Monday, February 25, 2008

Not really about the Oscars

We didn't really the watch the Oscars this year. Two reasons: 1) The ongoing Time Warner Cable problem--this year, the screen wasn't black but it did freeze and pixilate and stutter a lot; 2) Once again, we didn't really care about the Oscars. It's a bit ironic that, as more interesting indie movies have taken over the Oscar field (since mainstream Hollywood studios have largely abandoned movies which are about anything except replicating amusement park rides), the Oscar race has become much less interesting to me. At any rate, we did watch Jon Stewart's monologue which was good, if not great--the Dennis Hopper thing fell flat, and though I appreciated the "Iraq war movie" bit, the audience didn't seem to.

The only major nominees we've seen so far are No Country for Old Men, which I appreciated more than liked, and Michael Clayton, which I liked but which didn't feel "heavy" enough to be an Oscar movie. I was glad that the Coen brothers won for direction, but this movie is not one of their best. I put the Coen's movies into three categories:

1) Great movies, ripe for multiple viewings:
Blood Simple (still my favorite Coen brothers film), Miller's Crossing, Fargo, Raising Arizona.

2) Good movies that I might watch another time or two:
O Brother Where Art Thou, Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers.

3) What the f*** movies that I might watch a second time but hate myself for doing so:
Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men.

I've seen Barton Fink more times than I care to admit (and read several critics' takes on it) and just hate it. I love the idea of Hudsucker and its various references to old movies, but wish it had a stronger script. O Brother and Lebowski are ones I'd like to re-visit every so often, but never quite get around to.

By coincidence, on Oscar weekend, we watched the movie that won Best Picture in 1971 (technically, as Oscar night for '71 movies was on April 10, 1972), The French Connection, one of the few Oscar winners I'd never seen before. The famous car chase scene (Gene Hackman in a car, chasing a elevated subway car) is indeed quite spectacular and Hackman is good, but otherwise it doesn't feel like a Best Picture; it feels like a big-budget version of Shaft. I liked the gritty feel of the film (shot almost entirely on the streets of New York) and seeing a young Roy Scheider (R.I.P.) who I loved in Jaws and All That Jazz. I think I've avoided seeing French Connection because it stole the Oscar that year from two of my favorite movies, Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show. I'm glad to have seen it, but I still think the other two movies got robbed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The man our grandmothers loved to hate

Just finished a book on Erich von Stroheim, the director, writer, and actor who was known for his movie roles as a cruel seducer of women who usually came to a bad end; in the silent era, he was called "The Man You Love to Hate." Producers weren't too fond of him, either, as he tended to spend a lot of money and shoot hours and hours of footage that was inevitably cut by the studios. Today, he's mostly known for two acting roles which fall outside of his silent movie persona: the aristocratic camp commandant in Grand Illusion (see the picture at right), and the creepy butler to (and ex-husband of) Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

The book, "Stroheim," was written by Arthur Lennig, a professor of cinema who supervised a restoration of one of Stroheim's early films, Foolish Wives. It presents itself (on the jacket flap and in the cover blurbs) as an in-depth biography, but it's really more an examination of Stroheim's work and public persona. Perhaps Lennig thought he couldn't compete with an earlier well-known bio, called "The Man You Love to Hate" (which I have not read), but despite its length (465 pages not counting the notes and bibliography), Stroheim the man remains at a remove here. Instead, Lennig devotes the bulk of the book to discussing in great detail the films Stroheim directed, and in slightly less detail the films he acted in--in some films, he did both. While I was glad to hear about these movies which are difficult to find today, the problem is that Lennig spends way too much time on plot summary (at tedious length). Anyone who reads my classic movie reviews on my other blog knows I like plot summary, but Lennig can take literally 20 pages to tell us what he should be able to tell us in two or three paragraphs. What little critical analysis he does is often confined to merely pointing out Stroheim's use of things like feet, Christmas, and the number 3 in his films, even in films in which he only acted. It's interesting but Lennig never develops these observations into anything that helps us know the man better. This is the rare movie personality bio that doesn't especially make me want to delve deeper into the subject's work--Lennig's earlier book on Bela Lugosi, reissued recently as "The Immortal Count," is similar in approach but better.

Friday, February 15, 2008

George Clooney & Lon Chaney Jr.

Stuck inside this week with blicky winter weather; not so bad to get snow days, but bad enough to wish it was worse so I would get a snow day. However, we did make it out to see Michael Clayton, the recent movie with George Clooney that has gotten a brief re-release thanks to some Oscar nominations. Clooney is a lawyer with a large firm who discovers some nasty goings-on by a multinational company which is fighting a major law suit over some damaging effects caused by one of their products. Tilda Swinton, brittle and nasty but vulnerable, is main counsel for the company; Tom Wilkinson is one of Clooney's fellow lawyers who has also discovered some secrets, goes a bit nuts in court one day (stripping naked and ranting), then goes on the run from both the corporation and his own law firm. The plot sounds a little complicated in summary, but it's easy to follow, despite a mostly unnecessary chronological disordering in the narrative structure. It's bleak stuff and feels fairly realistic until the ending, which takes a oddly Grishamesqe turn. Still, it's a solid adult movie--not as in sex and violence, but as in not about teenagers or superheroes or wizards. The characters all feel real and the acting is excellent. Even when Clooney is supposed to look tired and sweaty and done-in, he still never looks less than adorable, but frankly, that's a plus in my book.

We also watched a weird little cult item called Spider Baby, a mid-60's horror flick with Lon Chaney Jr. as the guardian for a family of inbred degenerate
cannibals--it's explained that they suffer from a "syndrome" that causes family members to regress into a "pre-natal" mental state (see a pic of the crazy sisters at right). The film feels like it must have been an influence on the later Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though it's not gory at all. In fact, despite the unpleasant subject matter (and a couple of deaths and a rape), the tone of the movie is rather light. Apparently it's being remade and will certainly be much more graphic in its gore, but there's something to be said for a film in which the goriest touch is a (patently fake) human ear lying on the floor--no blood, no connective tissue, no Dolby Digital skin-ripping sounds.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Does Time Warner bite?

I have been a fairly contented customer of Time Warner Cable for around thrity years now. My family was one of the first to get Warner's Qube network back in the late 70's, a cable system with an interactive component, and ever since, whenever I've had cable, I've had Time Warner Cable, at first because they were the only choice in my neighborhood and later out of true choice (and because right now we're bundled with their RoadRunner internet access).

But I'm on the verge of leaving them. For the past two or three years, ever since they went digital, we've had problems. First we had lots of pixilation and freezing, and trading in our box a couple of times mostly fixed that. Now we have had a major return of another problem: some channels go to jet black screens. This happens on occasion with a handful of channels, mostly ones we don't watch all that much like FX and the Disney Channel, but a couple that we do watch, like the local weather radar (yes, I'm a weather geek, but that's a whole other blog post) and WSYX, our ABC affiliate. Last year, we sat down to watch the Oscars and had a black screen. We called, they did something from their HQ, but it didn't help and we couldn't see any of the show.

We don't really watch much ABC, so I haven't noticed many problems lately--we were able to watch Pushing Daisies this past fall and only one episode started freezing and breaking up--but when we decided to try Lost again last week (and the new show Eli Stone), we got the return of the dreaded black screen all night long. A phone call offered the usual list of things they could do (new box, visit by a worker) that never work, so we basically hung up. My mother, who lives in a different city nearby, has the same problem and the cable man who came to give her a new box told her that it probably wouldn't help, that they just don't know what the problem is. Sure enough, it didn't help, and she (also a 30-year Time Warner customer) is switching to a new AT&T cable service.

What is most frustrating is that, when you call to complain, the person on the other end (maybe in Ohio, maybe in Madagascar) acts like it's a problem he or she has never heard of, yet my mother's cable guy knew about it, and several acquaintances of ours, who live in different parts of the Central Ohio region, have the same problem. One person I know hasn't been able to get ABC for over a year now. A quick Google check shows that variations on this problem have been reported in other cities as well. Going digital has its advantages, but honestly we've had far more problems with picture quality since then. I like Time Warner and I love the DVR we have; we have to do some serious thinking about this, because I'm used to easy time shifting, and we'd have to get a Tivo or other option if we went to another cable system or satellite company. I don't like change, but we may be on the verge of a major one soon!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Across the Universe Day

I don't go to Beatles fan conventions and I don't really collect Beatles memorabilia (though I do own quite a small library of Beatles books), but I'm enough of a Beatles geek to participate in Across the Universe Day. From

"Monday, February 4th 2008 is the exact 40th anniversary of the Beatles recording their anthem of universal peace - "Across The Universe" - in 1968. To mark the occasion, Beatles fans worldwide are invited to play that Beatles song at the same time of day - creating a harmonic convergence around the globe. And the Beatles' universal message will NOT be restricted to Planet Earth! The US Space Agency NASA will play a major part in the celebrations by beaming the song "Across The Universe" literally Across The Universe! NASA is going to transmit the Beatles tune from a satellite antenna directly into outer space! And it will do this at the exact same time as fans Across The World are playing "Across The Universe!"

I'm working at the library tonight, at the public reference desk, but I'll have "Across the Universe" on my iPod, both the Let It Be mix and an alternate mix, and at 7:00 p.m., EST, which is when NASA will be doing its beaming, I'll join in and play those versions, only for myself to hear, it's true, but according to the website, that's allowed. I have to admit that I never quite saw the song as an "anthem for universal peace," more as a song about the individual's search for peace and meaning and communication in the world [universe], but it is one of my favorite Beatles songs, so I'll play it and hum along quietly so as not to startle the patrons.

While we were discussing this event the other day, a co-worker asked me if the chorus went "Nothing's gonna change my world," or "Nothing's gonna chain my world." I told her it was "change." She said she'd been singing the "chain" version all these years, but that actually either version made sense, and she's right. Maybe it makes even more sense; did John Lennon really mean that nothing should change our worlds? For someone who spent much of his public time trying to change people's minds, that doesn't seem right. I'm sure there's some "Transcendental Meditation" meaning to the chorus, but either way, it's a lovely song filled with lovely images that I'll be pleased to listen to tonight, along with thousands of other Beatle fans and, as Paul McCartney has noted, perhaps a few space aliens.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Good Matt, bad Eli

Our weekend DVD viewing:

1) The Good Shepherd (2006), an overlong but engrossing fictionalization of the early years of the CIA, from WWII to the Kennedy era, as seen through the eyes of one man, played by Matt Damon. As is par for the course these days, the chronology is fractured for little reason; I think it would play out equally well in straight chronological order except for a bit that is dragged out over the entire film concerning the search for someone who whispered Bay of Pigs plans in a whore's ear during sex.

Damon is recruited out of college (in fact, right out of the secret Yale organization, Skull and Bones) for intelligence work with the newly established OSS (Office of Stretegic Services) which morphed into the CIA after the war. His success in his work right through the Cold War up to the disastrous attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs is paralleled with his failures in his personal life--a shotgun marriage to rich girl Angelina Jolie, a broken relationship with his son, a lack of a sense of humor, and a growing inability to trust anyone (seen as a necessary trait for success in the spy business). The narrative seems influenced by The Godfathers I and II, though we don't get as solid a handle on Damon as we do on Pacino. The film, directed by Robert DeNiro, who also has a small but showy role, does move slowly but it always looks good, and most of the performances (especially by Michael Gambon, Lee Pace--now in "Pushing Daisies," Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, and Damon and Jolie) are excellent.

2) Hostel (2005), a horror film from director Eli Roth who is buddies with Quentin Tarentino--Quentin was an executive producer on this film, and Roth had a cameo in Grindhouse. I had never seen any films in the recent "torture porn" genre until now, and much as I like horror films, I really had no burning desire to sample these movies, but, sucker that I am for a pretty face, I was attracted to this one by the somewhat hunky hero, Jay Hernandez (pic at right). The plot has promise: a trio of incredibly obnoxious boy/men (two frat guys and one Icelandic husband and father who is still sowing his oates) are traveling across Europe looking for sex and drugs (there is very little rock & roll here). They get involved in a bizarre business in Bratislavia in which rich people pay lots of money to torture and murder innocent young people who are lured into the scheme. Of course, our trio are lured, tortured, and murdered, except for Hernadez who escapes and even manages to get some revenge in the end. The torture scenes are gross and depressing (I saw the unrated cut) but not especially "scary" (though the Bratislavian hostel has a nicely creepy vibe). All three guys are total assholes, so even though they may not deserve to have holes drilled into them, or have fingers sawed off, we have little empathy for them. A blicky little film with very little redeeming value. I thought Roth's first film, Cabin Fever, showed promise, but maybe not.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Not enough snow days!

I am almost always in the middle of reading two books at a time, but right now I seem to be in a veritable quagmire of "in the middles" and have been since the first of the year. My favorite read right now is "The Star Machine" by film historian Jeanine Basinger. Its thesis is to show how the big movie studios, from the 30's through the 50's, worked to produce stars, regardless of their acting ability, and how they were molded (sometimes literally, through plastic surgery and enforced diets) and sold to the public, how their movies and their personas were chosen, and what happened when the machine didn't quite work the way it was supposed to. However, this isn't a strongly thesis-driven book; it feels like Basinger had some essays lying around and decided to force them together into a framework. This isn't really a criticism, however, because it is such delightful reading. What I really appreciate is that she covers not the superstars like Bogart and Hepburn and Davis, but more of the second-tier names like Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Lana Turner whose names are known by most folks but whose movies largely go unseen today. For example, I imagine that most people know Flynn's name, but most could only name one of his films, Adventures of Robin Hood. She also devotes many pages to even lesser known names, like Jean Arthur, Deanna Durbin, and Dennis Morgan, and I'm looking forward to a later chapter called "Oddities and Character Actors." Quite fun reading, and a book I'm taking slowly on purpose because I don't want it to end.

Others I'm stuck in for less enjoyable reasons. One is a novel called "Zeroville" by Steve Erickson. I've been tempted by his books (mostly surreal, vaguely SF tales) before, but this is the first I've stuck with past a few pages. Its protagonist is a manchild named Vikar who verges on the autistic (he has a hard time reading emotions and recognizing irony) and who had a troubled childhood (his father thinks God's biggest mistake was in stopping Abraham from killing his son), but who loves the movies. He arrives in Los Angeles in the late 60's with a shaved head on which is a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Motgomery Clift in a shot from A Place in the Sun, and the tattoo seems to be a test for the other characters; if they know it's Taylor and Clift, they're good, but if they think it's James Dean and Natalie Wood, screw 'em. Vikar gets a job working on movie sets and is taken up by some Hollywood insiders, some real (one character who is named only Viking Man is almost certainly the writer and director John Milius), some not--I've googled "Dorothy Langer," a film editor who befriends Vikar and she seems to be an invention. I can't really bring myself to care much about Vikar or the people who drift in and out of his life, but the book is drenched in movie atmosphere and trivia, and many times, movies and people aren't named directly, and it's a lot of fun to figure out what he's referring to. Since it's set in the 70's and Vikar loves older movies, I'm getting almost all the references so far, which frankly is what's keeping me from deciding not to finish the book.

Other books near my bed with bookmarks in the middle include "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann (this is the second time I've tried to read this, and I've gotten stuck at the same place, around page 75), a biography of Erich von Stroheim by Arthur Lennig (not very well written, but the subject is interesting), and "Can't Buy Me Love" by Jonathan Gould, about the Beatles, their influence on culture, and culture's influence on them. I really need a few good snow days so I can break this literary logjam!