Doodad Kind of Town

Desperate Times, Desparate Measures: Looking at "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Frozen River"
February 28, 2009, 1:09 am
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“These are desperate times…. and desperate measures must be taken.” – from “Sweeney Todd”

Last weekend, I watched two films that, at first glance, would seem to be wildly dissimilar: one a deliciously dark comedy from 1947 and one a low-budget indie drama from 2008.

But the protagonists of “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Frozen River” actually have much in common. Both are faced with sudden, severe financial hardship and both resort to criminal activity in order to keep their families afloat. And, in both cases, it’s their constantly improvised ability to keep one short step ahead of both the bill collectors and the police that keep us riveted to the screen. That’s a talent we may be seeing more and more people display in real life as the unemployment rates spike and stock prices plummet. In short, these films were illuminating -if not instructive -about the choices people are forced to make when there simply isn’t enough money to get by.

Ironically, it’s the film with the lighter, comic tone that ultimately goes to the darkest places. Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in “Monsieur Verdoux,”and it showcases both his gift for deft (and daft) physical comedy and his penchant for shameless sentimentality. Yet in the end, it wallops you with an unexpected cold blast of cynicism combined with high-handed moral rectitude.

Chaplin’s Verdoux is a dapper, charming little Frenchmen who, after losing his bank clerk job of 30 years, supports himself in style by marrying -and murdering -wealthy widows. It’s all played for laughs, with the actual murders taking place offscreen and referenced with offhanded delicacy. (Early on, as Verdoux putters in the garden, a neighbor remarks “I don’t know what he’s burning in that incinerator. I haven’t been able to hang my laundry out for two days.” And that’s as much hint as we get of what happened to Wife #1.)

Well, actually she’s not Verdoux’s first wife. While he’s out marrying all these well-connected society dames, his real wife -a beautiful, much younger (this is Chaplin, after all), wheelchair-bound spouse is at home in a sweet little country cottage, along with their angelic-looking son.

Chaplin obviously stacks the deck here. The women he marries and kills are ill-tempered and unattractive; in a prologue, he refers to them as “dumb animals.” (And the one who escapes every murder attempt unscathed, to Verdoux’s mounting comic frustration, is broadly vulgar and annoying.) We’re obviously meant to understand that these women are frivolous and useless, but we aren’t given much specific evidence of that. Meanwhile, both Verdoux’s wife and a homeless woman to whom he gives a meal and a handout are, by contrast, young, gorgeous and exaggeratedly noble.

And yet, there are genuine and unsettling depths to “Monsieur Verdoux.” This was the first film in which Chaplin did not play the Little Tramp, and his performance is a stunning departure from his previous work. Verdoux, while impeccably mannered and graceful, harbors a deep and bitter cynicism and a biting intelligence.

The film’s devastating finale took me by surprise, and not in a good way. Verdoux is caught and sentenced to the guillotine. And he speaks to the court with a posture and intensity that is highly suggestive of the concluding scene in “The Great Dictator” when, disguised as Fascist leader Adenoid Hinkle, Chaplin addressed a rally with an impassioned plea for love and tolerance. But in “Monsieur Verdoux,” the final message is far darker, and in a nutshell, it goes like this: Yeah, I’m a murderer, but governments build bombs and wage wars that kill innocent people all the time, so I’m no worse than they are. And it closes with this ominous warning: “I shall see you all soon. Very soon.”

There’s a large measure of uncomfortable truth in Verdoux’s final words, but it’s tempered with a generous dash of bullshit as far as I’m concerned. And it goes back to that emotional deck-stacking. Chaplin is careful to mention in his final speech that innocent women and little children are being killed by the bombs of war, but he starts the film by referring to Verdoux’s victims as “dumb animals.” Which is another way of saying “They had it coming,” and that, to me, is an indefensible stance. And just who is that warning about “seeing you all very soon”directed to anyway? Verdoux is ostensibly speaking to a French court and a jury of his peers, not a roomful of Nazis. Is he saying we’re all murderers? Chaplin’s muddled morality here almost spoiled the movie for me.

On an entirely different note:

“Frozen River,” the impressive debut of director/screenwriter Courtney Hunt, succeeds on two levels. It’s not only the kind of straight-ahead suspense film that grabs you and glues you to your seat, it’s also an authentic and unsentimental portrayal of a life lived on the poverty margin.

When we first see Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) she’s in her bathrobe, anxiously sucking on a cigarette and shedding a few quiet tears. It’s the first and last minute of self-pity we’ll see her indulge in.

Moments later, she’s out the front door of her trailer. A delivery man has arrived with the new double-wide she’s ordered, but she doesn’t have the money to pay him off; her husband has taken off for the casino with the last of their cash, leaving her and their two sons high and dry in a tiny, rapidly deteriorating single-wide trailer with only popcorn and Tang in the pantry.

Ray’s husband never reappears, but in her quest to find him, she crosses paths with a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) who introduces her to a new way to make money: smuggling illegal immigrants though a Mohawk reservation on the shared border of New York and Quebec by driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

The film proceeds almost like a thriller from this point,with lots of edge-of-your-seat, will-she-or-won’t-she moments, but they’re as much to do with Ray and her family’s hand-to-mouth existence as with the act of smuggling itself. Questions like “Will Ray come up with $255 in time to prevent the repo guys from taking the TV? Will she finish her smuggling run on Christmas Eve in time to hit KMart for ‘something to put under the tree?” loom large, as does the film’s most urgent concern: Will she get the double-wide trailer, with its three bedrooms and much longed-for jacuzzi tub, after all?

Leo’s performance is masterly and well-deserving of the Oscar nomination she received. Her Ray Eddy is undoubtedly strong, but never heroic. You see her constantly figuring out each next step in her daily struggle for survival, and she convincingly seems to be making it all up as she goes along. She bickers with her teenage son in realistically weary tones, she lies to the cop who pulls her over during a smuggling run without any unduly histrionic nervousness. And when she makes a generous sacrifice for her friend in the end, she brushes past any suggestion of nobility and goes straight to the hard-headed practicality of her choice.

Hunt presents the hardscrabble details of Ray’s life without sentimentalizing or sensationalizing them in any way. Some almost go by you entirely. Like Ray telling her son to “Put up the tree while I’m at work”; up till that moment, there’s been no indication that Christmas is coming. Or the fact that on a very cold day when a heavy snowfall is predicted, not one major character has a warm-enough coat or even a pair of gloves. Or the fleeting shot of unopened, scented bath products on Ray’s bathroom shelf – only later did I realize they’d been purchased in anticipation of the move into the double-wide with its spacious jacuzzi tub.

I don’t know that it was Hunt’s intention, but after watching “Frozen River,” I sat for a long time thinking about all the people who might be just inches away from falling into a desperate situation like Ray Eddy’s, about how any one of us – me included -could wind up in similar straits through a series of bad luck. What would we do and how would we treat each other? The poorest characters in “Frozen River” tend to take care of each other a little bit, but those outside the circle of poverty – the repo guys, the trailer merchants, the bingo parlor lady, Ray’s boss at the Dollar Store- are a pretty cold and unforgiving lot. I hope we all may be a little more generous with people in the days and months to come.

The 2009 Oscars: What a Swell Party it Was!
February 23, 2009, 5:35 am
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Have you ever loved a big production number at the Oscars so much that you wanted to watch it again immediately after the ceremony?

Have you ever enjoyed the banter between presenters so much that you hit the rewind button on the DVR remote at the next commercial so you could watch it again ?

Nope, me neither. That is, not until this year.

Last year, the nominated movies were great and the ceremonies were dull as dirt. This year, the nominees were a mixed bag, but the Oscar show itself was polished, fun and entertaining. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed the show this much. Or, for that matter, if I ever did.

Much of the credit must go to Hugh Jackman, a dashing and dynamic, triple-threat host (He sings! He dances! He’s funny! Oh, and he’s devastatingly good-looking,too.) As one of the two or three dozen people who watch the Tony Awards every year, I already knew Jackman was everything you could hope for in an awards show host, and then some. But for the Oscars, he took his game to a whole new level.

Jackman’s “recession era” opening production number (“put together in my garage last night”) was funny enough to make you forget you ever saw Billy Crystal. I was cringing a little trying to imagine how they’d make musical comedy out of “The Reader;” fortunately the techno dance number “I Forgot to See ‘The Reader'” was a brilliant, hilarious save. Undoubtedly, though, the highlight was Anne Hathaway’s game and seemingly spontaneous participation in the “Frost/Nixon”parody. Girlfriend can really belt – who knew?

Later Jackman tapped his way through a sorta-fun-but-also-sorta-superfluous medley of movie musical hits. Joining him was Beyonce, working sexy red sequins and a top hat, looking and sounding fabulous. I was quite happy just watching these two, but then they brought out Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens to sing some “High School Musical” crap. And then they had to drag in a number from “Mamma Mia.” This curmudgeonly musical maven would like to ask that the Academy never again reference “High School Musical 3” in the same tribute medley as “Singing in the Rain” or “Top Hat.”

The Tina Fey/SteveMartin moments leading up to the Best Original Screenplay award were some of the funniest in memory. (“Every writer starts with a blank page. And every blank page was once a tree. And every tree was once a tiny seed. And every tiny seed on earth was placed here by the alien king Rondelay to foster our titrates and fuel our positive transfers.”) Please let these two write the presentation banter for every Oscar show for the rest of their lives. They are comedy gods, and this is their world; the rest of us just live in it.

Every Oscar ceremony has its share of heart-tugging moments. Not surprisingly, the saddest of these was the acceptance of Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor award by his father, mother and sister. As the many cutaways to the audience clearly showed, there was not a dry eye in the house. One might even say that the show’s producers milked this moment for pathos to the point of overkill.

Among the happier heart-tugs was Kate Winslet’s instruction to her father to “whistle so I can find you,” at which point her dad’s shrill whistle emerged from somewhere in the middle of the audience. And there was plenty of celebration at our Oscar party for the multiple “Slumdog Millionaire” wins. Let’s just say, some incriminating videos have been shot of fellow partyers attempting to dance Bollywood-style to the strains of the award-winning song “Jai Ho.”

Myself, I was cheering for my boy Sean Penn, whose portrayal of Harvey Milk was deservedly honored.

A few new features at this year’s show that I didn’t much care for:

The lengthy lovefest surrounding each of the acting awards. What was so wrong with the long-standing tradition of having the previous year’s gender-opposite winner read the names nominees in between film clips and brief bursts of polite applause? Nothing, so far as I can see. So why parade five past winners out for every category and force us to endure rambling, phony-sounding, actor-to-actor tribute speeches, interspersed with shots of embarrassed or teary-eyed nominees? Overindulgent? You bet!

Oh, and the obligatory “In Memoriam” reel (or, as it’s more commonly known at our annual Oscar party, the “Dead People Montage”)? It’s all very nice to have Queen Latifah sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” as the accompaniment, but we don’t actually want to be seeing her. We want to see dead people. And want just one shot of each of them in the frame at one time.

And finally, a few words about fashion.

Muted colors were the rule for this year’s Oscar gowns: lots of silver, champagne, bronze. Those colors may sound expensive, but they actually look subdued and recession-appropriate. Tasteful, sure, but also sort of uninspiring. Kudos to Amy Adams for working a beautiful, structured red gown – even though her necklace was too large and overwhelming for her fine features.

One-shoulder gowns and draped gowns seemed to be the other major trends for the evening. For some, the draped effect worked well (Meryl Streep).

Others looked as if they’d hastily tied a bedsheet around themselves before getting into their limo (Jessica Biel).

My favorite looks of the evening were worn by Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, and Kate Winslet.

Leo’s coppery gown complements both her auburn hair and her fair skin. I’d say this photo does not the same justice to the gown that the show’s cameras did. Leo was glowing and gorgeous on the red carpet.

Davis’ gown is likewise simple and elegant, and looks great with her skin tone.

Kate’s looked great all through awards season, and once again she’s wearing a black, one-shoulder number. And again, it’s all about understated elegance- sleek hair, simple jewelry and just the right amount of interesting detail on the gown.

Worst dressed of the night? That’s a tough call. Everyone these days has a stylist, and everyone at this recession-conscious bash looked (as previously noted) so damn tasteful. I miss the days when you could count on at least one egregious howler of an outfit -where’s Bjork and her swan dress when you need her? Or at least Cameron Diaz with a bad case of bedhead. I mean, Tilda Swinton even put on makeup this year!

But I did get a laugh out of Angelina Jolie’s ginormous emerald jewelry. I’m sure those baubles were expensive, but they kinda looked like something you’d find at the dollar store. In the toy section. And I’m pretty sure Whoopi Goldberg got her dress at TJ Maxx. Sadly, I couldn’t locate a picture of her cheap-looking, ill-fitting, animal print monstrosity of a gown, but I’m sure it’ll be showing up on E’s “Fashion Police” show later today.

Oscar Time: The Overlooked
February 20, 2009, 11:36 pm
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I’ve never been less enthused about the Academy Awards than I am this year.

To begin with, in my humble opinion, it hasn’t been a great year for films.

In 2007, the film industry produced an embarrassment of riches. If I’d troubled myself to publish a list of that year’s best films, I’d have had real trouble limiting it to a Top Ten – a Top Twenty would have been more feasible. For the year just ended, however, it would be a real strain to come up with ten films I found worthy of honors. And most of the films that would make my list didn’t make a strong showing in the Oscar nominations.

Second-guessing the Academy is every film buff’s favorite parlor game come awards season. And I just can’t resist suggesting a few people and films I wish were going to be represented at the Kodak Theatre Sunday night:

Best Foreign Film: I was surprised – but not disappointed – to find Arnaud Despelchin’s dysfunctional family drama “A Christmas Tale” missing from the nominees this year. It was on most major critics’ Ten Best lists. (Myself I found it rambling and pointless, if very well acted. More on that later.) Perhaps it lost out due to one or the other of the Academy’s baffling and byzantine rules for foreign films’ award eligibility.

If there had to be a post-Holocaust-guilt drama on the Oscar roll this year, why oh why couldn’t the Academy have forgotten all about “The Reader,” and given a Foreign Language Film nod to “A Secret” instead. Claude Miller’s sweeping and beautifully acted saga of a French family’s guilty secrets was ten times the movie that “The Reader” purported to be.

Best Supporting Actress: Not to keep “Reader”-bashing, but….

Even in a dual role, she’s only onscreen for a few minutes, total. But Lena Olin is one of the best things – actually one of the very few good things – in “The Reader.” Her eleventh-hour appearance as a no-bullshit Holocaust survivor almost (but not quite) redeems all the manipulative hogwash that precedes it. If Beatrice Straight could win an Oscar for five and a half minutes of screen time in “Network,” then surely Olin could earn a nomination for her brief but stunning work.

Best Supporting Actor: The late Heath Ledger is going to win, of course, and I have no ax to grind about that. He was great in “The Dark Knight,” and we’ll never have another chance to reward him. Actually I have no problem with any of the nominees in this category. But it was a unusually rich year for supporting actor performances, and if I had to, I could come up with another, completely different slate of nominees. My choices for such an alternate list are:

  • Bill Irwin – the least celebrated cast member of “Rachel Getting Married,” and unfairly so. In his first 10 seconds onscreen, you know exactly who he is and what his character is all about, so fully does he inhabit the role.
  • Brandon Walters – As the young aboriginal boy in “Australia,” his is the most effective, least affected performance in the film. He’s the one who draws you into the story, which is no mean feat given all the dreadful, “me catchum fish”-style dialogue he’s given to speak.
  • Eddie Marsan – the angry and deeply wounded driving instructor in “Happy Go Lucky.” With the exception of one major critics’ award, he’s been criminally overlooked this awards season.
  • Brendan Gleeson – Colin Farrell got the Golden Globe for “In Bruges” – and he was fine – but Gleeson’s nuanced, compulsively watchable performance is the one that really stayed with me.
  • Mathieu Almaric – brilliant in “A Christmas Tale.” His chemistry with Catherine Deneuve in their mother-son confrontation scenes was electric.
  • Best Actress – Do I even have to say it? Sally Hawkins’ omission from this category is unforgivable. And Mike Leigh’s Best Screenplay nomination is not a consolation.

    Best Actor – Leonardo DiCaprio’s fine, emotionally naked performance in “Revolutionary Road” has been sadly overlooked this awards season, part of an apparent backlash against Sam Mendes and his very underrated adaptation of the classic Richard Yates novel. It’s bewildering to me that Brad Pitt is scooping up nominations everywhere for doing no more than putting on age prosthetics and gazing vacantly at Cate Blanchett, while Leo is absent from nearly every awards gathering.
    Best Picture: In my world, only two of the actual nominees would have made it this far: “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Milk.” It’s only my opinion, of course, but the rest of my Best Picture lineup would look like this: “Rachel Getting Married, ” “Happy Go Lucky,” and “Revolutionary Road.” No more to say on the subject.

    Thoughts on "The Reader" and "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"
    February 15, 2009, 9:21 pm
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    It’s been two weeks now since I saw Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated drama “The Reader,” and I’ve been taking my own sweet time getting around to writing about it. More to the point, it’s taken me some time to process my own complicated reaction to it.

    In the end, it just comes down to this: “The Reader” made me angry. Outraged. Furious, even.

    But the fact that it’s a Holocaust drama – and that it’s gotten some great reviews from writers I respect – triggers insecurity in me. The “make nice, get along” side of my personality wants to be careful I don’t step on toes or offend someone, especially when writing about a delicate, sensitive subject such as this. I’ve been second-guessing my anger a lot over the past several days.

    And then along comes Ron Rosenbaum. The estimable writer and critic for Slate Monday this week published a damning article entitled “Please Don’t Give an Oscar to ‘The Reader‘,” which echoes every thought I originally had about the film, but backed up with both hard facts and scholarly analysis. Rosenbaum comes right out and calls “The Reader” “the Wost Holocaust Movie Ever Made.” I wouldn’t go quite that far myself; after all, I’ve never seen that long-lost Jerry Lewis movie, “The Day the Clown Cried.” But I’m mightily impressed with the argument he makes.

    I have little to add to Rosenbaum’s fine, impassioned article. Ultimately, “The Reader” failed for me because it tried to be too many things, none of them successfully. In the course of its 124 minutes, it morphed from:

  • Erotic coming-of-age tale/tribute to the power of literature (Kate Winslet’s 15-year-old lover reads aloud to her before making love)
  • to

  • Nazi courtroom drama (Winslet, a former Auschwitz guard is tried for the murder of 300 Jewish women, as her former lover – now a 23-year-old law student -looks on in anguish)
  • to

  • Boy-grows-up-and-mourns-lost-love weepie (boy grows up to be a cold, expressionless Ralph Fiennes)
  • to

  • Uplifting triumph-of-the-human-spirit tale (the illiterate Winslet teaches herself to read in prison! Yay!)
  • to

  • Tragedy for Winslet, catharsis for Fiennes, and a great scene for Lena Olin as an Auschwitz survivor who cuts through Fiennes teary-eyed bullshit with the best speech in the entire film.
  • (Or, as another Slate writer neatly summed it up, the alternative title for this film might well be “Boo Hoo, I Boinked an Illiterate Nazi.”)

    This is a queasy mix at best. And unfortunately, the only character who puts the whole thing into perspective- Olin, cautioning Fiennes about the inappropriateness of sentimentalizing the Holocaust – doesn’t show up until the film’s eleventh hour.

    Winslet is probably going to win an Oscar for this, and that’s fine. She brings a certain stubborn dignity to her role, never openly courting our compassion or sympathy, even when the screenplay and direction work to manipulate us towards such feelings. She’s a gifted actress who’s overdue for a statuette, so it might as well be for this shameless award-whore of a film as for any other.

    In alll honesty, though, my feelings about “The Reader” were strongly influenced by another film I saw a few weeks earlier, one which Rosenbaum mentions briefly in his article: “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.”

    “Sophie Scholl..,” a harrowing and powerful film, is based on the true story of the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany. It chronicles the last six days in the life of Scholl, who along with her brother Hans, was convicted of treason for distributing leaflets that criticized Hitler and called for the end of the war just after the German troops had been badly defeated at Leningrad in 1943. In just those six days- starting from the morning that Hans and Sophie drop their mimeographed leaflets outside university classroom doors – the Scholl siblings (plus a fellow White Rose member, Christoph Probst) were arrested, interrogated, tried, convicted and executed.

    The film is constructed and directed (by Marc Rothemund) in such a way that we acutely feel the horrible speed with which these promising young lives were ended. There’s a bare minimum of exposition at the film’s beginning; less than ten minutes in, we’re watching Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and Sophie (Julia Jentsch) as they stealthily deposit stacks of letters in the halls of the university. The urgent editing, swiftly moving camera and insistent drumbeat on the underscoring musical track all work to create a mounting sense of dread throughout this sequence. And, indeed, Hans and Sophie are apprehended and taken to university authorities almost the instant the leaflet distribution is complete.

    From there, the film moves to the interrogation office of Robert Mohr (Gerald Alexander Held), where Sophie is questioned. She initially denies any involvement, repeatedly calling herself apolitical. But when she is confronted with evidence, plus her brother’s confession, Sophie relents and takes full responsibility for her actions.

    What follows are scenes whose dialogue is taken from actual interrogation transcripts. Throughout his relentless questioning, Mohr develops respect for Sophie’s passion, intelligence and deep convictions. He offers her ways to save herself (naming other White Rose members, admitting she was under her brother’s influence and didn’t understand what she was doing), but Sophie won’t have it. She remains steadfast in her admission of guilt, as well as in her moral outrage against the Third Reich.

    The interrogation scenes make up a significant portion of “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” and even though they’re shot in what I call the “standard tennis match” style (cut to shot of person on one side of desk, making a point; cut to person on other side of desk responding; cut to first person making a counterpoint, and so on), they are riveting. Much of the credit must go to the two fine actors. Held is wary and calculated, balancing his concern for Sophie with his professional obligation to get the truth from her in a such a way that we can just barely see his thought process play across his face.

    Jenstch, her square jaw set resolutely, brings a groundedness, fearlessness and uncompromising intelligence to her portrayal of Sophie. She’s excoriating in her outrage at Hitler and the Third Reich, all the more so as she expresses it with quiet conviction instead of angry shouts. Yet, while she’s formidable, Jentsch’s Sophie is never less than human. She never lets us forget that, for all her extraordinary qualities, Sophie was also an ordinary, 21-year-old girl. Witness the wonder in her eyes as she describes her fiance to a fellow prisoner, her bubbly enthusiasm as she and a friend crouch close to the radio in her flat to sing along with Billie Holiday. And for all her courage and conviction, Sophie is ultimately as human and frightened as any of us would be in her shoes. Returning to her cell after receiving her death sentence, she doubles over and emits a wounded, animalistic cry; faced with the task of writing a farewell letter to her fiance, she is overcome, sobbing and lost.

    In short, Sophie Scholl emerges as a person like all of us – and yet, the person all of us wonder if we truly have the capacity to be. Just days after I saw “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” my pastor opened a sermon with the words “What are you willing to die for?” The martyrdom of Sophie Scholl was the first thing that came to my mind.

    So, you’ll excuse me if I can’t work up tears for a fictional Auschwitz guard whose greatest shame is not that she let 300 women burn to death inside a church bombed by the Allies, but that she (sob!) can’t read. I’ll save my tears for the real woman who was courageous enough to stand up for the truth – and lost her life for it.

    Something else has occurred to me since: “The Reader” purports to be, in part, about the power of the written word. But how much more does “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” attest to that power? It’s all well and good to show Winslet sobbing in her young lover’s arms as he reads to her from some classic book or the other. But the students of the White Rose published so-called “leaflets” that were no more than typed, single-spaced sheets filled with criticism of Hitler’s war. And those simple sheets of writing were so threatening to the German government that the authors were killed within six days of their distribution. (As the film notes, it was customary in Hitler’s Germany to allow those convicted of treason 99 days between sentencing and execution; the Scholls and Christoph Probst got only 24 hours.) What does that say about power?

    LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Costume Design
    February 9, 2009, 10:24 pm
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    This post is a part of LAMB Devours the Oscars, hosted by the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). Many of us LAMBs have volunteered to share our thoughts on the Oscar nominees in particular categories; here are my thoughts on the 2008 nominees for one of my favorite categories – Best Costume Design.

    I love this category so much that I’m covering it for the second year. And what I wrote by way of introduction in 2008 still applies, so with your kind permission, I’m going to quote myself here:

    “Ah, the Best Costume Design category! Wherever you find an award for achievement in Costume Design, you’ll find a list of period pictures: films full of ball gowns, royal robes, and the haute couture of the decades gone by. If it’s visually sumptuous and it’s set in a bygone era, it’s likely to get a nomination in this category. At least that’s been my impression over the years.

    I was discussing this category recently with my friend, Bill, who’s been a costumer for many local theatre productions. Bill reminded me that good costume design isn’t just about making beautiful, elaborate clothes for period pictures. It’s about creating costumes that tell you something about the characters while being appropriate to the time period of the film.

    It was Bill who informed me that an Oscar for Best Costume Design had gone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – a film that (I dimly recall) featured Richard Burton in a ratty old cardigan and Liz Taylor alternating between a shapeless old sweater and a slutty top with a plunging neckline. Of course, that was in 1966, when the Academy still presented two Costume Design Oscars each year, one for a color film and one for black-and-white. The Costume Design award for color films that year went to “A Man for All Seasons,” an historical drama. The following year, the awards were combined into a single category – and, with a few notable exceptions (“Star Wars”, “All That Jazz”, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) – the winners have been period films ever since.”

    Yep, all that still holds true in 2008 (last year’s winner “Elizabeth: the Golden Age” was full of elaborate 16th century gowns and robes). And Bill, my friend and frequent moviegoing companion, still influences and informs my take on this year’s Best Costume Design nominees.

    First there’s “Revolutionary Road,” Sam Mendes’ take on suburban marital angst in the 1950s. Many people I know who’ve seen this film and are also old enough to remember the 1950s (Bill included) have oohed and aahhed over the female characters’ attire, saying things like “I remember when my mom wore dresses just like that!” So we’ve got to give Albert Wolsky credit for period accuracy.

    And it’s hard to not to think of “Mad Men” when we see Leonardo DeCaprio in a snappy gray suit and hat like this one (even though “Revolutionary Road” is set five years earlier than that TV series. But then, how much would mens’ suits change in five years? Probably not much.)

    But what do the costumes tell us about the characters who wear them? Well, if you watch Kate Winslet’s April Wheeler closely, you notice that she tends to wear kind of drab, colorless clothes, and pulls her back in a casual ponytail. But she gets noticeably more gussied up once she’s decided the family is going to move to Paris. (as in the photo below where she’s headed to the travel agent to pick up the tickets. White gloves yet!)

    She also wears a darling little ice blue sheath with a fetching cutout design at the neck when she and Frank head over to the neighbors’ to announce their upcoming move.

    And when the Paris plans go awry, she’s back to ponytails and drab colors – not for nothing, is her final ensemble a hastily tossed on, completely beige skirt and blouse.

    It’s pretty hard to miss the fact that April’s attention to her attire- or lack of it – is an good indicator of her state of mind. In fact, it’s so obvious that it feels heavy-handed. I actually like “Revolutionary Road” very much, but not for the costuming.

    Another nominee I was tempted to dismiss is “Milk.” I mean, it’s set in the 1970s, a decade I well remember. What’s so hard about combing the thrift stores for bell bottom jeans, t-shirts, denim jackets and a few wide ties?

    But then I noticed something. This movie is full of gay men. – partying, protesting, planning political strategy or just hanging out – and there’s scarcely a feather boa, a rhinestone, or a patch of pink or lavender to be seen. In other words, a refreshing absence of cliched queeny-flamboyant drag. (Ok, there is a drag queen at Harvey’s birthday party, but as drag queens go, she’s pretty subdued.) The gay men in “Milk” look and dress like all men looked and dressed in the 70s, and doesn’t that nicely underscore the film’s point that all of us – regardless of sexual orientation – share a common humanity? So cheers to costume designer Danny Glicker for that.

    And here’s something else I think “Milk” get right with regard to costumes. In real life, when Harvey Milk cut off his ponytail and cleaned up his image in order to make a serious run for city supervisor, he bought three suits from a thrift store and wore them over and over. And Sean Penn’s suits do look considerably cheaper than, say, Mayor Moscone’s. (In fact, Mayor Moscone, in this film anyway, is one noticeably sharp-dressed man. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if that detail was true to life.)

    The major costuming achievement of “Australia” is Nicole Kidman’s transformation for prim and prissy English aristocrat to sleek and sexy Outback babe. When she first arrives down under, she’s working ruffly, fussy, unsuitable duds like this suit:

    After she gets a little down and dirty and falls in love with Hugh Jackman, however, Kidman works her snug khaki shirts and trousers like nobody’s business. But the ultimate costume moment in “Australia” has to be the ball where Kidman enters in this curve-hugging, keyhole necklined, burgundy cheongsam, glimmering like an exotic ruby amongst a sea of matronly pastel ruffles and bows.

    Kidman looks radiant in this number (and Jackman cleans up pretty good in his white dinner jacket, too.) But we can’t give all the credit to costumer Catherine Martin; a good bit of Kidman’s radiance is due to her just-about-visible pregnancy. (This last bit of information is not just guesswork on my part; it was taken from Elle’s November 2008 cover story on Kidman.)

    Probably the most ambitious of the nominees is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for which costume designer Jacqueline West had to dress a wide range of characters from a wide range of locations and time periods: residents of an old folks home in the 1920s, an English diplomat’s wife in the late ’30s, Broadway dancers in the 50s, to name only a few. Oh, and the inversely aging Benjamin in all those decades and then some. West’s costuming is fine, although Benjamin’s chambray shirts, suspenders and jackets are about as bland and unmemorable as Brad Pitt’s performance (I’ll get back to that in a future post.)

    The crown jewel in the film from a costumer’s view is the ravishing fashion icon, Cate Blanchett, who plays Benjamin’s lifelong love, Daisy. With her milky white skin and sleek curtain of auburn hair, Blanchett is a designer’s dream. And naturally, she gets all the great outfits; I especially like this little number:

    If clothes tell us anything about Daisy, it’s this: she’s spunky, bold and ambitious. After all, it’s not just any redhead who would dare to wear this much red.

    There’s also this lovely frock in which she dances in the moonlight for Benjamin. (Unfortunately, the only picture I could find doesn’t do it justice):

    In the final analysis, however, there’s only film to which my fashionista heart belongs – and I believe the Oscar will follow. And yes, it’s the big, elaborately costumed period drama.

    “The Duchess” gives us Keira Knightley as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Among other things, she was noted trendsetter and fashion plate in 18th century England, so the elaborate, eye-popping gowns in which Knightley is costumed here are entirely appropriate.

    Here’s my favorite outfit, which she wears to make a stump speech for her friend and lover, Charles Grey,in his run for Parliament:

    You can’t see the big, sweeping skirt that completes the ensemble, but you can get a good idea of the intricate detailing. And this is just one of dozens of costumes created for Knightley alone. Here’s another:

    Ah, if only they give Oscars to the wigmasters! And check out that bling!

    If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, and thinking this all looks a little over-the-top,I invite you to take a look at the real Georgiana here:

    I’d say they captured her pretty well. “The Duchess” is full of ravishing sartorial delights such as these, and I predict it will send an Oscar home with Michael O’Connor, who’s already won a BAFTA and a Costume Designer’s Guild Award for his work here.

    Sharing the Dardos Love at Last
    February 6, 2009, 2:13 am
    Filed under: Uncategorized

    A few weeks back, I was surprised and honored to receive a Dardos Award from Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Cinema.

    What is a Dardos you say? Here’s a brief explanation: “The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”

    To which I can only replay “Aw, shucks…” Truly, I was very humbled to get such a nod, especially from a fine writer like Rick whose own, Dardos-awarded blog is a reliable source of thoughtful and provocative film commentary.

    With the award comes the happy responsibility of passing on the love. Everyone who receives the Dardos is asked to bestow the same honor on to five other deserving bloggers. Here are my choices – some of them may already have racked up a Dardos or two, but that’s ok. They’re quite deserving.

    1. Fletch: In addition to writing the lively, insightful and frequently very funny Blog Cabins, Fletch is the creator of the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB), giving over 230 cinephiles (so far!) the opportunity for online community and exposure. The LAMB has helped us many of us film bloggers find an audience.

    2. IBetolis of Film for the Soul: He has a great love for film, great taste and an infectious enthusiasm. I’ve added a few title to my Netlfix queue based on his recommendations.

    3. Alexander Coleman of Coleman’s Corner on Cinema: Alexander is scholarly, enthusiastic and prolific. He posts extensive, thoughtful reviews with amazing frequency. How does he do it?

    4. TS of Screen Savour: His recurring series of posts on Alfred Hitchcock films is great reading, whether you’ve seen the films or not.

    5. Jen of Monkey Posh: Jen is a good friend of mine. We met in an improv class at Second City about 5 years ago, and she’s been crackin me up ever since. Her blog is nominally a fashion and beauty blog, but it’s about much more than lipstick and shoes. Her love of family and friends (and dogs!) and her great taste in everything, including movies, shines through. It was Jen who convinced me to start a blog of my own, and her generosity and encouragement have meant a lot to me.

    Congratulations to all. And please, pass it on.

    The Last Word on "Milk
    February 1, 2009, 9:41 pm
    Filed under: Uncategorized

    I never planned to see “Milk” a second time, but I’m glad I did.

    On the first viewing, I was underwhelmed. Yes, “Milk” was a good film, but hardly a great one. Where I had expected director Gus Van Sant to deliver something original and raw, what I’d found was just another conventional “great man” biopic with a worthy, but uncomplicated, social agenda to push. Apart from a few interesting visual flourishes, its only distinction was a terrific performance by Sean Penn in the title role.

    But then my friend, Bill, talked me into accompanying him to see “Milk,” and on the second time around, I found myself feeling far more generous. Make no mistake, “Milk” is a conventional biopic. And sometimes it’s just shamelessly manipulative. But as both a portrait of a complex, charismatic man, and as a chronicle of the birth of the gay rights movement, it is consistently fascinating. Even when seeing it for the second time, I was so engrossed and so invested in the story and characters that I found myself ready to forgive its occasional excesses and its missteps.

    Was it overindulgent to stop the film cold for a full minute and, with swelling, emotional music on the soundtrack, linger on a grainy, slow -motion shot of Milk passionately kissing his partner on a street corner? Maybe so. But when you remember how many men, like Milk, had been closeted and fearful for years in a society where gay men were ostracized and worse – isn’t it kind of miraculous , even revolutionary, that he can show affection for another man in full public view? That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth bringing the movie to a standstill. There are many moments like that in “Milk.” (among them, another slow-mo shot of Penn, this time riding on the back of an open convertible in the Gay Freedom Day parade and accompanied by Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). They underscore the importance of what Milk and fellow activists achieved.

    Some of the film’s other excesses are more problematic. But before I get to those, let me say a few words about the actors.

    There are two kinds of good performances in my book. First (and least), the ones you watch and say to yourself, “Boy, that so-and-so sure is giving a great performance.” (This is something I often think about Meryl Streep at work.) Then there are the performances where the actor so fully inhabits the character that you completely forget there’s an actor there. That’s the kind of performance Penn gives here. He doesn’t stand outside Harvey Milk and put on a lot of “gay” mannerisms to play him; Penn IS Milk. Is it a successful impersonation ? I couldn’t tell you that. I’ve known of Milk since the late ’70s, but if he were resurrected and showed up at my door today, I wouldn’t know him from the mailman. All I can tell you is that Penn invests him with an energy, passion and joie de vivre that is infectious. He’ so likable, persuasive and buoyant (and angry,too, but it’s an anger that draws you to his cause) that you really miss him in the brief interludes when he’s not on screen. And when he’s senselessly murdered in the film’s final scenes, you mourn him deeply, not only for what he achieved but just for the person he was. The ensemble cast that surrounds him (including James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Victor Garber, Alison Pill, Joseph Cross, Diego Luna and others) is fine, but it’s Penn who is the shining light, and that’s as it should be.

    Josh Brolin plays Milk’s assassin, a uptight fellow city councilman named Dan White. Brolin does the best he can with a role that, to my mind, is underwritten and overly simplistic. The script repeatedly sets up White to be the uptight homophobe we can feel superior to, but the behavior we’re meant to object to isn’t always objectionable. Take for example, White’s reaction to a gay rights parade where several women march bare-breasted. White tells a newsman that the same standards for decorum and public nudity that are applied to other parades should be enforced for Gay Freedom Day. That’s not a bigoted, outrageous point of view – that’s reasonable. But the film plays White for an intolerant buffoon.

    That brings to mind other scenes where we get a sense of Milk’s personal flaws and less attractive personality traits; they’re suggested but only glanced at, apparently so that he can retain an uncomplicated martyr/saint status. When he’s invited to the baptism of White’s son, for instance, he’s pressing White for a “yes” vote on an upcoming gay rights ordinance almost the minute the ceremony is over. When White’s wife scolds him that “this isn’t an appropriate time,” we’re meant to understand that she’s a cold, snippy bitch, while Harvey is a great guy: she stomps off while he twinkles: “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!” But is is really so terrible to ask that Harvey move his political agenda off center stage for 10 minutes so the Whites can focus on their baby son? I think he is inappropriate there. I wish the filmmakers would have given the audience more credit; I think most of us could have handled a gay rights leader who wasn’t always right or wonderful.

    Meanwhile, on the subject of shameless manipulation – don’t even get me started on that wheelchair-bound teenager from Minnesota who phones Harvey for help at the two most critical junctures in the film. I appreciate that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black probably just intended to show us that Milk was known and admired outside of San Francisco. But these scenes feel so false and obvious, they seem to have been beamed in from some 1940s weepie biopic.

    Ultimately, though, there is a haunting aspect to “Milk” which resonates today, and not only because its subject was tragically murdered just as his political career was taking off. The highest emotional point in “Milk” is the defeat of the 1978 “Briggs Initiative,” a California legislative proposition which would have mandated the firing not only of gay teachers, but of any public school employee who supported gay rights. At a time when gay rights ordinances were being overturned in many other states, that was a important victory. Sadly, just weeks before “Milk” was released, Californians voted to eliminate same-sex marriage in their state. You might be tempted to see “Milk” as a testament to how far we’ve come in accepting people of all sexual orientations, but the passage of Proposition 8 is a sobering reminder that we still have a long way to go. At a time like this, it’s good to be reminded of how the gay rights movement was forged, of how utterly important it is, and what it has gained and won for people over the last 35 years. Whatever else “Milk” does, it gets that much absolutely right.

    (Totally frivolous follow-up here: Milk’s lover, Jack (Diego Luna), at one point mentions that he watched “All My Children” that day and that a character named Margo died. I was watching “All My Children” almost every day in 1978, in my friend Marcia’s dorm room, and I can’t for the life of me remember any character named Margo. Am I having an early senior moment, or did the screenwriter just get lazy and make something up? Any AMC fans out there who can help me?)