Saturday, December 1, 2012

Short Take: A Fistful of Dollars

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The year 1967 was a watershed for movies. It marked the beginning of the Hollywood Renaissance, a period when U. S. filmmakers saw themselves in aesthetic competition with the best filmmakers abroad and the best writers anywhere. It was also characterized by the dominance of the antihero and the rise of actors who most fit that mold. The decade that followed is widely considered the richest in American film. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, which came out in the latter half of the year, are generally credited as the two inaugural films of the period. A Fistful of Dollars, which opened in the U. S. that January, deserves to be considered the third. Although technically an Italian film that was released internationally in 1964--legal problems delayed its North American premiere--its importance to this era of Hollywood history cannot be underestimated. It redefined the Western genre in ways that proved momentous. It also made actor Clint Eastwood a star, and set him on the path to becoming a cultural icon. The director, Sergio Leone, with his co-scenarists Víctor Andrés Catena and Jamie Comas Gil, remove the Western from any thematic relationship to historical stories of pioneer days. This is the Western as noir pulp, heavy on gritty sensationalism, and enamored with aestheticized violent spectacle. The Eastwood protagonist (called Joe in the film, but known to the filmgoers as The Man with No Name) is cut from the same cloth as his forebears in hard-boiled crime fiction. He’s a violent, taciturn thug redeemed only by his loyalty toward friends and his chivalrous treatment of mothers and children. As the film opens, this solitary protagonist wanders into a Mexican border town devastated by a feud between two families. He’s an inhumanly fast and accurate marksman, and seeing the opportunity for money, he decides to work for both clans and play them against each other. The only complication is his concern for the young mother (Marianne Koch) who has been forced to become a family leader’s mistress. Leone’s direction is superb. He creates a desolate, nihilistic atmosphere from the emptiness of the town and surrounding landscape. The almost offhand violence seems innate to the setting, and the scenes couldn’t be better staged or edited. Leone also makes canny use of his star. Eastwood’s acting range is limited, but he moves gracefully, and he plays surliness probably better than any other performer. Leone keeps him very still most of the time, which combines with his hostile affect to give him a striking air of menace. When he does move, his speed and grace make the violence seem a fulfillment of the character. The performance isn’t complex, but it's note-perfect, and it’s little wonder Eastwood came to embody the archetype of the antihero adventurer. The film may be the definitive showcase for his movie persona. The story is derived from the 1961 Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, which in turn owes a debt to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. Ennio Morricone (working under the name Dan Savio) provided the superb score.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Short Take: The Battle of Algiers

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is many things: a fictionalized history of the Algerian War, a study of urban guerilla terrorism, and perhaps the greatest piece of anti-imperialist propaganda in all of movies. After a flashback framing sequence, the picture begins in 1954 with the radicalization of a young Algerian street criminal (Brahim Haggiag), and his recruitment by the Algerian nationalist group known as the FLN. It goes on to show the assassinations and bombings--many carried out by women and children--that target the French authorities and citizenry in Algiers. The French response, including retaliatory bombings, segregation of the city’s Arab population, and the efforts of a French military counterinsurgency, are shown as well. Pontecorvo is entirely on the side of the Algerian nationalists. The film is shamelessly manipulative at times. It dwells on the imagery most likely to inflame a viewer against the French, such as the mangled bodies of the Arab children, and the counterinsurgency’s reliance on torture. The acts of violence against the French are relatively sanitized. Pontecorvo treats them as the culmination of suspense sequences; the climaxes of these scenes evoke catharsis rather than horror. The film also has a great villain in the French colonel (Jean Martin) who leads the counterinsurgency. He’s calm, rational, and completely ruthless; one may take him as an embodiment of the banality of evil. One may have many qualms about the morality of the film’s one-sidedness, as well as its implicit endorsement of the violence of the Algerian nationalists. But there’s no denying it’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking. With this picture, Pontecorvo pioneered the pseudo-documentary cinematic style that has defined political thrillers ever since. And no director has ever handled this style better; one may find it astonishing that not a single frame of newsreel footage was used. The great black-and-white cinematography is by Marcello Gatti. The screenplay is by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Short Take: Prometheus

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a semi-prequel to his 1979 film Alien. The hallmarks are the same: gruesome monsters, body horror, terrific production design, and a strong-willed, never-say-die heroine (played this time out by Noomi Rapace). The major difference is that it takes itself a lot more seriously. The script, credited to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, aims for gravitas by imposing Alien story elements onto Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s plot for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the prologue, set in prehistoric times, extra-terrestrial beings sow the seeds for future humanity. The film then shifts to the late 21st century, where archaeologists (Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) interpret disparate cave paintings as an invitation by the extra-terrestrials to meet humanity in space. Two years later, a ship from Earth carrying the archaeologists and others arrives in the nearest habitable solar system. The film’s version of Kubrick and Clarke’s supercomputer HAL 9000 is an intelligent, untrustworthy android (Michael Fassbender) who has overseen the voyage while the ship’s crew has been kept in suspended animation. And like HAL 9000, he’s by far the most engaging character; the film presents him as an effete narcissist who idolizes Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. The film’s twist on the 2001 plot is that the extra-terrestrials’ goals are not benevolent. This of course sets the stage for the monster-movie suspense and gross-outs familiar to viewers from the first Alien picture. The creatures and the body-horror moments are really all that carry the story along. The awe, mystery, and grandeur of 2001 is turned into cliché. For all of Ridley Scott’s talent for imagery, he isn’t a deft storyteller; the only dramatic effect he handles well is jolting the audience. Despite actors as capable as Rapace, Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and Guy Pearce, the cast is a pretty dull bunch. The real stars of the film are the behind-the-scenes artisans: cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, costumer Janty Yates, creature designer Carlos Huante, and visual effects supervisor Martin Hill.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Short Take: The Towering Inferno

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974) is the most prominent of the 1970s wave of Hollywood disaster movies. Much of it is fairly cheesy, but it's still a reasonably diverting time-killer. The silliness actually contributes to the entertainment value. The setting is San Francisco, on the day of the dedication of the world’s tallest building. (Yes, the movie would have one believe this skyscraper would actually be built in that notoriously earthquake-prone city.) The architect (Paul Newman) discovers that his specifications have been replaced with sub-par materials. The dedication ceremony and VIP party go forward that evening, but unbeknownst to everyone an electrical short has set off a small fire in a mid-building storage room. After the party has moved to the restaurant atop the building, the fire spreads and traps them. The film follows the man-of-action architect and the firefighters in their efforts to rescue the partygoers and various others. The all-star cast is a mixed bag. As banal as Paul Newman's part is, he plays it with conviction, and there’s no doubting why he and Faye Dunaway, who plays his girlfriend, were among the most glamorous movie stars of the 1970s. (Dunaway isn’t used for much beyond decoration, but she's such an elegant sight that it seems petty to complain.) Steve McQueen co-stars as the head firefighter, but his trademark cool is unfortunately indistinguishable from boredom. William Holden, who plays the building’s owner, probably gives the film’s best performance; he makes the viewer feel his desire to keep up appearances while wrestling with guilt over the unfolding tragedy. After Holden, the most accomplished work is from Fred Astaire, who delivers a graceful turn as an aging con man. But Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Vaughn make it quite clear why they were never able to make the jump from TV success to big-screen stardom. They’re bland, one-note performers: polished, but without much dynamism or wit. Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, and others do little more than walk through. Stirling Silliphant is credited with the script, which is formulaic in the manner of ‘70s TV adventure shows. The dialogue is especially terrible. Irwin Allen directed the fairly impressive action scenes, and John Guillermin directed everything else. Guillermin’s work isn’t imaginative by any means, but he moves things along at a good clip. The film runs two hours and forty minutes, but the length never feels oppressive. And when things slow down too much, one can always have a chuckle over the characteristic awfulness of the ‘70s fashions: the picture is a treasure trove of dreadful clothes, ugly hairstyles, and eyesore interior decoration. The film is based on two novels: The Tower, by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno, by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Fred J. Koenekamp handled the cinematography for the scenes John Guillerman directed; Joseph F. Biroc shot those overseen by Irwin Allen.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Short Take: The African Queen

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

About as much goes wrong as goes right with the 1951 comedy-adventure-romance The African Queen. But what goes right is often inspired, and it’s undeniably one of the most charming films to come out of Hollywood. The setting is colonial Africa during World War I. Humphrey Bogart stars as the captain of a small river steamboat, and Katharine Hepburn plays opposite him as a spinster missionary. Bogart’s character brings her and her brother (Robert Morley) mail and supplies. However, after the Germans destroy the mission and the brother dies, he packs her up into the boat, hoping to evade the Germans and bring her to safety. She has different ideas, namely using the explosives on board to destroy a gunship that patrols a nearby lake. He grudgingly assents, and the two fall in love making their way down the river. The film works marvelously well as a romantic-comedy showcase for Bogart and Hepburn. His coarse, working-class manner plays off her fine-boned, bourgeois primness hilariously. The arc of the two characters coming together, from wariness to respect to love--each stage with its own set of tensions--couldn’t be better shaped or played. Neither actor has had a better performing partner onscreen. Unfortunately, the director, John Huston, never finds a tone that convincingly handles both the romantic and adventure elements. The film is too breezy for the adventure story to have much urgency. The comedy material also feels discordant with the location footage; the documentary realism seems a drag on the sparkling artifice. (About half of the film was shot in Africa.) By the end, Huston gives up trying to make the adventure material work, and plays it for absurdity. He seems to intuit that viewers just want to watch the two stars and smile. The script, adapted from the novel by C. S. Forester, is credited to Huston and James Agee. (The uncredited John Collier and Peter Viertel also contributed.) The color cinematography is by Jack Cardiff, and the overwrought score is by Allan Gray.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Short Take: Bridesmaids

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig plays a single woman in her thirties who's down on her luck. Her business has failed, her love life is depressing, and she’s just scraping by financially. When her best friend (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, she’s asked to be the maid of honor, and she tries to take on all the wedding planning. But everything she does goes comically wrong, and she finds herself in competition with the wife (Rose Byrne) of the groom’s boss. The wife isn’t shy about flaunting her wealth, and she seems determined to usurp the Wiig character’s place as the bride-to-be’s best friend. The film, directed by Paul Feig from a script credited to Annie Mumolo and Wiig, is too earnest and sentimental to be an entertaining farce. The film gets bogged down in the Wiig character’s self-esteem problems. It isn’t very well crafted, either. It's overlong, and many of the comedy setpieces continue and sputter a good while after they should have wrapped. (There are some badly misconceived scenes as well, most notably a gross-out slapstick sequence in a bridal boutique.) In general, the cast isn’t very inspired. Wiig’s role doesn’t give her much opportunity to play to her talents. On SNL, she’s demonstrated a genius for skewering fatuously self-absorbed personalities. In the film, she saddles herself with an everywoman part. She’s a sympathetic presence, but apart from her character’s drunken bad behavior on an airplane flight, there aren’t many laughs in the performance. Rose Byrne, who plays the role Wiig should have taken, doesn’t have a comedic bone in her body. Maya Rudolph isn’t given much to do, and as two members of the bridal party, Wendi McClendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper appear to have had their roles truncated. Only two performers stand out: Jon Hamm, who is hilariously smug as the Wiig character’s handsome, loutish bedmate, and Melissa McCarthy, in a delightfully wry turn as the groom’s overweight, over-assertive sister. They have the humor and timing the rest of the film is lacking.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Short Take: An American Werewolf in London

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1981 comic horror film An American Werewolf in London is a thinly conceived showcase for the wizardry of special-effects make-up artist Rick Baker. Director John Landis, who is credited with the script, didn’t come up with much of a story. A vacationing American college student (David Naughton) is trekking through the English countryside with his best friend (Griffin Dunne) when the two are attacked by a werewolf. The friend is killed, and the student is taken to London to recover from his injuries. The werewolf curse has been passed onto him, and at night, under a full moon, he becomes a monster and terrorizes the city. It shouldn’t have been too difficult to put together an entertaining horror movie from this. But Landis doesn’t flesh out the premise. He instead throws in everything but the kitchen sink to pad out the running time. The amount of extraneous material is just staggering: absurdist dialogues among the bit characters, inane bits of extended slapstick, softcore sex scenes, travelogue shots, discussions of old horror movies, and at least one dream sequence that seems intended for another project. But for all the clutter, the picture does have its moments. The dialogues between Naughton’s character and Dunne’s--the ghost of the Dunne character haunts him--are droll and extremely well played. There are also some good sight gags, most notably when the Naughton character wakes up in the wolf cage at the zoo. And the werewolf transformation sequences are awesome--the Oscar Rick Baker received for this film couldn’t have been more deserved. It’s too bad Landis couldn’t pull his ideas together into a dramatically focused story. Jenny Agutter plays the Naughton character's British girlfriend.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Short Take: The Hunger Games (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Gary Ross’ film version of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ terrific dystopian adventure novel, is dull and unimaginative. The script, credited to Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray, sticks close to the book. In the North America of an unspecified future, the nation is divided into twelve districts and a capital city. Every year, each district must send a teenage boy and girl as tribute to the capital. The teens are to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality TV competition in which they are to hunt each other and fight to the death. The victor is the last one left alive. The story’s heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old who volunteers to save her younger sister. She has two goals in the competition: the first is to survive and win, and the second is to do so without losing her humanity. One might think the material a natural for an exciting movie thriller. However, Ross doesn’t shape the scenes for effect, and the story lacks momentum onscreen. The competition section, which takes up most of the second half, is especially disappointing. The action gets lost in the restless camerawork and disjointed editing. That said, there probably wouldn’t have been much suspense even if the action had been clear. Ross doesn’t do much to introduce the other players in the competition, so the viewer has no idea what the heroine is up against. He isn’t telling an adventure story so much as he’s providing a series of cinematic illustrations of the novel. He did put together a good cast. Jennifer Lawrence has considerable gravitas in the lead--more than enough to get the viewer past her being physically wrong for the role. (That tall, strapping build may say action heroine, but the lumbering way she moves sure doesn’t.) Woody Harrelson is perfect as her alcoholic mentor for the games, and Donald Sutherland is so perfect as the capital’s sinister, autocratic ruler that he’s practically an archetype. The other actors, including Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and Wes Bentley, are uniformly strong. The cinematography, art direction, and costume design are solid, too. Ross seems to have had everything he needed to make an entertaining film. What’s missing was the vision and craft for pulling it off.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Short Take: The Killing Fields

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1984 film The Killing Fields, set during the 1970s Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, has great passages. The director, Roland Joffé, working with the superb cinematographer Chris Menges, does an awe-inspiring job of depicting the chaos of the fall of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. The images of the country in the years that followed, when the Khmer Rouge turned it into a nationwide reeducation camp and killed between one-third and one-half the citizenry, go beyond the horrific into the hallucinatory. There are moments that invite comparison to Bosch and Doré. The recreation of the story’s setting is a work of visionary imagination, but the story the movie tells doesn’t begin to live up to it. The poorly developed script, credited to Bruce Robinson, focuses on the real-life friendship of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The first half follows their time together covering the civil war; the second juxtaposes their experiences afterward, with Schanberg in the U. S., and Dith trapped in Cambodia. One may feel as if the first half-hour of the movie is missing. The camaraderie between Dith and Schanberg seems to come out of nowhere, and Schanberg is portrayed as such an insufferably self-righteous jerk that one can’t understand anybody dealing with him more than they had to. The film also takes an offensively patronizing view of Dith. He is clearly an equal among Schanberg and the other Western journalists, but the picture insists on treating him as their subordinate. And several of the scenes, particularly early on, have no discernible dramatic point. The script does have its moments, particularly in the tense sequence involving the efforts to fake a passport for Dith, but overall it’s shallow and not terribly well thought out. The film is a frustrating mixture of grandeur and ineptitude. The distracting, heavy-handed electronic score is by Mike Oldfield.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Short Take: Drive

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Drive is a piece of low-grade schlock that uses an A-list cast and a faux-existential tone to put on airs. Ryan Gosling plays the taciturn man-with-no-name protagonist, a mechanic and stunt man by day, and a freelance getaway driver by night. He’s cold-bloodedly violent when necessary, but he has his gentle side: he takes a shine--platonic, of course--to the young mother (Carey Mulligan) who lives next door, and he becomes something of a surrogate father to her son. He’s nothing less than chivalrous towards them; when her husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, he’s calmly accepting. And when the husband is corralled into a robbery to pay off a debt, he offers his driving services for free to get the fellow off the hook. The robbery, of course, goes horribly wrong, and the rest of the movie has the protagonist trying to square the situation while the body count rises. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, does a sleek job with a pre-title chase sequence, but the rest of his work is largely identical to Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking schtick: shapeless, dead-air scenes of the characters standing around, which are punctuated by moments of grotesque violence. As with Eastwood’s work, the viewer is left too stupefied to recoil from the crude sensationalism. And of course this gets mistaken for an existential atmosphere and proof of the filmmaker’s artistry. (The picture won Refn the Best Director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.) The staging is so lackadaisical at times it’s almost funny, such as the scene in which Gosling’s character assaults a mobster in a strip club. The dancers just sit there as if nothing’s happening. Gosling and Mulligan, two of the best young actors working, are completely wasted in their stock roles, as are Christina Hendricks as a moll, and Bryan Cranston as the protagonist’s mentor. The only performer of interest is neurotic-comedy master Albert Brooks, who is cast against type. He plays a gangster whose steely, violent ruthlessness rivals the protagonist’s. Brooks is, by turns, a droll and chilling presence. But he is the only fresh aspect of the film. The rest is a collection of exhausted clichés, notable only for the pretentious manner in which they are presented. The screenplay, based on a novel by James Sallis, is credited to Hossein Amini.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Short Take: The Shop Around the Corner

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is considered by many to be one of the finest romantic comedies to come out of Hollywood. However, one may feel this reputation is undeserved. The story may strike one as thin, the central romantic relationship unconvincing, and the film as a whole tiresome. James Stewart stars as the senior salesperson at a small department store, and Margaret Sullavan plays the store's newest hire. They don't realize it, but they've been corresponding thanks to a lonely-hearts ad in the local newspaper. They can't stand each other face to face, but both are enamored with the person they imagine on the other side of the letters. The script, based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László and credited to Samson Raphaelson, doesn't evoke the push-pull dynamic central to this kind of romantic comedy. One never senses the pair's conflicts reflect an attraction they're trying to deny. And the script doesn't provide enough development to the central situation in any case; it gets sidetracked into an irrelevant subplot regarding an affair the store owner's wife is having with an employee. Lubitsch's staging and camerawork are unerringly graceful, and the cast brings the material all the conviction they can muster. Stewart in particular is an assured and appealing presence. But nothing could turn the sow's ear of a script into a silk purse of a film. One eventually watches the couple wishing they'd get together just so the film could end. But as indicated above, this is a contrary view of the picture, and mileage may vary. The film's setting is ostensibly Budapest, but nearly everything about it feels American.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Short Take: Songs from the Second Floor

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Songs from the Second Floor (2000), written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, may be the most impressive translation of Samuel Beckett’s sensibility to the screen. It is a series of absurdist allegorical vignettes that satirize the folly and anomie of contemporary life. The central character is a middle-aged salesman (Lars Nordh) who is cracking under life’s pressures. His mantra is a line from the poet César Vallejo: “Blessed is the one who sits down.” Unfortunately, he never gets to relax. Eager for a fresh start, he torches his furniture store to collect the insurance money. But he has no idea of what to do next, and he eventually decides to sell crucifixes for a living. Meanwhile, the world appears headed towards apocalypse: an inexplicable traffic jam paralyzes the city; office workers march in groups flagellating each other; and corpses come back to haunt the living over money owed when alive. The pillars of society are desperate and collapsing as well. The national board of economists looks to a crystal ball in order to formulate policy, and a corporation conducts a human sacrifice to save itself from ruin. In the film’s opening scene, a character says, “This is a new day and age.” In some ways, what follows makes that seem an understatement. But in others, the world Andersson shows comes across as only a slightly skewed version of the one we live in. Daily stresses lead people down odd roads, and they eventually go along in a state of shellshock. Life seems meaningless, and as with Beckett, that meaninglessness is conveyed by absurdist pursuits and occurrences. Like Jim Jarmusch, Andersson approximates Beckett’s tone of comic deadpan with single-take scenes filmed with a stationary camera. He makes it feel like the camera is as dazed by the goings-on as the characters. Everything comes across as arch and unreal, which, as in Beckett, abstracts the horror and despair to the point of making it deeply, darkly funny. The picture gets under one’s skin, and the macabre images and set pieces are indelible.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Short Take: The Servant

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first two-thirds of The Servant (1963) is a terrific black farce: taut and marvelously droll. A young London playboy (James Fox) comes into his inheritance, buys a townhouse, and hires a “gentleman’s gentleman” (Dirk Bogarde), a live-in butler who will attend to every household need. At first, the butler proves an ideal servant: devoted to his job, an excellent cook, and he never leaves a detail out of place. The only downside is that his presence drives the playboy’s fiancée (Wendy Craig) right up the wall. Things then take a delightfully sinister turn. The butler brings his “sister” (Sarah Miles) to the house, and convinces the playboy to take her on as a maid. However, the butler’s real purpose in having her there is to undermine the playboy’s relationship with his fiancée. The director, Joseph Losey, and the screenwriter, future Nobel literature laureate Harold Pinter, are masters of both cadence and portent. They keep the viewer so attentive to nuance that the slightest discord--a misplaced word, a slight shift in voice, a stray gesture--ratchets up the suspense to thrilling levels. They take the viewer right inside the quiet hostility between the butler and the fiancée, and the sexual tension between the playboy and the “sister” is nothing less than dazzling. Dirk Bogarde is superbly unctuous in the title role--the character goes from unassuming to devious to malevolent, and the shifts feel effortless. James Fox makes the playboy the perfect foil; the fellow’s surface confidence is impeccably conveyed, but one never doubts what a weak-willed twerp he is underneath. As the “sister,” Sarah Miles is teasing, slatternly perfection. While Wendy Craig lacks the bravura of her co-stars, she isn’t diminished by them, either; she hits every note with precision. The first two acts are so strong that one may want to put the disappointment of the third out of mind. Losey and Pinter build the second act to an electrifying climax, but they never regain their momentum. The third act has the playboy becoming subordinate to the butler, and the film devolves into an uninspired theater-of-the-absurd piece. But it’s a great movie until then, and one’s inclined to say it’s a great movie regardless. Douglas Slocombe provided the excellent black-and-white cinematography. The witty art direction, which Losey uses for hilarious symbolic commentary on the characters, is by Richard Macdonald and Ted Clements. The screenplay was derived from a novella by Robin Maugham.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Short Take: "The Distance of the Moon," Italo Calvino

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," the opening piece in his 1965 Cosmicomics collection, is a gem of a short story. It's built around a clever fantasy conceit, which Calvino plays out beautifully. The setting is a time when the moon was so close to the earth that visiting its surface was a daily occurrence. For some it's even part of their livelihood: the moon is the source of lunar cheese, which can be refined into a delicacy. The story's opening passages have the narrator relating everything with a sense of childlike joy. The reader is caught up in the fun of shifting oneself to the moon's gravitational pull, and the slapstick travails of gathering the cheese. The narrator also relates the hilarious spectacle of a young girl finding herself caught in the moon's gravity, and getting covered with small surface sea life that was caught as well. But for all these scenes of almost magical wonder, the intrigues of the human heart are a constant: infatuations, jealousies, and infidelities. The more things are different, it seems, the more they remain the same. But the centerpiece of the story is the moon's ultimate pulling away from its proximity to the earth. At this point, the story shifts somewhat into suspense narrative, as getting people away from the moon's surface and back to earth becomes the overriding concern. Not everyone makes it--at least not at first. Calvino takes the opportunity to evoke the wistfulness of being homesick, as well as the thwarted passions of lovers who are now rather literally star-crossed. And finally, Calvino evokes nostalgia: the narrator looks back on his experiences with the moon as a treasured time. It's one that will always have a place in his heart. The story is science-fiction fantasy at its best. The exotic setting isn't used to spice up tired adventure-story conventions. The reader is instead made to look at universal emotions and experiences in a new way. The sprightliness of Calvino's prose, translated into English by William Weaver, is the icing on this cake of fresh imagination.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Short Take: Shame

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Michael Fassbender stars in Shame, the second feature directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen. At first glance, his character embodies the ideal of the successful single guy. He’s a well-paid, strikingly handsome white-collar professional who lives and works in Manhattan. He’s also a sex addict who compulsively indulges in hook-ups, call girls, and pornography. His world is thrown for a loop by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan), a small-time jazz singer who crashes at his apartment. The siblings are two sides of the same coin. They’re both desperately alone and emotionally adrift, but she’s as high-strung as he is self-contained. The film works best as a showcase for the two actors. Fassbender’s specialty is smoldering beneath a stoic surface, and he shows a remarkable range within it. The character’s fear, pain, and loneliness are as palpable as his anger. Mulligan’s role doesn’t allow for this kind of austere bravura. The woman is slobby and demonstrative, but Mulligan makes her a vivid counterpoint to her brother. Mulligan shines brightest in the film’s best scene: her character’s nightclub performance of “New York, New York.” It's a low-key rendition that aches with longing, and it brings tears to a listener’s eyes. The two stars are terrific, but the film is cold, glib, and pompous. One can’t decide if McQueen is using the sex to jazz up the angst, or the angst to jazz up the sex. The explicitness of the film (which earned it a NC-17 rating) comes off as self-congratulation for being “bold” and “unflinching.” The picture is compelling, but it is hardly poetic or profound. The screenplay is credited to McQueen and Abi Morgan.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Short Take: The Night of the Hunter

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The southern-gothic suspense thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955) was the only film directed by Charles Laughton. It’s a shame he never made another, because the picture is one of the most imaginatively realized to ever come out of Hollywood. Robert Mitchum stars as a psychopathic itinerant preacher who comes to a small West Virginia town. He's there to woo a local widow (Shelley Winters). The woman’s husband (Peter Graves) robbed a bank, and he went to the gallows without the loot being recovered. The preacher met the husband while serving a sentence for auto theft, and he’s convinced the couple’s young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is hidden. He marries (and murders) the widow in short order, and proceeds to terrorize the children. The two escape and eventually come under the protection of a local old woman (Lillian Gish), but it isn’t long before he tracks them down. Laughton’s model for the film’s noir visuals was the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. The imagery is a marvel: the triangles of light on the looming, dark walls when the preacher murders the widow; the hauntingly lyrical sight of the dead woman underwater in a sunken car, her hair streaming in the current; the preacher’s silhouette on horseback as he comes to confont the old woman. The most marvelous of all is the children’s escape from the preacher. They ride a skiff down the river with various animals looking on, and it’s like something out of Walt Disney's dreams. Laughton also does extremely well by the occasional oddball moments provided by scriptwriter James Agee. The most memorable features the preacher and the old woman singing a hymn in unison during their climactic standoff. Robert Mitchum is extraordinary as the preacher. The characterization is a remarkable blend of charm and menace. One feels the preacher’s charismatic hold on the children’s mother, and the sight of him fills one with dread even when he’s standing still. Tim Burton and other filmmakers have appropriated Laughton's visual approach and other touches, but there’s still no film quite like this one. It both chills and astonishes. Stanley Cortez provided the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The film is based on the novel by Davis Grubb.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Short Take: "Reunion," John Cheever

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

“Reunion,” a 1962 short story by John Cheever, is an extremely haunting piece. Its power doesn’t come from the action it depicts. The impact is from the questions one is left with after it ends. The narrator is a man looking back on the last time he saw his father. He was a teenager, his parents had been divorced for three years, and he was in between trains at New York’s Grand Central Station. The two haven’t seen each other since the divorce, but they arranged to meet during the stopover. At first glance, the father lives up to the boy’s idealized image of him. Everything about him says successful businessman: well dressed, perfectly groomed, and he’s even punctual. But another side is revealed when the two try to find a restaurant. They are refused service in place after place due to the father’s boorish--and possibly drunken--insistence on dealing with the staff in a condescending mock-formal manner. The father’s efforts at conversation with his son are also off-putting. He never asks about the boy’s life and interests. All he can think to talk about is baseball. In short, the father doesn’t interact with people so much as he just goes through the motions. His efforts reflect a narcissistic disdain for others that can’t help but alienate them. The story may at first seem a sketch. The plotting lacks a dramatic arc, and the piece ends very abruptly. What brings it together is the suggestion of a quandary in the narrator’s mind. One passage in particular stands out: “I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.” One can’t help but wonder how the narrator would echo his father’s behavior upon growing older, and one is disturbed by his view that these are tendencies he can only manage, not change. The reader is implicitly left with the question of one’s character being a prison even if one can see the bars. It’s a hard possibility to face, yet one can’t help considering it again and again. The story sneaks up on one, and it’s impossible to shake. It first appeared in the October 27, 1962 issue of The New Yorker, and is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Short Take: The Arrival, Shaun Tan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 2006 book The Arrival, by Australian cartoonist Shaun Tan, is typical of many ambitious graphic novels. It’s strikingly executed but thinly conceived. The protagonist is a young father who leaves his wife and daughter behind when he travels to another country in search of work. The appearance of him, his family, and their home suggests Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. But his destination brings to mind a New York City as reimagined by the great fantasy cartoonists Winsor McCay and Jim Woodring. Much of what the father encounters in the city is strange, confusing, and at times unnerving. He’s not in danger, though. It’s just an alien environment to which he has yet to become acclimated. The fantasy elements serve to make it alien to the reader as well. Tan’s obvious goal is to evoke the disorientation a traveler to a foreign country encounters, and in so doing elicit a greater sympathy for the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the story than this one idea. Possibly to compensate, Tan joins the conceptual slightness to a dense, flashy visual treatment. The story is wordless. It’s told entirely through the drawings, and Tan evokes the characters through their gestures and expressions. The panels are heavily detailed pencil renderings that are clearly intended to recall photographs. There’s no denying that Tan is a skillful draftsman and visual dramatist. But without a story that has the sophistication to complement the richness of the art, his work doesn’t amount to much beyond eye candy. The Arrival is far more a book to look at than to read.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Short Take: Woman in the Dunes (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Woman in the Dunes plays better on the screen than the printed page. This 1964 adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel begins with a schoolteacher (Eiji Okada) vacationing in a remote seaside area to indulge his insect-collecting hobby. Once there, the locals abduct him and confine him to a sand quarry. It is home to a young widow (Kyoko Kishida). He is to join her in her work digging sand for the community to sell. The teacher is reduced to the most basic of lives--work, sleep, food, sex--but his failed attempts at escape gradually lead to acceptance of his circumstances. The story is prison-escape pulp dressed up as an existential parable. It is essentially an extended Twilight Zone episode with adult-audience elements. But Kobo Abe’s screenplay improves on his novel in a number of ways. It focuses less on the escape efforts and more on the relationship between the teacher and the widow. The director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, does an excellent job of realizing the story: the action is kept clear and extremely well paced. The most impressive aspect of his work is how he and the superb cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa give the viewer an almost tactile awareness of the characters’ bodies and their environment. The shifting of the windblown dunes, the grit that collects on the skin, the smoothness of that skin after the sand is cleaned off--all add up to a remarkably eroticized atmosphere. The visuals are haunting, and they transcend the pretentiousness of the narrative. The fine musical score, which makes striking use of discords, is by Toru Takemitsu.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Short Take: "The Five Forty-Eight," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

One may feel John Cheever is writing beneath himself in his 1954 short story, “The Five-Forty-Eight.” Or, one might think the story is brilliantly structured and paced. One’s reaction hinges on one’s attitude towards the use of melodramatic suspense. Cheever’s protagonist is a New York businessman who finds himself stalked by a former employee. The story’s first half recounts his efforts to elude her on the city streets. The second depicts the employee confronting him at gunpoint on his train home. The protagonist is typical of Cheever: a selfish, misanthropic personality masked by the trappings of success. Cheever’s incomparable eye for social detail is also very much present. But Cheever doesn’t build the narrative through ironies or characterization. He strings the reader along through dread. In the first half, one’s attention is held by the question of whether the protagonist is in danger. In the second, it’s whether he will get shot. Cheever makes it explicit that the employee is psychologically unstable, so the possibility is always there. One will either feel the suspense story is enriched by the social-realist surface, or the social realism is cheapened by the suspense. As far as the writer of this review is concerned, it’s the latter. The detail intended to confer gravitas seems pretentious; it’s decorative rather than integral, and the effect in this context is nasty. The most distasteful aspect is the depiction of the employee as mentally ill. It perpetuates ugly (and false) stereotypes of mentally ill people as inherently dangerous to others. (The character, who clearly suffers from a depression disorder, isn’t likely to be a threat to anyone but herself.) The depiction is not mitigated by the story’s clear judgment that the protagonist deserves some kind of comeuppance. A figure of pathos is still turned into a bogeyman, and the context offers no hint of irony. There’s no sense that one should take this portrayal with a grain of salt. This just promotes the bogeyman view of people with mental illness in real life. That’s deeply offensive. The story first appeared in the April 10, 1954 issue of The New Yorker. It is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Short Take: The Rules of the Game

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The famous line from French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterwork The Rules of the Game is, “Everybody has their reasons.” Most of the story takes place at a French country estate during a weekend-long house party. The hosts, guests, and servants are indeed guided by their reasons, or more specifically, their whims and piques. On the spur of the moment, lovers come together, take up with others, and reunite. The bitterest of enemies become the most intimate of friends, and the source of their animosity turns into the heart of their rapport. In this atmosphere, only the priggish are unwelcome, with the price of that stubbornness proving tragic. Renoir catches the viewer up in the mercurial mindset of his characters with deft writing and all but miraculous direction. Characters enter and leave scenes and shots at random, yet the story and staging always seem clear and uncontrived. The conflicts brought about by the characters’ constantly shifting relationships are orchestrated into a dizzyingly funny slapstick farce. And while Renoir is certainly amused by the frivolity of this upper-class world, he understands its darker side as well. The cold brutality of the hunt that precedes the evening gala, and the indifference to the murder that follows it, are incisively harsh indictments of the callous hedonism of the idle rich. Renoir makes moral and emotional relativism lyrical, and it’s simultaneously charming and horrifying. Many justifiably consider this film the greatest ever made. The large cast includes Marcel Dalio and Nora Gregor as the hosts, Roland Toutain as the celebrity aviator, Mila Parély as the Dalio character’s mistress, Paulette Dubost as the hostess’s personal maid, Gaston Modot as the gamekeeper, Julien Carette as the poacher, and Renoir himself as Octave. The screenplay is by Renoir and Carl Koch. Coco Chanel designed the costumes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Short Take: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Hunger Games, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian trilogy, is a first-rate pulp adventure novel. In a distant post-apocalyptic future, North America is divided into twelve districts ruled by a capital city in the Rocky Mountains. Once a year, each district is required to send a teenage boy and girl to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality-TV competition in which the teenagers hunt and kill each other until only one remains. Collins’ protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is the self-reliant frontier hero of American romanticism vividly reimagined as a 16-year-old girl. She’s an expert hunter and the pillar of her family. She also has a strong maternal side, and her self-discipline is such that her interest in the opposite sex is relegated to a tentative afterthought. For her, the challenge of the competition is physical, spiritual, and a matter of duty: to survive for the sake of her family, and to do so without sacrificing her soul. The novel hooks the reader from the first page. Collins’ sense of character and conflict are acute, and her imagining of the book’s satiric future world is almost as impressive. The competition section is extraordinarily well-crafted; the ebb and flow of the action is just superbly orchestrated. As with all worthwhile suspense novels, one may feel one can’t put it down, and one will all but certainly finish it eager for the next book in the trilogy. One caveat: the book’s young-adult designation only reflects the prose difficulty and the absence of sex and profanity. The quantity and explicitness of the violence may seem more suited for an adult readership. In any case, the book is definitely not appropriate for pre-adolescent children.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Short Take: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s interpretation of the life of Christ, has a stark, fierce beauty. It is perhaps the most powerful treatment of the material to reach the screen. Pasolini displays a neorealist eye for gritty detail and everyday idiosyncrasy. The only things more craggy and plain than the landscape are the actors’ faces. Everyone looks as if they have been shaped, even scarred, by experience every day of their lives. The film’s Christ (Enrique Irazoqui; voice by Enrico Maria Salerno) is intense and uncompromising. He easily conveys that he will brook no argument in his efforts to bring humanity the divine word. One cannot help but admire Pasolini’s restraint in moments other filmmakers treat as opportunities for showmanship. The miracles and Passion are presented with a minimum of spectacle. Parts such as the dance of Salomé, who is refreshingly depicted as an innocent, have a quiet, reserved dignity. Pasolini eschews the temptations of pageantry and violence, and it makes the story all the more powerful. Tonino delli Colli provided the austere, evocative black-and-white cinematography. The eclectic score, which ranges from selections from Bach to the Congolese Missa Luba, was supervised by Luis Bacalov.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Short Take: "The Swimmer," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1964 short story “The Swimmer” is perhaps John Cheever’s most famous. The story is deserving of its reputation. It’s a brilliantly effective use of fantasy and allegory in a realist setting. Like most of Cheever’s material, it takes place in a upper-class New York City suburb. The protagonist this time out is an athletic middle-aged man who one afternoon decides to act on an alcohol-fueled whim. Eight miles lie between his house and the house of the friends whose party he is attending. He decides to make his way home by swimming every swimming pool between the two. Cheever begins the tale as a humorous portrait of this rather narcissistic fellow and his social milieu. But things turn mysteriously darker as the day goes on. Time, memories, and the title character’s social standing seem to collapse. The summer weather becomes increasingly like autumn, the protagonist goes from being popular to a pariah, and at the story’s end, he discovers that the life he has built for himself is completely gone. The story is an allegory of denial. The person who follows whims with a blind eye to everything else can lose everything before what has happened sinks in. Cheever's telling of the story is superb. When it starts, the fluid prose and humorously observed details of character and setting speed the reader along. The shift into darkness is terrifically well paced. It’s a mystery that suspensefully builds for both the protagonist and the reader. The climactic epiphany manages to be shocking as well as understated. It couldn’t be more powerful, in large part due to the pathos of the protagonist not fully comprehending what the reader now understands. The story may well be Cheever’s most artful treatment of the self-absorbed anomie of bourgeois suburban life. It was originally published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, and is featured in The Stories of John Cheever collection, among many other anthologies.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Short Take: "Shadowplay: The Secret Team," Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s 1989 collaboration “Shadowplay: The Secret Team” is one of the more unusual efforts of the comics renaissance of the 1980s and ‘90s. The strip was created as part of Brought to Light, a comics album that also featured material by Paul Mavrides and the team of Joyce Brabner and Tom Yeates. The book was intended to support and spotlight an ultimately failed lawsuit against various members of the U. S. intelligence community. Moore and Sienkiewicz’s contribution is a history of illicit CIA and CIA-related operations between World War II and the Iran-Contra affair. Their treatment of this material is anything but dry. Moore and Sienkiewicz were, respectively, perhaps the most accomplished scriptwriter and illustrator working in mainstream comics during an especially creative time. They bring all the artfulness they can muster to this account of corruption, terror, and intrigue. The narrator is an anthropomorphized bald eagle in a gaudy pink suit, and Moore gives him the voice of a crazed, jingoistic blowhard. And while this grotesque’s tale is all but certain to leave a bitter taste, the monologue’s rhythms are fast, and the reader is carried along. Moore also comes up with some effective tropes to convey the obscenity of the intelligence community’s actions. The most powerful is the icon of a blood-filled swimming pool, which the strip uses as a tally for those killed. (There are eight pools by the strip’s end, signifying approximately 160,000 people.) Sienkiewicz complements the text with a barrage of wildly imaginative (and painted) editorial-cartoon imagery. The treatments of Richard Nixon, Oliver North, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are inspired. The wittiest is probably the depiction of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. Unfortunately, the collaborators’ handling of the material is ultimately too rich for the strip’s 30-page length. It feels congested, and the density becomes numbing. Moore and Sienkiewicz are fighting the first rule of agitprop--keep things simple and accessible--and they don’t quite pull it off. As impressive as select moments are, “Shadowplay” doesn’t come together as an effective whole.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Short Take: Tokyo Story

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Over the last few decades, the 1953 Japanese film Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu, has become a fixture of consensus best-films-of-all-time lists. A viewer may be initially puzzled as to why. It’s a quiet family drama, and Ozu displays no conspicuous filmmaking dazzle. The story begins with an elderly Japanese couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), who live in a small town with their youngest daughter (Kyoko Kagawa), preparing to travel to Tokyo. The couple are going there to visit their eldest son (So Yamamura) and daughter (Haruko Sugimura), who live in the city with their families. But once the couple arrive, they find the son and daughter are so busy with their daily lives that they cannot pay the parents much attention. Resentment of the parents, particularly from the eldest daughter, also rears its head, and it’s not entirely out of place. The only person who goes out of her way to entertain the elderly couple is the widow (Setsuko Hara) of their middle son. The couple eventually returns home before they planned. But tragedy strikes soon afterward, and three of the family members come to terms with the truth of their family’s internal problems. For all their remorse, they realize one can only move forward, and the additional pain of that must be accepted. Ozu concerns himself entirely with serving the story, and he presents it with considerable understatement. The rigor of that understatement is extraordinary, and the thematic core of the film--the tacit conflicts that arise between parents and children over the years, and how the generations invariably drift apart--is so resonant that one cannot get the picture out of one’s head. Ozu’s bravura isn’t in flashy camerawork or epic story construction. It’s in finding drama in the mundane and realizing it with the utmost precision. In many ways, his sophistication is the most impressive kind. Kogo Noda collaborated with Ozu on the screenplay.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Short Take: "The Country Husband," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” is a compelling study in suburban alienation. While it is not his most famous short story, it may be his best. The story opens with an amusing comic situation: the protagonist survives a plane crash unharmed, and he can’t find anyone who cares. When he comes home, his wife and children are preoccupied with their own petty concerns. They ignore his attempts to talk about the crash, and when he mentions it along with complaints about their other conduct, they only hear the latter. In the scenes that follow, his thoughts turn to a vaguely misanthropic negativity. It’s impossible not to be disturbed by his musings about the fate of a pesky neighborhood dog, or his alleged memories of the humiliating past of a neighbor’s maid. The protagonist then launches into a pattern of aggressively obnoxious and even self-destructive behavior. This includes, among other things, coming on to the family’s teenage babysitter, antagonizing the neighbor at the center of the town’s social scene, and ruining the job prospects of a local boy with already thwarted ambitions. Before long, the man’s wife begins to seriously entertain the prospect of leaving him, and she doesn’t even know about the babysitter. Cheever takes the opening comic scenario, and he turns it inside out into a skewed metaphor for the man’s life. The fellow survives the crash at the story’s start, but will he survive his compulsion to crash the life he’s built for himself, as well as destroy his self-respect as a decent person? Like all of Cheever’s fiction, the story is sleekly written and beautifully paced. His capacity for constructing tropes from the details of the story’s milieu remains remarkable. What sets it apart is that Cheever’s mordant humor has never been sharper or more subtle. The story is funny, shocking, and even sinister by turns, and it feels all of a piece. Cheever first published the story in the November 20, 1954 issue of The New Yorker, and it is featured in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Short Take: The Help (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The film version of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s phenomenally successful 2009 novel, is handsomely produced and briskly paced. It also rings almost completely false. Tate Taylor, who wrote the script and directed, stays fairly close to Stockett’s story. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and 1963, when the African-American civil-rights movement was beginning to come to a full boil, it follows the efforts of an upper-class aspiring writer (Emma Stone) to put together a book of testimonials by African-American domestic workers. Particular assistance comes from two local maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Stockett’s handling of the material was glib and self-congratulatory, but it works. Taylor’s treatment seems completely wrong. The heart of the story’s drama is in the various social codes--both between the races and within the white upper-class--and how they’re enforced and acquiesced to. Taylor doesn’t get the nuances. Among other things, he directs the actresses playing the maids to use far more assertive body language with whites than would be tolerated. Taylor also includes moments that aren’t in the book--such as one maid interfering without reprisal with the police during an arrest, or another threatening, again without reprisal, an affluent white man--that make one wonder if he knows anything about the milieu he's depicting. Viola Davis is a remarkably compelling actress, but Tate doesn’t have the judgment to use her imposing intensity with restraint. As a result, the relationship between her character and Emma Stone’s doesn’t play right, and the climactic confrontation with the white queen bee (Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn’t have anywhere near the power it should. Taylor botches the queen bee character, too. She’s an effective villain in the book--the butt of much of the humor, but a genuinely threatening presence as well. However, Taylor doesn’t show the intimidation tactics she uses with her cohort, so it makes no sense why they defer to her. He also directs Howard to play the character in a cartoonishly over-the-top manner, so a viewer can’t take her seriously, either. The only character Taylor handles well is the local misfit, played by Jessica Chastain. Her failed efforts to be accepted in the town’s social circles are funny and touching, and Chastain gives a terrific comic performance. Taylor also does justice to the character's pathos--the film’s most eloquent moment is when the viewer learns the meaning of the isolated flowers she plants on her lawn. It’s about the only time this tone-deaf filmmaker shows perfect pitch. The large cast includes Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen. The capable production design is by Mark Ricker.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Short Take: Molloy, Samuel Beckett

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Vladimir Nabokov famously said, “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” One may not agree this is true of all novels, or even most, but it is certainly true of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951), the first book in what has come to be known as his Trilogy. (The other two books are Malone Dies and The Unnamable.) Molloy may at first seem impenetrable. Each of the two halves is made up of a long, rambling narrative told by one of the two protagonists. The first half is narrated by Molloy, an aimless vagrant and drifter; the second is related by Moran, a widower and father who is told by his employer to leave town in order to “see about” Molloy. The Molloy half is a long, apparently shapeless meander. The Moran section may not seem much different: he never gets far enough along to reach Molloy. The reader also never learns the nature of the employer’s interest, nor what Moran is supposed to do once he and Molloy meet. There really is no plot. The only things carrying the reader along are the elegant rhythms of Beckett’s concise prose, and the tantalizing metaphors, allegories, and absurdities that comprise the individual moments. The book only comes together once one has finished it. Superficially, Moran’s life is structured and Molloy’s is not, but the “rules” Moran is enamored with are shown to be egotism and artifice. Both men are defined by alienation and whim. The difference between the derelict and the adjusted in society ultimately proves happenstance. The book only achieves its full richness upon rereading. Among other things, the dense weave of Beckett’s various tropes require knowledge of the entire book to be appreciated. It’s a difficult novel, but undeniably a great one. It's a masterpiece in its depiction of modern anomie. It has also been extremely influential. To pick one example, the novel, particularly the Moran section, is the obvious model for the books that make up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Molloy was originally written in French. The English translation is by Patrick Bowles in collaboration with Beckett.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Short Take: Andy Warhol's Bad

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1977 film Andy Warhol’s Bad, directed by Jed Johnson, is a cult movie in the worst sense of the term. Like many so-called cult pictures, it’s a broad social satire, punctuated by moments of grotesque violence, that congratulates itself for its quirky outrageousness from the first frame to the last. The script, credited to Pat Hackett and George Abagnalo, centers on a middle-aged New York grandmother (Carroll Baker) who runs a hair-removal business out of her kitchen. It’s not enough to make ends meet, so she also manages a team of hit women who specialize in taking out pets and unwanted children. A hunky layabout (Perry King) joins up and spends his time getting to know them while waiting for orders on a job. The film chortles over how appalling the various characters are, and the only consistent moral voice is the grandmother’s insufferably whiny daughter-in-law (Susan Tyrrell). It's quite a freak show. The most obscene moment is when a young mother, tired of waiting for the hit woman to arrive, throws her baby out the window of her high-rise apartment. The sensibility at play is a smirky, adolescent misanthropy. It’s the sort of thing a smart-alecky teenage boy might think was brilliant satire. The film was the last one produced under Andy Warhol’s aegis.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Short Take: "The Enormous Radio," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

John Cheever’s short story “The Enormous Radio,” originally published in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker, is one of his most highly regarded. It’s sleekly written, but one may find oneself questioning its reputation. The protagonists are an upwardly mobile New York City couple who appear to be living an ideal life. But one day their radio--the daily source of their beloved music--breaks down, and the husband buys an expensive replacement The new radio turns out quite differently than expected. It doesn’t just tune in the local stations. It eavesdrops on their neighbors, and initially the couple are quite repelled--both at how it disrupts the music they enjoy, and at the troubled goings-on in the others’ homes. The wife, though, feels increasingly compelled to listen in, and the radio eventually becomes the catalyst for all the conflicts between the couple coming to the fore. The perfection of their life is revealed as a sham, a façade. The story may be an example of one that time has just passed by. Its main insight--that pretensions of a perfect life are simply denial of the stresses and problems everyone faces--seems slight and banal. The problem may be that too many other writers have since mined this theme for Cheever’s treatment to remain worthwhile. In addition to the story’s New Yorker appearance, it is also featured in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Short Take: Wandering Son, Vols. 1-3, Shimura Takako

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In the first three volumes of her manga series Wandering Son, Shimura Takako invites comparison to the celebrated young-adult fiction writer Judy Blume. Her two protagonists are Shuichi and Yoshino, whom the reader meets in the fifth grade and follows into their middle-school years. Yoshino is a tomboy. She prefers short hair and boy’s clothing--she hates wearing dresses--and she’s willing to use her fists on male classmates if they dare to anger her. Shuichi is her best friend, and in many ways her opposite number. He’s a boy who loves dressing in girls’ clothing and accoutrements. He also has a propensity to cry in front of others. A good deal of their friendship is based on Yoshino’s willingness to indulge his proclivities. She even takes Shuichi dressed as a girl out shopping. Shimura handles a sensitive early-adolescent subject with considerable grace. She captures the doubts--and the joys--of the two characters as they explore and come to terms with their cross-gender tendencies. And she of course confronts the inevitable tensions Yoshino and especially Shuichi’s behavior creates with their families and peers. Dramatically, the tone is just about perfect. Shimura never lapses into the sensationalism that mars so many (alleged) slice-of-life manga stories. Her grasp of the subject is just about perfect as well. She fully understands the nuances of non-traditional gender identifications, such as their not necessarily denoting homosexuality, and she’s true to how they play in social terms. Yoshino’s transvestism is largely accepted while Shuichi’s is not. The series thus far--it will eventually run thirteen books--is a perceptive, amiable, and moving piece of work. The English translation is by Matt Thorn.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Short Take: The Scarlet Empress

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Marlene Dietrich stars in The Scarlet Empress, director Josef von Sternberg's 1934 film about the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great. It's one of the best Hollywood films of the 1930s, and one of the most energetic costume dramas ever made. The film begins with the young Catherine, a Prussian princess who leaves her native court for an arranged marriage to Russia's halfwit future emperor Peter III (Sam Jaffe). It ends years later with Peter's murder and Catherine's ascension to the throne. Along the way Catherine grows from a sheltered naïf to a canny, ruthless leader. She comes to see love as sentimental, and sex as one of the most effective weapons of all. Von Sternberg is on fire with telling the story visually. The chiaroscuro lighting, along with the lavishly detailed costumes and sets, are used to brilliant expressionistic effect. He builds much of the drama through visual and often sexually tinged tropes. And he is in love with movement: the staging and camerawork are superbly choreographed and almost always active. Von Sternberg wants the viewer to feel the story as well as watch it, and he succeeds marvelously well. Marlene Dietrich is beautiful to look at, and by the end she has a strikingly regal bearing. But Marie Dressler, who plays the uncouth Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna, is the film's standout performer. The terrific production crew included cinematographer Bert Glennon, costume designer Travis Banton, and art director Hans Dreier. The screenplay is credited to Manuel Komroff.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Short Take: "Goodbye, My Brother," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

John Cheever's terrific short story "Goodbye, My Brother" renders an uncomfortable truth about family bonds. They are often nothing more than pretense, and maintaining that pretense is the only connection family members may have. The narrator is a Long Island schoolteacher whose family maintains a summer home on a small island off the Massachusetts coast. He and his mother, sister, and two brothers have largely gone their separate ways over the years, but during his current vacation all will be together at the island house. The arrival of the youngest brother causes everyone the most anxiety. He became estranged from the others since growing up, and he does nothing to ingratiate himself with them now. He's hostile to everyone, although it quickly becomes clear that he is the only one who isn't in denial about the family's dysfunction. The tension between him and the others doesn't come from disagreement. It's borne of his refusal to participate in the others' illusions. One can't help but admire Cheever's powerful handling of the subject. He's a virtuoso storyteller. He immediately takes one inside his characters, and the story is immaculately paced. It quietly builds to a devastating climax. Cheever also has a knack for effective, thematically resonant tropes--the nostalgia costume party, the house that will eventually fall into the sea, and many others--that are completely in accord with the story's setting. Cheever presents it all with what may be the most elegant prose style in American fiction. The story was originally published in the August 25, 1951 issue of The New Yorker, and is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Short Take: Melancholia

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The films of Danish writer-director Lars von Trier are insufferably pretentious as a matter of course. Melancholia is no exception. One knows it the moment one hears the prelude of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde over the opening shots. Von Trier doesn’t employ the incomparably sublime music for irony, and he returns to it throughout the picture. It predictably outclasses the film, and it's a sign of how full the director is of himself that he doesn’t recognize this. That said, the first half of the movie isn’t bad. The montage that begins the film is a clever collection of surreal allegorical imagery. It’s followed by an enjoyable black farce depicting the wedding reception of a couple (Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård) at the manor estate of the bride’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). If the antics of the bride’s misanthropic mother (Charlotte Rampling), whimsical father (John Hurt), and boorish employer (Stellan Skarsgård) weren’t enough, the Dunst character suffers from a depressive disorder that has her alternating between episodes of withdrawal and acting out. In one moment she’ll be ducking out of the reception to take a bath or a nap, and in another she’ll be having sex with a co-worker on the estate grounds. It’s perversely amusing. But in the second half, the picture shifts from farce to fable, and it becomes ridiculously overblown. A previously unknown planet (called “Melancholia”--hint, hint) is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Von Trier shows how the Dunst, Gainsbourg, and Sutherland characters respond to the impending apocalypse. Surprisingly, it’s the Dunst character who retains her composure. It’s a nice irony, but the allegorical framework is too over-the-top for it to be effective. Von Trier demonstrates a complete lack of perspective about his material. But he does get a superb performance from Kirsten Dunst, who impressively portrays the character’s divergent moods and transcends the overall pretension. Mileage may vary with a viewer's opinion of the film; it was voted the Best Picture of 2011 by the National Society of Film Critics. Dunst received the group's Best Actress prize.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Short Take: Bullet Park, John Cheever

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

John Cheever pillories bourgeois suburbia in his entertaining 1969 novel Bullet Park, but he redeems it as well. The book follows two protagonists. The first is Eliot Nailles, a mouthwash marketing executive who lives in the town of the book's title. His life, like his neighbors, is about maintaining the appearance of perfection. But things are far from perfect. He and his wife love their son, but the boy is indifferent to school and suffering from depression. Eliot is also wrestling with an addiction to prescription drugs, his mother is on her deathbed, and of course there's always the annoying superficiality of the neighbors. Cheever's other protagonist is Paul Hammer, a misanthrope with a trust fund, born out of wedlock, and drifting through life. He moves to Bullet Park with one objective: to murder Eliot's son, to him a symbol of the traditional family life he has never known. The story's moral, dramatized by the conflict between the main characters, is that for all the pretension of suburban life, the bonds of family it is meant to support are still very real. Cheever gives full play throughout to his amazing gifts: the knack for characterization, the eye for tropes organic to the material, and the beautifully fluid prose. Bullet Park isn't quite at the level of Cheever's best short stories--in particular, readers may feel the climax is handled too abruptly--but it's a rich work of fiction nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Short Take: The American Friend

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The scenes of The American Friend, German director Wim Wenders’ 1977 adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game, almost always take place at either dusk or dawn. It’s a fine visual analogue for the predicaments of the main character (Bruno Ganz), a hapless German family man whom gangsters recruit as an assassin. Wracked by conscience no matter what he does, he’s caught in the tension between the light of good and the darkness of evil. Wenders, working with the outstanding cinematographer Robby Müller, is ingenious when it comes to such poetic visual glosses on the story. He and Müller also make terrific use of the film’s locations--including Hamburg, Paris, and Manhattan--which are strikingly atmospheric without ever seeming glamorous. What Wenders doesn’t have is a feel for the melodramatic suspense necessary for good pulp storytelling. The film is absorbing, and the strong performance by Ganz catches one up in his character, but it’s ultimately a thriller without thrills. If one is looking for an exciting narrative, one is far better served by Highsmith’s novel. Dennis Hopper co-stars as Ripley, the shady American art dealer who manipulates the Ganz character into murder. One has mixed feelings about his portrayal. Highsmith’s character is a clean-cut, charming sociopath with a taste for the good life. The film’s Ripley is a creepy, uncouth looney-tune. The characterization isn’t at odds with Wenders’ conception of the story, and one is grateful that Hopper shows some restraint. The performance is a good deal removed from the psycho schtick he devolved into later in his career. But the amoral enjoyment to be had from Highsmith’s character isn’t to be found. Lisa Kreuzer plays the Ganz character’s fretful wife. Several directors appear in supporting roles, including Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and Gérard Blain.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Short Take: X-Men: First Class

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

X-Men: First Class, the fifth entry in the venerable superhero-movie franchise (and the second effort at a prequel) is a definite step up from the last two offerings, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It isn’t aggressively stupid, and the pacing won’t give one a headache. Most of the film is set in 1962, and the viewer is introduced to the leaders of the rival superhuman factions (played in the earlier installments by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) when they were young men. James McAvoy plays the Stewart character; Michael Fassbender takes over from McKellen. The film charts the development of their friendship, their short-lived alliance, and the conflicts that drove them apart. They also get to train a new group of young superheroes. It’s all in preparation for a showdown with a super-powered ex-Nazi (Kevin Bacon) who manipulates the Cuban Missile Crisis in a plot to take over the world. Director Matthew Vaughn and the gaggle of screenwriters have made a moderately entertaining adventure movie. But the film is a far cry from the first two pictures, both helmed by Bryan Singer. It lacks the poetic storytelling and well-developed character ensemble that gave the Singer-directed installments their distinction. Most of the supporting characters are ciphers--they’re a collection of powers, not personalities--and Vaughn’s half-hearted efforts at using metonymy and other tropes to advance the narrative are clumsy. His judgment in other areas is questionable is well, particularly with the film’s cavalier sexism and the smug, campy performance turned in by Kevin Bacon. But the one thing he gets unquestionably right is the handling of the Michael Fassbender character. Ian McKellen’s droll megalomaniac is reimagined as a Byronic figure. Fassbender plays him with remarkable intensity and charisma. He's the best reason to continue the franchise. The large cast also includes Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, and in a hilarious cameo, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Short Take: The Help, Kathryn Stockett

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s phenomenally successful 2009 début novel, is compelling regardless of one's reservations. The book is set in and around Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and 1963. Stockett constructs the story around three protagonists: Skeeter, an upper-class young woman who aspires to become a writer; Aibileen, a gracious, thoughtful African-American maid; and Aibileen’s brash best friend Minnie, who also works as a maid and a cook. The tensions created by the burgeoning civil rights movement fill the air, and these three women are brought together by a clandestinely written book project about the experiences of African-American domestics in the 1960s South. Stockett has many hallmarks of a good storyteller. She has a sharp eye for incident and conflict, a knack for humor, and a strong feel for the narrative voices of her protagonists. She also does well by her supporting characters. The most memorable is the town queen bee, who’s a fine comic villain. The queen bee is both effective as a threat and as the butt of the book’s humor. One relishes every moment of her getting her just des(s)erts--including a grandly scatological comeuppance--and one can’t help but dread the consequences, too. While the book is ultimately just glib historical fiction, it occasionally flirts with profundity, particularly when it highlights how the various social hegemonies quietly reinforce themselves across all lines of race, class, and gender. The book's virtues are more than enough to forgive its numerous shortcomings. The most conspicuous of the latter is probably the conception of the Skeeter character, who is clearly the author’s self-congratulatory fantasy of herself in the story's setting. The novel also never quite transcends the stock-character quality of both Aibileen and Minnie. (Just think of the Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington characters in the film Glory.) But for all the book’s failings, Stockett keeps one turning the pages. That's the first--and hardest--demand for any novelist.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Short Take: Mildred Pierce (2011 film)

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

With Mildred Pierce, director Todd Haynes gives the five-hour mini-series treatment to James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. It follows a self-made businesswoman in the Great Depression and her tempestuous relationships with her two husbands and eldest daughter. Haynes doesn’t tell the story so much as live it. The series is lavishly detailed and languorously paced. Haynes' immersion in the material feels like obsession. In lesser hands, this might seem oppressive, but one never feels Haynes can’t see the forest for the trees. He may take his sweet time presenting the story, but every scene is effectively shaped, and they add up to an outstanding whole. The deliberate tempo also dries out the soapiness that a brisker pace might have stumbled on. The cast is superb. As the title character, Kate Winslet is remarkably fluid and expressive. She seems to be living the role even more than Haynes is living the story. Evan Rachel Wood plays the vicious, narcissistic daughter in adulthood, and she may be even more impressive. She gives the character a bored, haughty glamour, but she also takes the viewer past this diamond-hard surface and into the daughter’s anger and drive. The character is in many ways the femme fatale of the piece, and one has never seen a femme fatale given this kind of depth. The mini-series’ portrayal of the daughter may even surpass the book’s. Brian F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce hold their own as Mildred’s husbands, as does Melissa Leo as her best friend. Applause is also deserved for the contributions of cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designers Mark Friedberg, Peter Rogness, and Mark Pollard. They give the miniseries a look that elegantly evokes the period setting and lends it a lived-in feel. The teleplay is credited to Haynes and Jon Raymond. Note to readers: the mini-series includes several sexually explicit scenes. They would be enough to earn a theatrical feature a NC-17 rating.