Monday, December 31, 2007

Wherefore Film Criticism?

Sometimes I wonder about the purpose of film reviews. Obviously everyone’s taste is different, and film critics’ recommendations aren’t always good predictors of what people will enjoy. But is that what it’s supposed to be about?

I’ve always liked reading intelligent criticism, and I hope there are readers who do also. I still relish John Simon’s astringent, erudite film reviews from the 1970s. (Find a copy of his collection, Reverse Angle, if you can.) He held movies to demanding standards, and rightly so. I’m not fond of the “consumer guide” approach, so popular today in newspapers and other media, providing rankings and “thumbs up/thumbs down” ratings of current movies. Nor am I especially interested in celebrity gossip, box-office tallies or other things that should be of interest only to the film studios, their investors and Variety. When did it become necessary for the average person to follow the box-office earnings of current movie releases, the way many follow sports scores? Around the same time, I think, that "citizens” became “consumers.”

I try to provide thoughtful analysis and maybe a different perspective. Occasionally this will rankle someone, and they’ll fire off an angry letter, which is fine. Sometimes, I hope, that approach will be a balm to someone who can't understand why he doesn't love the movie everyone is gushing over.

This season, we are told we will love Atonement (a beautifully designed but botched adaptation of a popular literary novel), No Country for Old Men (irresolute Coen brothers exercise in nihilism whose stark landscape and skillful cinematography made some people mistake it for art), and Juno (snarky teen-pregnancy comedy whose profoundly irritating Web-slang dialogue and screenplay by a former stripper has given it undeserved cachet and a 95% approval rating on

But what if you don’t love them?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

American Splendor and Splendor Redux

Working-Class Hero

Cleveland legend Harvey Pekar hits the big screen in the long-awaited American Splendor

By Pamela Zoslov

You didn't really think that success would spoil Harvey Pekar, did you? Just because American Splendor, the movie based on his life and comic book, has won several major film awards and is sending critics into paroxysms of praise, doesn't mean that Pekar — the author of the autobiographical American Splendor comics — is happy. I mean, is he ever?

Actually, Pekar is uncharacteristically sanguine about the movie, which opens nationally this Friday. The movie has made Pekar, his wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, and their foster daughter, Danielle Batone, into the most unusual of Hollywood celebrities; Pekar has chronicled their adventures at Sundance and Cannes in typically mordant comic panels in local magazines.
This morning, the three of them look weary and morose as they brace themselves for yet another press interview. I ask them the question everyone has already asked: What's it like to see yourself, and your life, depicted onscreen?

"Weird," says Danielle.

"It doesn't feel unusual at all," says Pekar. He's been chronicling the details of his life since launching American Splendor in 1976, so the movie seems like a natural progression. "People have been illustrating my work for a number of years, and there have been several plays based on my work, so it's not unusual."

They have nothing but praise for the filmmakers and actors. "I think Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis did an outstanding job," Pekar says. I note that Giamatti doesn't so much portray Harvey as channel him, and wonder if he spent time hanging out with him to study his character. "He studied the comics," Brabner says. "And they went book shopping. He's a lot like Harvey."

"What the actors offered was, you know, more like interpretations than imitations of us," Pekar explains. Hope Davis, who plays Joyce, spent some time with Brabner, but the actress requested that Brabner not be present on the set. "It made her feel much too self-conscious," Brabner says.

One of the movie's funniest sequences recounts Harvey and Joyce's comically hasty courtship. Moments after meeting Joyce, the twice-divorced Harvey blurts out, "You might as well know right off the bat, I had a vasectomy." And after their first dinner together, Joyce becomes violently ill in Harvey's bathroom. A solicitous Harvey offers her some herbal tea, and she impulsively suggests that they "just skip the courtship and get married."

"It really was that fast," Brabner says. "I'd written to him because we had a distribution problem [at the Delaware comics store where she worked]. I probably thought he was still married. He sent me back a personal letter, and I had this thing about encouraging artists while they're still alive — so I figured I'd better write to him before he's dead.

"We started corresponding, and we had these phone calls, and I came into town and found out that he didn't have Tourette's, he didn't smell really bad, and didn't have these twitches." (In a particularly funny bit of movie dialogue, Joyce asks Harvey about the wavy lines that emanate from him in the comics. "Those are motion lines," Harvey insists. "I'm an active guy!")

"I was really disturbed, because I knew then I was going to marry him, and I didn't want to get married again," Brabner recalls. "And I did this sort of, show me a sign, show me a sign. And I got food poisoning. (The episode is altered slightly in the movie because, Brabner quips, "Hope wasn't into diarrhea — she's got this Boticelli thing.")

"So here's this guy swabbing up the bathroom floor and making me herbal tea, and I just really fell in love with him. On our second date, we picked out rings."

Pekar insisted that the movie not glamorize their very ordinary lives. As a result, the story of the couple's relationship — Brabner's depression after moving into Harvey's cluttered Coventry apartment, Harvey's battle with lymphatic cancer (the basis of their collaborative comic, Our Cancer Year), their sudden parenthood when Danielle moved in with them — is told movingly, but with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Pekar and Brabner give credit to writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose background is in documentary filmmaking.

"One of the things we realized was that Harvey's story wasn't any longer about a lonely bachelor, a freakish character," says Brabner. "It was a very comfortable fit when we started working with Bob and Sherry, 'cause they're a married couple, and they had different insights into us."

It is a testament to the film's realism that the shift between Pekar, Brabner and Danielle, who appear in the movie's documentary segments, and the actors portraying them is utterly seamless. The movie uses actual footage of Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show, culminating in his legendary confrontation with the talk-show host over General Electric's corporate ownership of NBC.

"I was tired of doing my working-class shtick," Pekar explains. "I wasn't getting very much out of the show. It wasn't helping the sales of my books at all. I wanted to branch out, to show my serious side. And I thought that either he would jump in there with me, and we could improvise and make it a pretty funny show, or I could cause a sensation by getting into a big argument with him, and that would be good for him, too."

"You were bored and disgusted with doing [the show]," Brabner says. "We were surrounded by these creepy, condescending handlers — and there's no handling of Harvey."

The movie is certain to bring Pekar greater fame, but fame has never been his primary goal. A working-class guy, he is famously and forever fixated on the bottom line. The cover of Bob & Harv's Comics, an anthology of the Robert Crumb-illustrated Pekar stories, pokes fun at Harvey's parsimony. Crumb, watching a buxom lass pass by, silently laments, "I can never have her," while Pekar, seated next to him, prattles on about cashing in: "I'd sell out in a minit, but nobody's buyin' what I'm sellin'!"

Will the movie, unlike the Letterman gig, pay off for Pekar? "They paid me a pretty fair amount for the rights," says Pekar, 64, who recently retired from his file-clerk job at the VA hospital. He continues to write jazz and book reviews, and while the movie has made it easier to negotiate with editors, he still grumbles about those who don't pay him and won't return his calls. Happiness seems as elusive as ever.


Return To Splendor : Has Movie Success Spoiled Harvey Pekar? Naaah.

Just over a year after the release of American Splendor, the award-winning movie based on his underground comic series, the paradox of Harvey Pekar persists. There is Pekar the literary artist, the writer who in 1976 began a seemingly artless narrative about the triumphs and disappointments of his daily life, embracing within it the quietly desperate stories, recorded with the ear of a documentarian, of people he worked with and those he encountered on the streets of Cleveland. That Pekar has been embraced as a genius, a blue-collar everyman, a writer in the tradition of Chekhov and Dreiser.

And then there's Pekar the money-hungry, working-class shlub , the chronic worrier who frets that once the glow of his movie fame wears off, his freelance writing opportunities will dry up, and he won't be able to supplement his pension from the veterans' hospital where he worked as a file clerk for 37 years.

“Will the jobs keep coming, and if so, will I be able to get them fairly easily or have to beg for them?” Pekar asks in one story in the new American Splendor compilation, Our Movie Year . He worries throughout the stories in this book: about flat tires, a dead car battery, the blackout that befalls the northeast on the eve of his movie premiere, and mail that piles up at home while he, his wife, Joyce, and their teenage foster daugher, Danielle, are flown to Cannes, Australia and other exotic locales.

But maybe the paradox is really about Cleveland, a city whose grace and charm are evident only when you scrape away its rough, rusted exterior. And that is what makes Pekar — like Cleveland, maddening, tiresome, inadequate, and unexpectedly brilliant — the city's ideal ambassador.

Our Movie Year comprises stories published in various publications, along with new stories describing the road that led to the making of American Splendor (the idea had been kicking around since 1980, with such names attached to it as Jonathan Demme and Leonardo DiCaprio), and the Pekar family's unlikely brush with Hollywood demi-celebrity

As recounted here, all was not paradise for Harvey. Just after shooting of the film wrapped in 2001, he was hospitalized for depression, and was struck by a recurrence of the lymphoma he battled in the early '90s. He underwent chemotherapy, followed by a series of electroshock treatments, which so disoriented him that when he first saw the American Splendor movie, he found some of it confusing.
Through all his traumas, Harvey remains characteristically cranky but humble —grateful for his luck in having the movie made, generous in praising the talents of the filmmakers and actors, and thankful for the help of his patient and protective wife.

The book also includes several of Pekar's wonderful collaborations with artist Gary Dumm commemorating jazz musicians Pekar admires (Joe Maneri, Willa Mae Buckner, King Oliver). It is often overlooked that Pekar's work has always been highly dependent on the talents of the illustrators who bring it to life. Represented here, along with Dumm, are artists Mark Zingarelli, Gerry Shamray, Ed Piskor, Frank Stack, Joe Zabel and Dean Haspiel.

In truth, the dull linearity of Pekar's stories can be wearisome, and the artists labor admirably to give them transcendence. Shamray adds clever computer-generated images to enhance a prosaic tale in which Pekar is stranded at a movie theater by a dead battery. Zabel combines computer animation and photographs to enliven an account of Harvey taking his car for an emissions test.

The collaborative process finds its apotheosis in Robert Crumb, the famed underground comics artist who, as Pekar's original and arguably best interpreter, brings an extra frisson to “Reunion,” in which Crumb fields a phone call from Harvey asking him to illustrate “somethin' for Entertainment Weekly .” Harvey, in a manic reverie, tells an increasingly alarmed Crumb that “all the ol' teams,” like Simon and Garfunkel, are getting together for reunion tours, and suggests that he and Crumb do a tour together, with comedy routines, songs and Crumb accompanying on banjo. Crumb's look of horror, before he tells his old friend, “Yeah, Harvey, that'd be swell,” is a thing of beauty. If it had been written by Crumb, the story would tell us something about what his old pal thinks of him.

But Pekar, as the author of the story in which he is an annoying pest, achieves an admirably wry distance from himself — something I wish he would do in more of the American Splendor stories.

Originally published in 2006 in the Cleveland Free Times.

Crazy Love

The smart-alecky writer Joe Queenan was on NPR recently talking up a piece he wrote for the LA Times about how much he hates documentaries.

Rather than watch a documentary, he wrote, "I would rather have my eyelids devoured by enraged piranhas." That's because for Queenan, documentaries evoke school-day memories of "being locked in a steamy, smelly auditorium for 45 minutes and forced to watch a grainy film about the boll weevil."

I'm sure Queenan's brand of macho anti-intellectualism sells well in some places, but his argument is weak. All documentaries aren't created equal, yet Queenan's broad brush sweeps away not only a PowerPoint classroom lecture like An Inconvenient Truth and agitprop like Michael Moore's Sicko, but also an enthralling human-interest doc like Crazy Love, which surpasses many fiction movies in pure entertainment value.

Crazy Love is this year's Capturing the Friedmans, a superbly edited recounting of a lurid story that once dominated New York headlines. Directed by Dan Klores, the film tells the story of the bizarre, multi-decade relationship of Burt Pugach, a lawyer and onetime B-movie producer, and Linda Riss, in the Bronx. On Rosh Hashana in 1957, Burt spotted Linda, 21, sitting on a park bench. He thought she was "absolutely gorgeous," a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. He decided he had to have her. Burt was 32 and decidedly unhandsome — skinny and nearsighted, he looked like Arnold Stang (a more contemporary analogue might be Robert Crumb).

Linda, who was uncommonly naïve about men, thought he was "a nut." But he was also "a lot of fun." He had money, drove a Cadillac convertible, flew his own plane, and owned a nightclub in the Latin Quarter, where he took Linda dancing every night.

He was also, as Linda later discovered, married. When she tried to break off the relationship, Burt concocted a series of lies — he was getting a divorce, the papers weren't finalized yet, it was only a matter of time. He took Linda shopping for a house in Scarsdale.

When Linda discovered that Burt's "divorce papers" were fake, she again broke it off, but Burt wooed her back, then tortured her with mad jealousies. He forbade her to talk to other men and dragged her to a doctor to prove she was a virgin (she was). When no divorce came through - Burt's wife tolerated his philandering and would not give him a divorce - she broke it off and started dating a nice young man named Larry Schwartz.

When Linda became engaged to Schwartz, Burt "just flipped." He began threatening Linda, throwing rocks through her window, even planning to kill her fiancé. Linda turned to the police for protection, but in the 1950s, stalking wasn't recognized as a crime, and the cops ignored her pleas.

On the week Linda was to be married, the situation erupted in a shocking act of violence that provides the film's devastating climax.

Burt and Linda's story has been widely publicized, and since the movie's release, they have appeared in newspapers and on TV. Yet the film's publicists have asked critics not to reveal all of the movie's surprising details. Tempting as it is to discuss the rest of the story, it would be unkind to deprive viewers of the revelatory shock. It's enough, then, to say that Burt's psychotic obsession marked Linda for life - and that this event was just a prelude to decades of pain, prison, psychosis and perverse events that kept their story in the papers sporadically for decades.

Klores, who grew up in Brooklyn, remembers reading about this story in the tabloids as a child and being "saddened and moved by the cruelty." He became a magazine journalist and founded a high-profile public relations firm and, at age 50, launched a new career making documentaries. The delicately and dramatically constructed Crazy Love shows off his fine storytelling skills.

Although the movie tells the unusual story of two people, it's also a commentary on its times, when a woman's value and security rested on her looks. After her terrible experience with Burt, Linda felt like "damaged goods," and two men who wanted to marry her fled after seeing that damage. Unable to work, she sank into a desperation that made Burt seem like a reasonable partner. To us, it seems crazy, but to a woman with no options, maybe not so crazy.

It's also interesting to see how the couple's story intersected with trends in journalism. The Pugach story sold stacks of papers in the early '60s, and their unlikely reunion was tailor-made for the emergent medium of tabloid TV in the '80s.

Crazy Love is superbly strange, sad and difficult to shake from the memory. And there's not a boll weevil in sight.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Life and Card Times

My Life & Card Times : Looking Back At The Era Of Funny Greeting Cards

By Pamela Zoslov

Sitting in the living room of his cozy house on the West Side of Cleveland, Dean Norman reflects on how he became a cartoonist. “My dad was an accountant. He had to add figures all day. I thought, I could draw funny pictures ! That would be so much more fun than sitting at a desk.” As a teenager growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Norman signed up for a mail-order cartooning course, hoping to someday become a magazine or comic-strip artist.

“I never dreamed of doing greeting cards,” says Norman, now 70 and retired from a 30-year career working for the two greeting-card giants, Hallmark and American Greetings. By the time he graduated from the University of Iowa in 1956, general-interest magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Look and Collier's were folding, and the once-lucrative market for freelance cartoons was drying up. Fortunately, executives at Hallmark spotted a cartoon series Norman drew for his college newspaper, and offered him a job. “I kept thinking someday I'd break into newspapers. I never did,” he says, laughing.

Norman came into the industry at an interesting time. Greeting cards, once limited to sentiments like “Pansies always stand for thoughts/At least that's what folks say,/So this just comes to show my thoughts/Are there with you today” (one of Hallmark's all-time best-sellers) were beginning to reflect the subversive Cold War humor of the 1950s. Comedians like Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Ernie Kovacs and Lenny Bruce, and publications like Mad Magazine, were lampooning the uptight post-Sputnik culture with irreverent, sardonic humor. Hallmark, the very traditional Kansas City company that practically invented the greeting card, created its Studio department to tap into the emerging zeitgeist. They hired creative, offbeat artists and writers to produce funny cards with a modern twist.

The new Studio line (later called Contemporary) was an instant success. Before Studio cards, people bought greeting cards only for specific occasions; now they were buying them because they made them laugh. “They were so funny that people just wanted them,” Norman says. “So that fueled a lot of growth.”

Many of that generation's best and brightest launched their careers in the greeting-card business. Paul Coker, known for his kinetic illustrations for Mad, drew countless memorable cards for Hallmark. Robert Crumb, before moving on to underground-comics fame, produced finely detailed drawings (while lusting after heavyset female colleagues) as a staff artist for American Greetings' Hi Brows line. Tom Wilson headed the Hi Brows department before launching Ziggy . New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker and playwright Herb Gardner all penned cartoons for greeting cards.

Norman is now the unofficial Boswell of the crazy creatives who changed the business in the 1950s and 1960s. His new book, Studio Cards: Funny Greeting Cards and People Who Created Them (Beaver Creek Features) chronicles the rise and fall of this unique segment of the industry, with ample illustrations and amusing reminiscences by Norman's former cohorts.

Those of a certain age may already have some of the most popular images burned into their memories: the bleary-eyed gent raising his top hat to reveal a birthday candle melting on his head; the morose man stretching his mouth into a wide grin, with the legend “Keep Smiling.”

The new cards also allowed for a more risqué brand of humor. “People would have to explain to the clerk why they were buying the card,” Norman says. “They'd say, ‘I don't know anybody I could really send this to, but it's so funny.'” Hallmark founder and president J.C. Hall, who had to approve all the cards, frowned on anything that could be considered in bad taste. “The only reason Contemporary Cards got some suggestive humor was that [Hall] didn't get the jokes. He didn't like the Studio cards. He thought the people buying them were a bunch of beatniks and lunatics.”

After retiring from American Greetings in 1990, Norman began to think about capturing the Studio experience in a book. “It was such a crazy time, and I kept thinking that someday, somebody would write about this. We were all getting older, and about two years ago, I realized nobody's gonna do this.” He wrote up his reminiscences and called on his former colleagues to send him their stories. “And more and more stuff kept pouring in, until I had a fairly good history.”

Unable to find a publisher willing to even look at his manuscript, Norman decided to go the self-publishing route, investing his own money to have the book printed. “I figured even if I didn't sell any books, I can afford it; I'm retired now. I may lose [money], but no one else is going to write this book. And the people I write about are so pleased to have the stories told.”

Some of the funniest tales center on the stifling working conditions at Hallmark's editorial department in the early '50s. The department was headed by a humorless ex-salesman, whose strict rules forbade the writers to do any of the following: talk; read anything except greeting cards and a rhyming dictionary; laugh or make loud noises; smoke, eat or drink at their desks; or disagree with the boss. Not surprisingly, the writers found ways of subverting the rules: one woman took to yelping like a dog to break up a boring afternoon (she was such a refined person, the boss never suspected her).

Norman started out in that buttoned-up department, writing verse for traditional cards. “They would hand you an assignment to write a sympathy card. You can only use about 12 words: ‘thinking about you in your sorrow,' things like that. You'd rearrange that and turn it in.” After a year in editorial purgatory, he transferred to the Contemporary department, where he worked for three years before being lured away by American Greetings.

For a time, Studio cards made greeting cards cool. Customers would flock to the card shops every week to laugh at the new releases. After a while, the companies stopped producing new jokes, opting to save money by reprinting their best sellers. Tastes changed; in the 1970s, consumers turned to Soft Touch greetings and alternative-humor cards. “They lost the novelty value,” Norman says. “Now, if people want something strange, they can make their own cards on the Internet.

“It's no longer a show. It's not entertainment. And I don't know if they can ever get that back.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

A League of His Own

Stern Sidekick Artie Lange Goes To Bat In Beer League

Artie Lange is tired. He's near the end of a multi-city tour promoting his new movie, Beer League, a comedy about a misfit New Jersey softball league, which opens here Friday. Over coffee — "regulah cawfee, with cream," in the deep Jersey patois familiar to listeners of the Howard Stern Show, where he's a been a cast member since 2001 — Lange muses on the strange path that led to a success he never expected and still can't quite believe.

Lange, 38, has bared the unflattering details of his personal history on the show, where confession is the stuff of high comedy: his teenage arrest for attempted bank robbery (meant as a joke to impress a cute teller); a jail term for cocaine possession; and what he calls "the worst day of my life," when he passed out and defecated in his bed after a cocaine binge in L.A. while dressed as a pig for a MadTV sketch. "If it's true that you learn from your mistakes, I should be Einstein by now."

His early life was marked by misfortune, followed by a descent into a lengthy debauch. "I got dealt a couple of bad cards, but a lot of the other stuff that happened was all my fault," he admits. When Lange was 18, his father, a contractor, fell off a roof and became a quadriplegic. "We didn't have any money and we went on welfare. I could've dealt with it a lot better. I got very self-destructive, made my mother's life worse, and did a lot of stupid things."

He was an indifferent student, but he did excel at baseball, and one year was named All County third baseman. "I played one year in a semi-pro league in Jersey, and I realized I wasn't gonna be Derek Jeter." He worked odd jobs, including as a longshoreman and a cab driver, and honed his standup act. In 1995 he landed a role on the sketch comedy show MadTV. A bit on the Norm MacDonald sitcom Norm and parts in movies like Dirty Work, The Bachelor and Mystery Men followed. Beer League, which Lange co-wrote and co-produced, is his first leading role.

Like much of Lange's comedy, the movie was inspired by personal experience. "I played softball in these 'beer leagues' around Jersey, this drunken craziness. I played on one league in Union, New Jersey and — what idiots on the town council okayed this, I don't know — every base was a quarter keg of beer, and you had a cup in your back pocket, and if you got on base, you filled up. Eventually, the town hadda stop it because by the second inning people were drunk, throwing fungo bats, kids were crying..."

That's the nutty, profane world Lange and his co-writer and the film's director, Frank Sabastiano, tried to capture in Beer League. Lange plays Artie DeVanzo, an unemployed loser whose softball team faces down a rival team and whose drunken partying nearly costs him his girlfriend (Cara Buono). "The women in our lives are married to these retards who take softball way too seriously," Lange explains. "And they look at us as the idiots we are."

Acting in movies is a thrill, he says, but it was the Stern show that made him a recognizable celebrity. "People treat you like their friend," he says. "There's nothing cooler than putting a mic in front of your face, and just talking off the top of your head. My proudest moment is when I'm able to be funny with Howard, this guy who was my hero, and we're in the zone. It's like playing one-on-one basketball with Jordan."

He wearily acknowledges that his best-known catchphrase, "WAAAH!" a wail of mock sympathy when someone calls the Stern show with a hard-luck story, may be a liability. "I created a monster. I can see if I died, crazy Stern fans showing up at my wake and going up to my crying mother: "WAAAH! My fat son died.'"

Exposing his personal failings on the air was a conscious decision, despite his agent's warnings that it might cost him endorsements. "I said, the hell with it, I'm just gonna be funny and honest, the way Richard Pryor was. I have a lot of fucked-up stories, and you might as well turn that into a positive and make people laugh.

"I think people love flawed people; they love a loser. And that's why they like me." He laughs darkly. "I'm very flawed."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Classical Gas

This review is from March 2007. Someone wrote an angry letter in response, saying I had "no soul." I guess you have to be pretty soulful to appreciate this cinematic gem.

Copying Beethoven, a fictionalized account of the last years of Ludwig van Beethoven's life, gives actor Ed Harris another opportunity to ham it up as a tormented artist. In Pollock, Harris portrayed painter Jackson Pollock as a boring cipher given to drunken rages. As Beethoven, he pulls out all the stops, imagining the composer as a ridiculous cartoon.

Granted, it's not easy to make a good movie about a composer's life; the act of putting notes on paper just isn't very cinematic. Sometimes directors choose to just go wild, as Ken Russell did with Lisztomania! And, with the life of Beethoven, there isn't much to work with except his irascible personality, his deafness, his domination of his hapless nephew Karl and, of course, his sublime music. The 1994 Immortal Beloved had Gary Oldman portraying Beethoven as a randy cocksman, something the stocky, unprepossessing Beethoven was not; he fell in love with many women, but had his affections returned by only one (the mysterious "Immortal Beloved" of his letters.)

Directed by Agnieszka Holland, Copying Beethoven takes certain biographical elements of Beethoven's life and twists them into a new story. Beethoven's friend and personal secretary, Karl Holz, is transformed in Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson's script into Anna Holz (Diane Kruger), an eager young composition student who is sent by Beethoven's beleaguered publisher, Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), to copy Beethoven's illegible manuscripts.
So clever is this Anna, who lives in a convent, that she can "correct" a perceived error in the Maestro's notations. The cranky, stone-deaf Beethoven, who lives in lonely squalor, comes to believe that Anna was sent by God to help him. She in turn feels privileged to empty the piss-pots and scrub the floors of Vienna's great musical genius.

Anna's chief task is to help Beethoven prepare for the Vienna premiere of his Ninth Symphony, which at the time was considered radical for its choral finale (the "Ode to Joy," based on a Schiller poem). Though quite deaf, Beethoven insists on conducting the symphony. (He did, in fact, beat time at the performance, but the orchestra followed the assistant conductor.) In the movie's account, Anna is enlisted at the last minute to cue Beethoven's conducting, which she does perfectly, without a minute's rehearsal or preparation.

To its credit, the movie does provide some useful historical perspectives on Beethoven's music. Schlemmer expresses regret that Beethoven's later music is less pleasingly melodic than his earlier works, and it's interesting to note that in its day, Beethoven's late music was considered grindingly dissonant, a concept that sounds strange to modern ears that have heard Schoenberg and other 20th-century composers. (The same objections were heard about Mozart's music in his day.)

But nothing could rescue the movie from Harris' disastrous performance, a caricature quite stunning in its bad taste. While Oldman, in the overwrought Immortal Beloved, captured something of Beethoven's look and demeanor, Harris plays Beethoven as a monstrous buffoon, an idiot savant who stomps about, smashes things and makes vulgar jokes, at one point even showing his backside to Anna in an anachronistic jest about his "Moonlight" sonata. I question whether Beethoven ever called his sonata by its later nickname, and doubt even more that "mooning" was part of the 19th-century Viennese parlance.

Another embarrassing scene has Beethoven mocking Anna's student composition by making farting noises while banging it out on his piano. Do the filmmakers mean to persuade us that this doltish, feral character could have created the brilliant music of Beethoven?

And there are other inaccuracies. At the time depicted, Beethoven was completely deaf, and yet here is shown as capable of understanding loud speech, which he was not. Beethoven kept "conversation books," in which his companions communicated with him in writing.

The film's major failing, aside from Harris' unforgivable acting, is that it has no drama. Anna goes to work for the Maestro, he premieres his symphony to great acclaim, and he dies. And in the end, having endured this movie, we've learned nothing about Beethoven that we couldn't have learned better — and certainly more pleasantly — by listening to his music.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

War of the Words

More reviews from 2007:

I AM NOT A FAN of Tom Cruise, but I must admit he is perfectly cast in Lions for Lambs, a very wordy political film directed by Robert Redford. As Republican Senator Jasper Irving, Cruise is all scrubbed good looks and Pepsodent smile, kind of a Ralph Reed without the scandalous baggage. He is the ideal mouthpiece for the senator’s hawkish ideas. “We cannot allow evil and terror to spread!” he tells a news reporter played by Meryl Streep.

The juicy role taps into a dark quality in Cruise that hasn’t often been exploited in his movies. You can imagine him holding forth in the same charismatic, fanatical way about the virtues of Scientology.

The centerpiece of Lions for Lambs is a debate between Irving and the reporter, Janine Roth, a correspondent for a CNN-type news network. The junior senator has selected Roth, who once wrote a flattering magazine profile of him, for an “exclusive” on a “new plan for Afghanistan.” The plan, roughly analogous in its dubious efficacy to the Iraq surge, involves sending small platoons to the front lines as a sort of “bait” for Taliban fighters.

Janine, who started her career in the Vietnam era, expresses eloquent if boilerplate skepticism about the Iraq war’s phony justification and strategic failures. Jasper counters with evocations of 9/11 (“We were attacked!”), xenophobic talk about Muslims, and that current favorite on the casus belli hit parade, a nuclear Iran. He even hints darkly about using nuclear weapons.

Matthew Michael Carnahan’s dense screenplay interweaves this duet with two other loosely related stories. One centers on a conversation between Stephen Malley (Redford), a political science professor at a California university, and a clever but apathetic student named Todd (Andrew Garfield). Malley, a Vietnam vet who believes in power of grassroots politics, tries to inspire Todd by telling him about two former students, Ernest and Arian, inner-city scholarship students who decided to forego graduate school and enlist in the Army. Though he was horrified by their decision, Malley says he “reveres” it. The story is vague and a bit cliché. Malley encourages young people like Todd to do “something,” even if it’s just licking envelopes. “Rome is burning, son! The problem is with us who do nothing.” Todd spouts the kind of premature cynicism that characterizes his media-numbed generation.

The third segment involves Ernest and Arian (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), who are on the front line of Jasper’s cherished Afghanistan mission. Their helicopter is shot down, stranding them on a hillside surrounded by Taliban fighters. The two young men, one African-American, the other Hispanic, are the sacrificial lambs of the government’s new strategy to “win the war.”

The Cruise-Streep story is the strongest of the three, but even so, Jasper and Roth are not so much people as positions, mouthing standard arguments for and against the war. The technique is occasionally jarring; characters say things because they’re part of the writer’s argument, not because the characters would plausibly say them. In the interview with Janine, Jasper launches into a cogent critique of mainstream media’s complaisant role in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It’s unlikely that this ambitious GOP senator would express these views so candidly to the press. Would Dick Cheney openly taunt the media for swallowing his WMD hype?

The characters are made of cardboard, but good acting and an articulate script makes them watchable. Streep is especially effective; arguing with her editor about the ethics of running Jasper’s propaganda, she makes us feel the veteran reporter’s moral and professional weariness.

This is a high-quality film made with noble intentions, but it isn’t likely to excite audiences, who are apparently in no mood for serious discussions about the war. Somber war movies such as In the Valley of Elah and Rendition have induced a collective yawn, while the grisly torture fantasy Saw IV has raked in over $30 million.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

A No-Trojan Horse

BELLA, the debut film of Mexican-born director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, is an unusual entry on the movie landscape. A small drama about a day in the life of a Latino chef and a troubled young woman in New York City, the movie was the surprise winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

It might have been more appropriate to give it the “People’s Anti–Choice Award,” because Bella’s avowed purpose is as an anti-abortion polemic. The release of the movie, made by a trio of devout Catholic men, stirred excited anticipation among religious groups opposing abortion. Conservative columnist Robert Novak — best known these days for revealing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame — wrote recently that Bella is a welcome aid to the cause of ending legal abortion:

Bella arrives in an environment that has grown bleak for enemies of abortion. The Democratic Party has become so much the party of abortion rights that, of 41 freshmen Democrats elected to the House, only three are antiabortion. Pro-life forces in the House suffered a net loss of about 13 members. That means statutory restrictions on abortion…are in serious jeopardy.”

Praising the film effusively, Novak writes, “It is no propaganda film, but a dramatic depiction of choices facing an unmarried pregnant woman.” What seems to elude Novak is that propaganda is, by definition, meant to influence opinion by appealing to the emotions. And Bella is designed to bring a tear to the eye.

The story is about José (Eduardo Verástegui), a former soccer star who now works as a chef at a restaurant owned by his brother Manny (Manny Perez). When the dictatorial Manny fires Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a waitress who shows up late after learning that she’s pregnant, José runs after her.

Leaving the beleaguered Manny to handle the lunch rush, José spends the day with Nina, discussing her plight and bringing her to his parents’ house for dinner. Nina tells José she plans to have an abortion. José urges her to consider adoption. José’s mamá (Angélica Aragón) joins the effort by revealing that her oldest child, Manny, was adopted, but is loved just as much as her other sons. Nina is surrounded by pro-life propagandists!

The religious themes are subtle but unmistakable. Through flashbacks, the movie reveals the secret sorrow of José’s life: a tragic accident, at the height of his soccer career, that caused a child’s death. This gives José a special motive for preventing Nina’s abortion. Nina’s unborn child becomes, in a sense, the resurrection of the dead child.

Typically, movies about unplanned pregnancy — The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Love With the Proper Stranger and the recent Knocked Up — end in marriage. But Bella is not a romance, and its message is disturbingly patriarchal. José decides what’s best for Nina, and the final scene suggests just how irrelevant she is in this equation. (Spoiler alert: if you plan to see the movie — though I can't imagine why you would — stop reading now.) We see José playing with the little girl, and Nina arriving for a tearful meeting with her— evidently for the first time. The child has been saved, and her mother, it seems, has gone off somewhere — banished, perhaps, for the crime of having even contemplated an abortion.

“In the end,” Novak gushes, “the film is a heart-wrenching affirmation of life over death.” Or maybe it’s just an appalling denial of the rights of women to make their own decisions.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

An Unreasonable List: One Writer's 2007 Movie Pleasures

THE CONCEPT OF “ten best movies” strikes me as about as arbitrary as that slice of time we call a year. The reasons we like or dislike movies are quite personal and sometimes hard to explain. Why one film and not another? Some films are worthy and well made — A Mighty Heart, for example — but that doesn’t mean we recall them with affection, as we might a hopelessly vulgar comedy like Knocked Up. Other films have moments of sublime melancholy that linger in your mind — Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend — but overall aren’t “list-worthy” achievements.

This is a rather windy way of saying that my list probably won’t resemble anyone else’s. Absent are the noisy summer blockbusters, very violent movies, insipid adaptations of Broadway musicals (Hairspray) or the Coen Brothers’ irresolute exercise in nihilism, No Country for Old Men. My roster is lopsided in favor of documentaries, I think because the brazen deceptions that characterize our times stimulate an ever greater appetite for facts.

Here, then, are the movies I liked best this year:

Crazy Love Dan Klores’ riveting human-interest documentary based on a perennial New York tabloid story about the tortured multi-decade romance of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. Burt, a married 32-year-old lawyer, began romancing the beautiful 21-year-old Linda in 1957. When she tried to end the relationship, Burt stalked and harassed her, eventually hiring a thug to throw lye in her face. Linda was blinded, and Burt sentenced to prison, but the story found its way back into the tabloids years later when Linda, who felt like “damaged merchandise,” improbably agreed to marry her tormentor. Expertly constructed, the movie raises interesting questions about love and obsession, 1950s sexual mores, mental illness, the legal system, and the limited options women faced in decades past.

The Hoax Directed by Lasse Hallström, this drama about author Clifford Irving’s audacious attempt to publish a fake autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was a pleasantly nostalgic trip into the Nixon era, with nicely observed period details and splendid performances by Richard Gere as Irving, who descends into a fever dream of grandiose self-delusion, and Alfred Molina as Dick Suskind, Irving’s hapless partner in crime.

Sicko The most focused and effective of Michael Moore’s documentaries, Sicko sparked needed debate on the flawed U.S. healthcare system, which leaves 50 million uninsured and the fates of those who have coverage in the hands of profit-mad insurance companies. Moore wisely stayed mostly in the background this time, allowing ordinary people to tell their tales of medical neglect and financial ruin. Predictably, the movie generated voluminous attacks, most of them focused on Moore’s somewhat idealized portrayals of the public health care systems in Canada, the UK, France and Cuba. But the basic question is a vital one: Why can’t — or won’t — the most prosperous nation on earth guarantee health care for all?

Knocked Up Judd Apatow’s unplanned-pregnancy comedy inspired countless magazine essays about its meaning: Anti-abortion screed? Slacker version of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek? Whatever the movie’s cultural implications, it’s a safe bet they weren’t intended by Larry Sanders and Freaks and Geeks veteran Apatow, who is all about the jokes. The spectacularly vulgar Knocked Up contains more fast, funny repartee than any comedy in recent memory. Seth Rogen is hilarious as the slothful stoner whose one-night stand with a TV correspondent played by Katherine Heigl pulls the mismatched pair into an unlikely relationship.

An Unreasonable Man Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel’s superlative documentary about Ralph Nader, the uncompromising consumer advocate who is today, unfortunately, best remembered as a presidential election “spoiler.” The movie details Nader’s tireless crusades to force corporate giants like General Motors to ensure their products’ safety, often at his own peril — GM famously launched a harassment campaign against him in the ‘60s. One former “Nader’s Raider” suggests that if seatbelts, air bags, water, pharmaceuticals and other mainstays of daily life were labeled “This product was made safe by Ralph Nader,” his legacy would be better appreciated.

Ratatouille A very nearly perfect piece of modern animation, directed by Simpsons alumnus Brad Bird. The tale of a country rat with culinary aspirations features clever, anthropomorphic rats to entertain the kids, and a sophisticated Paris setting and gastronomic theme to appeal to grownups. An instant classic.

Talk to Me This warmhearted biography of Ralph “Petey” Greene, an ex-con who became a popular 1960s Washington, D.C. radio personality, could have made the list solely for its electrifying soundtrack of songs by James Brown, Otis Redding, Les McCann and Sam Cooke. (A couple of the best songs, unfortunately, do not appear on the soundtrack CD.) But the movie also has meaty performances by Don Cheadle as Greene and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his friend and manager. The funky energy gives way to sentimentality in the second half, but the movie is still a fun evocation of an era.

Waitress The ghastly murder of its writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, is not the only reason critics and audiences embraced this quirky story about a small-town waitress and expert pie baker (the winning Keri Russell) trapped in an abusive marriage, whose unwanted pregnancy leads her into an affair with her obstetrician. The movie is a little uneven, but its piquant eccentricity enables it to transcend its commonplace theme.

Wristcutters The kind of movie that used to define “indie” style, a sweetly mordant road-trip comedy about suicide. Goran Dukic adapted a short story by Etgar Keret that imagines a kind of purgatory where those who commit suicide dwell, which looks like the dreary outskirts of many American towns. Nothing earthshaking, but an unassuming, effective and highly original movie.

No End in Sight Charles H. Ferguson, a software entrepreneur who initially supported the Iraq invasion, made this sober documentary detailing the colossal blunders of the occupation’s first disastrous year. Regrettably, the movie doesn’t question the rationale for the war, but is still remarkable for its portrait of hubris and ineptitude, and because those interviewed aren’t left-wing Administration critics, but former Bush loyalists.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,