Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lost Angels

Snow Angels, David Gordon Green’s mournful adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s 1995 novel has the disadvantage of most literary adaptations: translating a 305-page novel into a movie means sacrificing depth, shading and characterization.

The story concerns two unraveling families in a small town in Pennsylvania, that of teenager Arthur Parkinson, whose parents are breaking up, and his former babysitter, Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale), who is separated from husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and raising their little daughter. Annie, once the object of Arthur’s childhood crush, waits tables in the restaurant where Arthur has a part-time job and is having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), husband of Annie’s friend and co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris). An aura of menace surrounds Glenn, who tried to commit suicide after the marriage failed, and is now a born-again Christian making a shaky recovery and nursing hopes of reconciling with Annie.

Arthur, who plays trombone in the school marching band, develops a relationship with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a new girl in town who wears kooky vintage cat-eye glasses. When Annie’s daughter goes missing, Arthur and his classmates are sent to search the snowy hills, and Arthur makes a terrible discovery.

Green directs with a sure hand and a keen eye for working-class settings, and gets excellent performances from the actors, especially Rockwell as the emotionally fragile Glenn. He is less successful, however, at connecting the two stories: Arthur’s pedestrian coming-of-age tale belongs in another movie altogether from Annie’s dark, working-class melodrama. Truncating the book means that the characters are sketchy and their motivations murky. The horrifying violence that climaxes the film shocks on a basic level, but doesn’t move you emotionally. Other elements of the novel are absent, such as the characters' alcoholism and poverty, and the snow angel symbolism from which the title comes. Also missing is the novel’s poetic grace that gave the story a larger meaning.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The importance of entertainment

What is the purpose of the cinema? Is it merely to entertain with sound, movement and color, or should it also disturb you, unsettle you, make you think?

If what you want of movies is pleasant escapism, you will likely find the films of Michael Haneke disturbing, if not repellent. Haneke, an Austrian director and former film critic, uses his films to critique modern society and mass media, particularly television and movies. Benny’s Video (1992) concerned a homicidal teenager who lives through video images; in Caché (2005), a couple receive a package containing disturbing videotapes of their home under surveillance.

Haneke’s films usually involve the introduction of violence into comfortable bourgeois lives. “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator,” he once wrote. “They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

These ideas are central to Funny Games, Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 German-language film of the same title, in which the lake house of a couple and their young son is invaded by a pair of young men who sadistically terrorize them. The American version is, if anything, more terrifying, perhaps because the theme of the merry trickster more familiar in German folklore (Till Eulenspiegel, for example). The American version offers a shocking (because unexpected) contrast between the soft-spoken, all-American boys, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), and their brutal acts.

One Haneke trademark is characters named George and Anna, or variation on those names. In Funny Games, George, the husband, is played by Tim Roth, and his wife, Anne, is played by the splendid Naomi Watts (who is also executive producer). The film opens with an overhead view of the family’s car heading to their vacation house in the Hamptons. In the car, George, Anna and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) play a “name that singer” game with opera CDs. The music shifts abruptly from Italian opera to death metal, foreboding the violence that will shatter their idyll.

A neighbor introduces George and Anna to two young men, Peter and Paul, who are a picture of WASP privilege in white tennis shorts and shirts. Paul, the quieter boy, comes to the house to ask Anna for some eggs, and his awkward behavior, including dropping the eggs and knocking Anna’s cell phone into the sink, unsettle her. Peter arrives, and Anna tells George to ask them to leave. A scuffle ensues, and George is assaulted with one of his expensive golf clubs. The family’s long nightmare has begun.

At times the film is almost unwatchable. Although most of the violence is unseen, the depiction of suffering is agonizing, made worse by the boys’ flippancy. They call each other “Beavis” and “Butthead” and devise sadistic “games” for their victims. There is clearly no reason for their hideous acts; they are thrill killers, a video-age Leopold and Loeb. They embody the banality of evil. When one of the suffering victims begs to know why, Peter replies, “You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.”

Haneke’s pet theme of the exploitative nature of mass entertainment becomes explicit in a crucial scene in which it seems Anna has gained the upper hand — fulfilling the expectations audience have of Hollywood horror movies. Peter looks frantically for the remote control. The film rewinds to an earlier part of the scene, reminding the viewer that this is a movie, and that the characters know they are in a movie. Paul tauntingly suggests that he is the malevolent director: “We’re not up to feature film length yet. You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?”

The acting is superlative, especially Watts, whose agony and courage are authentically wrenching. Michael Pitt is perfectly cast as the malevolent preppie.

Funny Games
is unrelievedly grim, and does not provide a happy ending. It is, however, an extraordinary, provocative film for those who can take it.

Originally appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Steal This Vote

Americans cherish their right to vote, a right they often say people have fought and died for. One could question, as historian Howard Zinn does, the power of the ballot box — whether it makes a difference if the “peace candidate” or the “war candidate” is elected, when the result is usually war anyway. But the ballot box represents something fundamental in American society — the only means most citizens have of participating in their government.

And so, the issues of vote fraud and massive disenfranchisement that became grotesquely obvious in the elections of 2000 and 2004 (and also present in the 2006 midterms) strike at the heart of American democracy.

Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections, an exceptional new documentary by David Earnhardt, explores these issues in considerable detail: the mysterious undervotes, in which voters stood in line for hours just to not cast a vote for President; bizarrely “wrong” exit polls; hackable voting machines made by the Republican loyalist private company Diebold; “Jim Crow” voter suppression; uncounted provisional ballots; and a rogue’s gallery of party apparatchiks including Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris.

See this film to learn how easy it is to program a voting machine to “switch” votes from one party's candidate to the opponent. Whatever you think about the major parties, the stakes are high in this game, and guess what, the game is rigged. And we, the citizens, are the losers.

For more on this important and maddening issue, Read Greg Palast's book Armed Madhouse, and visit the Uncounted website for information on screenings.

Friday, March 14, 2008

An English Trifle

Winifred Watson's slender 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, about a dowdy English governess who becomes social secretary to a ditsy nightclub singer, was supposed to be made into a Hollywood movie starring Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). But the bombing of Pearl Harbor put an end to those plans, as Hollywood focused on producing morale-boosting films. The book, a big hit in its day, fell into obscurity. Sixty years later, the book was rediscovered and republished, shortly before Watson’s death in 2002 at age 96.

Looking back, Watson said, “I wish the Japanese had waited six months.”

The charming story finally comes to the screen in an affectionate adaptation written by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy and directed by Bharat Nalluri. Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance in husband Joel Coen’s Fargo, is superb as Guinevere Pettigrew, the “governess of last resort” who bumbles her way out of yet another job, only to find Miss Holt (Stephanie Cole), the stern head of the governess agency, unwilling to reassign her. In desperation, she takes from Miss Holt’s desk a calling card bearing the name “Delysia Lafosse.”

The story is a perfect Aristotelian drama, taking place entirely in the course of one day. This particular day finds Miss Pettigrew seeking sustenance at a soup kitchen, then dropping her humble victuals on the ground, a running joke: throughout the movie, Miss Pettigrew never gets a proper meal.

She arrives at the posh London flat of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), a bubbly, satin-robed beauty with a highly disorganized love life. A nightclub singer and aspiring actress, Delysia is kept in luxury by nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong), and is also involved with her sincere but penniless accompanist, Michael (Lee Pace). On the morning Miss Pettigrew arrives, Delysia is romping in bed with a theater producer’s son, Phil (Tom Payne), “auditioning” for the lead role in a new show.

Delysia puts Miss Pettigrew to work as her social secretary, and the ex-nanny’s quick thinking helps straighten out the chaos in the young woman’s world. The grateful Delysia takes Miss Pettigrew shopping for new clothes and a makeover.

The movie’s period sense is delightful, with John de Borman’s burnished cinematography, a jazzy 1930s soundtrack and exquisite re-creations of the art deco parlors and clubs where Delysia and her carefree friends drink and scheme, couple and un-couple, dancing on the edge of the volcano. “Love is not a game,” warns Miss Pettigrew, who lost her only love in World War I, but she agrees to help smooth over a tiff between Edythe DuBarry (Shirley Henderson), a social-climbing fashion salon owner, and her fiancé, high-society lingerie designer Joe Blumfield (Ciarán Hinds), after Edythe threatens to reveal Miss Pettigrew’s soup-kitchen origins.

The milieu of this slight but enjoyable film is a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Yet unlike those stories, the movie acknowledges the darkness of the times (though it leaves out the cocaine-and-cocktail breakfasts in the novel). The specter of impending war looms, as fighter planes roar ominously above a fancy theater party. “They don’t remember the last one,” Miss Pettigrew remarks to Joe, her only age peer in the room. A shared world-weariness and longing for authenticity draws Joe and Miss Pettigrew into an unlikely alliance, while Miss Pettigrew, after an air raid drill, urges Delysia to pursue true love over personal ambition.

The casting could not be more ideal. Adams’ pert looks and piping voice suit her perfectly to the Judy Holliday role of the self-created socialite. And though American actresses’ attempts at English accents are usually laughable, McDormand embodies the character perfectly. Her modest dignity is very endearing; at one point Delysia gushes, “Miss Pettigrew, I love you!” and it’s easy to understand how she feels.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Less than human?

If you are interested in the tortured reasoning (as it were) used to justify the use of torture by American forces upon detainees in the so-called “war on terror,” see Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Darkside.

Focusing on the story of an innocent taxi driver who was tortured to death at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, the film is a sober and searing indictment of the Administration’s policies of prisoner abuse and brutal torture, created by Dick Cheney and friends and supported in bizarre legalistic arguments by true believers like government lawyers John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales.

Interviews with low-ranking soldiers who were prosecuted, in lieu of their commanders, for abusing prisoners, illuminate the exigencies of the military chain of command. Soldiers are told that the detainees are less than human and "no better than dogs," and chastised if they aren't rough enough.

A highlight of the film: former death’s head Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's scribbled note, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” on a memo in which he approved interrogation techniques at Guantanamo such as forcing prisoners to stand for hours, stripping them nude and threatening them with dogs. That's right; Rumsfeld's standing up at his polished wood desk in his comfortable Pentagon office was about the same as the conditions under which these prisoners are forced to live.

It's well known that meaningful intelligence — whatever that might mean in this fictional war — is not gained by torturing captives, but through humane means that earn confidence. But the objective of "harsh interrogation methods" — torture — isn't information, it's subjugation.

The Discovery Channel was originally set to broadcast Taxi to the Darkside but changed its plans when it realized the film's controversial subject matter might threaten its upcoming public offering. HBO has decided to air it, so if it’s not showing in your town, check the HBO schedule.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Long Day's Journey Into Voting

Yesterday's primary election was my first experience as a poll worker. Despite the grueling 15-hour day (in addition to the three-hour training session), I really enjoyed helping people vote and interacting with the many interesting people who live in my town, a largely prosperous, racially diverse suburb. Most of the voters here are Democrats, though there was the cranky man who requested a Republican ballot “so I can offset both Hillary and Obama.” Then again, someone wrote me recently that he's a registered Republican who will vote for "Mr. Obahama" because he's "tired of this country trying to be the world's cop," and he thinks Obama can help change "the perception of being the biggest and baddest country." Primaries are interesting.

Neary everyone was warm and personable, save the occasional voter angered because he had to vote a provisional ballot (provisional is electionese, I believe, for "uncounted"). The young person working near me, with no historical memory of stolen elections or voter disenfranchisement, had no trouble demanding of each voter, "May I see your proper identification?" but my lefty heart cringed a little at the new ID requirements. “Who would come and pretend to be someone else?” the aforementioned cranky voter asked me. I shrugged.

(Voter fraud is a Republican-created myth. An article by Art Levine for the American Prospect says, "Voter fraud is actually less likely to occur than lightning striking a person, according to data compiled by New York University's Breenan Center for Justice." Read the article here.)

My favorite voter was a lady of a certain age who shimmered in, dressed in a smart vintage fur coat, furry boots and very soigné hat. She looked like Marilyn Monroe, still radiant at age seventy. Outside, there was freezing rain, but she announced in a sweet, piping voice, “I walked all the way here to vote for Mr. Obama.” I told her I was sure Mr. Obama would appreciate it.

After the polls closed, tempers flared among a few of the exhausted workers as they tried to complete the necessary paperwork before going home to get some sleep.

It was a long haul and a lot of work, but I felt privileged to be part of it.

British History for Dummies

The 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII featured Charles Laughton as a gluttonous King Henry, famously complaining, when urged by his counselors to seek yet another new wife, “Am I a king or a breeding bull?”

There’s nary a trace of this delightful Henry in The Other Boleyn Girl, a salacious dramatization of events in the 16th-century House of Tudor. The king in this movie is played by Eric Bana, who, with his liquid brown eyes and chiseled torso (see beefcake photo, above right) is closer in spirit to a Harlequin romance hero than to Henry VIII. And the movie
is a romance novel, sort of: it’s based on a book by British author Philippa Gregory, a specialist in sexed-up potboilers loosely based on royal history. Needless to say, her books are bestsellers.

Exercise: Compare and contrast the corpulent Henry VIII and the hunky Eric Bana.

The movie, directed by Justin Chadwick, focuses on Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn, the outspoken second wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded on charges of adultery and incest after she failed to produce a son (she was the mother of the future Elizabeth I). In this story, Mary is the virginal younger sister of Anne, who becomes the king’s mistress and bears him a son before he turns his eye toward Anne, whose insistence on marriage leads Henry to break with Rome so he can divorce his wife.

In real life, Mary Boleyn was Anne’s older sister and known for her sexual exploits with Henry and King Francois I of France. Gregory’s fervid imagination takes what little is known about Mary and weaves it into a proto-feminist tale about young women bartered for power and wealth. The author also creates a sisterly feud between Anne (played with bratty high spirits by Natalie Portman) and Mary (large-lipped waif Scarlett Johansson), fighting over a man, who in this case happens to be king. It’s a good thing the dead can’t sue, because the Boleyns, on no historic evidence, are portrayed as whoremongers who force their daughters to become the king’s concubines. And as if the history of this period weren’t lurid enough, with adultery, beheadings and incest accusations, the movie heightens the tawdriness with a royal rape and intimations of kingly sex kinks.

After Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent, in a dignified performance), gives birth to a stillborn child, it becomes known that the king will soon seek a new mistress. The Boleyns decide to proffer Anne, since Mary is newly married. We know, by the way, that Mary is the younger sister, because Anne says to Mary on her wedding day, “Look at you. Younger than me. Married before me.” Amazingly, this clunky dialogue issued from the pen of Peter Morgan, who wrote the very literate script for The Queen.

On a country holiday with the Boleyns, the king takes a shine to Mary. He appoints her a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, then seduces her in a bedroom scene that is the height of improbability. Doffing their fur-lined robes and reclining before a roaring fire, they make sweet love. This is the essence of the romance novel: he’s ruthless, he’s powerful, but oh so tender!

In the interest of research, I plucked a romance novel the other day from the shelf at Goodwill. It was titled Thunder’s Tender Touch, and on the cover, beside the bare-chested swain and quivering young virgin, it read, “She detested his domineering ways, but couldn’t deny the magic of his touch.” That sums up this movie’s sensibility. At least the romance novel is honest about what it is. The Other Boleyn Girl, on the other hand, has lofty pretensions, but it’s really about the bosom-heaving sex. “Did he have you?” Mary is asked by her family after the kingly coitus. “More than once?” It's all rather yucky. There is also a disturbing emphasis on gynecological detail: Mary’s screams in childbirth, Anne’s bloody miscarriage, Queen Catherine’s menstrual cycle. And then there is the rape scene, wherein Henry, frustrated by Anne’s demurrals while he rearranges history to suit her, brutally ravishes her, roaring, “You’ll show me it was worth my while!”

Visually, the movie is a feast, I suppose, for those who like historical costumes, and the acting is slightly better than you might expect from a largely American cast. But, like any trashy paperback, it leaves you feeling a little cheap.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times. Visit them here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Night at the Races

Indulge me, please, as I rescue some old pieces from oblivion. Here, a short account of an evening at the local harness-racing track.

It's a warm December night, and colored neon signs beckon across the starless sky. "AMERICA RACES HERE. CLEVELAND'S CASINO." A flickering image depicts a driver piloting a trotting racehorse.

We are at the gate of Northfield Park, home of harness racing in Northeast Ohio for forty-one years. It was on this spot in 1934 that Al Capone built Sportsman Park, a dog-racing track. After that venture failed a couple of years later, new owners introduced midget-car racing, which drew crowds until 1956, when the place was demolished to make way for Northfield Park.

The park has recently undergone a seven-million dollar facelift, which added a sports bar, a microbrewery and a prime rib buffet. There's a video arcade and childcare facility, as well as a gift shop offering equine souvenirs. Just as Las Vegas has transformed itself from mob-run citadel of sin to family vacation spot, Northfield Park has repackaged the racetrack as wholesome fun.

In the clubhouse, a multi-tiered restaurant with a view of the illuminated half-mile track, patrons assiduously study tonight's racing program.

There's a race every nineteen minutes, as Northfield's broadcast commercials promise, but in here, few of the bettors "go crazy." Most of them are regulars, accustomed to the vagaries of winning or losing. More than halfway through tonight's race schedule, Frank, 44, pronounces his fortunes "mediocre." Contemplating a plastic bucket filled with bottled brew, he says, "I've got six more beers, and six more races."

The clubhouse is not restricted to high rollers — admission is only three dollars, with a seven-fifty table minimum. There's the expected complement of toupee-wearing cigar smokers, a retired couple enjoying a meal, and two young mothers watching the horses while loading their plates with whipped potatoes.

What draws some people to harness racing, in which drivers ride behind the horses in light two-wheeled vehicles called sulkies? Dave Bianconi, Northfield's publicity director, explains the distinctions between harness and thoroughbred racing.

"It's a different breed of horse. These are standard bred, and they're trained as pacers and trotters. They race on a different gait." Though most people prefer thoroughbred racing, the kind offered several miles down the road at Thistledown, harness racing is particularly strong in Ohio.

Bianconi says he likes the mental puzzle of horse betting, something casino gambling doesn't offer. "A chimpanzee can drop coins in a slot machine. There's no challenge to that." Amateur hunches may pay off in the movies, but in real life, he says, it takes some research to win

"A lot depends on the 'trip' the horse gets — whether the wind is on him, did he get a good cover. And a lot depends on the post position, the driver, and the trainer." Still many of Bianconi's picks tonight come up laggards.

Though the clubhouse offers a refined vantage point, to get a real feel for racing, you must join the spectators outside by the rail, watching the horses' elegant, sinewy forms in motion. There, you can sense the sport's grandeur while at the same time get a sense of the democratic nature of harness racing, which grew up on family farms and at county fairs. It takes a lot of hay to keep a thoroughbred, but standard-breds are available to ordinary folks.

Copper and Tin, the sleek filly who just won Race Eleven, stands contentedly in the winner's circle, awaiting her victory photograph. Her owners, a family from Galloway, Ohio, pose proudly beside her.

"These horses are milder-mannered and quieter than thoroughbreds," says track spokesman Brian deJong. "After they retire, they tend to make better pets."

Visit for vintage postcard images.