Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Tribute to Cloris Leachman For Speaking Out Against Animal Abuse

I love Cloris Leachman, and among my friends in the blogosphere, I know I am not alone.

It might be easy to dismiss the 85-year-old  Leachman as a comic self-parody, one of a number of aging performers who have re-invented themselves as adorable, slapstick jokesters.  A contemporary of Betty White, some may even write Leachman off as a pale imitation.

This would be unfair to both performers, who have had long careers as funny women.  Leachman's appearances for Mel Brooks (especialy Frau Blucher---n-e-e-e-e-i-i-i-gh-gh-gh!) and her recurring role as Phyllis on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"  have endeared her to millions over the decades. 

Leachman, however, will always have my respect, love, and gratitude, for creating one unforgettable screen character in particular.. 

Anyone who has seen "The Last Picture Show" will never forget Leachman's portrayal of Ruth Popper, the desperately lonely wife of a Texas high-school coach in 1951. During her agonizing final scene with Timothy Bottoms, audiences watched stunned, sympathetic and taken aback by the explosive power her character unleashed on the boy who stirred her long-buried passions, and then betrayed her; and felt her her self-resignation, and healing forgiveness, at the final dissolve.

Leachman elevates the film to even higher realms of art in these moments.  Even if she had not received a well-deserved Oscar for it in 1971, this performance would be burned into my memory.

And now, I love and respect Leachman even more for her recent piece in The Huffington Post (Don't Cover Up Animal Cruelty, April 27) in which she speaks out against a heinous law being considered in Iowa, which actually just passed in the Iowa House.  The law basically forbids anyone from photographing farm animals without permission from the owner.

Legislators have introduced this bill to protect factory farms from being exposed as hell-holes for innocent cows, pigs, and chickens raied for food.  Organizations like PETA and Mercy for Animals have effected successful prosecutions of dairy and other farmers for heinous treatment, based on the evidence of undercover videos taken on these farms.

It is a sorry day when lawmakers spend valuable time providing statutory protections for animal cruelty.

Leachman tells us what the consequences of the bill would mean to crusaders who act out of sympathy for these suffering creatures:

If HF 589 becomes law, whistle-blowers who try to expose cruelty to animals in the meat, dairy or egg industries could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, face criminal prosecution and be ordered to pay heavy fines or even serve jail time. That's a harsher punishment than the actual perpetrators of animal abuse receive, in many cases.
Stories like this one from Iowa send me toward the edge of despair.  What helps bring me back for a while are the actions of those like Cloris Leachman who use their celebrity and good-will to champion for the unfortunate, those without a voice, the animals among us who live for our sake, and don't deserve a miserable existence.

And so I thank you, Cloris Leachman.  I would not presume that she would want to read my words here....but if any of you happen to know her, feel free to forward this tribute to her.

And, for those of you who may only know of Cloris from her appearance on "Dancing With the Stars", I am embedding the famous scene from "The Last Picture Show". So if you have not seen the film, this could be a spoiler...and I would urge you to find it, and give it a look.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama's Birth Certificate: Time To Call Their Bluff

Good to be back...a lot to catch up on....Cloris Leachman speaking up for abused animals...the death of the "Poetry Man" singer....and some interesting movies to share and review...but tonight, I must rant....
President Obama's disclosure of his long form Birth Certificate was, as some have opined, an unfortunate day for this country and for Enlightenment in general.  This President, unlike any other, had to finally take steps to halt a dangerous juggernaut launched by a group of "infantile" Americans (aka cranky Republicans). 

He did this for the sake of enlightened voters who reside in "backward" States; he did this to prevent his own name from being left off any state's Presidential election ballot.

A number of  state Legislators, basking in the support of the cretins they call their "base", have sponsored "birther" bills.  These bills require Presidential candidates to offer proof of their natural-born citizenry, or else have their names withheld from the ballots in their states.

Had this been an issue in, say, 1948, I would say this is a reasonable request in order to uphold Constitutional eligibility to hold the office.

But now, during this Presidency, it appears an nothing more than a case of blatant racism. No one has convinced me that this sudden call for "proof" from Mr. Obama was urgently needed for the good of Americans everywhere.

For a list of states who have sponsored these bills, check out this good article in the Daily Kos.. All of the bills were sponsored by Republicans. Most of them failed in Committee.

A bill was recently passed by the Arizona legislature but vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, who surprised her party by claiming that the issue was a "distraction" and that we have to "move on". 

The Arizona bill, had it passed, would have considered as legitimate proof of American citizenship, in addition to Birth Certificates, such documents as an early baptismal certificate, circumcision certificate, hospital birth record, postpartum medical record signed by the person who delivered the child or an early census record.

I would love to see a political movement that would demand a circumcision certificate from a female Presidential candidate.  Call it the Wee Party.

President Obama had urgent reason to produce this document. It was a smart political move. In a time when states can pass such laws to prevent its citizens from voting for legitimate candidates with "Trumped-up" accusations of questionable citizenship, and all with the blessing of an incredibly ignorant electorate-- Mr.Obama did the right thing.

I wish he would take it a step further, if only for the sake of irony.  I wish he would state publicly that he supports any state legislature to pass laws to withhold the name of any candidate who could not show proof of citizenry with a birth certificate. I wonder how many potential candidates would pass scrutiny.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Time For A Checkup

Both my laptop and I are in need of a rest.

Hibernation for an evening or two sounds nice. 

While my machine is at the "geek-spa", I'll re-visit some old DVD's, catch up on reading....and regenerate some energy for a full weekend ahead.

Hopefully nothing more than "Spring Fever".  An overloaded desktop, an overwhelmed spirit. 

After "recovery", I'll be back with more reviews, and hopefully some nuggets of reasonable intelligence and interest...

I will check in with all of you as time and access to a healthy computer allow.

See you all in a day or two!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Cannes Preview: 2011 Competition, and the 2010 Palme d'Or

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11-22.  From my reading about the upcoming event, there's a lot to look forward to.  

This year, among the 22 films in competition are works by three of my favorite filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar, and Woody Allen.  World cinema is also represented by countries such as Japan, Turkey, and Australia, as well as European cinema powerhouses like  France, Italy Denmark and the United Kingdom.

The competition Jury President this year is Robert DeNiro, and among the Jury members are Jude Law, Uma Thurman, and Lin Ullmann, writer and daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.

Apart from the familiar directors and personalities, I am anxious for the possibility of an unknown film by an unfamiliar director to make an impression and break out for international distribution.

For a complete list of the competing films, click here .

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Coming Soon: A review of the 2010 Palme d'Or winner, the unusual and meditative "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", which finally opened in Chicago for a limited run.

The Royal Wedding Goes to the Dogs


Wouldn't this be a cute twist on the Royal Wedding, all in good fun?

It is hard to avoid news of Prince William and Kate Middleton's Wedding this coming Friday.  I have heard that Londoners may try to escape the madness.  (I, myself, regretfully turned down my invitation...!)

While the media will, as always, over-analyze everything and hype it to death, it's an event that happens maybe only once a generation; and from what I have seen, I like the bride and groom.  I wish them much happiness.

Most of all, I appreciate the Royal Family's long-running love and care for their dogs.  I have mixed emotions about Royalty and its  function or necessity.  But as this Monarch is a dog-lover, I must  acknowledge her. 

If I owned a TV network, ALL of my coverage of the wedding would be through the eyes of the ten dogs currently occupying the Palace.

It would be the most frolicsome reality show since the Puppy Bowl (Animal Planet's counter-program to American Football's Super Bowl).

For over 30 years, Queen Elizabeth has continued the Royal tradition of keeping Welsh Corgi's.  Now, there is a hybrid in the clan...the Dorgi. 

Introducing the canine cast of royal characters:

Emma, Linnet, Holly, and Willow are Corgis; Cider, Berry, and Brandy are Dorgi's.  The Queen also looks after the late Queen Mother's three Corgis: Rush, Minnie and Monty.

So...what's a Dorgi?

Apparently, one of the Queen's Corgi's committed an indiscretion with Princess Margaret's Dachshund.  And a new breed was created:

Pembroke Welsh Corgi


= The Dorgi

You just have to love them!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"...Goon Squad": Sneak Preview of 2011 Pulitzer Winner for Fiction

I had not heard of Jennifer Egan's sprawling novel "A Visit From the Goon Squad" until this week, when I learned that it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Given that THE high-profile literary event this year was Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom", it came as a surprise that Franzen was not even cited among the other two finalists (those being "The Privileges" by Jonathan Dee and "The Surrendered" by Chang Rae-lee.)

Now that I know something about Egan's prize-winning novel, I can't wait to read it.  From the book's description, it seems to be a complex interconnecting of characters in a story about the music industry, and about Baby Boomers aging in a world of runaway technology.  The "goon" in the title is, apparently, the relentless passage of time, from whose visitation none of us escapes.  In a terrific book review in The Guardian , critic Justine Jordan remarked as follows:

"Throughout the novel, characters strain to apprehend time and its effects on the flux of personality – that desire, as Sasha puts it, to be able to say "I'm changing I'm changing I'm changing: I've changed!" Egan's chronologically jumbled structure is the perfect vehicle to express this, shuttling the reader between prophecy and hindsight."
I was immediately attracted to this, because I would like to think, in some very modest way, I am doing the same thing with this journal.

I re-visit the past (favorite films, personal anecdotes about growing up), write about things I love, share new endeavors, and comment on this obstacle-course of a world.  I do this in order to find acceptance, cry foul if justified, and make personal discoveries. I want to entertain my friends, and feed my art....It is sometimes like a river changing its course, sometimes like a butterfly's metamorphosis.  "Prophecy and hindsight."  Yes!

The idea of "reinventing" one's self: of trying intentionally to effect life changes, of returning to the guideposts of one's history, of losing one's way before suddenly realizing something HAS changed....that is what I have hoped to chronicle on these "pages".  

I feel like I am in the very midst of this journey, not only of finding new purpose, while making my current strengths more meaningful, but of continuing to define the meaning of "reinvention". 

It is the kind of artistic expression promised by novels such as "A Visit From The Goon Squad" that can help refresh one's efforts, renew one's inspiration, and offer new directions.

Whether I leave a legacy of film reviews or fiction, whether I have an epiphany in another part of the world, whether I find life's meaning among the voiceless creatures around us...that's what I continue to seek, with this Journal as my playground, my laboratory, my stage.

* * * *
A full list of Pulitzer Winners can be found here.  Those of you I follow here, and who are kind enough to signal their visits with comments, will one day be on this Pulitzer list....and I hope to join you.

I was happy to see that our own Chicago Sun Times was victorious in the category of Local Reporting, for their series on the devastation that gun violence has on Chicago neighborhoods (Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim).  The beleaguered Sun-Times needed this recognition, its first Pulitzer since 1989.  (Roger Ebert won the Prize for his film criticism in 1975.) 

The massive snowstorm in early February almost cost them the award.  It was the final day to submit entries, with few forms of transportation running on the treacherous roads, and the journalists were desperate to get their work out on time.  Finally, a lone UPS worker who was still at the office scanned the package and the delivery was made on time.  The rest is Pulitzer history.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Riddance

"...he intimated that he regrets becoming an actor in the first place, and that if the public completely rejected him, he'd have no problem never appearing in a film again."  (Huffington Post)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The 30-Dollar On-Demand Movie Rental--Thursday Journal

On the face of it, it seemed like the beginning of the end of the theatrical movie experience.

Some studios are partnering with a major Video On Demand company to offer home viewers a chance to rent movies at least 60 days after the film begins its theatrical run. Many of these movies will still be playing in theaters.  The rental is roughly $30 for a 48-hour home rental.   With dwindling revenues from DVD sales, and flat (or declining) box office receipts, studios are looking for a new business model to earn revenue from their pictures.

(Read the full story in Entertainment Weekly here.)

Two dozen powerful Hollywood directors signed a petition in protest against this practice, stating that it would have a detrimental effect on film exhibition, and would keep potential theatergoers at home.  Filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson issued the signed document which contained a summary statement of their concern:
"...we ask that our studio partners do not rashly undermine the current - and successful - system of releasing films in a sequential distribution window that encourages movie lovers to see films in the optimum, and most profitable, exhibition arena: the movie theaters of America."
(Although it seems odd to hear this message from some of the same people, like Cameron, who inspired the idea of mass-production of 3-D films to provide enough programming for home 3-D entertainment systems...but I digress...)

Your humble narrator has always been a champion of the theatrical movie experience, so my first reaction was similar to those of the directors who have spoken out. 
And then, I found out that the premiere film of this new Video On Demand launch would be none other than--"Just Go With It"--!  The Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston film that almost nobody wants to see in theaters, and that scored a whopping 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, is the inaugural offering by which the success of the program will be judged. 
On that basis, filmmakers might not have much to be afraid of.  Now, if the latest Harry Potter, or Christopher Nolan, were offered on the home screen while they still played in theaters, that might cause concern among Directors whose livelihoods depend on theatrical receipts. 
(I kind of suspect that the uproar is less about artistic choices for moviegoers and more about filmmakers being left out of a lucrative deal.)
I don't care for the idea myself. I think movies as an art form were meant to be experienced theatrically.  This will not always be possible, but for the duration of a fim's run, it should have a fighting chance. It seems barely one step removed from piracy. 
Also, if smaller theaters do close, because they can no longer compete, it is the "art" film, and foreign and independent films, that risk losing their home for theatrical distribution.  We endanger ourselves of losing one of our cultural touchstones...going out to a movie, to experience "ars gratia artis".  It would be like having McDonalds as one's only choice for dining out.

BUT WAIT! Why is Hollywood blind to the fact that there are millions of potential theatergoers between the ages of 40 and 70, people who were raised on movies when films were edgy, challenging, and diverse?  When a film clicks with this audience now, these folks will come back to the theater.  Why not take note, and create more substantial fare?  Is it that Hollywood just doesn't know how to make, or promote, this kind of movie any more, except maybe four or five times a year?
Cinema has endured the advent of television, computers, download-able devices, home video and NetFlix.  Sure, audiences are a bit smaller, just like they were when TV was new.  And yes, Hollywood tried gimmicks then too (like 3-D!!) to keep people coming to the theater.  What finally worked was that there were fewer movies made, but of better quality, and they appealed to a broader audience.  
To ensure a bigger theatrical audience, why can't the answer once again be: Make Better Movies?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Danish Oscar-Winner "In A Better World"

This year's Oscar-winning Foreign language film,  Denmark's "In A Better World", brings us into the world to two boys. Their friendship, tests of loyalty, and horrific outbursts of violence against those who wronged them, slyly suggest the fear of loneliness and desire for belonging that reside in the seeds of terrorism.

In a parallel story, the father of one of the boys is a sometime doctor in an African community being terrorized by a tyrant. The dilemmas build on top of one another as the doctor's genteel methods of resolving conflict at home are harshly put to the test in a brutal life-or-death struggle.

Can cultures ignore the brutality inflicted on civilians across the globe?  Must we intervene?  Must we hang up our ideals when dealing with primal violence? Director Susanne Bier builds a sly complex of ethical questions that are effectively dramatized.

Anton, the doctor, (Mikael Persbrandt) is father to the shy boy who is bullied at his school. To this boy's rescue comes Christian, a new student, whose mother has just died of cancer.  Christian's father is consumed with grief, but it becomes apparent that he can only relate to his son as a buddy, and misses the danger signals of Christian's growing depression, anger, and obsession for revenge.

One of the things I liked best about "In A Better World" were the rich characterizations.  I also enjoyed the subtle music score, and the transitional cutaways to closeups of natural beauty that exist unhindered by human foibles.

 "In A Better World" could not be more timely.  It treats a number of contemporary issues, like school bullying, peer pressure, global injustice and terror, intervention in world conflict, parental guidance and communication in the face of parental loneliness and grief, the attractions and dangers of hero-worship, the darkness that leads to suicidal behavior, and the courage to stand by one's cultivated convictions.

Moreover, it is an entertaining and often unnerving film.

As is characteristic of the European films I've seen  here lately, the film plays like more polished and professional American independent film.  The difference is that "In A Better World" really moves, and turns up the intensity on audience's allegiances, and emotions. 

Without the pushy musical cues and generic fast cuts commonly used in American dramas to telegraph how the audience should react, there were moments when I was as tense and angry as I have been recently at a movie. I felt an animated, almost physical release, during the outbursts of violence.

This film is the proverbial hammer inside the velvet glove. The surface is soft, even lush. The photography is gorgeous, as is fitting for the awesome Danish countryside, and  haunting color in the African landscape, in some of the best camerawork since "The Killing Fields".  But the film packs a wallop, and is sometimes painful, but softens toward the end for a welcome conventional conclusion.

There were moments when I wasn't sure I liked the film, or at least the effect it had on me.  Effective propaganda rouses one's deepest angers and fears. And I don't like seeing children in peril. Yet the story is scripted in such a skillful way.  The actors, both boys (William Johnk Nielsen is brilliant as the brooding Christian and Gabriel Muli as the brave Laege) and their adult supporting players, handle their roles in a mature and matter-of-fact way.

If Oscar has any value, it is to bring to audience's attention movies like this that would be undeservedly ignored otherwise.  "In A Better World" was worthy of recognition, and has an appeal universal enough to do very well across boundaries and cultures.  You may not agree with its political posture, but you cannot deny its irresistible characters in very human, very real personal dilemmas.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Remembering Sidney Lumet, and "The Pawnbroker"

Sydney Lumet died last week.  Another hero of the American screen is gone....
"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--Sidney Lumet
Until he died I never saw this quote.  I cannot offer anything better by way of characterizing the kind of filmmaker Lumet was, or why a few of his movies stand out as essential viewing for me.

Through only a handful of titles, he helped influence my way of regarding films, and my attitudes of the world as well.  The quote by Lumet, describing the potential of film and the responsibility of serious filmmakers, summarizes my own view, word for word.

Maybe that's why I have always been unusually drawn to the satisfactions offered by the movies he made. Lumet was not known for a particular style of film or for a recognizable cinematic technique. I will remember him for the kinds of subjects he would tackle, subjects that forced me to examine myself and the larger world.

Lumet never won a competitive Oscar. Every time he was nominated, another film captured the popular imagination more. He wanted to win, badly, and believed he deserved to on a few occasions. Maybe it was his devotion to New York that made him an outsider in Hollywood, where he never worked. Maybe his films bore the sting of truth, and voters were uneasy singling out his movies for the top award because they  were unflattering to themselves.

When I reviewed Lumet's Filmography after he died, I discovered that out of the 45-or-so pictures he directed, I have seen maybe only a dozen, at most. Of those, there are a few that are part of the grammar of my life, and are essential viewing.  I will briefly list these below, with an extended look at what I believe is Lumet's most important contribution to modern filmmaking: "The Pawnbroker."

SERPICO (1973):
It could be my memory of seeing this film at the Chicago Theater, an old movie palace that is now a live theater venue, that keeps this fondly in my list of top Lumet movies.  The awesome surroundings of the theater added to the mystique of this Al Pacino Oscar-nominee, the true story of Frank Serpico, an honest, hippie-like New York cop who endured a gunshot wound to the face and lived to stand up to corruption in the police force.  Pacino was animated and likable, one year after his brooding first round as Michael Corleone.  I still remember the music by Greek composer Mikis Theodorikis.  Lumet's camera was alternately down-and-dirty in the New York streets and admiring of its protagonist. I loved Pacino's portrayal, and his Serpico poster portrait graced college dorm rooms for years.

A departure for Lumet in subject matter only, as he deftly kept things lively aboard a stranded European train in this delightful Agatha Christie murder mystery with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.  What was not new to Lumet was his incredible facility with top actors, and this was an all-star cast: John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael York, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Laren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and surprise Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman (her third!).  On the surface this was a breezy and suspenseful exercise in film craft and ensemble acting. Geoffrey Unsworth's masterful photography and the music of Richard Rodney Bennett carried this along until the mystery is solved...and a moral dilemma is left to ponder.

It's sad that almost a year ago to the day, I highlighted this film in connection to the death of its outstanding Hollywood film editor, Dede Allen.  This is classic Lumet: a true story of the New York streets; characters in extraordinary circumstances; a protagonist who is an obsessed loner; a moral quandary; an entertaining and important subject done well by a crack screenplay; and actors given the support and direction they needed to perform at their peak.  At the heart of the film is a relationship between two men, one of whom will do anything to secure the money needed to effect their eventual marriage.  This was gripping, exhilarating, and way ahead of its time.  Pacino, again turning up the heat, and Chris Sarandon (Susan's ex) as Leon, Pacino's "wife".  John Cazale makes an iconic appearance too.

NETWORK (1976):
This is Lumet's masterpiece, his enduring legacy, and Lumet's best-known picture.  It's one of my favorite films by any Director or Writer.  Admittedly, the lion's share of this film's success belongs to Paddy Chayefsky for his visionary screenplay, a story about what happens when a 4th-rate TV network exploits the mental illness of its news anchor, and hands over its news branch to be programmed by the Entertainment Division. But Lumet found the tone, offered a fertile creative atmosphere, and brought in a classic of all time.  It was a comedy of absurd proportions---in the 1970's.  Shockingly, much of what was depicted as comedy is now accepted as routine practice.  Peter Finch was ouststanding as Howard Beale, the suicidal anchor who gets a "new lease on life" by being allowed to rant live on-camera, and who delivers the film's classic "Mad as hell" line. The film juggles a number of subplots, one involving a Patty Hearst-style kidnapping (developed into a weekly series, arguably the first "reality" show), and an affair between an aging newsman (William Holden) and a shallow, single-minded bitch of a Programming Director (Faye Dunaway).  Finch, Dunaway, Chayefsky, and Beatrice Straight (for her six-minute powerhouse monologue) all won Oscars.  Lumet, and the film, were robbed.  "Rocky" was that year's popular choice.

I would argue that "The Pawnbroker" is one of the most powerful films ever made in the U.S.  I would also contend that it was this film that exploded the Production Code, and the taboos surrounding what could be depicted on American movie screens.  It paved the way for adult fare that could be treated seriously, like "Virginia Woolf" and "Blow-up". 

Without the courage of Sidney Lumet and "The Pawnbroker", the innovative 1960's film renaissance might have taken much longer to develop, if it developed at all.

I watched "The Pawnbroker again last week.  Even by today's standard, a complacent acceptance of almost any on-screen atrocity, this is still a shocking, gripping and uncompromising film.  It is in-your-face, with no sentimentality or comfortable resolution.

Rod Steiger is Sol Nazerman, a harrowed survivor of the Nazi death camps, numbly earning a living as a proprietor of a shady pawn shop in a New York slum.  He supports the oblivious suburbanite family of his deceased wife's sister, mentors a young Hispanic man (named Jesu) who is trying to break away from the local crime boss (and Nazerman's employer), and fends off the attentions of a well-meaning and lonely social service worker.

Nazerman has grown a hard and angry shell, so that he can endure the constant reminders of the horrors that eventually took his family from him.  He fights so hard to numb himself against pain, and alienate anyone who might rekindle his tender feelings, that by the film's end he is consumed by pain.  He realizes that his very existence depends on the kinds of exploitation that lead to the suffering of his wife in the camps, that anyone he ever cares for will suffer, and that there is "nothing he can do". 

Steiger nearly melts a hole in the screen with his quiet and building intensity.  His work here ranks among the best that has ever been committed to film.  (In Oscar's long-running popularity contest, voters passed over Steiger in favor of Lee Marvin in "Cat Ballou".)

I can't imagine how audiences reacted to this in 1965.  The look and sound of the film is unpolished and has neorealistic immediacy.  The unusual balance of power and corruption between the races is unconventional and jarring. The controversial segment involving a naked prostitute, whose bared breasts remind Nazerman of the indignities suffered by his wife, is far from erotic, but heartbreaking, and it makes a moral point.

This still has the power to rattle one's sensibilities.  I credit Lumet with extending his artists full latitude to be creatively free, while providing a consistent tone, look and sound to the finished product.

Along with a simmering screenplay, there's film editor Ralph Rosenblum's experimental (at the time) use of "shock-cuts" to suggest Nazerman's fractured memories.  I long for this film grammar to be used again.   Quincy Jones' wildly discordant score, going from plaintive string-and harpsichord to late-night-jazz brass, is brilliantly right in providing mood and texture. 

(One of Jones' numbers, used during a steamy hotel tryst, was written in 1962 and was called "Soul Bossa Nova".  It will produce an unfortunate laugh now, because Jones also used it, at Mike Meyer's request, in the opening dance sequence in "Austin Powers").

By 1965, audiences had been exposed to the horrors of the death camps in "Judgment at Nuremburg" and "Night and Fog". It would be another 27 years before Spielberg completed "Schindler's List", which gave a more emotional, even sentimental account of Jewish persecution.  Still, "Schindler's List" was often a bitter tonic. It owes something to "The Pawnbroker", which is like that same tonic in concentrated form.

Sidney Lumet--1924-2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Source Code" Fast and Honest Fun

"Source Code" is an effective, cleanly made action thriller.  The film is perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon, or an evening with friends wishing for a concentrated dose of good old movie excitement. It's the kind of entertainment Hollywood does better than anyone else: a good mix of attractive screen actors playing their roles perfectly, a quick pace, an original concept with a script that handles the exposition efficiently, and strong direction (by Duncan Jones) with professional support by all craftsmen and crew. 

After a few days, the plot holes may fade into the mind's view, but "Source Code" is such a nice mix of adrenaline and heart that the good will lingers. 

It has been described as "Inception" meets "Groundhog Day".  That doesn't begin to tell how enjoyable this is.

(This review has been phrased to avoid spoilers...)

When you look at a bright image for a while, and then close your eyes suddenly, the image is fixed in your sight for a few seconds.  According to the premise of "Source Code", a similar phenomenon occurs in the brain after you die.  The final eight-minute swath of memory can be preserved, harnessed and planted into the brain of a living person.  All of this is explained by quantum physics, and string theory, and other all-purpose, catch-all concepts that describe the paranormal.  

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, whose brain activity is used for a mysterious military mission to prevent a terrorist bombing aboard a Chicago commuter train.  Michelle Monaghan is Christina, a passenger who knows Gyllenhaal's "host" character and is unaware of Colter's mission. 

The film proceeds in eight-minute increments, with each segment revealing more information.  As the audience learns more, the suspense increases.  After the first segment or two in which we are groping in the dark, we become accomplices in Coulter's mission, and the movie becomes great fun.  By the final twenty minutes we're breathlessly identifying the correct suspect and hoping his horrible deed can be halted. 

At mission control is Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), whose objective becomes complicated by her response to Coulter as a human being and not just a scientific object.  Farmiga is wonderful, modulating her reactions in an original and thoroughly convincing way. Her one word response to Colter's direct question about his condition, and her little catch afterward, is terrific.

Jeffrey Wright is a wee bit too sinister as the commander, Dr. Rutledge.  This caricature may not be entirely Wright's fault; is seems that his role was shortened in the editing room, so we get only the barest hint of his military service, and why he uses a cane. 

As an actor, Gyllenhaal possesses large, soulful eyes that I would describe as sympathetic.  He uses them to connect emotionally with his fellow actors, and the viewer. We can't help but root for him, and be moved by a nice subplot in which Coulter wants to make amends with his grieving father. 

Monaghan has a nice chemistry with him on the screen, as she begins to doubt her easy knowledge of this passenger with whom she wants to build a relationship.  I would say that both actors are doing their best work here; especially Gyllenhaal, who has developed a maturity and nice command of his presence in front of the camera.

Seeing this in a crowded theater in Arizona was a fun 90 minutes for this native Chicagoan; Chicago looks wonderful on-screen, and the recreated train sets were authentic-looking (even if the routes used in the film were stitched together for dramatic flow). 

During the explosions between each 8-minute segment, Chicagoans will recognize snippets of the Bean in Millenium Park, which is used to great effect at the film's conclusion.  (Click here for a previous original post about the Bean).  At one point, when an imminent terrorist attack requires mass evacuation of the city, the overhead shots of the crowded roads look like a typical rush hour on the Stevenson or Kennedy Expressways. 

I might have ended the film a little differently, in which Gyllenhaal's "host" character carries on, and Coulter is allowed his wish.  It would fade out some time right after the freeze-frame; this would seem to make more sense within the film's own tricky logic. 

But I can't begrudge an ending in which love prevails, and it is suggested that the hero will go on to another mission; nor can I be too critical of a film that manages to be exciting while stirring honest emotions,  and gently reminds us to ponder how we might live the final minute of our lives.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Final Arizona Postcard: Communing With Sparrows; Paying Respects

Always melancholy is the final day of my visit to Scottsdale.  I'm back in Chicago now, catching up on writing about events from the last day of our adventure.

Tuesday morning we decided to have a leisurely breakfast away from the condo. We had seen Arcadia Farms Cafe on numerous treks to Downtown Scottsdale, and even stopped last year.  The early morning sun, the delicately landscaped front garden, and the aroma of honeysuckle and orange blossoms invited us for a special morning.

While we sat at our patio table enjoying coffee and a starter strawberry shortcake (instead of the typical sweet roll), a small sparrow landed on the back of an unoccupied chair.

It boldly cocked its head in a brazen request for a handout.  Soon, two, three sparrows were on the chair or on the table, looking at us in silent animation, flying a short distance if we moved. 

The sparrows were tame, and used to taking handouts from softies like us.  They were cute and mischievous as puppies.  I broke off a piece of shortcake and dropped it.  All three dashed to the ground to get their share. 

One had a big crumb sticking on his beak, looking like as if to say, "It wasn't me!!"

All through breakfast these sparrows kept us company.  I talked to them. But I resisted any further feedings.

After the meal, as Mark went to wash up, one of the more colorful sparrows returned, landed on the edge of Mark's dish, and started taking bits of food!  Until the server came and took it all away.

A small, unimportant event in the scheme of things.  Still, I will never forget it.
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Later on Tuesday afternoon I paid my respects to Sam and Lucy, my grandparents.

Lucy died in 1985; Sam in 2001.  They rest next each other in St. Francis Cemetery, in a tranquil vault with a perpetually running fountain right in front of them.

(It's fitting that they are in a place named after the patron saint of animals, Italy, and the environment.)

It was an emotional, reflective, beautiful moment.
The two chairs sitting outside of the condo where they lived, and where we now visit, seemingly remain unoccupied, but in memory at least, they are still there...

And so, after a final dinner at our favorite Tortilla factory, and one last trip to the Gelato Spot, we were ready to make our return trip.

Many thanks to all of you who "accompanied" us on our trip, by checking in, enjoying the "Post-Cards", and even sending messages of your own.

Coming for the weekend: Final thoughts on the Arizona adventure; Sidney Lumet's most influential films (to me); "Source Code".

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Arizona Postcards, Monday: Hiking and Baseball

If I could create a new line of work for myself, I would be known as The Professional Vacationer.  Not someone who travels just to complete a special  project and get paid; but one who makes lots of money simply for traveling, playing, and doing whatever one darned well pleases.

Like writing...Exploring.. Making plans.... Eating a little...We earn money simply for stimulating the economies of wherever we go...

Ah, fantasy...Something to sustain me on this, our last day of our visit to Arizona...

*        *        *


The hike through Papago Park on Monday was filled with unexpected wonders.  It's a 1200-acre expanse of desert with native plant life, small animals and songbirds, and dramatic 6-million-year-old rock formations waiting to be climbed.  It contains the Phoenix Zoo, Golf Course, and the aforementioned Botanical Gardens.  It is only a mile or so from our residence.

The Park was an original Reservation for the native Pima and Maricopa peoples.  It was also a WWII prison camp, from which 25 enemy prisoners escaped in 1944.  They eventually turned themselves back in due to the treachery and climate of the terrain.  Read here for a very brief history of this awesome place.

To visitors like Mark and me, Papago Park is inviting, and starkly beautiful.  Protected by safari hats and tons of sunscreen, we walked for a couple of hours, and our trek exercised our imaginations and our bodies. We pointed and laughed like kids when a large jackrabbit crossed our paths.  It was the largest rabbit I ever saw in nature. It's ears were enormous.

We were even fooled by a "Cactus-Rabbit..."

And found a "Monkey" in the rocks....

We hiked for several miles.  A highlight was our discovery of an old Amphitheater, whose "bleachers" are still used for special religious services and events. It was like an ancient Greek ruin...Mark (below) is ready for a performance...

The dormant performer in me was instantly aroused by the prospect of playing such a large and special house...

During the steep descent from one of our conquered peaks, I slipped on some loose gravel, and cursed the blue skies as I got off my butt and nursed my sore hands.  Fortunately, I was able to stop before rolling down the entire slope, or having my fall broken by a spiny saguaro.

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I am a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Cub fans are among the most long-suffering and loyal of any American sport.  It has been over 100 years since the Cubs won the World Series.

Mark, who is from St. Louis, is a rabid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Maybe because of the relative proximity of the two cities, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are bitter rivals. 

It is a small miracle that Mark and I speak to each other during the summer, let alone remain the best of friends.  To him, each game is like the Academy Awards to a movie-lover. 

I endure.

(To my loyal readers who live outside of The U.S., it might help explain the baseball rivalry by comparing it somewhat to some of the more contentious soccer competitions, like Liverpool vs. Manchester United, or Lazio vs. Roma, or Celtic vs. Rangers.)

Monday night, the Cardinals were in Phoenix to play the Arizona Diamondbacks and Mark got us two excellent seats.

Fortunately, the Cardinals won, ensuring that the duration of our trip would be an upbeat one.

I enjoyed:
the gently warm breezes;
the Electronic Scoreboard with the roving camera broadcasting shots from the crowd (especially the "Kiss Cam");
the diverse music over the loudspeaker (including, incredibly, the "Can-Can-Can" number from the film "Moulin Rouge");

And especially, my traditional menu of a hot dog, and roasted peanuts in the shell, which I have enjoyed at baseball games since I was a kid.