Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mitt Romney's Deception... I Have To Speak Out

Republican Presidential Hopeful Mitt Romney recently allowed a shockingly dishonest attack ad on TV.   The story was hot for a day or two, and then the media let it fade. 

This is the kind of story that should be played to death, until those responsible are forced to recapitulate, or apologize.  Even more shocking, there are scores of voters who actually fell for the ruse...or are willing to accept any lie that would hurt the reputation of Barack Obama.

In the ad, which was basically an attack ad on President Obama, Romney and his campaigners sought to cast doubt on Mr. Obama's commitment to help solve the country's economic problems.  They ran the film clip while in the background the President can be heard saying:

"If we keep talking about the economy, were going to lose."

Here's what Mr. Obama actually said, in context:

" opponent's (John McCain's)campaign announced earlier this month that they want to "turn the page" on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead. Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose..."

When questioned about this, a Romney spokesman defended it by saying that   "he did say the words... that was his voice." Romney himself responded thus:

"There was no hidden effort on the part of our was instead to point out that what's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander."

 No other explanation was offered, as though a line of honesty had not been crossed. 

Of course politicians are manipulative, dishonest, and are willing and able to say anything, even contradict themselves, to sway the opinions of the electorate. But how cynical must a candidate be?  How low must a candidate condescend?  What it the lowest common denominator to which a candidate has to appeal?  And why aren't more people, especially media watchdogs, still crying foul?

More people like Arianna Huffington, that is, who wrote a brilliant editorial in the November 29 2011 HuffPost ("Mitt Romney Brazenly Lies and the Media Let Him Slide")

My voice is barely audible...but I had to speak out.

If Mitt Romney is capable of this kind of unapologetic, outright lying to win the office, to what extent will he lie through his time in office?  It wasn't even a subtle act of re-interpreting a candidate against himself, but a lazy lie that is so easily exposed that voters ought to be insulted.

In the video below, the statement in question appears beginning at 7:10.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Short-Take #1 : Woody Allen and Me

Last week, PBS' "American Masters" broadcast a new 2-part documentary about the life and work of Woody Allen. 

In my post just before the program aired (PBS Reviews the Career of Woody Allen, Nov. 20), I promised to offer my thoughts on the show, plus a few words about why Allen has been a comic and cinematic hero to me.

Allen's career spans over 50 years, and has so many facets that it would be impossible to compress it all in a 3-hour program.  Still, the show did an amazing job taking the viewer from Allen's early days as a standup,to his first attempts at filmmaking, through his tabloid years (and various love-interests), to his maturation as a writer-director. Running through it all is Allen's remarkable feat; since 1970, he has written and directed on the average of one film every year. 

Allen tells much of the story in his own voice, appearing on-camera much of the time in exclusive interviews for the program. They are active interviews: he shows us the old manual typewriter on which he still writes his screenplays; shares with us a drawer-full of slips of paper with ideas that he is constantly generating; and responds with unusual warmth and candor to his acolytes and critics alike.  He does not come off as a pseudo-intellectual, nor a sleaze.  Best of all are the many film clips that are used to illustrate and enhance his personal story, clips from scores of his well-loved classic movies.

For me, personally, Allen was a creative inspiration.  I loved to write satire as a young student, and yearned to make readers laugh as hard as Allen had made me laugh.  His book, "Without Feathers", made my sides literally ache.  Too bad they didn't mention his book in the documentary; nor did they introduce one of Allen's earlier film projects, "What's Up, Tiger Lily", an actual Japanese spy film that Allen re-edited and dubbed with devastatingly naughty dialogue, that spoke to the perennial adolescent in me. 

But I reveled in utter joy as I re-lived the pleasures of his movies, and recalled the theaters filled with laughter, and the nearly empty matinees where my romantic pain as a young man was alleviated, in the company of the likes of Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser, Diane Wiest, Mia Farrow, Mariel Hemingway, Tony Bill, John Cusack, Jeff Daniels, Michael Caine, and Allen himself.  Allen spoke directly to me, like he was a wise college senior to my awkward freshman.  His intelligence was something I could aspire to, and his awkwardness something I could identify with, and not feel ashamed. Allen said it was okay to laugh, and so, I was able to laugh at myself.

"Sleeper", "Bananas", "Love and Death", "Interiors", "Manhattan", "Hannah and Her Sisters", "The Purple Rose of Cairo", "Radio Days", "Bullets Over Broadway", and my iconic favorite, the game-changer "Annie Hall", shaped my formative movie-going years, and my attitudes as to what a film could accomplish. They let me escape, not into fantasy, but into a vaguely familiar world that I could learn to manage. The laughter was healing.  A few of them may have saved my life on one or two occasions. 

My relationship with Allen's work has mellowed over the years.  I missed some of the later titles, but found the old enchantment in edgier works like "Match Point" and "Vicki Christina Barcelona".

With "Midnight in Paris", I feel like my painful adolescent and my wiser older self have come together to enjoy Allen's most magical piece of work since Alvy and Annie took that nostalgic trip to Coney Island.

Tuesday Short Take #2: The Movie Award Season Begins

Speaking of "Midnight in Paris",  I was excited to see Corey Stoll, playing an uber-masculine and sensitive Ernest Hemingway, nominated for an Independent Spirit Supporting Actor award!  He is worth the attention.

The Independent Spirit nominees for 2011 feature many of my favorite films and performances of the year, including "Paris", "Beginners", "Take Shelter", "50/50", "The Descendants",  and "Martha Marcy May Marlene".

Here's a complete list of Independent Spirit Nominees for 2011.

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It's ironic (and fun!), in a year that saw the preponderance of movie technology, special effects, CGI, 3-D, (and my laments about the empty bombast of it all), that the possible major-award-winner in 2011 might just be a black-and-white silent film, made in the same manner as the films of the 1920's!

"The Artist", the French valentine to movies and actors, has captured my imagination like no other film since "Tree of Life".

The New York Film Critics caused an artificial ruckus by being the earliest critic's group to reveal their awards for the year. The ruckus intensified when the group decided to delay the voting one day, to include a screening of "Girl With A Dragon Tattoo" (which, by the way, came away empty-handed), but not delayed enough to screen the not-yet-ready "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". 

I am so pleased that there are a lot of films this year that are worthy of attention.  Sure, there will be some good films that will be crowded out by those with a higher profile or bigger promotional budget.

 But the New York Film Critics Circle, I think, did themselves proud with this year's announcement of winners;  "The Artist" for film and Director; Brad Pitt awarded for "Moneyball" AND "Tree of Life"; Meryl Streep for "Iron Lady", "Moneyball" for Screenplay, "Tree of Life" for Cinematography; and Jessica Chastain ("The Help", Take Shelter", "Tree of Life") and Albert Brooks ("Drive") in Supporting Acting Categories.  (Click this Link for the full list of winners)

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And in the biggest surprise at all, the relatively new Gotham Independent Film Group last night awarded a tie for Best Picture to: the small, quirky, intimate "Beginners", and the ethereal, timeless, ambitious "Tree of Life". 

This could be an interesting Awards season!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Broadway in Chicago: "Memphis" Rocks the House

2010's Tony Award-Winning Best Musical "Memphis" made a 2-week stop at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theater, bringing enough energy and heart to warm the whole city.

This is a pulsing, joyous, "fantastical" entertainment featuring original music done in the spot-on style of 1950's rock-and-blues, covering the same period of time in the same tradition as "Hairspray" and "Jersey Boys", but tempered with a sad and ominous underside: the violent ignorance and racism of the era.  The music is raucous and tuneful, coupled with rollicking "Bandstand"-style choreography, and rapid-fire dialogue. There are laughs galore here, and heartache, too. 

It recreates a time of innocence in the music industry.  It was a time when an uneducated but good-hearted guy could rise to stardom on the radio, when "everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night", and when young rockers led the way to a segregated society.  ("Memphis" reminds us how far society may have progressed, and in the most indirect way, how corrupt and cynical the music industry has become today.)

But more than anything, "Memphis" is a lot of fun.  After seeing it you might leave the theater yearning to produce a rock and roll TV show, sing in a band, or dance with all your might.  You might also feel a bittersweet bond with a character who will work his way into your consciousness like a good friend does. 

"Memphis" is  about a happy-go-lucky young man named Huey Calhoun, who blasts his way into a job as a local radio DJ to play the "race music" he loves, which will soon become known as rock-n-roll.  As he champions this "dangerous" but liberating new sound, he starts a local tidal wave that soon will catch on all over the nation. Fast-talking, loose-limbed and naively likeable, Huey frequents a black club in a part of town normally forbidden to whites, and is taken by the formidable musical talents of the headliner named Felicia.  Completely smitten, he wins her over, and fulfills his promise to make her a star, just as his popularity begins to wane.

They become involved in a sweet yet forbidden romance.  "Memphis" reveals the almost impossible challenges of a mixed-race relationship,  and the compromises involved in becoming a success, especially to those who cling to their ideals.  

The sweet, nostalgic embrace that is Act One eventually gives way to the inevitable history of that time and place.  When acts of violence erupt suddenly, even in their stylized way, they are shocking. There is real pain on stage as a result.  The feel-good innocence of the music is shadowed by ignorance,

In Act two, Huey's descent is telegraphed in broad strokes---a liquor flask hidden in his jacket, and a general waning of energy--just as he hits his peak as a "Richard Clark"-styled TV Dance-Show host.  Here the production hits its peak too, using black-and-white TV cameras and a large screen to "broadcast" the action and the music that unfolds before us.  Huey's last hurrah, a rollicking number called "Tear Down the House", makes us his allies in rejecting the segregationist ideas of a big-time TV producer who wants to eliminate most of the black dancers on the set.  Toward the end, as Huey once more occupies a little radio studio on the less popular end of the radio dial, the stage is completely black except for his booth.  Huey's world has grown too small, and he has diminished with it.

Fortunately, he is held up once more for applause, as Felicia, now a star and engaged to another, encourages him to attend her show and take the stage with her.  And so, "Memphis" ends on a triumphant note. 

"Memphis" is loosely based on the real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips (click on the link for his biography), who in the 1950's became a smash with his frantic on-air delivery and fierce support of black music. Phillips soon began to abuse amphetamines and alcohol, and met an untimely end at age 42.  An early version of "Memphis" had Huey die during the show; fortunately, the show maintained its optimistic tone.

The show is filled with a strong ensemble of dancers and singers.  Even the secondary characters who perform songs create memorable, rounded characters.  The staging and choreography are efficient and clever, and well above the bar set by typically excellent Broadway in Chicago productions.

Felicia Boswell has a terrific voice and is a marvelous actress too. She provides the dramatic chops "Memphis" needs to put across its serious message.  She is completely convincing during every stage of her development as a character. Her rendition of "Someday" is beautiful and true.  In an era when such things were still possible, this song, and Boswell's rendition, could have become a breakout single and a huge hit, a Broadway standard. 

As Huey's mama, Julie Johnson has the widest character arc, from a sheltered and limited woman who is afraid to go against racist convention, to a flamboyant stage mother, brilliant and hilarious.  Her "Change Don't Come Easy" number brought the house down. 

Last, and best, is Bryan Fenkart as Huey.  I will never forget his escalating rant in the radio studio, selling beer for a local grocery store.  From that moment on I was in love with the character.  He is both expansive, ready to explode in every scene, as well as a regular guy, just trying to do right by his mama and to love his sweetheart even though it is illegal for him to do so. (There are subtle shades for modern audiences of current marriages that are still illegal.)  Fenkart has perfected a set of mannerisms and vocal deliveries, with a high-pitched carnival-barker's voice and down-home accent.  I missed the original Broadway cast, but I cannot imagine a more perfect actor to embody the quirky and wonderful Huey Calhoun than Fenkart.

Hock-a doo!

(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The Descendants" is Intelligent, Poignant, Like A Good Novel

"The Descendants" is a return to the kind of character-driven, domestic screen drama that Hollywood rarely favors these days, and usually only during the crowded winter months when studios jockey for Oscar attention.  Directed by Alexander Payne, and adapted by Payne and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the tone and feel of "The Descendants" has more in common with films like "The Kids are All Right", or "The Savages", than Payne's previous "Sideways" or "About Schmidt".  

A viewer who appreciates a classically-made film will begin to relax into it; and suddenly there is something edgy or unusual, so that one is sometimes taken aback, or more often exhilarated, as the film stirs the emotions.  "The Descendants" is one of the most poignant and original films of the year.

Watching "The Descendants" is similar to the experience of enjoying a good novel.  The plot has several elements, and a number of subplots layered with observations of character, so that we are as interested in how these people will emotionally survive, as we are in how the threads of the story will play out. 

The film's locations are the larger cities and the untouched coastal beaches of the Hawaiian islands.  It takes a clear-eyed, realistic view of the terrain, and deglamorizes it.  The film is beautifully photographed, with colorful and textured interiors and pleasant vistas.  The filmmakers avoid the usual digital cliches, the monochrome look and the "moody" shadows, preferring to keep the film crisply lit, so that we can study the faces of these unusual characters and their interesting surroundings.   The use of Hawaiian guitar and native vocals on the soundtrack, novel and somewhat humorous at first, soon becomes a natural part of the state of mind of the characters.  We are quickly absorbed in a world that is familiar but thankfully very different from many current movies about modern families.

After his wife is sent into a coma after a boating accident, workaholic lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) must re-engage with his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.  Alex, the oldest (Shailene Woodley), is in a private school to help deal with her wild behavior, but is still drinking.  Scottie, the youngest,  (Amara Miller), wants so much to understand the adult world, and tries to behave older than her years, but needs love and attention, and frequently acts out.   It is gradually revealed that King has neglected them for a long time; even he admits that he has no idea what to do for them.

King is also the trustee of a plot of pristine ocean coastline.  As the great-great-great-grandson of a family of Hawaiian royalty, King is involved in a complicated land sale, which would bring his family (mostly of a group of amusingly greedy extended cousins) a lot of money, but which has divided the residents of the area, who do not wish to see the land developed.

Into this drops a bombshell: Alex tells King that his wife had been cheating on him with a local realtor, and suddenly his devotion to his career has a new and dire consequence.  He seems to be the only one who did not know.

At this point, "The Descendants" launches into a road film of sorts, as King takes his daughters, and Alex's new boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), to the hospital on a nearby island to tend to his wife, and to deal with his churning emotions.  Along the way, he bonds with daughter Alex as, together, they hunt down realtor Brian Speer, the object of his wife's affair, in order to ... well, he isn't quite sure what he will do.

All of these threads weave into a satisfying fabric of visuals and unpredictable plot developments, but mostly they exist as a moving character study.  We learn to care for these people and are drawn in to their foibles, their alliances, and their changes. 

"The Descendants" is a neatly-paced two hours, filled with incident, humor, and melancholy. While moving us through the development of these characters and resolving various relationships, it quietly develops a lot of ideas that enrich the film, enlarge it, and enhance the viewing experience.  "The Descendants" becomes the story of the divide between generations, the bitterness of aging, the demand for parental respect, the support of siblings, the adjustment to the death of loved ones, the repair of the delicate bonds of family and friendships, and the responsibilities one has to the memory of one's ancestry (vs. monetary temptation).

This could be George Clooney's best film role.  While at first appearing almost too nice to have been so accused of neglecting his family, he makes us believe that he has made some mistakes without ever being a terrible guy.  Clooney perfectly modulates his responses, doing so much with his face and body language that we soon forget this is a well-known actor.  Sporting wind-weathered gray hair and a few extra pounds, Clooney is the key to the film's gentle humor.  His easygoing, bemused presence lets the viewer identify with him, and he grounds the picture as everything around him seems to be spinning out of control.  In a big scene when he confronts his friends with the news, and later when he explodes in anger at his unresponsive wife in the hospital, Clooney is marvelously, perfectly right.

The aforementioned hospital scene is characteristic of the way "The Descendants" jars the viewer's expectations, allowing us to recover with a new point of view on everything we have just seen.  King's anger is perfectly justifiable; at the same time, there's the horrible possibility that his wife can hear and understand everything without being able to respond, or defend herself.  A moment later, eldest-daughter Alex lets go a string of invective, and King demands that she show her mother respect.  It disturbs us because we are pulled into so many directions with our own responses, so that we need to look closer at the people up on the screen, and come to some deeper understanding of them.  The film guides us, and it mostly works.

Shailene Woodley, as Alex, has the sharp beauty of a young Natalie Portman, and is surprisingly expressive. Her transformation from a foul-mouthed shrew of a daughter to King's ally may be a bit of a stretch, but the script, and her playing of it, are clever and engaging. It is a bit grating to hear her hurl insults at her father, while he seems to accept it helplessly, until a brief exchange where he confronts her (and a whole generation) for having no respect for authority. 

Amara Miller will break your heart as the youngest daughter.  She has her wild moments too, which mostly produce laughs.  The scene in the hospital when she is told that her mother may not survive is done without words, only music on the soundtrack, and her expression of pain is all we need to know about what has just happened.

There is some terrific and unexpected supporting work here as well.  As Sid, Nick Krause is appropriately annoying as the boyfriend, a parents' worst nightmare of a laid-back, know-nothing surfer dude, until a late-night dialogue between him and Clooney changes everything, and seals their relationship in a heartwarming bond.  The punch Krause suffers at the hands of King's father-in-law, and the ensuing scene, garner one of the film's biggest laughs. As the father-in-law, Robert Forster, so wonderful in "Medium Cool", plays the angry old man with surprising shades of humor, and finally, warmth.  As annoying as he is most of the time, we can't help but extend our hearts to him as he patiently communicates with his Alzheimers-afflicted wife, and must say goodbye to his daughter. 

Beau Bridges makes a welcome return, a"Dude" with awesome eyebrows, as one of Clooney's cousins.  It's a role meant to provide plot information, but Bridges gives this little role a lot of heart and presence.

Matthew Lillard, as King's wife's lover  Brian Speer, has a brief but memorable role, nailing the mannerisms of a man who may make a lot of money from Clooney's land deal, and who cannot fathom the possible consequences of the misstep he had taken.  As Lillard's unsuspecting wife, Judy Greer has a hospital scene that is so good that she is worthy of the Beatrice Straight award for her small but powerfully memorable performance.

I suspect that much of the film's success is due to the source material. I have not read Hemmings' novel, but I plan to.  If my hunches are correct, I must applaud Payne for bringing out the best of the book, for establishing a consistent tone, and for brilliantly creating an atmosphere for his marvelous performers to work at their peak.  "The Descendants" is a film that should be seen, and enjoyed, by anyone who cares about screen drama.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Lions of the Chicago Art Institute

File:Art Institute of Chicago Lion Statue (2-D).jpg
For us, it will be a leisurely "Black Friday" in the city.  This afternoon, a stroll through downtown to take advantage of sunny and pleasantly mild weather.  

Along the way we'll visit the Art Institute of Chicago, to see the the famous two lions in their newly-donned holiday garb.  Tonight: the Tony-winning Broadway Musical "Memphis"!  Come back this weekend for reviews of this show, and of the new film "The Descendants".

Read on for more about the lions, and their artist, Edward L. Kemeys.

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Two of the undisputed landmarks of the City of Chicago are the sculptured bronze lions that stand guard on either side of the main entrance at the Art Institute.  They are a favorite photographic subject of tourists, and delight children of all ages who visit the Museum for their first time, or  their hundredth.  The lions also serve as unofficial mascots for the Chicago professional sports teams when they make the championships, and can be seen wearing Chicago Bears or Blackhawks helmets in support. 

Today, the Holiday season becomes official with the ceremonial "wreathing of the lions":

Art Institute of Chicago: Wreathing of the Lions

Less well-known to Chicagoans is the sculptor who carved these lions, Edward Kemeys (1843-1907).  Kemeys was born in Savannah Georgia, and studied art in New York and Paris.  As a boy  he delighted in his visits to the prairies of Illinois, and marveled at the animals he observed at New York's Central Park Zoo.  He became famous for his uniquely Western style of art, and for his sculptures of animals. The bronze lions, completed in 1893, are his most famous.

Kemeys unofficially named the lions: the south lion is "stands in an attitude of defiance," and the north lion is "on the prowl."

Edward Kemey's lions at the Art Institute of Chicago
South Lion: "Stands in an Attitide of Defiance"

North Lion: "On the Prowl"

Among Kemeys' other works, his "Panther and Cubs" can be found outside of the Metropolitan Museum in New York seen below).  There is also a collection of Work at The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: Loving Friends, Memories of Family Gatherings...and Dogs

Thanksgiving, in spite of the well-intentioned efforts of my sister and I, began in a melancholy way. We did our best to give our aging, ailing parents a nice meal and some company; both of them are in various stages of suffering and stubbornness.  The meal turned out well. We cleaned up.  It was draining and sad, to see what our family has come to. I left feeling subdued.

Later, in the company of Mark, Jillian, his sons Nick and Kirk, and Nick's girlfriend Stephanie, I retreated to a quaint nearby village to enjoy a stress-free meal, filled with anecdotes, and good fun and conversation.  We convened afterward for a thoughtful and emotional new film, "The Descendants", which I will review this weekend.

With so many great films in release, and more to come, I am making up for lost time by viewing and reviewing on this blog as many as I can keep up with.  Perhaps I am at a point in my re-invention where I am finally living the life of a film critic (albeit, as yet, an unpaid one!)

In the process I have neglected some other favorite topics of interest, and have not made too many "personal appearances" of late.  I look forward to adding more variety to my posts as the year comes to a close.

And so I send this message of gratitude for the people who make this world a nicer place for me to be, especially those with whom I spent time this evening,.

And I want to remember some other creatures that keep me sane, and to whom I want to dedicate the holiday... And so, since Mark has fallen asleep on the couch across the room, I will send a short greeting to my canine friends....

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Congratulations to the winner of today's National Dog Show, Steele Your Heart, a four-year-old wire fox terrier.

eira winner national dog show 2011

The Basset Hound in this year's competition was enormously lovable, sweet, and me, all characteristics of the breed in general. I just had to share this video..check out the bounce, and the jowls, and that eager energy... 

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I miss sharing a meal with a humorous, frantically focused dog companion.  If I had my way....
Thanksgiving Feast - Thankful Puppy 320 x 480

Hope my readers enjoyed their day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Film Review: "The Ides of March"

"The Ides of March" is a solid, effective political thriller.  It accomplishes the rare feat of guiding viewers through the tedious labyrinth of American politics by entertaining us with a suspense-filled story. 

The plot is almost too plausible to be far-fetched.  It might not say anything new about corruption, betrayal, backstabbing and one-upmanship that form the sorry state of American presidential elections; but it does stand out as a fine example of the highest levels of skill and polish that American movies have to offer.  "The Ides of March" is a sophisticated potboiler.

Ryan Gosling is the super-idealistic media manager for a Democratic Presidential candidate (George Clooney), who is in a tight race in the Ohio primary against an adversary that is known for playing dirty politics.  Gosling's character is a sincere and skillful player, an impressive spinner, who impresses Clooney with his knowledge of public opinion and how to manipulate it.  That is, until he gets involved with a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) with close family ties to the Democratic party. This eventually leads to his discovery that his hero Clooney is embroiled in a potentially career-ending scandal.

How he reacts to this discoraging development, and learns to survive by beating everyone at their viscious game, makes for a highly watchable if cynical piece of filmmaking.

The heart of the film is Gosling's character's slow movement into disillusionment.  It can be seen as the loss of innocence of a whole electorate; but I think the film wisely eschewed such ambitions. It's a good look at a particular character.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign's chief of staff, a seasoned and cynical politico, who knows  how to play dirty, but still holds to some notion of loyalty. Paul Giamatti (less annoying than usual but still hammy) is the manager of the rival campaign, a snake-in-the-grass among snakes, who makes a phone call that sets Gosling's desperate descent into motion. Marisa Tomei is an political insider, a reporter for the New York Times who cheerfully exploits everyone.  Jeffrey Wright (playing beneath his talents) is a senator whose hotly-sought endorsement is the catalyst for all kinds of double-dealing on all sides.

Gosling can carry a film, and is showing an interesting range.  This is the fourth film I have seen him in this year (I like to think that it's due to Gosling's good taste in selecting properties, ones that interest me!) along with "Blue Valentine", "Crazy Stupid Love", and "Drive".  He reminds me of the high-school jock who shocks everyone by how good he is in the drama club.  He commands the scenes he is in, and has a slow, deliberate manner of speech, like Brando with good diction.  It hope he continues to appear in mature roles in serious fare.

Clooney's is more of a supporting role. It was clever to cast himself as a Democratic candidate (a foreshadowing?) whose ideas are on the money for today's voters, practical and easy to support, while his character is ensnared in a morally indefensible dilemma.  Had this character been portrayed as  Republican, the film would have received the knee-jerk scorn of Fox-News types and those who are threatened by National Public Radio as being too partisan.

All other cast members performed well in one of the year's best ensembles.  Funny, but at times this movie seemed to be a stop-off for cast members on their way to do other films: Gosling and Tomei both in "Crazy Stupid Love", Hoffman in "Moneyball", Clooney in "The Descendants",  Giamatti in "Win-Win", Wood in "True Blood."  Perhaps this film was a labor of love, a film they all believed in.  If so, I applaud the involvement of each of them.

I was absorbed by the well-written and fast-paced film (screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon based on his play "Farragut North").  During the intense climactic confrontation between Gosling and Clooney, shot in shadowy closeup, it hit me how nicely directed this movie is even though at that moment I had forgotten who directed this film.  It is, of course, Clooney's picture, a worthy follow-up to another compelling political drama, "Good Night and Good Luck".  Clooney is blessed with a strong technical crew; the look of the film, the design and lighting, are top-notch; and the film is edited down to the exact frame, moves quickly and goes down smoothly.

The plot turns on an accidental discovery found on a character's i-phone text.  Was this part of the original play? Maybe because this was the second consecutive film I saw where this plot device was used ("Like Crazy" was the other one), that I regarded this as a new, already tired cliche, one that should be banned from Hollywood films from now on.

I cannot imagine how this film plays to viewers from outside the U.S.  The machinations, the blackmail that are all a part of "politics", must seem insane, and counter-intuitive to the governance of this country.  If Clooney stays in Hollywood instead of Washington, he may do all of us a public service by continuing to create high-quality, well, played motion pictures like "The Ides of March" that raise audiences' awareness of the madness of our political system, and even move them to positive action.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Like Crazy" an Unlikely Success

It's a simple story, one that has been told countless times on movie screens.  Two attractive, intelligent young people meet, have a sweet courtship, fall in love...and then find obstacles to their happiness.

"Like Crazy", the latest screen incarnation of modern love, finds fresh filmic techniques to tell the story, and puts a new spin on separation, temptation, and loss of innocence. It works. And in spite of early misgivings, I wound up liking it.  A lot.

It's lighter than air, which is why its emotional punch comes as such a shock.  The audience at the packed house where I saw this was attentive and absorbed, but audibly distressed at the fadeout.  "Like Crazy" gets under a viewer's skin, and quietly makes you care about the future of these characters.  After a first half-hour where the chemistry between the two leads grows tender and strong, and the romance and physical attraction is palpable, the suspense of  their attempts to overcome their weaknesses, in the face of legal hardship, is agitating, and sad.

Anna (Felicity Jones) an aspiring writer from England, is in Los Angeles on a student visa when she meets Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a student at the same college, who is also a furniture designer.  They meet and begin a relationship that is as natural as a movie coupling can be.  It's cute, it's physical, and it's filled with small gestures of caring and playfulness.  It is an astute recreation of first love.  Director Drake Doremus, and his Co-Writer Ben York Jones, used memories of long-distance relationships of their own, to create the premise for the film.

Long-distance.  That's what occurs when Anna overstays her student visa, is caught, and must return home to England, legally forbidden to return to the States, interrupting their constant companionship, which had allowed their bond to develop.  The manner in which Anna and Jacob adjust to their separation, enter into new relationships, suffer from longing, come together for romantic visits, and take the impetuous steps toward marriage, infidelity and heartbreak, forms the remainder of this surprising and touching film.

Visually, the film was worrisome to me at the start by the use of a hand-held camera, (the "indie" badge of honor), that was noticeably bouncy in the opening ten minutes.  After a while, though, the camera settled down, and its mobility started to be a plus, keeping the film light, and allowing us to go with them into the most intimate of spaces.

I also noticed, and appreciated, a nicely worked-out scheme in which Anna and Jacob often appear in a scene with a wall between them, or the line of a door, or are posed standing face to face with backgrounds of different designs or textures.  This was a nice way to represent their togetherness and separateness at the same time, the constant barriers that they must break as a couple.

I wish I could have been on the set to watch this film being made. One reason "Like Crazy" feels fresh and immediate is the contribution of each performer.  Felicity Jones has received the lion's share of praise for her embodiment of a passionate, flawed and creative free-spirit.   The praise is entirely deserved.  For me, though, the film belongs to Anton Yelchin, whose soft-spoken boyish generosity is the strong center around which Anna's quirky energy revolves.  Yelchin seems to age visibly as the film progresses.  His low-key delivery, and the intensity by which he pays attention to his co-star, rivet one's attention to him.  When he presents Jones with a gift, it is as heartfelt a gesture as anything currently at the movies.  (I will hereafter look at a chair with new admiration and affection!)

There is another interesting element to their performances that is closely tied to the writing and direction: Jones and Yelchin are said to have improvised much of their dialog, using the screenplay as a blueprint.  Allowing this contribution, from actors who may be very close to their characters in experience and temperament, enhances the movie's originality, and adds unpredictable layers of complexity to their interpretations of newly-found love.

In supporting roles, I especially liked Jennifer Lawrence and Charlie Bewley as Samantha and Simon, Jacob's and Anna's respective rebound love interests.  Lawrence draws on deep reserves of emotion for a heartbreaking and very real character. Bewley mostly overcomes an underwritten part, and creates a strong and memorable screen presence. I hope they do more serious types of films like this that will interest me.

A couple of minor flaws bear mentioning.  There are gaps in the plotting toward the climax.  For instance, when a marriage proposal is made late in the film, one can't be sure if the character making the proposal is aware that his intended is already married.  I think some tighter scripting, adding some key moments when the characters talk about their dilemma and discuss options, might have made the ensuing action more believable.  And I am ready for Hollywood to retire a new cliche: that of having a character's secrets exposed by the accidental reading of an i-phone text.  ("Ides of March", which I will review later, also uses this device for a major plot-point.  Enough!)

But these are technical quibbles, that are not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the central relationship in "Like Crazy".   A breezy film that plays like springtime love itself, it is a closely observed, bittersweet modern take on the well- traveled road of cinematic romance that, if it find its audience, will endure as a small classic.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tonight! PBS Reviews the Career of Woody Allen-- Sunday Journal #1

PBS' wonderful series American Masters is about to broadcast a gift to movie-lovers everywhere, with the premiere of Woody Allen: A Documentary,  tonight at 8:00pm (Chicago time).

Filmmaker Robert B. Wiede was granted access to Allen on and off the sets of his latest films.  His two-part biography (part 2 airs tomorrow, Monday November 21 at 9pm, CST) promises to be a feast of comedy, clips, and insight into this singular intellect, artist and entertainer.

I am looking forward to a look back at Allen's early days as a standup comic and perennial late-night talk-show guest; his breakout as a gag-writer as well as a writer of some of the funniest books ever written ("Without Feathers"); his foray into filmmaking with his crude, awkward but devastating comedies ("What's Up, Tiger Lily?", "Take the Money and Run"); his famous and infamous romances with leading ladies (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow), and his maturity into a filmmaker of depth and richness, a director of some all-time classics ("Annie Hall", of course, and "Manhattan", and now "Midnight in Paris").

If you are familiar with Allen only from his films of the last decade, or his notorious recent personal life; and you love movies; you owe it to yourself to check this program out. 

I hope it lives up to the buildup I have done here, and in my mind's eye!

Later this week I will review the program, and describe my own "relationship" with Allen since I was a budding high-school film critic.

(Also up this week: reviews of "Like Crazy" and "Ides of March"... good movies both!)

Enjoy this clip from "American Masters: Woody Allen" offered by the PBS web site:

A Favorite Blogger Takes a Break--Sunday Journal #2

I want to recognize a fellow blogger, Ben of Runs Like A Gay, who has decided to take an indefinite break from writing.

Ben, who has been a prolific purveyor of film news, celebrity birthday greetings, and thought-provoking movie reviews for over three years, made a bold statement in his post yesterday: that he no longer enjoys writing.

I think it is courageous for a writer to admit when the pleasure has gone, and it has become merely a chore. 

Almost everyone in any profession, vocation, or hobby, confronts that moment when the activity seems to be nothing more than an obligation, when the original passion, fun, and satisfaction is no longer driving one's efforts.

This is especially difficult when the activity is a creative one.  I applaud Ben and others who feel they need to take some time away, for their sake and for the sake of their art, rather than continue, and risk their work becoming tired.

I never felt that Ben's work was tired, or forced.  I think he has a lot to give to the blogosphere, and to all of us writers and movie lovers who toil at this lonely thing called blogging, in hopes that we satisfy our readers, whoever they are,  whether they grace us with comments or not. 

Ben, I will remember our debates, and will always cherish the chocolate reward from a past contest.  Most of all, thank you for supporting me, a fellow blogger, with your thoughtful comments and praise, while I did the best I could to say what I think, and feel. 

In the next few weeks, I will make an effort to recognize others of you who have visited these pages, who have regularly provided encouragement, and whose work I enjoy, and learn from, like Ben's.

Take your time, Ben.  Refill your pipeline. I hope that very soon you feel that spark, that motivation to write because you just have to, and because nothing else will satisfy you more.

Until then, all the best, and know that you are welcome here any time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

REELING Mini-Reviews: 3 Movies of LGBT Interest

Reeling Film Festival

It has been a rich Autumn for Film Festivals in Chicago.  Last week, REELING, Chicago's LGBT Film Festival, ended it's 30th Anniversary celebration. 
The schedule (click here) was crammed with intriguing films from the world over, and I was fortunate enough to catch three of them.

First, an encore of "30 Cats In 30 Seconds", which ran before every film at the festival...Enjoy, and stay for three brief reviews of films from Italy, Germany, and the U. S.

*          *          *          *
"Loose Cannons" (Italy) -- One of my favorite films of the year tells the story of Tommaso, the youngest son of an eccentric Italian family.  On the night he plans to come out to everyone during an important family dinner, his older brother surprises everyone by beating him to the punch.  Tommaso must decide if he can go through with his family's plans to have him take over their pasta business, and must weigh their health, and happiness, against a life of hiding and dishonesty.  Although the supporting characters are broadly drawn, especially Tommaso's father and sexually voracious aunt, there is much truthful observation of the dynamics of the Italian family. 

The film may seem cliched at first in its treatment of homosexuality as a punch-line; but after a while we realize that "Loose Canons", in it's humorous way, makes some wry observations about familial expectations, loyalty, acceptance, and unreasonable attitudes that pass down unquestioned through generations. The effect is one of appreciation of our foibles, and forgiveness of those who are victims of their cultures.

When Tommaso's friends come from Rome to visit him at the family villa, the uninhibited European humor renders this one of the funniest films of the year. A mysterious prologue and framing device pulls the family history together, as Tommaso discovers that he and his grandmother are kindred spirits in their shared dilemma of romantic sacrifice.  As she leaves this world in a bittersweet scene reminiscent of "Chocolat", the film moves into a fantasy sequence that makes the film blossom with meaning.  Charming, well-observed, wonderfully written, and performed to a hilt by talented and attractive actors, "Loose Canons" is a film worth making a special effort to find.

*          *          *         *

"The Green" (U.S.) -- This film played a couple of weeks before the Penn State scandal was splashed across the media, with its sordid story of a revered football coach who is indicted for sexually abusing young boys. "The Green" attracted my attention first of all for the appearance of Cheyenne Jackson, the hunky actor who appeared in the Tony-nominated musical "Xanadu" as well as guest spots in the popular TV series "30 Rock".  In "The Green", Jackson is Daniel, who, together with partner Michael (Jason Butler Harner), a high school drama teacher,  move from New York to a small Connecticut town.  Soon, Michael's troubled past comes to haunt him, as a student in his drama class accuses him of inappropriate behavior. 

The film is an intriguing look at false accusations and family secrets, and raises some compelling legal issues, before the screenplay wallows in clunky melodrama.  All in all, however, "The Green" provides suspense, beautiful lensing, and good performances by the entire cast, especially Harner and Jackson, who overcome the contrivances of the script, and are powerful screen presences.

"Romeos" (Germany)-- My favorite of the three, a film that could appear on major top-ten critics lists if given a proper release.  It's the unusual story of a character we never see on the big screen.  Lukas is a young man , formerly Miri, who is transitioning from female to male, whose adjustment to adult life is complicated by the physical and psychological challenges of inhabiting a new gender. The film is refreshingly honest, and neither sensational nor exploitative, as one might come to expect from an American film treatment of the same subject matter.  This is not a devastating message picture like "Boys Don't Cry,", but a sweet-tempered original unlike anything else you are likely to see.

Lukas needs to assert his maleness, even though his civil service dorm assignment still considers him a female.  He must do his best to pretend that he was placed there due to a lack of beds in the male dorm, and redefine his relationship with his Lesbian best friend Ine.  When Lukas meets the handsome, dominant Fabio, he must decide if he can reveal his true nature, and complete a life lived in honesty. The budding romance, and ensuing conflict, between Fabio and Lukas is just one of the many highlights of this fast-paced, terrific example of modern filmmaking.  The film works mostly because the actors are so natural in their roles. **Rick Okon is a trans actor whose openness matches his skill as an actor (see comments). Maximilian Beaufort as Fabio is a terrific heart-throb.
I can't wait to see this again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

National Book Awards 2011--Let the Award Season Begin!

It's that time again, as the literary world recognizes the best efforts of authors around the country.

The National Book Awards, (along with the Pulitzer Prizes), have held my interest for many years.   When I started reading in earnest again, after 9/11, the lists of winners and finalists from both Literary Awards helped me identify quality writing. From these, I identified favorite authors, read more of their work, which helped me branch out into other works in similar genres.

As I read more, I gained confidence in my evaluations of quality, and relied less on the award itself as anything more than a way of locating serious new work.  I began writing more, too, so I was less intimidated by the opinions of "experts".  I  thought more about what I was reading, and honed my critical skills, asserting my own opinion of a work, good or bad.

More and more each year, I am unfamiliar with some of the authors of the books that are chosen as finalists and winners. That, to me, is a good thing, because it says that publishers are accepting new work, and submitting excellent work from new voices. That gives new hope to writers like myself.  It also provides readers like myself an introduction to original writing, and is endlessly inspiring and enlightening.  I have my reading material for the winter!

Movie lovers, too, might enjoy picking out which books could have the makings of an Oscar-winning film!

The diverse and interesting subjects of this year's 5 selected works of Fiction include: an adventure set in the Italian Alps in World War One; a Balkan woman's search through "the Jungle Book" for clues to her Grandfather's death; an epic about Japanese "picture brides" in San Francisco circa 1900; classic and contemporary short stories spanning the globe and four decades; and a tale of a motherless Mississippi family's survival in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The cited Non-Fiction works include: a young New York Jewish woman converts to Islam and embraces her exile in Pakistan; the little-known love story between Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen as he works on his book Kapital; a Renaissance book hunter in 1417 locates a book by Poggio Bracciolini that predicted the existence of atoms and disputed the existence of God; a newly-researched biography that chronicled the constant re-invention of Malcolm X; and he story of Nobel-Prize scientist Marie Curie, her work, and her bittersweet marriage.

The 2011 Award page from the National Book Award web site appears below.  Match the book with its capsule description, and see which books won the prize. Click on the book cover to learn more about the book, its author, and read excerpts. (The books to the far right may be cut off...just click on the left edge!)

2011 National Book Award Fiction Finalists The SojournThe Tiger's WifeThe Buddha in the AtticBinocular VisionSalvage the Bones
WINNER: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
(Bloomsbury USA) - Interview coming soon.
Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn
(Bellevue Literary Press) - Interview
Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife
(Random House) - Interview coming soon.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
(Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House) - Interview
Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision
(Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington) - Interview
Fiction Judges: Deirdre McNamer (Panel Chair), Jerome Charyn,
John Crowley, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li
2011 National Book Awards Nonfiction Finalists Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
WINNER: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
(W. W. Norton & Company) - Interview
Deborah Baker, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism
(Graywolf Press) - Interview
Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
(Little, Brown and Company) - Interview
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
(Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin Group USA) - Interview
Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
(It Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) - Interview
Nonfiction Judges: Alice Kaplan (Panel Chair), Yunte Huang,
Jill Lepore, Barbara Savage