Tuesday, May 30, 2006

GRIZZLY MAN (2005) – A Movie Review

One of the recurrent themes in Werner Herzog’s work is extreme obsession. The Klaus Kinski characters in AGUIRRE and FITZCARRALDO are good examples. Herzog’s own documentary MY BEST FIEND about his troubled relationship with Kinski the actor demonstrates some sort of an obsession of Herzog’s to risk the dangerous fire of Kinski to produce a greater work of art. That said, I don’t know how the 100 hours of videotape shot by grizzlyman Timothy Treawell wound up in the hands of Herzog, but there is hardly another filmmaker could have gotten more out of it.

A lot of documentaries try to refrain from editorializing the lives of their main characters with their own voice. They usually do so through their use of footage. Herzog is different. He develops strong opinions of what he’s seen and he delivers those thoughts at the end as if he were just another audience member watching these things unfold with us.

I think the typical and weaker choice with this material would have been to paint Treadwell as a misunderstood, ahead-of-his-time outsider. If portrait documentaries fall into any particular cliché then this is it. The filmmakers are so many times dying to tell you why their subject is enlightened and unusual in the ways of the world as we know it. Even if we don’t like their subject, we’re made to admit that he is a mad genius at the least. Herzog makes the stronger choice here of plainly saying that Treadwell read benevolence and reciprocal caring into an indifferent animal that only saw him as food. He does so over a close-up shot of a bear giving us a blank stare. Treadwell loved the Bears and the bears merely tolerated him until the fish ran out.

I also like that Herzog traces Treadwell back to his acting ambitions and failures that seem to leave the man as a wannabee Marlin Perkins soap boxing to save animals that aren’t really in the kind of danger he suggests. It removes any myth that the guy was any kind of singular phenomenon, but a regular guy driven by an obsession that costs him the ultimate price.

Herzog has in his possession a video tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend being mauled and eaten by the bear. He tells us that the attack happened so quickly that Treadwell gets the camera turned on, but he doesn’t remove the dust cap in time so that all you can hear is the yelling and the girlfriend pounding the bear with a frying pan before she too succumbs to his appetite. Instead of playing the audio, Herzog plays this tape wearing headphones in front of Treadwell’s friend and heir. He gives her play by play of what he hears and then gives her the tape and suggests that she never listen to it and that she should destroy it. Even if the tape was hard to understand, hardly a filmmaker would have missed the exploitive choice to play it for us. Herzog instead inserts himself into the drama and puts the moral question to Treadwell’s friend. It’s troublesome because it seems a bit staged, but what he tries to do dramatically by passing the dilemma to her is an interesting idea.

One running theme from Treadwell’s discussion with the camera is that he loves the bears to the point that he would never hurt them and he’s prepared to die for them. He’s obsessed with anyone else who comes within his sphere and when some men do, he convinces himself that he is all that stands between the man and the animal. And as Treadwell fails to become the martyr from hunters after years in the attempt, he begins to suggest that he’ll be just as much a martyr if he dies at the hand of the animals themselves. It’s just the kind of illogical and obsessive idea that must have drawn Herzog to the project. Treadwell’s obsession with martyrdom means he will get there anyway he can. So Herzog uses interviews and the footage to show how Treadwell changed his mind and returned to the wilderness in 2003 past his usual time into the fall where the bears that knew him were in hibernation and strange bears fighting for a short food supply would be even more dangerous. He then gives us Treadwell’s last standup hours before his death in which he alludes to his possible death and kind if lingers on camera past his purpose like a man might stare one last time at his wife before going to war.

Instead of falling into the dramatic trap that it all has to have some meaning, Herzog goes to lengths to show us that his death was probably purposeful and entirely meaningless or just the opposite of the obsessive plan. Herzog does not let stand any pretense that the mauling had meaning outside of his friends that are sad that he is gone. His choice as a filmmaker made me re-evaluate how other people’s stories are fed through the documentary machine to create heroes and strange charming characters. GRIZZLY MAN, if nothing else, will change the way I examine other nonfiction films.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Bob Novak exposes a couple of things in the Senate Bill that sound ill-advised.
*It extends the Davis-Bacon Act's requirement for the payment of ''prevailing wage'' to all temporary guest workers. That puts them ahead of Americans, who have this protection only on federal job sites.

*Foreign guest farm workers, admitted under the bill, cannot be ''terminated from employment by any employer ... except for just cause.'' In contrast, American ag workers can be fired for any reason.

The best thing about the illegals is their ability to work cheaply and off the books. Law enforcement and the media have been quiet about this undercurrent up until now. Once they are legitimized they no longer will be performing cheap services, but they will be paraded and victims of oppression. Who do you think foots the bill for their social services then?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


For the last few years and more times recently I've been hearing, "Bush squandered the goodwill of the world post 9-11 by invading Iraq." Now what exactly were we going to do with that goodwill? They contend that those countries would have helped us with intelligence had we been meek. To which I ask, which countries have been holding back? The goodwill of the world counts for very little if they won't stand side by side with you in the field of battle.

The statement is really about a personality type that in some ways enjoys pain, suffering and empathy from others. Some people need the goodwill of the world to feel good about themselves. Some citizens of the world are uncomfortable with America's rube patriot element. A war doesn't need a popularity contest to proceed but a united country no longer willing to be victim.

Those Americans uncomfortable with American power and assertiveness have used the setbacks in the war to yell louder for our withdrawal. But where would we be in this war without the battlefield of Iraq? How could we have brought so many al Qaeda to one single place to fight? How do we know the absence of Iraq wouldn't have given them more time to plan another attack here? Would anyone have predicted that we could have gone this long without another attack on American soil?

The only ones that want us out of Iraq more than the Democrats are the terrorists. Some would rather be battered and have the goodwill of the world than the appearance of American superiority. It's under this very psychology of offering a capitulation that made Neville Chamberlain a hero shortly before proven a goat.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


I missed Bush's speech last night, but the talk that I've heard about it made me realize that everyone is looking for the perfect middle ground. Bush's talk about guest worker programs and paths to citizenship I think mistakes two separate issues.

Here's the solution I thought of this morning. Two tracks. You have a guest worker track. People can stay in this country as long as they have an employer that wants to hire them if they fill out the resident alien paperwork. They will pay taxes and receive absolutely no government services. If they want to educate their kids, their employers use it as a work incentive with the money they are saving by hiring cheap labor.

If Resident Aliens want to become citizens they have to leave the United States and get into line. No preferences to who their employer was and they have to wait a minimum of three years before returning. A sacrifice yes, but no more than the sacrifice that college students go through when they wait four additional years to enter the job market for better prospects.

Anyone caught working in the United States without their resident alien card will be fingerprinted, deported and tracked by the by the FBI and NEVER be allowed citizenship. The company that employs such a worker will be fined.

That way aliens get to choose whether they want a job now or to be an American later. Successful people we know have the ability to delay gratification because they can see the big picture. The result is that the added workers will help our tax base without straining government resources while the individuals that will make the best citizens have the best opportunity to become citizens. The decision and responsibility will lie squarely on the individual and not some arbitrary government rule.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

CAPOTE (2005) (A Movie Review)

The trick in bringing a biography to the screen is getting the human being right and using the real details to interpret motivation and events. I lately criticized TUCKER because the over-the-top style served as a mask for the real man, a charlatan. Coppola decided to remove any complexity or ambiguity from the character so that Tucker is idealistic and harmless and the real villains could be the powerbrokers. In lesser hands, CAPOTE could have centered on the wit and charm and New York nightlife and Truman could have been simply a cartoon like Tucker with ability for prose. Writing IN COLD BLOOD could have simply been Capote finding his soul, a dual struggle of the homosexual and the criminal trying to find a place in backwards America. Those were the easy and usual choices and about what we could expect from a typical Hollywood film.

Luckily, these filmmakers find a much better central conflict in the story. Is Capote and artist or a humanitarian? George Clooney’s famous Oscar speech in March addressed this issue and told us of all the great humanitarian things Hollywood is responsible for. Clooney didn’t say that Hollywood chose humanitarianism over artistry. He doesn’t think the two are exclusive. But Hollywood is more comfortable being humanitarian, because you get quick credit for that while being a real artist mostly goes unnoticed.

Truman Capote's first struggle in CAPOTE is simply writing the story. The locals are less than helpful and the murderers won’t talk with anyone. He has no qualms about keeping the murderers alive long enough to get their story on paper. He has no qualms about wanting them to die once he does. The climax is the realization that his lack of effort contributes to kiler's ultimate execution. How much this bothered the real Capote, I don’t know. But the filmmakers do a great job of making this the doing of Capote’s fame as an artist and the undoing of Capote as a human being. It’s a much bolder choice than we expect from the average Hollywood film that often times create super villains that our heroes either defeat (ala James Bond) or succumb to (ala CONSTANT GARDENR).

It don’t mean to say that they nailed the real Truman Capote. I think don’t think any movie every fully nails a real person, even documentaries only show you the impressions that the filmmakers want to display. For instance unlike Normal Mailer who has spent most of his life trying to outdo his most important work, Capote didn’t try. Capote instead settled into celebrity and socialite. He spent his last years on the talk show circuit drinking himself to death. The written epilogue at the end of the movie suggests that this experience is what “ruined” the artist. That’s an interpretation and wholly valid within the known facts. It fits the theme rather than a party-line.

In contrast, George Clooney brings Edward R. Murrow to life in an amusing and interesting way, but he’s not really interested in honestly exploring Murrow’s motivations behind his exposure of McCarthy. He just uses McCarthy to make his point that the red scare of the 1950s was bogus and people were terribly ruined for nothing. In fact, the real Murrow’s exposure of McCarthy wasn’t about the validity of the communist threat, but about demagoguery alone. Whatever his politics, Murrow was an anti-communist himself to the point that he later regretted making a documentary about the plight of rural America that the Soviets would later use as their own anti-American propaganda. Only a few years after Clooney’s events, the real Murrow went to work for the U.S. government and helped craft pro-American messages. Instead of choosing an interesting man bites dog angle, Clooney stops at the point his intended message is disseminated. The Clooney movie turns with the subplot of the colleague who is beleaguered by the Times Columnist and eventually commits suicide. I don’t know the real history here, but I know by the way it’s presented that something is being left out. Whether the character is fiction, a composite or whether the co-worker had other mitigating issues, no healthy and innocent person commits suicide because of unfair press. This is the only hinted at motivation for Murrow and it's weak pillar once you examine it.

In contrast, whether true or not CAPOTE's conclusion that suggests that the harrowing experience of writing IN COLD BLOOD ruined Capote is consistent with his self-destruction, even if Capote’s demise can be read by others as a result of ego, hubris, and alcoholism. Here’s a guy who alienated many of the people he once included as friends after he published some magazine excerpts from a book he was writing society-life. In contrast, it’s very hard to think that the Murrow at the end of Clooney’s movie could become a spokesman for anti-communism or regret what the Soviets would do with his work. Therefore, the movie rests simply as a message vehicle that arrives at its intended destination but can nary drive 2 feet forward from there.

One of the illusions that Hollywood falls for is that comedy is entertainment and drama is art. Many would say that OCEANS 11 is entertainment and GOOD NIGHT is art, but in actuality both films are aimed at entertainment, the difference is that OCEAN'S is designed for box office and GOOD NIGHT for recognition. Both are directed squarely at a specific audience and they both hit their target. The popcorn movie fan responded exactly the same with his dollars like the leftward leaning Academy member did with his vote. If you don't enter GOOD MIGHT with the idea that the red scare was bad, you are given two reasons to start thinking so, Murrow's co-worker was driven to suicide and McCarthy was overbearing. So you are either already converted to that thought or you're supposed to use your emotions to climb aboard. I don't know how that's any different than responding to OCEAN'S with the emotion of momentary happiness that laughter brings.

Maybe it’s possible to begin as an artist and by accident unleash a trendy message along the way, but for the true artist it should be akin to digging rocks out of a yard and happening upon a $10 bill. I cannot say that CAPOTE is art itself, but it’s certainly on a path to art if nothing else, and the lesson it teaches about art is a minority voice in the community from which it comes. Although my viewed list from 2005 is hardly exhausted, I think it’s the best film of the year.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I have to laugh (in here) every time I see a Hummer on the road these days. Of course no one needs a Hummer - that's not the point. People who drive Hummers drive Hummers because they want people to see them driving their Hummers. Now with gas so expensive, Hummer drivers have become the laughingstocks of the road with their 6 miles per gallon and their giant monstrosities that they can't resell. So instead of me looking at them and thinking, whoa, cool Hummer, I think, you dope!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I was there once as a kid. Trish has two college friends that live there now. One is married. The other was married this past weekend. We went. She left early in the week and I went late Thursday on Southwest with a stop in St. Louis. We were supposed to stay on the plane and pick up more passengers. They made us exit our week-old plane for a non-specific reason and another plane flying in from Omaha took us to Phoenix. The first plane smelled a lot newer.

Although we were sent to another plane, we kept the stewardesses. They were funny. When we landed near 11pm, the PA stewardess said that if we were connecting to another flight that we should fire our travel agent. The pilot kept giving us updates from game 6 between the Lakers and Suns. During the flight I read this book about a guy who runs super marathons. He once ran a relay race where he was all ten teams. It was 150 miles long. He consumed 27,000 calories during the run. His wife puts up with it.

Phoenix has grown since I was a kid. They have things like Borders bookstores these days. After I won some money playing poker at the Indian Casino in Scottsdale (see The Nuts), I almost bought Barry Greenstein’s book, but then I remembered that it was nearly $10 cheaper online. Waste not, want not. I read a little about Barry while Trish bought a new dress for the wedding. The one she brought was too light for a windy day on top of a mountain. Barry said some things I have never heard a poker player talk about, good common sense things. The one that sticks out most is that poor poker players aren’t necessarily stupid, the ones playing the bigger stakes were smart enough to make their money some other way but they just aren’t poker savvy. I don’t know how that is supposed to help me win, but it made me want to buy the book anyway.

The rehearsal dinner was at a local Italian pizza joint and the food was very authentic. We sat next to a groomsman from Milwaukee. We had the same question for the waitress, what is Italian Beef? She didn’t know either. It was put on the menu especially for the rehearsal dinner. She left for the kitchen and returned to tell us that it was beef with Italian seasoning. I still wasn’t sure what that meant, but ordered it anyway. Turns out that Italian beef on this particular night was filet Mignon with squash and asparagus. Those who ordered the spaghetti marinara missed out. The groomsman from Milwaukee said he had to give the best man speech or that all the groomsmen were teaming up to do so. He didn’t know what to say and asked advice. I told him to start off with a funny story about his friendship with Bill and then end with something more heartwarming. We joked about it for a while although he took the advice the next night. I wish I remembered what he said.

After dinner we went to this old restaurant for martinis. It reminded me of Chasen’s of Hollywood that I saw in the documentary THE LAST DAYS OF CHASENS. You entered from the back through the kitchen like in Goodfellas or Swingers. The kitchen staff was welcoming albeit busy. Empty tables everywhere but we couldn’t sit. In fact, they were a little peeved that we just came to drink. They made us give up our barstools to dinner guests.

I woke up at 6am the day of the wedding. My body clock screamed 9am. I got a paper and checked out the American League East Standings and Real Estate. Homes are priced at about the same rate as Orlando. Trish and I drove to Taliesin West, the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright during his last 20 years. The property began as a camp and his apprentices built the entire compound from Wright’s plans. Apprentices still today live on the property and graduate with an accredited degree in architecture. They live in tents their first year as they construct their own dorm rooms. We could have toured their houses, but instead chose to see the Wright private quarters.

After our 90 minutes of Wright, we met Tricia’s cousin Amy, her husband and two boys for lunch. The 4-year old Caden had already been to tee-ball and swim lessons that morning. The year old Jase had already thrown up all over the kitchen. They were good people and the boys were spirited and sweet. Caden did not want any part of chips and salsa and he didn’t like the menu choices. The kid needed a hot dog. I was a hero for pointing out the grilled cheese on another part of the menu remembering that I lived off of them as a kid. The light-eating Caden ate half of it. His mother told us he weighs 27 pounds. Brother Jase, a week from his first birthday weighs 17 pounds and all 17 of those pounds were pounding the rice they ordered for him. He would ball it up in his hands and put one in his mouth and the other on the floor. What our dog would have given to spend one supper at their house. After lunch and that aforementioned shopping trip, I needed a nap before the ceremony.

The wedding was at the Hilton on a Hilltop. The chosen spot looked straight through the valley and onto Downtown with the mountains sitting gladly behind like they were built by a Hollywood set director to finish the picture. It was windy. It was hot. The ceremony was short and very American. The Anglo groom marrying the Asian bride with a black minister, a mariachi band playing background and Navaho poem read for good measure. E Pluribus Unum. I should say that Trish was also a reader on this day and although she hates speaking in public, she gave it real heart.

A great many of the guests were lawyers and one guy told me flat out that Bush should be impeached for the wiretapping business.

What about Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus or FDR interning the Japanese? Our lawyer said that history has concluded that they were both wrong. Ah, but wouldn’t Congress have been equally wrong to impeach either of them considering their importance to history? But Bush isn’t important to history says my lawyer. Iraq was a mistake and Clinton or Gore would have invaded Afghanistan after 9-11.

How can you be so sure, I say? We were attacked 4 times during Clinton’s presidency and he did little in the way of response. Even so, Bush lied about why we were going into Iraq, said my lawyer. I remember he said that Saddam was a bad man and was terrible to his people. That’s not enough of a reason to invade a country he replied. Then why did we send troops to Haiti and Bosnia?

Bush lied about the weapons of Mass Destruction, the lawyer tells me. Do you mean the sarin gas they found that would kill 500,000 people or the British intelligence report that they were trying to buy Yellow Cake in Africa? Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11 says the lawyer. Like Hilter had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor says me.

Bush should have gotten permission from a judge to tap people’s phones, he continues. I ask what makes an unelected judge so special. It’s the checks and balances system in the constitution, he says. But I ask why a judge is the last word. Why not the equally un-elected CIA official?

He says that judges stand up for the constitution. Like they stood up for the first amendment when the Campaign Finance Laws were passed, I enquire. Ruling on constitutional points is their job according to the constitution, he tells me. According to the constitution or according to John Marshall, I ask. Well thank god for Marshall, he says. Or otherwise we’d need fewer lawyers, I quip.

Take this gay marriage proposal, he continues. It’s unconstitutional to not allow gay marriage.

What about polygamy then? Is that unconstitutional?

Well that’s a different case, he says. You can’t have guys marrying their sisters. Or is that something else?

It’s when you have more than one wife, I say.

Well, I’m not sure about that, but I’m sure gay marriage is constitutional because you can’t legislate morality, he concludes.

Whose morality? The war on poverty or giving free prescription drugs to old people and ultimately universal health care is a morality question that doesn’t bother the Left. And both sides of the capital punishment debate cite morality as well. Without morality, which laws would be left standing?

It went on like this for a while as a mental exercise simply to see how well I could debate a member of the bar. It was good fun and he seemed like a decent guy, although I think it took enough out of the both of us.

Trish and I made our way outside after sunset and the cool breeze and night sky were glorious. The mountains beyond downtown had mostly disappeared but the lights gave the valley a whole new look. I noticed that mountain to our East had a few houses lit up. A local told us that you weren’t really allowed to build on those mountains anymore, but a few people were grandfathered in. It looked like a nice view and a pain-in-the-ass commute. Oh, don’t worry she said. I don’t think anyone that lives up there has to work.

A bridesmaid’s husband said that he interned for Senator Kyl years back though he didn’t share his politics. He did admire Kyl for being an honest and direct man. The guy was worth a good deal of money and still drove a 1989 Chevy suburban that must have been leaking gas. He hated riding with Kyl because the gas smell bothered him. He would complain to John about buying a new car, but Kyl said he liked the way the Suburban rode.

I asked if he had ever met Barry Goldwater and he said that Goldwater spoke to his 6th grade class. He personally asked Goldwater if he would ever run for President again and Goldwater said no. He said that Goldwater lived along Camelback road and pointed in the general direction. He said McCain’s house was in the dark patch between us and downtown. He was invited there once for some event maybe it related to his work for Senator Kyl. Kyl, everyone thought, lived in or near Tucson.

Why did a city such a Phoenix grow up in the middle of the desert, I asked someone that night. I was the told the Salt River was probably the reason. I never got to see the river. It’s thought that Phoenix is now the 5th largest city in America having surpassed Philadelphia since the last census, though the metropolitan area alone is outside the top ten. This is especially interesting since Phoenix is a post Civil War phenomenon, the city is not even 150 years old.

I could have sat out on that balcony in the cool breeze and looked at the Phoenix valley all night long, alone or in conversation. The desert sometimes seems desolate and lonely, but I know what Glenn Fry meant by the Peaceful Easy Feeling. At night and with the lights down below it isn’t so bad.

A cheer to Patty and Bill and the memory of a short jaunt to Phoenix.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I was tuning around last night and caught O'Reilly debating what language the Star Spangled banner should be sung in. Senator Lamarr Alexander and someone from the Cato Institute squared off. Last week when I first heard the media making a big deal out of the fact that someone has sung it in Spanish, I figured that it had already been done two dozen times before. Then the media started asking politicians about it and watch out.

I realized the media had finally given the politicians a superficial way to debate the illegal alien issue. Instead of enforcing the borders they can simply stand up for an English language version of the National Anthem. It's easier than having to do any work. I'll admit that I have never like Alexander all the way back to his days with the phony plaid shirt, I'm one of the people, nonsense. He so reminds me of that guy who use to host a show on the Gulf Breeze cable station. But hearing him talk last night made me realize what an opportunistic punk he is. Use that hot air to enforce the law and let people sing what they may.
Louis Rukeyser, a best-selling author, columnist, lecturer and television host who delivered pun-filled, commonsense commentary on complicated business and economic news, died Tuesday. He was 73.

As host of "Wall $treet Week With Louis Rukeyser" on public TV from 1970 until 2002, Rukeyser took a wry approach to the ups and downs in the marketplace and urged guests to avoid jargon. He brought finance and economics to ordinary viewers and investors, and was rewarded with the largest audience in the history of financial journalism.
Back in the old days before we had cable, Dad would watch Wall Street Week on PBS every Friday night. He would get irked waiting for Washington Week in Review to be done with. Dad said that the real action happened on Wall Street and that they should end the Washington show and give Lou a whole hour. Dad would get excited on the nights that Marty Zweig or Stand Weinstein were guests.

Lou would start off with a witty recap of the week that Dad loved and Mom hated. Much of it was over my head, as were the topics and opinions of the guests, but these were the days before CNBC and CNNfn. You could read Barrons and the Journal, but the only TV venue was Wall Street Week. How times change.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Via the Corner.
Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be "good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly desperate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort--only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today's atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.

He nailed it. But he's not done.

Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, our government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. In the abstract it seems a slight thing, almost irrelevant, an unconvincing proposition. Yet a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these things. Just can't do it.

Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem--win a war, fix immigration--they lose legitimacy.


Monday, May 01, 2006


I don't hand out the coveted Stamper (+) this month. I think my expectations were too high.

THE LONGEST YARD (1974) – I saw this as a kid, but after Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper and the other good ole boy films. It’s a comedy early on with some of the same kinds of scenes, but Eddie Albert’s warden character is a lot more serious than the way they try these things today. It sets up the movie as the smart-ass versus the bad-ass as Burt Reynolds glib manner puts him deeper and deeper into trouble. The basic plot is Reynolds was once a pro-bowl quarterback who punches a few cops and winds up in the pokey. He plans on doing his short stretch with minimal effort. Eddie Albert wants Reynolds to help him coach his football team of prison guards. After one thing and another Reynolds puts together a team of inmates to give the guards a warm-up game and that game becomes the resolution to the film. Seeing it today, I realize that it’s not as realistic as I once remembered, but it’s certainly one of Reynolds better roles and films.

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996) – Only Woody Allen could make a 30s musical with modern day actors and locales. He puts together a great cast with Goldie Hawn, Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton joining himself and frequent player Alan Alda. You even get young Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts for good measure. The movie centers around the conventional romance between Barrymore and Norton and how bleeding heart Goldie Hawn helps get hoodlum Tim Roth released from jail. Of course, Roth proceeds to woo Barrymore away from Norton, much to even the bleeding hearts dismay. Lucas Haas plays the son of Alda and Hawn who is a staunch conservative to the surprise of both parents, luckily it turns out that he has a brain tumor that is causing this. Roberts is Allen’s love interest. Though he has a few sparks with ex-wife Hawn too. The plot is silly, but the song selection is great. The title comes from a tune the Marx Brothers used as a running gag in MONKEY BUSINESS (1932). We even get a scene of guys dressed as Groucho doing a number on New Year’s Eve.

– John Le Carre as an author is a great representation of a liberal democracy so assured of itself that it allows contrarians to question the legitimacy of the cold war and western intelligence gathering techniques. I wonder if it ever bothered Le Carre that Soviet Writers attempting to make the same moral equivalence would have wound up in the Gulag? Here Richard Burton plays a British spy that pretends to go off the reservation in order to be recruited as a double agent. He winds up in the East Germany where an ex-Nazi and a Jew have their own inner-communist political battle that Burton becomes a part of. Le Carre’s point seems to be that we’re no better than them because we’ll use ex-Nazi’s as our agents inside East Germany even if those Nazis are trying to kill Jewish commies. I appreciate the efforts that a Le Carre must labor in order to make the Soviets our moral equals, but it’s mischievous to convolute such a plot while ignoring what a Soviet writer like Solzhenitsyn went through for expressing the reality of the USSR. I can imagine the fun that Le Carre had preaching the people’s paradise as he sat in his quiet English garden.

CONSTANT GARDNER (2005) Hey, look. Old Le Carre is back post cold war with a story about “evil” corporations. Now let’s remember that Le Carre spent a career equating us with the Soviets, a regime that killed people wholesale at a much greater number than the Nazis. But at least they weren’t making a profit. Now, I think I read the book was actually about the tobacco industry or some other liberal hobby horse, but since pharmaceutical companies have really yet to take their knock in Hollywood, this story was re-made so that their good acts wouldn’t go unpunished. Despite the politics, I was ready to give the movie a chance because Ralph Fiennes is always good and Rachel Weiss won the Oscar and I would have enjoyed a suspense film if at least the action was pulled off properly. But this movie was as thin as the soup that Stalin served the prisoners. Fiennes who can play alpha male or doddering fool gets to be the fool here and we get to think his hippy wife (Rachel Weiss) married him just to further the “cause.” It’s told in flashback, despite Syd Field’s warning, with Fiennes using the past to try and figure out if Weiss’ death was foul play. I suppose the conclusion of the film is just another chapter in how the little guy is punished severely and the big boys are given just a mild scolding. But the biggest mystery is not what happened to Weiss on screen, but off. I can’t figure out why she was even nominated, let alone won an Oscar for this routine performance. Can anyone name even an eye twitch or chin shift that Weiss hasn’t already shown us in ABOUT A BOY, THE MUMMY or ENEMY AT THE GATES? They show her naked pregnant, but it had to be makeup because she’s currently pregnant. Was that so daring that it was worth an Oscar or did they just love it that Merck was taking it on the chin? Now you’d think that a group such as Hollywood that probably uses VIAGRA like Pez might find some sympathy with Pfesier or maybe they blame such companies for their own addiction. Poor oh Amy Adams that gave a really plucky performance in JUNEBUG, one that should be longer remembered. Anyway, I’m 0-4 with Le Carre. I first saw the RUSSIA HOUSE with Connery and Pfeffier and it was a yawn. I rented the BBC mini-series “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and there wasn’t much entertainment value there either. Maybe Le Carre is just a rightwing hoax masquerading as a progressive in order to see if liberals will applaud even the thinnest attempts at entertainment if they’re in the name of “the cause.”

WALK THE LINE (2005) –I haven’t been out to a movie since last June and the movies like this I would have normally seen at release are starting to trickle into NetFlix. Of all the things I read about this movie, the most obvious point I never heard. This is simply a movie about Johnny chasing June all over creation until she consents to marry him. Even the obligatory childhood scene has J.R. (Johnny) listening to ten year old June on the radio singing with her family. The music is there, of course, and we even get an Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, and I think a Carl Perkins along for the ride. I can’t fault the Academy for giving an Oscar to Witherspoon, she plays it with an array of emotions, distractions and conflicts while being strong and feminine. It’s the exact opposite of Rachel Weiss’ one-note effort in GARDNER. Jaquin Pheonix doesn’t look like Johnny Cash, but he is such a likable actor and so committed to any role that you certainly forgive this pretty early on. Trish noted how mean Cash’s father (Terminator II ala Robert Patrick) is portrayed and I told her that Johnny is really nice about his father in the auto-bio saying they were tough times and he had the strain of trying to feed his family during the depression. Patrick gives a really strong performance as the old man, especially if you saw his turn a couple of years ago on the Sopranos as an everyman who gets into gambling debts with the mob. The movie was about what I thought it would be, a standard enough biopic that rises above the genre with good music and strong performances.

– The Squid and Whale is a horrible title and heavy handed symbolism, but the film plays much more nuanced. I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s debut effort the 1995 comedy, KICKING AND SCREAMING. While that was his part autobiographical look at college life, this movie goes further back into childhood and explores the breakup of the marriage and the effect on the kids who witness it. Laura Linney was a great choice for the mother, because she has that pretty and yet plain quality simultaneously. She becomes whatever her facial expression is. Jeff Daniels is one of those overlooked second-tier actors that can usually find an interesting thing about any character with nonverbal reactions. I always think back to his portrayal as Joshua Chamberlain in GETTYSBURG. Chamberlain was the least interesting character in the book and yet Daniels makes him the equal of Longstreet and Lee. In this film, Daniels is the professor once up and coming that drifted into has been or never was. Laura Linney is the wife that becomes a writer under the shadow of Daniels and a more successful one. If the competition between writers wasn’t enough, Linney’s constant cheating makes him even more bitter and vindictive. The opening scene has the couple playing doubles tennis with their two kids. Daniels tells his oldest son to take advantage of his mother’s weak backhand and the match is won with three straight points hit to her weak side, one of which hits her person. You begin thinking Daniels is a creep, but when you learn that he has been living with her cheating you are more sympathetic. But then Daniels behaves terribly toward the kids and you don’t know who to root for. The point, I guess, is that it’s hard to know whose fault these things are, which lets everyone off the hook in the end.

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005) – Making my way through the list of 2005 award winners brought the acclaimed George Clooney offering. Clooney decided to shoot the film in that period black and white to resemble the way we may have seen clips of Edward R. Murrow on TV. The point of the movie is to drive home for the umpteenth time that Joe McCarthy was a louse and he nearly ruined America. Thankfully, Clooney assumes we already know this about McCarthy so here we simply see Murrow take issue with wild and unsubstantiated statements made by McCarthy. It was a hell of an idea that Murrow had, really. I suppose Clooney was dismayed that John Kerry’s many misstatements about his war record weren’t fully covered during the 2004 campaign and he wanted to remind the press that they have duty to uncover the real record. When McCarthy claimed that 200 people in the state department were agents of the Soviet Union, I kept thinking about John Kerry claim that he was on an illegal mission to Cambodia sanctioned by the Nixon Administration during the Christmas of 1968. It was seered in his memory, was it not? Where was Murrow to ask Kerry why President-elect Nixon wielded such power? Good job, Clooney, you made your point well. My favorite part of the film were the nuances that captured the flavor of 1950s culture and corporate life. That Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. must pretend not to be married in order to retain their CBS jobs provides a few laughs. The smoking commercials add nice flavor as well. The shame of Joe McCarthy is that he has become the goat that the Left uses to stain the entire anti-communist era in America. It’s the equivalent of summing up the whole Civil Rights struggle based on Jesse Jackson’s race-pimping and corporate shakedowns. Every big cause has its opportunists and that the Left continues to return to McCarthy would suggest that he was the last powerful man to try those tactics when they themselves have learned to use them oh so sweetly. If Clooney must make a point about the red scare, I’d like to see him tackle the Chambers/Hiss case which was actually a much bigger deal back when the intelligencia pegged Hiss as an innocent man. That outrage has quietly faded since the release of the Venona Papers. Coincidently, the release of the Venona Papers showed that McCarthy's claim of numerous communists in the state Department was just about right although he never knew it. It's to Clooney's credit that he'd let the real McCarthy speak. Clooney's issues with that aspect of the cold war are honest enough that he doesn't need the Randy Quaid to play up all the caricatured aspects that the Left would have loved. The result was that we were able to decide how much of a menace he really was and the real McCarthy hardly seemed dangerous compared to the monster we always hear about. He seems about as opportunistic as any current guy on Capitol Hill. It's a shame that Clooney is mired in bugaboos when he is such a talented and engaging screen personality with a great eye for directing. Movies last forever while fashionable causes gently fade away. I, for one, am glad that Cary Grant didn't spend his time making a film about FDR's court packing scheme or his supposed foreknowledge of Pear Harbor.

UP AT THE VILLA (2000) – What’s Sean Penn doing with all of these ex-pat Brits living in Tuscany? They needed a tough rouge that’s what. Kristen Scott Thomas spends the movie with other men to simply keep herself from Penn. Therefore we have to wait the whole movie to feel like Penn “earned” her when we really know he had her at “ciao.” Early on we get to see some Florentine exteriors, and all through we see some countryside shots, but you get the feeling that a London soundstage hosts the most. Derek Jacobi turns up as the flaming Brit all bitchy like heroine’s generally flock to. Edward Fox plays the too old suitor that Thomas should and won’t marry. Anne Bancroft plays a princess of some sort all full of eccentricities and gossip. Without giving away the plot, Thomas denying the rogue Penn sets her on a course that only Penn can rescue her from. There’s a nice shot early on from a church across the Arno River that Trish and I found last year. That probably had more to do with us finishing the film than anything else. It was all based on a novella by M. Somerset Maugham of Razor’s Edge fame.

TUCKER (1988) – I was suckered into Tucker when I saw it in the theatre. It has a funhouse style and some winning performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges and Martin Landau. But looking back, the style is really a subtraction to a bio piece, but I suppose it was necessary when the bio part if so removed from reality that reviewers might point it out. History sees Tucker as more con man than visionary, while Coppola portrays him as a victim of corporations and crooked politicians. You’re allowed to, I think, when anyone is the “little guy.” Now I’m not trying to be too harsh on what is a fun movie, but I’m just mad at myself for falling for the mythology the first time around.

If I had to name the top 3 of the month they would be: