ago.

I feel lucky to have known such a humble but great man.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Iron Lady

Meryl Streep is a brilliant voice actress. Consider the range of characters she has played, a Polish emigrant, a California actress with a drug problem, Karen von Blixen, Silkwood, French Lieutenant's Woman, an Irish peasant, an Australian mother, a fashion editor, and on and on. In this movie, she is Margaret Thatcher, that woman with the big hair and the steely voice. Streep's natural voice is there, in the center of an impersonation which has wrapped itself in the middle class accent of a British prime minister both reviled and adored by millions.

The writing of the screenplay centers on Thatcher's mental confusion, her grieving over the loss of her husband, Dennis, played brilliantly by Jim Broadbent. Streep and Broadbent together are very companionable. It looks as if they are having a good time together, as if they are truly married, truly crazy about each other, and driving each other crazy too.

The best scene in the movie takes place in a doctor's office when Thatcher is asked how she feels. She answers that people worry too much about feelings and not enough about ideas which lead to action and action leads to habit which forms character. Ask me what I think she demands. I feel fine.

Streep makes you forget about anything but the ideas being expressed at that moment. There is command in her voice, and something else, an embodiment of another person in another time.

The Fourth of July in Narrowsburg

It made the New York Times, the conflict between fireworks and fledgling eagles living on the Delaware River.

The parade went on as usual. At three o'clock you could hear the fire engines making their way down Main Street. The bridge was closed while the parade passed through. The eagles never knew they had it so good. No fireworks tonight. Just stars I hope.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Public Speaking, a conversation with Fran Lebowitz (2010)

Fran Lebowitz is a smart woman. She is known for being judgmental, witty, and for not producing too much writing. The two books that she did produce over thirty years ago are still in print. She refers to her writer's block as "writer's blockade." But her mouth makes up for what her pen fails to produce. It moves at full speed, and speaks with great feeling about among other things how an important, discerning audience for sophisticated culture was lost with the AIDS epidemic.

Martin Scorsese directed this film for HBO. He used Nino Rota music familiar to me from Fellini movies which provides a gentle comic background. Also to be heard is a bit of soundtrack from his own movie, Taxi Driver, when Lebowitz is seen driving her oversized car, the same model as the old yellow cabs, through Manhattan. Sometimes you can see Scorsese shaking with laughter as Lebowitz answers questions posed by a man sitting across from her in a restaurant, but who is never identified.

Especially telling are two clips from 1960s era William F. Buckley's debates, one with James Baldwin, the other with Gore Vidal, which display Buckley's vicious prejudices. Lebowitz never comments on them, though she does describe her first seduction into the intellectual life as watching James Baldwin talk, but the theme of homophobia and its damage run throughout the film. She clearly not only relates, she identifies as a person whose outsider status made her who she is, a woman worth listening to.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron has died.  This took me by surprise.  Last summer,the film club I advise had been trying to get her to come to our school and give an assembly.  It seemed only right at an all girls school to  have a woman director of stature come in.  We had heard nothing back from her all last summer.  We heard nothing during the fall during our follow up requests.  Finally we got someone else to come, a male filmmaker who was known for his action movies, a screenwriter and director whose new project was a heist film involving young bicycle messengers in Manhattan. It stars David Gordon Levitt.

Just as we were confirming that David Koepp, director of Premium Rush, could come, we heard back from Ephron.  It was November, around the time of Thanksgiving.  She said, was the date still open.  Or how about the club just come over to her house, which we did.

During the course of our  conversation, we learned that to write screenplays for movies, first you should learn something about life, and journalism is not a bad way to begin. She learned how to write a script  by typing out William Goldman's script for All the President's Men.  She and her then husband Carl Bernstein were trying to improve it because they were not quite happy with it.  Since she could type, she was delegated the role of creating the new typescript which entailed typing the old one.

Not a bad way to learn to write.

Ephron said that she knew someone who retyped all of Moby Dick he was so taken with it, and wanted to own the words of the great Melville.

So Ephron gave credit to William Goldman as the first screenwriter she learned from because she typed his screenplay.

She also said that her favorite movie was Casablanca.

When asked what type of cinematographer she preferred, she said that she had no use for cinematographers who use lots of helicopters to get the action shots.  She needed a cameraman who could make a middle aged woman not look like she needed a face lift.  The film club had coincidentally that same day attended the assembly with David Koepp who showed a preview of his new movie with David Gordon Levitt.  I think at least one helicopter was involved, and there were no middle aged women.

I love this clip of Ephron discussing the virtues of Meryl Streep's acting when Streep was being honored by the American Film Institute. Streep benefited greatly from Ephron's screenplays. So did countless others.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Sky Is Pink, a short movie by Josh Fox

As we pack our bags to move to the upper Delaware River for several months, New York's Governor Cuomo is preparing to allow fracking in some distressed economic counties where there are deep seams of natural gas. I wish there were a cleaner way to satisfy our insatiable appetite for energy. Fracking transforms rural lands into industrial zones, and has been known to contaminate the drinking water of those who have signed leases with the companies engaged in the drilling.

Josh Fox has been fighting fracking with his films, most notably Gasland. Here is the latest.

THE SKY IS PINK from JFOX on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I think that the reason this movie works so well is that the cast is pitch perfect. Maggie Smith is the least of them. Tom Wilkinson once again charms with his minimalist approach to acting. Judi Dench is radiant in her simple costumes and short white hair. Bill Nighy underplays as well. Imagine that we really could retire to a more joyful, spiritually rewarding place that serves delicious food. Wouldn't we all want to go there? AARP, please start working on this now. A discount residential hotel in a beautiful foreign country that sees the elderly as a business opportunity, not as unwanted castoffs.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Valerie Mendelson painting to be paired with my poem this weekend at a group show entitled "The Image and the Word" sponsored by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors.

The exhibition takes place from May 26-June 17 at Westbeth Gallery, 55 Bethune Street (between Jane & W. 12th Streets).
Gallery hours are Thursday - Sunday 1-6 PM.

Click on link for details or read below:

The painting and my poem were posted on this blog on March 23, 2010.

Thanks, Valerie, for including my work with yours at the group show.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Avengers

Much as I love Robert Downey's sense of humor, and Scarlett Johansens' ability to look sexy while beating the tar out of villains, and I also was finally able to understand how Thor's hammer actually could be a secret weapon, I have a problem with action movies that treat Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building as targets for giant snakey lizards bent on destroying them. Because eventually they do. Hey. I live here. Don't do that. It makes me sad, and anxious.

Bring back the Ghostbusters. You see, I am not mature enough to handle the fantasy behind the big battle royal when it comes to my home town.

First Position

Ballet competition gives this movie its story. The question is who will win, who will not? As a result, the ending is manipulative and feels more like Rocky than it should.
Art and athletics sometimes do overlap, as in ice dancing, gymnastics, even high diving. So it is not as if the narrative is facile. It is just a little less satisfying to me, a devoted ballet goer for many years, to see the photography of the choreography chopped up, as if we would not be interested in seeing a whole dance performed well, with the dancer's whole body in view the whole time.

But this is really quibbling. The movie features some winning personalities, beginning with Aran Bell, an eleven year old boy whose father is in the navy which means that the family travels from place to place. Aran becomes friends with an Israeli dancer, Gaya Bommer Yemini. This adds an unexpected development to the story line, that people who are going through the same ordeal as you can provide even more meaningful support than your parents and teachers.

The parents and teachers presented are a mix of hard edged Tiger moms and soft hearted adopters of war refugees. The structure follows that used in Spellbound, the documentary film about spelling bee contestants. We follow along with five or six families, getting to know them, then having our hearts in our throats as one after the other is eliminated. I like it best when the film veers away from the grisly competitive edge at the center. Mostly this movie does that. In Spellbound, the movie presented families whose outsider status is overcome with education. In First Position, when the movie concentrates on the dancers' inner ambition, and perseverance, it breaks through and wins over any non ballet fan.

Valerie Mendelson has painted my portrait. We spent a few sunny hours on the roof while she and I talked and she worked in oils. I am very grateful to her for this. I like the picture. It shows a certain gaze I think that is true to me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tom Cruise's Hair

Went to see Ghost Protocol in order not to have to think.  Tom Cruise has very good hair.  He looks pretty threatening in his hooded sweatshirt.  Something about the way the hood shadows his face makes it a sinister costume. Also you can't see his hair. Which is always perfect.

Cruise seems to take himself very seriously.  As I was watching the opening scene of a prison breakout in Russia, I kept thinking of those old Mad magazine parodies of action movies where people getting bonked would have stars float up above their heads.  The whole first half hour felt like a Mad magazine parody, and then slowly it settled down into something more resembling a conventional spy thriller.  When Jeremy Renner and Tom Wilkinson entered the scene, I breathed a sigh of relief because these two actors have nothing to prove.  They are simply good at what they do.

Paula Patton, where did she come from? The director has her take a long time getting changed in the car when she and Cruise are making their getaway.  It is not clear if she can act or not, but she had a more substantive role in Precious.  A token girl spy with a beautiful body, she is sort of the new Hallie Barry.

Nanni Moretti

from Palombella Rossa
Nanni Moretti is sometimes compared to Woody Allen.  He writes, directs, and often appears as a major character in his films.  Though his tone is humorous, Moretti considers politics, life and death, the future of cinema, and other less cursory things that make you not laugh so much as think very hard afterward about you just saw.

Otherwise, I don't think that the comparison between the two men is just.  Moretti is very athletic, for instance.  In his last movie, Habeas Papem, he plays a psychiatrist who coaches a team of cardinals in the Vatican in volleyball.  Moretti is quite capable of instructing how to spike the ball.  He is lean, and tall, and coordinated.  

Still, one of the first Moretti films I saw, Palombella Rossa, was about two things: communism and water polo. Moretti was the lead, and he spent most of the film dressed in one of those water polo helmets that are inherently funny to look at.   He was on the national Italian team when he was in his twenties, and was obviously very good at it.

The night I saw him in person, after the screening of Il Caimano (thanks to IFC which is running a retrospective of his work), he spoke with a translator about why he made the movie.  The movie is about a movie producer who up until a woman hands him a screenplay,  has only made grade B movies that are strictly genre pieces and sort of laughable, but cult hits.  The new screenplay is an open critique of Berlusconi's regime,  a very serious movie,  that shows how he has stripped Italy of its democracy and put himself above the law.

Moretti said that he wanted to show the Italian people what they were used to seeing but because they were so used to seeing it, it had lost all sense of its danger.  He wanted to show the dangerous side of Berlusconi.  He avoided  the bits about Berlusconi's cosmetic surgery and his fascination with young women.  The real danger was in how he subverted democracy by outwitting the judiciary who had prosecuted him for financial fraud and conflict of interest.

After Moretti spoke at length about the making of the movie about Berlusconi, through a charming translator who was able to keep up with his spirited and quick witted commentary in Italian, the director wanted to show us two minutes from an earlier film, the film about water polo and communism.  The reason was long in being explained.  The scene included an old friend of Moretti who had been cast as one o f the water polo players. In the scene, the coach wanted the slender, even slight of build teammate to act as point  guard to a big burly Hungarian.  At this point, the dialogue called for the man to object simply by saying "I am scared."

Which the actor/friend did.  But Moretti insisted on his saying the line twenty six more times, taking another two full minutes to do it, goading him on all the while.  The man is still playing water polo, Moretti explained, but I am no longer his friend.  He never spoke to me again after that. 

The point of the story was to demonstrate how obsessive he is as a director to be sure that everything is just right.  Each take that the young man made was better than the next, even though the first one was perfectly good.  I wonder where that man is now, and if it is true that they are no longer friends.

Monsieur Lazhar

The main character of this movie is a teacher who replaces mid-year a teacher who has died by her own hand.   Not only was the students' original teacher a suicide, but she killed herself in the classroom during recess when the door was locked, leaving a lone student sent to deliver milk the task of seeing her body swinging from a rope.

This sordid fact and horrific image leave a huge task for the next teacher.  His name and his origin are not of Montreal, Canada; Bachir Lazhar comes from Algeria.  He brings with him high expectations for the students, and an old school style that the students are not used to.

Equally alienating for Monsieur Lazhar is the compartmentalization of grief and its exclusive assignment for treatment to the psychologist.  Lazhar witnesses the students trying to cope with their confusion and messy feelings toward their dead teacher.  His instinct is to help them through, but the administration and the psychologist shut him out of the process.

  This movie touches the viewer very simply with the steps the students and the teacher take to work with each other.  In the course of the film, two students especially benefit from Lazhar's work.  Alice with her large eyes and plump mouth has also seen the corpse of her teacher, and must struggle largely alone at home since her mother works as a pilot and is often away.  Alice understands quickly the benefit of having Lazhar, with his strange yet demanding manners, as her teacher's replacement.  Their relationship forms the core of the story and shows how teachers and students learn from each other when there is mutual respect.

Sophie Nelisse plays Alice
Simon, the boy doomed to deliver milk to the locked classroom (how haunting that image is, of the small square boxes of milk spilled on the floor) is angry and upset and unjustly accused of bearing some responsibility for the teacher's death.  Lazhar breaks through to him quietly and surely. The filming is gently paced.

I wonder what school psychologists think of this film.
Its treatment of loss and how untrained people are capable of helping each other through trauma makes a plea for less expertise and more humanism.

Sunday, May 6, 2012